Romeo Okwara

Matthias Farley

Five Irish players sign UFA contracts

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Notre Dame had seven players selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, trailing only Ohio State, Clemson and UCLA on the weekend tally. But after the draft finished, the Irish had five more players get their shot at playing on Sundays.

Chris Brown signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Romeo Okwara will begin his career with the New York Giants. Matthias Farley and Amir Carlisle signed contracts with the Arizona Cardinal. Elijah Shumate agreed to a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After missing two seasons, Ishaq Williams will be at Giants rookie camp next weekend as well, working as a tryout player. Expect Jarrett Grace to receive similar opportunities.

Count me among those that thought both Brown and Okwara would hear their names called. Brown’s senior season, not to mention his intriguing measureables, had some projecting him as early as the fifth round.

Okwara, still 20 years old and fresh off leading Notre Dame in sacks in back-to-back seasons, intrigued a lot of teams with his ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. He’ll get a chance to make the Giants—the team didn’t draft a defensive end after selecting just one last year, and they’re in desperate need of pass rushers.

Both Shumate and Farley feel like contenders to earn a spot on rosters, both because of their versatility and special teams skills. Shumate played nickel back as a freshman and improved greatly at safety during 2015. Farley bounced around everywhere and was Notre Dame’s special teams captain.

Carlisle might fit a similar mold. He played running back, receiver and returned kicks and punts throughout his college career. With a 4.4 during Notre Dame’s Pro Day, he likely showed the Cardinals enough to take a shot, and now he’ll join an offense with Michael Floyd and Troy Niklas.

 

Pregame Six Pack: Here comes the Green Monster

DeShoneKizer
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Fenway Park’s iconic Green Monster has transformed, the left field wall now an ode to the Fighting Irish and Notre Dame. Sound crazy? That’s the least of it.

Saturday night’s Shamrock Series game against Boston College will be different. (From TV viewers, here’s your most recent reminder—the broadcast is up the dial at NBCSN, not on NBC Sports.)

Playing in their hometown, the Eagles will be visitors. They’ll also be dressing at home—loading onto buses after prepping for the game across town in the comfort of their own facilities, a much easier logistical move than trying to jam a football team into the already cramped visitor’s locker room underneath the baseball stadium.

On paper, the Eagles are heavy underdogs, with Notre Dame a more than a two-touchdown favorite. But as we’ve seen in this series time and time again, weird things happen. So with the Frank Leahy Trophy on the line, the Irish get a chance to go for their 10th victory of the season.

Let’s get to the pregame six pack.

 

Without Daniel Cage, how will the Irish defensive line look?

On the stat sheet, sophomore nose guard Daniel Cage’s impact has been minimal. In nine games, Cage has made 17 total tackles, chipping in three tackles for loss. But for the second straight game, Cage will be held out as he deals with a concussion. And as we saw last week, his departure triggers quite a change for the defensive line.

Starting defensive end Isaac Rochell slid inside to tackle, pairing him with Sheldon Day, who still bounced inside and out. That forced sophomore Andrew Trumbetti into the lineup opposite Romeo Okwara. While Trumbetti made one of the biggest plays of the game with his interception for a touchdown, he also was more than a little bit loose on some run fits.

Notre Dame’s rushing defense struggled at times against Wake Forest, a surprise considering the Demon Deacons relative youth along the offensive line. Against Boston College’s anemic offense, the Eagles will take anything they can get—especially on the ground, head coach Steve Addazio’s preferred method of transportation.

Getting Cage healthy is critical, especially with a game against Stanford looming. So is getting the light to go back on for Jerry Tillery, the freshman seemingly stuck in neutral after a strong start to the season.

Last week we saw rare appearances from Jon Bonner and Grant Blankenship. They’ll likely get another chance to compete. But the Irish are at their best with Rochell lined up across from Okwara on the outside and Tillery and Cage sharing time next to Day.

Cage’s progress for next week is worth monitoring. So is how the Irish play this weekend without their starting nose guard.

 

C.J. Prosise is back in the lineup. Now finding ways to make him productive is the next step. 

Notre Dame’s running game has one of their toughest matchups this season on Saturday night. With Boston College leading the nation in rush defense, it’s foolish to think the Irish want to go toe-to-toe with the Eagles’ front seven.

For as good as the Irish offensive line has played this season, they haven’t been great triggering a north and south rushing attack. The heat will be on guards Quenton Nelson and Steve Elmer and center Nick Martin. They’ll be facing off against a disruptive duo in defensive tackles Connor Wujciak and Truman Gutapfel.

