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6 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at TEs & WRs

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This space briefly discussed Notre Dame’s receivers only a week ago, thus this piece on those catching passes will spend more proportional time on the tight ends. In fact, let’s lead with them.

Why? Because there are more of them on the Irish roster than some seem to realize. The reader who suggested this week’s operating order of positional group analysis is a knowledgeable fan, but the bounty had evaded him, for one.

“I wondered why tight end didn’t get its own spot in that list,” he said after reading the end of Wednesday’s look at offensive linemen. “I just assumed you would pair them with wide receivers…

“I figured there’s also fewer bodies at tight end than anywhere else, really.”

False.

Notre Dame’s roster currently includes three quarterbacks (with freshman Avery Davis arriving in the fall) and four running backs. There are five tight ends, not to mention the No. 3 tight end in the class of 2017 arriving alongside Davis in August.

According to Irish coach Brian Kelly, new offensive coordinator Chip Long will need those reserves.

“[Long] utilizes two tight ends, which was going to be a mode that we have to move toward with the great depth that we have at that position,” Kelly said when introducing his new assistants. “…I wanted the offense to look a specific way. Chip gives me, clearly, something that I saw that will resemble what I see through his offense. It’s going to be the inclusion of the backs and the tight ends in the passing game.”

Notre Dame’s current set of tight ends are not used to being included much in the passing game. The returning quartet of graduate student Durham Smythe, seniors Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua, and junior Alizé Mack have combined for a career total of 32 catches for 403 yards and six touchdowns. For comparison’s sake, Long’s two tight ends at Memphis totaled 36 catches for 423 yards and five touchdowns last season alone. (Joey Magnifico provided nine of those catches for 85 yards and two touchdowns. This is worth mentioning only because his last name is Magnifico.)

As the primary source of those Irish stats, Smythe presumably has the edge in the chase for a starting position. Last season the 6-foot-4.5, 245-pounder caught nine passes for 112 yards and four touchdowns, while Weishar added three catches for 47 yards.

Mack—née Jones—sat out 2016 amid eligibility issues after catching 13 passes for 190 yards in 2015. If in coaches’ good graces, he should immediately establish himself as a possible complement to Smythe, if not even supplant his elder. Notre Dame lists Mack at 6-4.5, 240 pounds, so both he and Smythe present notable targets for junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

Early enrollee Brock Wright—rivals.com’s No. 1 tight end in the class—joins Luatua in rounding out this plethora of goods for Long to incorporate. Having both the spring and the summer to learn Long’s system and embrace a college weight room may give Wright a chance to contribute in 2017.

His classmate, Cole Kmet, however will most likely find himself on the sidelines all of 2017. That is no dismissal of Kmet’s talent. Rather, it is one of the luxuries of having five tight ends to work with all spring.


Though Michigan transfer receiver Freddy Canteen officially committed to Notre Dame on Wednesday, he will not arrive on campus until June. In the meantime, the only sure thing about the Irish receiving corps is junior Equanimeous St. Brown will lead the way.

Junior C.J. Sanders may present the most-obvious partner to tandem with St. Brown, but in last season’s final seven games, Sanders totaled seven catches for 39 yards, compared to opening 2016 with 17 receptions for 254 yards and two touchdowns in its first five games. That drop-off creates an opening for the likes of junior Chris Finke or sophomore Chase Claypool to crack the starting lineup, perhaps alongside sophomore Kevin Stepherson (25 catches, 462 yards, five touchdowns).

The uncertainty also begets opportunities to junior Miles Boykin and sophomores Javon McKinley and Deon McIntosh.

Come fall, Canteen will join the fray alongside freshmen Michael Young and Jalen Armstrong.


With only six days remaining before spring practice commences, the offensive line was featured Wednesday, and the remaining five position groups will follow in the below order.

Wednesday: Offensive Linemen
Today: Tight Ends & Receivers
Friday: Running Backs
Saturday: Quarterbacks
Sunday: Defensive Backs
Monday: Linebackers
Tuesday: Defensive Linemen
Wednesday, March 8: Spring practice begins

Jaylon Smith’s nerve stalls, but optimism persists & insurance pays

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Despite his social media posts showcasing returning agility and athleticism, Dallas Cowboys officials are less and less optimistic former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith will return to full health. Smith tore both his ACL and his MCL against Ohio State in January of 2016. More ominously, he suffered significant nerve damage in his knee, as well.

NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport—already in Indianapolis readying for this week’s NFL Draft Combine—reported Cowboys’ director of player personnel Stephen Jones said Smith may still be effective, but the nerve damage has not progressed as hoped.

