Drue Tranquill

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Drue Tranquill named first-team Academic All-American

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Drue Tranquill was named a first-team Academic All-American. The junior safety, who returned from his second major knee injury during his three-year career, earned the honors after posting a 3.74 GPA in mechanical engineering.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s first academic All-American since Corey Robinson earned the honor after the 2014 season. He finished second on the team in tackles with 79 and lead the team in solo stops with 52. He also had two TFLs and an interception.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s 60th Academic All-American, the third-most of any school behind Nebraska and Penn State. He’s active in the university community, serving as a mentor for the Core Leadership Team for Lifeworks Ministry, and is a member of Notre Dame Christian Athletes. He is a also member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) and Rosenthal Leadership Academy.

 

Polian prepares for Notre Dame

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This won’t be just any other game for Nevada head coach Brian Polian. The Wolf Pack head coach returns to South Bend this weekend, where he served as an assistant to Charlie Weis from 2005 to 2009. And while his time coaching the Irish ended when Weis was dismissed by athletic director Jack Swarbrick, Polian’s fondness for Notre Dame is undiminished.

“It was an incredibly formative time in my life and my career,” Polian said on Tuesday. “I have personal feelings for the place that you can’t help…

“I’m forever indebted to Charlie Weis for giving me the opportunity at 29 years of age to go coach there. My memories of the university and my time there are very fond. They’re very warm.”

Now he faces the challenge of beating the very same program that made it possible for him to quickly climb the coaching ladder. And even if the Wolf Pack catch the Irish with an opening game loss and questions on both sides of the ball, Polian knows—and speaks from experience—that things aren’t quite as dire as they seem.

“I think there’s part of the fan base that thinks the sky is falling right now, and I can assure them, it’s not,” Polian said.

So the fourth-year head coach, just 19-20 in his three seasons after taking over for legendary coach Chris Ault, will bring his program to South Bend looking for a “signature win.” The last time the Wolf Pack visited, Ault’s more talented team—led by star quarterback Colin Kaepernick—left disappointed, shutout by Jon Tenuta’s Irish defense.

While there’s no way to draw off that disappointing experience and visit to a place Polian calls “one of the great cathedrals in college football,” he believes some of the big stages his team has played on lately will have them better prepared to deal with a soldout home crowd eager to see the Irish play well.

“Once you’ve played on the road in the SEC, it might be the same but it won’t be any harder,” Polian said, referencing last year’s visit to Texas A&M, where the Wolf Pack fought hard, but eventually lost 44-27. “There were 102,000 at Texas A&M last year and we hung in there and fought out tails off. I have no reason to think we won’t do the same this week.”

After needing overtime to beat Cal Poly last week, Polian expects to see improvement from his young team. That said, he knows Notre Dame will have the same jump, sounding almost sympathetic to the youthful nature of the Irish secondary.

“I don’t care where you are, if you’ve got three freshman playing in the defensive backfield, it’s hard—it doesn’t matter what school you’re at,” Polian said. “Freshmen are freshman. No matter how talented they are, they lack experience. And then you put them in front of 103,000 in that setting, and obviously there’s going to be some growing pains. I have no doubt that they’ll be significantly improved with that experience when they face us.”

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Speaking of the Notre Dame secondary, the starting lineup appears to be tweaked, with Devin Studstill starting opposite Drue Tranquill. Last week, the Irish chose to go with Tranquill and Avery Sebastian. They abandoned that pairing midway through the game, pulling Tranquill in favor of Studstill when it was clear that the 230-pounder wasn’t going to be able to run vertical with the opponent.

Kelly talked about making sure Tranquill was back on his game—a very important piece of the puzzle, especially back at home as a strong safety and will Sebastian a game-time decision after suffering a concussion late in the game against Texas.

“We’ve got to get him back out there and, again, it’s a learning process,” Kelly said. “Some of the mistakes out there were ones that he’s aware of that, again, we just have to be better.

“We’ve got to communicate and teach better. We’ve got to make sure that he’s clearly understanding what we’re asking of him and making sure that we get that on game day. So we come back out and make sure that Drue understands what is expected and he needs to come through for us.”