The struggles on the ground aren’t just on the interior of the offensive line. They’re also a product of the learning curve both C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams have faced, each seeing life as a college football running back for the first time.

While we’ll likely see DeShone Kizer throwing the football early and often, Notre Dame won’t abandon the ground game completely. But as the Irish try to manufacture a rush offense, expect to see Notre Dame attack the Eagles on the edges.

We’ve seen Prosise be productive running stretch plays or outside zones. He’s also been a weapon lined up in the slot, taking jet sweeps around the edge. The Irish have to feel good about their matchups at offensive tackle with Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey. But if they can’t get good support from tight ends Chase Hounshell and Tyler Luatua blocking, it’ll be tough sledding outside as well as in the trenches.

 

The logistics of substitutions are going to be a challenge for both teams. 

We will see the “peculiarities” of Fenway Park from the onset of Saturday night’s game. Mainly, the fact that both Notre Dame and Boston College will be sharing a sideline.

In many ways it’ll look like the Hockey East showdowns between the Irish and the Eagles on Saturday night, with the long change playing a significant part in substitutions, especially down by the opposite goal line. Depending on the direction, there’s a chance each team will have to send substitutes on a significant run—hitting the field from the opposite side of the 50-yard line as they enter the game in goal line situations. That’s been an area of concern for Brian Kelly this week.

“We had to work a lot on the logistics of getting personnel in and out from the sidelines, which is a little more in-depth than you might think, trying to get your group down there,” Kelly said on Thursday.

The biggest difference is bringing personnel in around the goal lines. Both Kelly and Boston College coach Steve Addazio have already been on conference calls with the officiating crew this week, confirming the ground rules for the evening. And that’s set up a new set of circumstances that’ll sometimes have players sprinting off the field inside the 5-yard line, and then running around the opposing team’s bench, with each team controlling 40 yards between the 5-yard line and the 45.

“We can leave from the 4-yard line to the back of the end zone and then go behind their team bench,” Kelly explained. “We can never go and leave the field from the 5- to the 45. But we can leave from the 4- to the end line and then go back around.”

Confused? Let’s hope the Irish aren’t. Because after seeing Notre Dame struggle with personnel changes on the fly last season against no-huddle attacks, getting the right guys on the field in scoring situations is critical.

 

If the Irish get ahead, it could be another big day for Romeo Okwara. 

Romeo Okwara ranks eighth in the country in sacks with nine. No, that’s not a typo. Okwara’s late surge—five sacks in the past two weeks—has catapulted him into the national picture when it comes to rushing the passer, a sentence nobody expected to read this year (and I certainly didn’t think I’d type).

But Okwara’s great play is coming at the perfect time. And if Boston College’s horrific offense gets forced to play catch up, Okwara could be feasting on walk-on quarterback John Fadule early and often.

The Eagles offensive line has struggled (to be kind). Drilling down a bit farther, ProFootballFocus’s grading system has BC’s five starting offensive linemen as the offense’s five lowest-graded players. Among them are starting tackles Dave Bowen and Aaron Monteiro, who Okwara will spend the evening lining up against.

It’s not ridiculous to think that Okwara could put together another double-digit sack output, especially if the Irish offense scores some early points. That could allow the senior to make an unlikely run at the Notre Dame record books, with Stephon Tuitt (12) and Justin Tuck (13.5) within reach with three games to go.

 

Will Steve Addazio and Don Brown put Boston College’s secondary in one-on-one matchups with Will Fuller? (They shouldn’t.)

When trying to come up with a game plan to contain Notre Dame’s running game and wide receiver Will Fuller, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi essentially threw up his hands during his postgame press conference.

“We changed it up a little bit,” Narduzzi said after the game. “But he’s a good football player, what are you going to do?”

What you can do is commit multiple defensive backs to containing Fuller, something Wake Forest did as they limited Notre Dame’s All-American candidate to just three catches. But in Boston College’s downhill, stacked-box scheme, the Eagles rely on their secondary to hold their ground, doing so in man coverage with not a lot of help.

That’s likely a recipe for disaster, especially with injuries wreaking havoc on the Boston College secondary.

The Eagles might be finding themselves in a quandary not dissimilar to the one Pitt had. While Boston College’s personnel in the front seven is far superior to Pitt’s, providing help to the back end could erode the rush defense’s superiority, a key piece of the puzzle for the Eagles.

Notre Dame’s big-play ability needs to emerge. The Irish have already scored 11 touchdowns of 50+ yards this season, believed to be a school record.