Rapoport indicated with his nerve not firing, Smith would presumably need to wear a brace in any game to support his drop foot. The Cowboys intend to proceed with that plan, rather than continue to wait for nerve regeneration.

Smith posted two videos to Twitter in February highlighting his work in drills. Based on that evidence, by no means should Jones’s concerns indicate Smith will not be a viable NFL contributor, quite possibly in 2017.

The Fiesta Bowl injury cost Smith theoretical millions. Rather than be a possible top-five pick, the Butkus Award winner fell to the second round.

As the No. 34 pick, Smith signed a four-year, $6.94 million contract with $4.4 million guaranteed, including a $2.92 million signing bonus. The No. 5 pick in 2016, Jalen Ramsey, signed a four-year, $23.25 million deal with $15.18 million guaranteed.

Though it will not make up anywhere near that entire difference, Smith has received a payment from the insurance policy he had prior to the injury, per ESPN’s Darren Rovell.

7 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at the OL

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One week from now this space can feature new activity on a football field, complete with pads, footballs and everything. For now, though, the looks back to recent seasons with future ponderings must continue.

A broad view quickly separates positional groupings into seven. Hey, that’s how many days are in a week. Wow, that’s timely.

Embracing that convenience, the question is in what order to discuss those seven groupings. Rather than make a unilateral decision, I asked an old friend who claims to be a longtime “Inside the Irish” reader.

“I’d probably go offense first, just because I think there are more question marks and intrigue on defense with the new coordinator and all that,” he said. “Then I’d probably order them by expected level of interest or question marks.”

With that mandate, today presents a quick look at the Notre Dame offensive line.


The Irish return four 12-game starters from last season in graduate student tackle Mike McGlinchey, senior tackle Alex Bars, senior guard Quenton Nelson and senior center Sam Mustipher. Logically, those four will retain their starting spots.

Aside from that foursome’s 75 career starts, graduate student Hunter Bivin brings back the only start among the possibilities for the fifth spot. He faces a steep climb to claim the lead role at right guard, though.

If those four do retain their spots atop the depth chart, junior Tristen Hoge and sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg will give offensive line coach Harry Hiestand options.

Hiestand could keep Bars at right tackle, making Hoge the likely candidate at right guard, or Hiestand could opt to move Bars to right guard and let Kraemer and Eichenberg challenge each other for the starting right guard role.

Either way, the Notre Dame offensive line should provide a solid foundation for the 2017 Irish offense. An added season—and offseason, including the coming spring practices—of 80 percent of the line working together can only help build on last year’s performance. Of all places, chemistry and unity serve as greatest assets on the offensive front. It takes time to develop those.

While last year’s rushing statistics fall short when compared to 2015’s, they were not disappointing on their own. Removing sacks and the yards lost from them—the NCAA counts sacks as rushes, despite how they can inappropriately distort rushing statistics—Notre Dame finished with 2,123 rushing yards on 410 attempts for an average of 5.18 yards per carry.

In 2015, the Irish finished with 2,858 rushing yards on 453 attempts for an average of 6.31 yards per carry. The added game in that season accounted for 146 of that added yardage. Obviously, the flow of particular games in 2016 also may have skewed the total stats, though the average still fell by more than a yard.

Last season, Notre Dame allowed 28 sacks, compared to 26 in 13 games the year prior.

The alignment that first faces Temple will likely not be decided upon until fall practices. Hiestand has a proven history of shuffling linemen into positions to create the best unit, so an unexpected maneuver would not be the most shocking development. Nonetheless, any glimpses spring practices provide of what he is tinkering with should provide some insight as to where Bars, Hoge, Kraemer and Eichenberg stand.

Junior guard Trevor Ruhland and sophomore guard Parker Boudreaux will keep that competition honest. Early enrollee freshmen tackle Aaron Banks and guard Robert Hainsey will provide even more added depth, but anything more than that is quite unlikely. Classmates Josh Lugg and Dillan Gibbons will join the ranks at the end of summer.


Having already pointed out the congruence of seven position groups and seven days in a week, below is the rest of the week’s intended scheduling, at least in that regard. If I publicize it here, I have no choice but to follow through, right?

Thursday: Receivers/Tight Ends*
Friday: Running Backs
Saturday: Quarterbacks
Sunday: Defensive Backs
Monday: Linebackers
Tuesday: Defensive Linemen
Wednesday, March 8: Spring practice begins.

*To be completely honest, the consulted reader did not specify if tight ends should fit among the offensive line or the receivers. That was a unilateral decision.

Notre Dame returns 15 starters in 2017; How many do its opponents?

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In six months—180 days, to be even more precise—college football will return. Sure, spring practice might be only eight days away in South Bend, but those sessions will have no tangible effect on the national championship chase.