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A week after Jay Hayes didn’t play a snap, Kelly is hopeful the veteran defensive end will be able to contribute, sharing some of the load with junior Andrew Trumbetti.

“It was a personnel kind of game for us in terms of running Jay Hayes in and out of the game there,” Kelly conceded. “It was going to be difficult with him not at 100 percent. He should be closer this week to being able to give us reps.”

If I’m reading between the lines, I’d expect the Irish staff to do everything they can to get Hayes back to full go before putting him on the field, especially knowing that Michigan State is just a week away.

Perhaps that opens the door for freshman Daelin Hayes to get some playing time, capable of coming off the edge in speed situations. Whatever the case, the Irish need Trumbetti to be better.

Irish A-to-Z: Drue Tranquill

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With two repaired knees and the heart of a lion, Drue Tranquill will now get his shot to prove he’s an every down player. Notre Dame’s projected strong safety and a key weapon in Brian VanGorder’s scheme, Tranquill may have some limitations as a open field safety, but he more than makes up for them with his other skills.

A team leader both on and off the field, after two star-crossed seasons, perhaps junior year is the time for Tranquill’s breakout.

 

DRUE TRANQUILL
6’1.5″, 225 lbs.
Junior, No. 23, S

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A three-star recruit with offers coming from mostly MAC and lower-tier Big Ten programs, Tranquill wanted a chance to play safety at Notre Dame, and ended up committing to Purdue first before eventually Brian Kelly found room for him.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, starting three before tearing his ACL against Louisville. Made 33 tackles, one TFL, one interception and recovered a fumble. Was named Notre Dame’s Defensive Newcomer of the Year.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in three games, making one start before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Made nine tackles including 2.5 TFLs and breaking up two passes.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This was on track, until his knee gave out.

If he’s given the opportunity, Tranquill will make plays. That’s not to say you should expect to see him flying across the back-end of the secondary and snatching footballs from center field, but rather expect to see some paint-chips flying and Tranquill doing his best heat-seeking missile impression.

A defense needs football players like Tranquill. So do Notre Dame’s special teams. After hearing Kelly rave about Tranquill’s rehabilitation (he “attacked it” like no other player he’s seen, per BK), it’s clear that the sophomore will be ready come Texas.

I’m skeptical that Tranquill can play as a back-end safety. So while his role as an every-down player won’t come unless something goes wrong, Tranquill should be a productive performer for the defense, a key to the unit on third downs.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

I still don’t think Tranquill will be a great player in coverage, and at times I expect to see those limitations show up in ways that hurt the Irish. But he’s also shown very quickly that if used properly he’s a wonderful weapon in VanGorder’s scheme—especially as a missile attacking the option and run-heavy offenses.

Health is the only question. Not if Tranquill can recover from injury—he’s already shown that twice. But does his body have the ability to take the punishment of an every-down role?

 

CRYSTAL BALL

If he can stay healthy, I expect Tranquill to be one of the most productive players on the Irish defense. Think of him as a super-sized version of Matthias Farley from 2014. He will fill up the stat sheet.

Knock on wood that he stays healthy, because if he does I expect Tranquill to be the most productive safety of the VanGorder era at Notre Dame. He’s going to be one of the team’s leading tackler in front of and behind the line of scrimmage.

Does that mean he’ll be great in coverage? No. But if he’s able to wreak havoc as a guy running the alley and crashing towards the line of scrimmage, he’s got a chance to be a real difference maker.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery

Counting Down the Irish: 20-16

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If our first five members of the Top 25 were specialists or breakout candidates, our next five players are critical components. If Notre Dame is going to have a special season, it’s because these five players all lived up to expectations.

All five are expected starters. Four have already played key roles for the Irish, two as true freshmen. The last replaces a team captain, a veteran with high expectations from the staff and our panelists alike.

 

Five projected starters. All with sky-high expectations. The Top 25 is heating up.