While the Eagles are the nation’s best statistical defense, big plays have still found a way to derail them. Early in their 24-8 loss to North Carolina State, the Wolfpack hit on a 83-yard touchdown pass. Clemson’s Artavis Scott scored on a 51-yarder on a day that the Tigers racked up 532 yards and 420 through the air.

Fuller already has 12 touchdown catches on the season, needing three more to match his shared school record. He could make some very good progress towards that Saturday night if the Eagles leave him on an island.

 

Saturday night is all about DeShone Kizer’s ability to manage the game and the offense. 

No player faces a bigger test that sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer. With the gameplan likely hoisted onto his shoulders, Kizer will have to be smart with the football, cognizant of the Eagles’ ability to wrack up tackles for loss, and efficient with his opportunities.

Kizer has passed just about every test he’s faced this year. The Eagles defense is another great one, especially a week before heading to Stanford. Schematically, both teams share similarities. Kizer’s success on Saturday will be predicated on his ability to stay aggressive when opportunities present themselves, while also understanding that sometimes the best play he can make is avoiding the negative one.

The downfield passing game should allow Kizer to take some shots. The screen game could also be a big part of the puzzle, especially as the Irish try to loosen up the Eagles front seven. But all of it demands smart play from the quarterback.

Kizer’s shown himself to be a quick study this season. With the nation’s top defense across from him, we’ll see how he stacks up.

 

 

Bye week snapshot: Defensive Line

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Sheldon Day #91 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Isaac Rochell #90 celebrate after making a tackle for a loss of yards against the Texas Longhorns during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s 2015 plans were thrown off when Jarron Jones was injured during preseason camp. But even without a true pass rusher, Keith Gilmore’s position group has done a nice job—getting a leading man performance from Sheldon Day and precocious play from Jerry Tillery.

The Irish are giving up just over three touchdowns a game, ranked 41st in the country with 22.6 points against. While a big game against Navy pushed the rush defense down to 81st in the country, the Irish have been effective making plays behind the line of scrimmage, 35th in the country in TFLs, impressive considering they only have 11 sacks (82nd in the country).

With five games to go and the defense’s best football in front of it, let’s take a look at the defensive line.

 

MVP: Sheldon Day

While his numbers on the stat sheet still don’t match his impact on the field, Day has shown what a good decision it was to come back for his senior season by wreaking havoc in the trenches. Moving inside and out, Day has been Notre Dame’s most impactful player behind the line of scrimmage, even if he’s only managed to convert two sacks compared to his 10 quarterback hits.

Just as impressive as Day’s productivity has been his ability to stay on the field. With the depth chart shorter than ideal, the pressure has been on Day to play the lion’s share of snaps. He’s been able to do that, staying on the field for just about every play that mattered for the Irish defense, all while racking up an absurdly high PFF rating of 29.8, the third-best ranking of any defensive tackle in college football.

 

Impressive Newcomer: Jerry Tillery

Yes, you knew this was going to be Tillery. But even if his stats seem relatively pedestrian, what he’s doing is not. Tillery’s ability to hold his own in the trenches have allowed Day to play like he has this season. And the fact that Tillery is doing this all while still figuring things out—and against two option opponents—everybody who is calling him a special player knows what they’re talking about.

Interestingly enough, Tillery’s best game of the season was against Clemson. That the freshman was able to go toe to toe, especially as a stout run defender against one of the better teams in the country, was huge. Paired with run-stuffer Daniel Cage, this duo has done a tremendous job filling in for Jarron Jones.

 

Secretly Productive: Isaac Rochell (and Romeo Okwara)

Notre Dame’s defensive ends are too often discussed for what they can’t do. Yet both Rochell and Okwara are doing a nice job filling up the stat sheet, with Rochell the defensive line’s most productive tackler and Okwara once again finding a way to lead the team in sacks.

Rochell earns his living as a run defender. He hasn’t shown any productivity as a pass rusher if you’re to believe PFF’s rating system. But with 35 total tackles and 5.5 TFLs, he’s a handful for offensive tackles, and shown himself capable when he’s shifted inside.

Blink and you might have missed Okwara once again move to the top of the sack list. The senior has three sacks among his 16 total tackles, a fairly prolific number that at least helps buoy the one true deficiency of the defensive personnel. Interestingly, Okwara’s mental lapses have been what’s stood out to PFF, not his sacks. His lowest rated game of the season against USC had Okwara taking down Cody Kessler.