On Aug. 25, Stanford will face Rice in Sydney. According to AP Style, one does not need to notate Australia there, but some thoroughness can’t hurt, right? For that matter, South Florida will take on San Jose State, and Hawai’i will travel all the way to Foxboro, Mass. to take on Massachusetts.

Six months ago—well, again, 180 days to be exact—No. 19 Louisville introduced America to quarterback Lamar Jackson in a 70-14 rout of Charlotte, kicking off the 2016 season with an eight-touchdown performance from the eventual Heisman winner. No. 9 Tennessee topped Appalachian State 20-13 in overtime, setting the stage for a Volunteers season full of dramatics.

A week after the Cardinal go down under to face the Owls, Notre Dame will open its season against Temple with 15 returning starters, eight on offense and seven on defense, pending any spring or summer departures or injuries. According to Phil Steele, 24 teams return more experience.

Offense: Offensive linemen Mike McGlinchey (12 starts in 2016), Quenton Nelson (12), Sam Mustipher (12) and Alex Bars (12); tight end Durham Smythe (12); receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (12); running back Josh Adams (nine) and C.J. Sanders (seven)
Defense: Safeties Drue Tranquill (12) and Devin Studstill (nine); cornerback Julian Love (eight); linebackers Nyles Morgan (12) and Te’von Coney (nine); and defensive linemen Jerry Tillery (11) and Andrew Trumbetti (seven)

How does this Irish listing compare to Notre Dame’s opponents? Right about middle of the pack. (If a quarterback is not specifically mentioned, the team does not return a starter at that position.)

Sept. 2 — v. Temple, returns 10 starters; six on offense and four on defense
Sept. 9 — v. Georgia, returns 17 starters; seven on offense, including quarterback Jacob Eason, and 10 on defense
Sept. 16 — at Boston College, returns 15 starters; eight on offense and seven on defense
Sept. 23 — at Michigan State, returns nine starters; four on offense and five on defense
Sept. 30 — v. Miami (Ohio), returns 16 starters; eight on offense, including quarterback Gus Ragland, and eight on defense
Oct. 7 — at North Carolina, returns 12 starters; five on offense and seven on defense
Oct. 21 — v. USC, returns 12 starters; five on offense, including quarterback and Heisman-threat Sam Darnold, and seven on defense
Oct. 28 — v. North Carolina State, returns 17 starters; nine on offense, including quarterback Ryan Finley, and eight on defense
Nov. 4 — v. Wake Forest, returns 15 starters; nine on offense, including quarterback John Wolford, and six on defense
Nov. 11 — at Miami (Fla.), returns 15 starters; seven on offense and eight on defense
Nov. 18 — v. Navy, returns 13 starters; five on offense and eight on defense
Nov. 25 — at Stanford, returns 16 starters; eight on offense, including quarterback Ryan Burns, and eight on defense

Naturally, the number of returning starters is cyclical, and some might argue teams with lackluster records one season should not want to return many starters the next. Then again, those players started over others for a presumed reason in the first place

Acknowledging that cycle, it seems innate to take a look at how many starters Notre Dame might return in 2018. By no means is the intent here to look past 2017. Rather, consider this something of a scholarship chart cliff notes. As always, this does not factor in the inevitable injuries, transfers and departures otherwise inherent to the coming six months.

Of the above eight offensive returnees, McGlinchey and Smythe will both be out of eligibility following 2017, and Nelson will nearly-certainly depart for the first round of the NFL Draft. The other five, though, could all be back in blue-and-gold. One would think quarterback Brandon Wimbush—2017’s assumed starter—will return, as would whoever the third receiver is in 2017, considering there is no senior at the position aside from graduate transfer Freddy Canteen who has two years of eligibility remaining anyways. If a tight end such as freshman early enrollee Brock Wright or junior Alizé Mack were to usurp Smythe, then the Irish may have eight returning offensive starters again in 2018.

Of the above seven defensive returnees, only Morgan and Trumbetti will finish their eligibility this season. If Tranquill does indeed end up manning the rover position in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme, that will open a starting spot for another safety. Whoever that is, he will have eligibility remaining, as will whatever cornerback lines up opposite Love. The defensive line remains a quandary, but it is distinctly possible Notre Dame returns eight defensive starters, as well, in 2018.

Fortunately, spring practice begins March 8, and some light can begin to shine on those questions regarding the defensive line and the overall defensive alignment. In addition to garnering excitement for 2017, they can also shed some insights into the seasons to come.

Oh, and in case you are curious, Stanford will fly 7,434 miles to get to Sydney while Hawai’i will travel a mere 5,083 to get to Gillette Stadium.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.