Notre Dame reserve offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons announces transfer

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 Notre Dame at Georgia
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Once considered a possible 2021 starter, fifth-year offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons announced an intention to transfer from Notre Dame on Thursday. The career reserve started spring practices working with the first-team but was a backup guard and center by the end of the 15 practices.

“Committing to Notre Dame on April 4th, 2015 was the easiest decision that I’ve made in my life,” Gibbons wrote on Twitter. “Choosing to leave has proven to be the most difficult decision I’ve made to date.”

Gibbons started at right guard in the 2020 home finale, against Syracuse, with Tommy Kraemer‘s reps limited by an emergency appendectomy. The two rotated throughout that Senior Day. A three-star recruit and the first commitment in Notre Dame’s class of 2017, that was Gibbons’ only start in 29 career appearances.

That seemed to give Gibbons the lead in replacing Kraemer at right guard in 2021, and in the early spring practices, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Gibbons was indeed starting. In time, though, the emergence of early-enrolled freshman Rocco Spindler filled one open guard position, and early-enrolled freshman Blake Fisher’s impressions made it so a tackle position was also settled (though do not rule out sophomore Tosh Baker at left tackle just yet). That meant proven veterans Josh Lugg and Jarret Patterson could fill out the rest of the line and Gibbons had fallen to the second unit.

“There’s a number of guys who all want their opportunity, so the competitiveness has been great,” Kelly said in mid-April when discussing the reserves now getting their chances. “What we’re really in a position right now and focused on is that’s going to kind of take care of itself.”

In the Blue-Gold Game on Saturday, Gibbons worked at center, which Kelly said was the first time Gibbons had snapped the ball.

Gibbons will be immediately eligible wherever he lands and will have two seasons of eligibility remaining thanks to the universal pandemic waiver.

Without him, Notre Dame should have 14 scholarship offensive linemen in 2021. The Irish roster count is down to 86, underneath the one-year cap of 87, bumped up from the usual maximum of 85 by two pandemic exceptions.

Notre Dame 99-to-0: Let’s try this again

Braden Lenzy
Notre Dame Athletics
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“Let’s try this again.”

To steal a line from a wedding-turned-anniversary party invite recently received, let’s try this again. The annual series of “Notre Dame 99-to-0” never got far off the ground last year, just like that couple’s June wedding plans, for all the obvious and frustrating reasons.

A summertime content staple, the series (and seasonal weddings) does more than filling the calendar. At least, it is intended to. “Notre Dame 99-to-0” is intended to offer a refresher of each player’s career thus far and of what to expect moving forward. (The wedding, to reunite friends flung far by time.) As often as not, this countdown to the season via descending jersey numbers becomes a reference point later in the year, whether it be after a transfer, an unexpected rise up the depth chart or an injury. (More of this can apply to weddings than expected. The reference points become when you met a friend’s significant other, met some intrigue on the dance floor or tore the pants on the groomsman suit you were wearing for the first time. Those are akin to a transfer, a rise up the depth chart and an injury, right?)

There was enough *everything else* dominating our time and attention in the 2020 season to not need those refreshers or reference points to stay busy, but the hope is that stops being the case in 2021, ideally before Labor Day Eve (123 days). If we can be so lucky, then the sense of normalcy of day after day after day of player recaps (and Mondays hungover after wedding weekends) can also ease the content calendar back into its usual rhythms.

There will, of course, still be acknowledgments of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly while awaiting a Notre Dame plan on fans in the stands next season and when discussing the eligibility morass (understandably) created by the universal waiver in 2020.

The exact slotting of the profiles has yet to be established — a real sense of normalcy around here includes this scribe procrastinating most every task — but it will begin tomorrow with No. 99, sophomore defensive tackle Rylie Mills, one of only a handful of players to be profiled last year before things ground to a true halt for five months. In a few days, No. 97 will be up, early-enrolled freshman defensive tackle Gabriel “Volkswagen” Rubio, and this space is determined to make that nickname stick by the end of the summer.

The series will end with the first No. 0 in Notre Dame history, senior receiver Braden Lenzy, hence the rebranding to “99-to-0” from “99-to-2.” To already summarize Lenzy’s entry, he had an impressive peak in 2019 with 454 total yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns, but the Irish desperately need that to no longer be Lenzy’s peak after 2021.