 

Waiting His Turn: Jay Hayes

While his Twitter outburst earned him a scolding from his head coach, the ability to save a year of Hayes’ eligibility this season would be huge. After burning a redshirt late last year when Notre Dame had zero depth, Hayes’ frustrations of not seeing the field likely came because he didn’t see the big picture.

Without Sheldon Day next season, Hayes will be a rotational player, playing opposite Jarron Jones and Daniel Cage and likely teaming with Tillery at three-technique. So credit the Irish staff for finding a good way to earn Hayes that year back, even if Notre Dame hasn’t had the best luck with five-year defensive linemen.

 

Last looks: Defensive line

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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With the season right around the corner and preseason camp finished, it’s time to get our final preparations done before the games start counting and the journey begins. We spent the summer pumping out tens of thousands of words on Notre Dame’s evolving roster, so if you’re looking for 50 hours of easy reading, check out the Irish A-to-Z series.

But with cameras ready to roll on one of the most highly anticipated seasons in recent memory, let’s take our last looks at each position group.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE
Position Coach: Keith Gilmore

 

PROJECTED TWO-DEEP DEPTH CHART

DE: Romeo Okwara, Sr.
DT: Sheldon Day, Sr.
DT: Jerry Tillery, Fr.
DE: Isaac Rochell, Jr.

DE: Andrew Trumbetti, Soph.
DT: Jay Hayes, Soph.
DT: Daniel Cage, Soph.
DE: Jonathan Bonner, Soph.

Additional Depth:

DE: Grant Blankenship, Soph.
DT: Elijah Taylor, Fr.
DT: Jacob Matuska, Jr.
DE: Doug Randolph, Jr.
DT: Pete Mokwuah, Soph.
DT: Brandon Tiassum, Fr.
DT: Micah Dew-Treadway, Fr.

Key Injury:

DT: Jarron Jones, Sr.

 

LEADING MEN

Sheldon Day & Isaac Rochell. While Day is the returning captain, Rochell might be the one to watch this season, anchoring the strongside defensive end position, with the ability to slide inside if the unit needs him to do it. He played large last year when Ishaq Williams went down. Expect that to be the tip of the iceberg.

Day’s career at Notre Dame has been plagued by injuries, making it difficult for him to be as productive as many believe he can be. But the senior has had a strong fall camp, comes into the season healthy and will be more disruptive in his second season working with Brian VanGorder and paired with 4-3 expert Keith Gilmore.

 

NEED BIG SEASONS

Jerry Tillery Romeo Okwara/Andrew Trumbetti. Notre Dame’s asking a freshman to step into the starting lineup at defensive tackle. And the craziest part? Nobody seems that worried. That’s a huge compliment to Tillery and tells you quite a bit about the talent the Irish staff believes they have in their 6-foot-6.5, 305-pound defensive tackle.

The other big spot that absolutely needs to produce is the weakside defensive end. Coordinator Brian VanGorder has all sorts of ways to bring pressure. But the best way to succeed? Get Okwara or Trumbetti to get after the quarterback. Nobody expects this group to produce a double-digit sack master. But getting to that number in a platoon would be a great start.

 

THREE BIGGEST FACTORS…

Win against the run. It sounds simple, but early in the season Notre Dame’s front seven was remarkably stout against the run. Losing Jones is a difficult blow to the point of attack. But there’s a lot of depth here, and hopefully this group is up to the task, destroying blocks, getting in the backfield and letting the Irish’s fleet linebackers get to the football.

 

Combatting tempo. Nobody wanted to talk about it, but this defense feels good about their adjustments against uptempo offenses. Last year, the Irish were exploited starting with North Carolina and then against pretty much anybody else who wanted to go fast.

Sprinting massive defensive tackle Daniel Cage off the field isn’t the answer. We’ll see if they figured one out, likely in week three against Georgia Tech.

 

Stopping the option. With Georgia Tech and Navy both on the schedule, stopping the triple-option will be critical. Notre Dame’s brought in a recruited walk-on to better simulate the scout team. They’ve also added a defensive line coach that teaches the attacking style of play that Brian VanGorder prefers.

VanGorder likely went horse on media day repeating the talking points that nobody truly stops an option attack, with 350 yards on the ground an average day at the office for the Yellow Jackets and the Midshipmen. But here’s hoping that Bobby Elliott’s recon work helped the defensive staff shove a few tricks up their sleeve.