 

2016 Irish Top 25 Rankings: 
25. Equanimeous St. Brown (WR, Soph.)
24. Durham Smythe (TE, Sr.
23. Justin Yoon, (K, Soph.)
22. Tyler Newsome (P, Jr.)
21. Daniel Cage (DT, Jr.)

 

Sam Mustipher 247

20. Sam Mustipher (Center, Junior): Replacing second-round draft pick Nick Martin, Mustipher earned praise from Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand this spring, a hard-nosed grinder who comes from the old-school mold at center. Mustipher is powerful, athletic and at home in the trenches.

Strong enough to hold his own against nose guards and quick enough to get to the second level, Mustipher has already earned praise for his Football IQ and quick grasp of the position. He’s also lining up next to All-American candidate Quenton Nelson, who’ll certainly have his back as he breaks into the starting lineup. Mustipher has the chance to be a three-year starter at center.

Some think Mustipher is ready to step in and dominate. Five voters left him off the ballot all together.

Highest Rank: 12th. Lowest Rank: Unranked (five ballots)

 

Jerry Tillery 247

19. Jerry Tillery (DT, Sophomore): Tillery very nearly became the school’s first true-freshman starter at defensive tackle entering 2015, but ended up sharing time with Daniel Cage as the Irish coaching staff looked for a way to replace Jarron Jones after a training camp knee injury.

That Tillery held his own in the trenches was impressive. But he didn’t thrive, just 12 tackles in as many games on the season.

One of the only healthy bodies in the front seven as the Irish prepared for the Fiesta Bowl, Tillery got himself sent home from Scottsdale, a disappointing finish to an otherwise nice freshman season. Perhaps that’s why this group isn’t all that bullish on a player both teammates and staff acknowledge has elite physical traits and skills.

Capable of sliding into Sheldon Day’s job, let’s see if the lightbulb turns on for Tillery this fall, as the defensive line needs him to take a big leap forward as a sophomore.

Highest Rank: 8th. Lowest Rank: 25th

 

Redfield 247

18. Max Redfield (Safety, Senior): Gifted with an NFL set of tools, all Max Redfield needs to do is prove he’s got the right toolbox. Last season was a step in the right direction for Redfield, though there was still too much inconsistency in his game.

Injuries played a part in that. Redfield ended up with a cast on his hand after playing well against Texas. He was held out against Georgia Tech’s option and pulled against Navy’s early after a missed assignment went for six points. Cap off the season with a bowl-week suspension against Ohio State and it was an underwhelming junior year for a safety some projected ready to breakout as an All-American.

True freshman Devin Studstill pushed Redfield this spring and will continue to do so during fall camp. That could be a motivational tactic or it could be a sign that the Irish staff is ready to turn the page. The former is more likely, as Redfield is a critical part of the plans for the Irish secondary.

 

Highest Rank: 12th. Lowest Rank: Unranked (two ballots)

 

C.J. Sanders CJ Sanders

17. CJ Sanders (WR, Sophomore): Only the third player in Notre Dame history to return a punt and kickoff for a touchdown in the same season, Sanders is also the Irish’s best option at slot receiver—if he’s healthy.

Sanders missed the majority of spring practice with a hip injury, a significant recovery timeline that kept him rehabbing well into the summer. But the Irish staff was optimistic as Sanders recovered ahead of schedule, giving him a chance to enter fall camp with a green-light and ready to compete for more than just special teams work.

With elite speed and change of direction skills, Sanders will bring an added dimension to the offense while continuing as the team’s primary return man. But he’ll need to prove he’s healthy first.

Highest Rank: 12th. Lowest Rank: Unranked (one ballot)

 

Tranquill

16. Drue Tranquill (Safety, Junior): Tranquill’s breakout game against Georgia Tech ended in misery as he tore his ACL celebrating a pass breakup just before halftime. It was his second major knee injury in a half-dozen games, tearing his other ACL against Louisville the previous November.

A workout warrior, Tranquill once again proved himself to be a recovery master. He was on the field participating in spring practice, two knee braces hardly holding up the jumbo-sized safety who is penciled into the starting lineup at strong safety as Elijah Shumate’s replacement.