Beginning May 7 (tomorrow), there are 87 days until the week of Notre Dame’s first preseason practice. The Irish are allowed a maximum of 87 scholarship players in 2021 — the usual maximum of 85 plus pandemic exceptions for fifth-year defensive tackle Kurt Hinish (No. 41) and fifth-year kicker Jonathan Doerer (No. 39), separated for these purposes by fifth-year linebacker, three-year starter and likely captain Drew White.

Some exact scheduling needs to be figured out yet. Should senior punt returner Matt Salerno be included because he might reprise that role in 2021, offered an excellent Twitter clip this spring and is the jumping-off point for a longer punt return conversation? Should senior long snapper Michael “Milk” Vinson be included because a few national games in 2020 demonstrated how vital that role can unexpectedly be? Until the incoming freshmen have numbers, what placeholders should be assigned?

But those wrinkles can wait until No. 65 or No. 29 come along in the coming months, respectively, and no incoming freshman will pop into the roster listing before No. 96.

Similarly, should certain doubled numbers create days with two articles to therefore vaguely wonder what will be the most impactful number? No. 52, worn by both junior center Zeke Correll and senior linebacker Bo Bauer? No. 17, as in both sophomore defensive end Jordan Botelho and Wisconsin graduate transfer quarterback Jack Coan? No. 3, two embattled veterans in senior safety Houston Griffith and fifth-year receiver Avery Davis? Or will junior running back Kyren Williams make No. 23 the most impactful number all on his own no matter what junior safety Litchfield Ajavon does or does not do in 2021?

No offense to junior cornerback Cam Hart or junior defensive end Isaiah Foskey, but 2021 does not look like a typical Notre Dame year when the Nos. 5 and 7, respectively, rival No. 3 for greatest impact. (Files away the story idea of trying to figure out how that trend began, fully realizing the answer has undoubtedly been lost to the decades.)

Some exact scheduling needs to be figured out elsewhere, as well. If the typical interim between a wedding ceremony and reception is suitably filled with one bar, how many breweries can be hit before a first-anniversary party replacing a reception? If the now-married couple is providing two nights of an open bar, but you already were somewhat thoughtful last summer, is a gift still anticipated? Does my suit still fit?

It’s nice to consider the problems of old anew. Let’s try it all again.

“Notre Dame 99-to-0” begins tomorrow. Let’s make it a goal to break just one norm and write ahead before heading to that party in San Diego next month.

Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s completed spring spurs ‘What ifs’ of 2020; NFL draft notes

Lawrence Keys
Notre Dame Athletics
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The 2020 season will always be looked at through the prism of the pandemic. There is no other way to view it, or anything of the last 14 months. In many respects, that tint makes Notre Dame’s Playoff run even more impressive.

To work through the first major in-season shutdown in college football, to lose starters only hours before games, to maintain some semblance of sanity from June into January without any typical mental relief — none of that came easily for the Irish. Of course, none of this came easily for any of us.

Looking at individual players, rather than the whole team, this spring’s progresses may illustrate some development that was lost amid last year’s canceled spring practices, truncated and interrupted summer work and stuttering preseason camp. There is no way to ever know, obviously, but it is easy to imagine a real 2020 off-season program could have positioned now-senior receiver Lawrence Keys better.

Some of Keys’ growth in the last few months is simply that — growth — but jumping from five catches for 51 yards in eight games in 2020 to five catches for 115 yards in the abbreviated Blue-Gold Game on Saturday warrants notice. A hamstring and other muscular issues “backed [Keys] up” in 2020, to use his phrasing, a frustration he was intent on not continuing into 2021.

“My goal for this spring was to come in, get stronger to help me be more explosive on the field, be more versatile,” Keys said Saturday. “This spring you can definitely feel there’s a huge difference from last spring because last spring I didn’t really get to anticipate much.”

Having only one spring practice will do that.

Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees cited a similar time crunch in discussing the differences between 2020’s offense and what he intends 2021’s to be. There were only so many opportunities to change last year’s scheme, to try something new compared to what was already known to work.