 

THREE RANDOM THOUGHTS

No better time than now, Sheldon Day. Rarely has Notre Dame’s staff been bullish on a player who’s performance has been decidedly… eh. Sure injuries get in the way and a scheme shift likely disrupted some of Day’s development, but we’ve been talking about Aaron Donald when discussing Day. It’s up to the senior defender to make that comparison even in the same ballpark.

 

Is Rochell’s slide inside inevitable? I’m not saying that it is, but if Jerry Tillery gets knicked up even in the slightest, I think it has to be. Rochell played on the inside against LSU. He’ll likely do it on third downs. So while Kelly and BVG have been quick to say that Rochell isn’t going anywhere, he’ll be surrounded by defensive linemen on quite a few snaps already, so this might just be holding the cards close in the preseason, especially in a system that’ll likely be more multiple this year.

 

Can the other kids be alright? I don’t know anybody who isn’t buying into Tillery’s skill set. But if this group is going to be a CFB Playoff level unit, they’re going to need to get big contributions from some of the other first and second-year players.

Key pieces: Jay Hayes, Jonathan Bonner, Grant Blankenship and Daniel Cage. I’m almost discounting Andrew Trumbetti from this group, but he counts, too. And it’ll be interesting to see what this unit gets out of Elijah Taylor. He’s a thick, barrel-chested stocky guy who can eat some space.

These are young, developmental prospects who are desperately needed to step up and play a supporting role. If they can do it, this defense can achieve its goals.

 

 

 

 

 

Counting down the Irish: Just missed the cut

USC v Notre Dame
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As we begin to reveal the top 25 players on Notre Dame’s roster, our raw numbers point to an intriguing amount of depth on this football team. As you consider the returning talent on this football team—only Ben Koyack, Matt Hegarty and Cody Riggs depart from the Music City Bowl’s starting lineup—the depth chart and high end personnel is there, and that proof seems to be in our numbers.

A total of 38 players received votes in our poll, down slightly from 2014. Seven members of our Top 25 fell in rankings. Two stayed in the same place. Eleven made double-digit jumps.

For as interesting as the Top 25 turns out to be, the players just missing the cut are maybe even more unique. They include Notre Dame’s returning sack leader. As well as the team’s all-purpose yardage leader. Two talented freshmen were just left off the ballot as well, along with two key defenders who could be asked to start plenty of games. 

Let’s go through the near-misses as we get ready to start our countdown.

 

JAMES ONWUALU

Onwualu may have played in all 13 games and started eight last season—his first as a linebacker—but he was left off of seven of eleven ballots. Whatever the reason, the Irish’s returning starter at outside linebacker tallied 18 total points, with his highest ranking 19th on a single ballot.

Oklahoma v Notre Dame
Oklahoma v Notre DameJoe Robbins/Getty Images

 

JUSTIN YOON

Arguably the Irish’s most important freshman recruit, Yoon is taking over for Kyle Brindza as the team’s placekicker, all but uncontested. Yoon was on three ballots only, but received a single ninth-place vote. Yoon’s 19 points was good for a two-man tie at 29th.

 

ALIZÉ JONES

Yoon tied with freshman tight end Alizé Jones, viewed by some recruiting services as the finest tight end in the country. At 6-foot-5 and pushing 240 pounds, Jones will have a chance to immediately fight for playing time at a tight end position with exactly one returning catch. Jones was on five ballots, tallying 19 total points.

 

Alize Jones, Cordell Broadus
Alize Jones, Cordell BroadusAP Photo/Isaac Brekken

 

AMIR CARLISLE

Notre Dame’s all-purpose yardage leader finished 28th in our voting, the exact same place he finished in 2014. But this time, Carlisle is coming off his best season in South Bend, a successful transition to slot receiver. The fifth-year player will look to take on a larger role in the passing game with C.J. Prosise’s transition to running back. (Interestingly, Prosise only received two votes last year, good for 32nd.)

Amir Carlisle
Amir CarlisleAP Photo/Matt York

 

ANDREW TRUMBETTI

A promising freshman season wasn’t enough to vault Trumbetti into the Top 25. While he had only one sack, Trumbetti had 5.5 TFLs, good for sixth on the team. He started the Music City Bowl at defensive end, missing only the Purdue game due to injury.

Jarron Jones, Andrew Trumbetti, Devin Gardner
Jarron Jones, Andrew Trumbetti, Devin GardnerAP Photo/Michael Conroy

 

ROMEO OKWARA

Trumbetti’s running mate at defensive end, Okwara finished the poll just two votes shy of the No. 25 spot. Okwara is a polarizing player—he was left off seven ballots, but was 14th on one ballot. Notre Dame’s senior defensive end started 12 games.