A tackling machine who is at his best coming down into the box in run support, Tranquill is a key piece for Brian VanGorder. The versatile defender can play in multiple sub-packages and can blitz, cover and defend the run. He just needs to prove he can stay healthy.

Highest Rank: 8th. Lowest Rank: Unranked (one ballot)

 

***

Our 2016 Irish Top 25 panel:
Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish
Bryan Driskell, Blue & Gold
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Nick Ironside, Irish 247
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Eric Murtaugh, 18 Stripes
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
Jude Seymour, Her Loyal Sons
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago
John VannieNDNation
Joshua Vowles, One Foot Down
John Walters, Newsweek 

Spring stock report: Defense

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With tidbits coming out of Saturday’s open-to-the-media scrimmage, the state of the Irish roster is slowly coming into focus with just two practices left before the annual Blue-Gold game. While a two-hour workout will likely lead us on as many wild goose chases as it does clear up questions, that’s what spring is all about—matching up what eyes see and ears hear, all while knowing it could all go up in smoke by the time the pads go back on in August.

Regardless, the reports are mostly favorable after watching the Irish scrimmage in Loftus over the weekend. And our stock report focuses on a few key contributors, most moving from the sideline to the starting lineup.

 

STOCK UP

Nyles Morgan. That Morgan looked like a dominant, dynamic presence in the middle of the Irish defense might be the biggest story of the spring. It certainly is a story Brian Kelly didn’t think was being discussed enough.

“There’s not been a lot of talk about Nyles Morgan, which is kind of interesting,” Kelly said over the weekend. “Here’s a guy who didn’t play much last year and stepped into the middle linebacker role. There’s always a lot of talk about Coach VanGorder’s system and it’s so complicated and you’ve got to communicate, and no one’s really talked about Nyles and it’s because he’s been that good this spring.”

Catching up via social media, you’d be hard-pressed to find a report that didn’t rave about Morgan’s performance on Saturday. Pair that with his media availability last week—Morgan looked and sounded like a guy not short on confidence—and it’s looking like life after Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith won’t be all that bad, especially once Greer Martini returns from injury.

Productivity sounded like the name of Morgan’s game on Saturday. Here’s a quick tidbit on Morgan from Bryan Driskell’s practice report at BlueandGold.com:

Junior linebacker Nyles Morgan was arguably the team’s most impressive performer during practice. There is no doubt he was the top performer on defense. Morgan was dominant during the inside run drills by quickly diagnosing the play, beating blockers to the point of attack and arriving at the ball carrier at or behind the line of scrimmage. Morgan spent the entire practice around the football.

His instincts against the run were impressive, as was his ability to diagnose between run and pass during team periods. On a sprint out during the final team period, quarterback DeShone Kizer was rolling to his right and Morgan read the play perfectly, flew through his gap and blew up running back Justin Brent, who was the secondary contain blocker. Morgan also blew up quarterback Malik Zaire on a speed option play in which he made a decisive read and used his top-notch speed to quickly arrive into the backfield.

Morgan was very good in coverage. He quickly reads crosses and takes good angles to the ball. He had good depth on his zone drops and played the ball well. The only time he got beat was by sophomore tight end Alize Jones on a red zone corner route, but Kizer missed long.

That should be music to the ears of Irish fans, and a huge piece of the 2016 defensive puzzle moving forward.

 

Drue Tranquill. Notre Dame’s bionic man could turn into a Swiss Army Knife next season. Tranquill will be set loose next season, all over the field if reports are a glimpse into the future.

Tranquill’s versatility might overshadow the fact that he’s played his way into an every-down role as a starting safety. But there sounds to be some comfort growing in coverage for Tranquill (not necessarily his strong suit thus far) and an expanded knowledge base can’t hurt as the Irish put him all over the field trying to exploit mismatches.

Still mid-recovery from his second ACL injury in as many seasons, Tranquill needs to keep his speed up, especially if he’s going to be asked to cover receivers in space. But a tackling machine on a defense that definitely needs his consistency, it’s been a great spring for the rising junior.