“We had a shortened offseason that didn’t allow us to develop some of the areas we needed to improve on,” Rees said. “We attacked the season the way we felt that gave us the best opportunity to win every single game.”

That approach got the Irish into the Playoff, so suffice it to say, it worked. But on an individual level, losing that chance to develop may have pushed Keys’ breakout season back a year.

Houston Griffith
(Notre Dame Athletics)

THE SAME CAN BE WONDERED WITH Houston Griffith
The senior safety’s spring statistical jump was not as drastic — 14 tackles in 12 games in 2020 and three tackles in the spring finale — but his description of his spring-time growth comes ripe with intangibles. Those may trace to a change in position coach or to a change in personal approach for a player who was in the transfer portal only four months ago, but they also may trace to simply getting the chance to work.

“I feel like we grew pre-snap readiness, just understanding what we have,” Griffith said. “Our football IQ has increased in that room. Coach (Chris) O’Leary has emphasized putting us in game situations, sometimes we are going to have to be players out there. We can’t always rely on what coach is telling us. We have to play with instincts and be able to beat balls. That’s what they preach, just be a player.”

Griffith’s underwhelming career to date undoubtedly has many roots. For one, quality safeties were ahead of him for two years in Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott. For another, this is supposed to be hard.

But to some degree, the pandemic created an unknown that will never be pinpointed. There have been many greater losses, but to Keys and Griffith, something may have been lost on the field in 2020, too.

ON THE FLIP SIDE
That lack of an offseason, the lack of a true summer, the lack of an in-season rhythm makes what true freshmen Chris Tyree, Michael Mayer and Clarence Lewis all did that much more impressive.

And it should and will forever underscore the achievement of going 10-0 in the regular season.

BUT LET’S NOT REPEAT ANY OF THAT
Fans should anticipate filling Notre Dame Stadium this fall. As Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick said at halftime, “We’re very optimistic.” He outlined a decision-making timeline of early June, but as long as trends continue the right direction … That is all to say if you want to go to a Notre Dame football game in 2021, get vaccinated. As much for your personal protection as to help the entire fan base’s hopes and tailgate dreams.

SOME DRAFT THOUGHTS
The fact that Notre Dame has produced only one first-round linebacker in the history of the NFL draft  (1982, Bob Crable, No. 23 overall) took on yet another asterisk last week. First Manti Te’o’s personal life explosion knocked him down to No. 38 overall in 2013, seven picks outside the first round. Then Jaylon Smith’s career-threatening injury dropped him from a certain top-five pick to No. 34 overall in 2016, missing the cut by three slots. Now a vague heart issue sent Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah to No. 52 overall.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Monday a heart issue “that came up late in the process and was a concern for most teams” led to Owusu-Koramoah falling from mid-first round likelihood to late second-round pick. Given doctors “ultimately cleared” the former Irish linebacker, and Owusu-Koramoah spoke Tuesday with complete confidence about his health, the late in the process aspect may have been the most costly.

Whatever the issue, and as long as he is cleared then there is no reason to pry, if NFL teams had dug into it for a month rather than a week or however long they had, there may have been less draft-night hesitancy.

Te’o and Smith have both put together fine careers despite their draft-night miseries. There is no reason to think Owusu-Koramoah won’t add to that trend.

THE 2016 DEFENSIVE END CLASS
Credit to Notre Dame’s talent evaluators. Credit to defensive line coach Mike Elston. Credit to former defensive coordinators Mike Elko and Clark Lea. Credit to head coach Brian Kelly.

But also credit to Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem, Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji. Rivals.com considered the quartet of defensive ends a five-star (Hayes), a pair of four-stars and a three-star (Ogundeji). The recruiting service considered Ogundeji the worst recruit in the Irish class of 2016, long snapper John Shannon excluded.

Setting aside their collegiate stats and roles in two Playoff berths and four consecutive double-digit win seasons … Four captains, four NFL draft picks.

“It starts with the young men that we recruit to Notre Dame and knowing that we’re looking for somebody that is much more than just about football, that they have leadership skills,” Kelly said Monday. “They can overcome the academics that are extremely difficult here, and it’s going to shape them into being the best versions of themselves.”

For context, a few higher-rated players in the Irish class of 2016, per rivals.com, and obviously chosen for dramatic effect (Note: Hayes was the highest-rated player in the signing class): receiver Javon McKinley came in before Okwara; offensive lineman Parker Boudreaux and defensive back D.J. Morgan were ahead of Kareem; defensive backs Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill, quarterback Ian Book and running back Deon McIntosh were all rated higher than Ogundeji.

“Stars are important, I get that,” Kelly said.

Other things are, too, and that 2016 defensive end class can long serve as an example of such.

INSIDE THE IRISH:
‘Tight End U’ finds its next piece with Iowa TE Eli Raridon committing to Notre Dame
Notre Dame WR Jordan Johnson announces transfer, never records a catch for the Irish
Things We Learned: Notre Dame still good, ‘not good enough’

NFL DRAFT COVERAGE
Absurd Notre Dame left tackle streak ends with Liam Eichenberg drafted in the second round
All-American Aaron Banks heads to the 49ers with the No. 48 overall pick
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah’s wait ends at No. 52 thanks to the Cleveland Browns
‘Tight End U’ — produces yet another NFL draft pick in Tommy Tremble at No. 83 overall
Ian Book heads to the New Orleans Saints in the fourth round
Former Notre Dame DE Daelin Hayes drafted in the fifth round
Ade Ogundeji picked in the fifth round by the Falcons
Ben Skowronek’s selection sets new Notre Dame mark

OUTSIDE READING:
A preposterously early look at the 2022 NFL Draft
Biggest 2021 NFL draft reaches: All seven rounds
Colts exercise Quenton Nelson’s fifth-year option
Browns sign top undrafted rookie Marvin Wilson with $192,000 guarantee
College football post-spring Top 25 topped by Alabama, Georgia and Oklahoma

Things We Learned: Notre Dame still good, ‘not good enough’

Jack Coan Blue-Gold Game
Notre Dame Athletics
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The marching orders for a spring practice should be very clear: Do not overreact to any performance by any player in any circumstance. But when the only two touchdown drives of Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game are led by the early-enrolled, highly-touted freshman quarterback who had not played in a game in nearly 18 months, there may be little other choice.

Tyler Buchner is still not an integral part of the Irish quarterback competition this offseason — Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan pulled a bit further ahead in his battle with sophomore Drew Pyne — but Buchner’s 6-of-9 day for 140 yards and a rushing touchdown was the defining performance of the day and perhaps of Notre Dame’s entire spring.

But to reiterate, do not overreact, and Buchner is not yet pushing for playing time.

“He took a big step in terms of his growth,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said after Saturday’s spring finale ended 17-3, for whatever that score is worth. “He was given more of an opportunity, obviously, by being live, and I thought he took advantage of it. He had some really good throws down the field. …

“We’re never going to close the door on one that can help our offense be a better offense. We’re not going to say, ‘Well, Tyler’s a freshman, you can’t play.’ Tyler Buchner, if you can help our football team, we’ll find any role for somebody that can help us.”

Buchner handled the moment just fine in front of a few thousand fans. Both his first two drives ended in touchdowns, something neither Coan nor Pyne achieved even once. If Buchner’s performance is a harbinger for things to come in 2022 or 2023, Notre Dame should be encouraged.

That is the proper reaction, though. Buchner’s showing proved he has a solid foundation that should reap rewards in years to come, but not this year.

This year remains Coan’s to lead.

While there are 65 Power Five teams, and thus 65 starting Power Five quarterbacks, there are not 65 players who belong as starting Power Five quarterbacks. Coan does. Early and often he showed both an ability and a want to push the ball downfield. Finishing 18-of-32 for 197 yards and an interception when working without his best target (sophomore tight end Michael Mayer sat out as a precaution) and a running back that will be a threat in the aerial game (sophomore Chris Tyree was on Pyne’s half of the roster) is a decent day.

Coan’s very first pass attempt set a tone, connecting with senior receiver Joe Wilkins down the sideline for 32 yards. His arm strength is as advertised, even if that was not realized when Coan announced his transfer in January. His progressions appeared quick and decisive.

“We want to see decision making, we want to see management of the game, we want to see how the quarterbacks handle themselves in the pocket, out of the pocket,” Kelly said. “What kind of throws they’re making, on platform throws, some of the things that they need to work on.”