 

Shaun Crawford. Another ACL recovery that looks to be making great progress, Crawford might be playing his way into a starting cornerback job in addition to serving as the team’s nickel back.

The loss of Nick Watkins to a broken arm opened up reps for Crawford at cornerback across from Cole Luke and he seems like the quickest fit for the job. But that might take him away from the all-important nickel job, an inside-cover slot that allows Crawford to use his surprising physicality and his nose for the football.

It won’t take long for comparisons to Antoine Winfield or perhaps, more currently, the honey badger Tyron Mathieu. But the fact that Crawford’s even out on the field right now making up ground should be good enough.

“I’ve exceeded expectations I had for myself by just being able to play in the (Blue-Gold) game,” Crawford told Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister. “I think I’ve only missed one game my entire time playing football, so it was really hard missing an entire season, even missing practice.”

 

Isaac Rochell. Approaching his second season with defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, Rochell could take a big step forward in 2016, an awards-level caliber player who could wreak havoc from the big defensive end position.

It shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise. Rochell was the defense’s third-ranked player, according to PFF College. But until he steps up his pass rush game, he’ll be a somewhat one-dimensional end, especially on a defense crying out for someone to get to the quarterback.

That improvement was evident, per multiple reports from practice. The physical skills are there—Rochell was spotted out-quicking Sheldon Day during some of UND.com’s practice reports last offseason. But adding some versatility to his pass rush game would be a huge addition to the defense, and a credit to Gilmore.

 

STOCK DOWN

Nick Watkins. After being the beneficiary of some late-season injuries in 2015, it’s Watkins who now has to work from behind entering the upcoming season. A broken arm that should be healed in six weeks cost him the second half of spring practice, a difficult blow dealt to a talented cornerback who looked to have a leg up in the race for KeiVarae Russell’s open job.

Summer workouts—run by a strength staff that now has former Kelly lieutenant (and Buffalo head coach) Jeff Quinn on it—will be critical in Watkins development. The Irish need a cornerback who can hold up in man coverage. Watkins seems like the best option, especially if it allows Crawford to freestyle and serve as the team’s primary nickel back.

 

Jerry Tillery. This might be a harsh assessment, but the days of being a precocious freshman are over. Tillery is coming off a debut season where he spent the final game watching after an off-field rule violation, and needs to add some urgency to a career most have high hopes for.

With great size and ridiculous athleticism, Tillery still looks the part of an All-World defensive lineman. But any comparisons to Stephon Tuitt will be blown away if Tillery doesn’t make a huge leap in 2016. Remember, Tuitt went from a mostly anonymous freshman (who also missed a game because of a rule violation) to an All-American sophomore who challenged for Notre Dame’s sack record.

Fair or not, that’s the bar set for Tillery—especially with Sheldon Day gone and Tillery slotted for the three-technique. It’s not impossible. But that big move hasn’t happened this spring.

 

NEED MORE INFORMATION

Jarron Jones. Another defensive lineman who is absolutely critical to the defensive structure, Jones has had an up-and-down spring practice as he continues his recovery from a knee injury that kept him off the field for all but 14 plays against Ohio State.

While the Irish only need him healthy come the first Sunday of September, Kelly talked about the challenges Jones has faced this spring. He also knows what kind of player he has once the bright lights go one.

That hesitancy is understandable. But a full-strength and fully-motivated Jones is an impact defender. Pair him with a top-of-his game Tillery and the interior of the Irish defense could be one of the more dynamic in the country.

 

Max Redfield. Don’t kick dirt on Redfield just yet. Nor should you read too much into the ascent of early-enrollee freshman Devin Studstill. A freshman making a big move during spring drills is one thing. A true freshman being trusted on the back-end of the defense during game situations is another.

Redfield has all the tools needed to be a productive college football player. He was done no favors by playing in a bowl game as a true freshman. But he’s entering his third season under Brian VanGorder. That means the mental lapses that have plagued his game need to be eliminated.

We’ll see if the timeshare this spring was a motivational tactic or a kickstart of the eventual transition to the Studstill era come August. Until then, I expect Redfield’s final season in South Bend to be a surprising positive.