If that was the checklist, Coan ticked off each item.

The truest blessing of the Irish spring, though, is that Pyne ticked off each item, too.

A stat line of 11-of-23 for 146 yards and an interception is underwhelming, but he looked equally comfortable in the offense. If Buchner had merely shown Pyne’s poise, then Notre Dame would have been thrilled with its youngest quarterback. Pyne’s lack of hype, however, diminishes that response for no other reason than that is how these things go.

It shouldn’t.

For once, the Irish can leave spring practice confident in their quarterbacks. The starter may not be a Heisman dark horse, but the drop-off to his backup will be less than it has been in years, and a third capable passer will be around, as well. That is not the luxury expected from a position ripe for scrutiny, but it is a luxury, nonetheless.

 

Notre Dame’s offensive line remains in flux, a natural byproduct of a spring finale that inevitably invites sacks, and one compounded by the potential starters being mixed and matched on two separate teams. Listening to the NBC broadcast with a trained ear, Paul Burmeister’s and Corey Robinson’s praise of early-enrolled freshmen Blake Fisher and Rocco Spindler made it apparent the Irish coaching staff had built up that duo in pregame production meetings. That hint alone makes it increasingly likely at least one of the two will start on Labor Day Eve.

Questions remain aplenty along the offensive line, perhaps intentionally so. Not having senior Jarret Patterson available this spring made it so Notre Dame would never have its five best linemen together no matter what permutation was tried.

“We have work to do, but we’re going to get there,” Kelly said. “Having days like today allows us to not fool ourselves into saying we’re this finished product. We’ve got work to do. Today allows us to evaluate much more clearly about where we need to go to be a championship football team.”

A championship football team remains the Irish goal, as it should, but the gap in January remains the gap in May, one exacerbated by Monday’s news of sophomore receiver Jordan Johnson’s impending transfer. Notre Dame does not have the exterior playmakers to compete with the best teams in the country.

Senior Lawrence Keys established himself as a starter this spring, adding a second piece to fifth-year Avery Davis, and pairing them with Mayer will be enough for a functional offense. But even Keys’ emergence did not suggest bona fide explosiveness in September.

“They’re capable of doing it,” Kelly said. “We’re going to stay the course. When they get there, they will ascend to the level that we need them to play at. We’re enjoying the process with them. They’re 100 percent all-in. I thought they flashed today, but we’ve got some work to do with details.”

Obviously, the Irish defense played Saturday, as well, and getting a look at new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s scheme was worthwhile, but Notre Dame kept that scheme to its bare bones to have a more genuine look at the offense. The Irish did not try to disguise coverage to fool a quarterback, did not try to use line stunts to confound young linemen and did not send all-out blitzes to tag passers in red jerseys.

However, fifth-year Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa’s quickness off the edge did stand out. He always wanted to play defensive end rather than defensive tackle, he lost the weight to make the move, and Notre Dame had the interior depth to accommodate it. After Saturday, that position switch looks to be a win for everyone involved.

The praise of Tagovailoa-Amosa all spring was not hyperbole. His success on the edge will not only help depth concerns there, keeping senior Justin Ademilola’s legs that much fresher, but it will also bolster the performances of the young pair on the other side of the line. Opponents may have hoped to avoid junior Isaiah Foskey and sophomore Jordan Botelho, but that option disappears with Tagovailoa-Amosa (and Ademilola) such a viable pass-rushing threat.

Four Irish defensive ends have been drafted in the last two years, yet Notre Dame will still have an imposing defensive line in 2021. There may be no greater testament to the program’s floor than that, a floor then raised by Coan’s arm strength and Buchner’s ease. All that instilled confidence considered, the ceiling is still not as high as Kelly wants.

“We’re a good team, and good teams are not good enough,” Kelly said. “We want to be a great team. Good teams don’t win a national championship. We need to be a great team. So, how do we get from good to great? That’s where we are in this process.”

In other words, a successful (and healthy) spring practice did not change where Notre Dame was on New Year’s Day, not that it should have been expected to.

Notre Dame WR Jordan Johnson announces transfer, never records a catch for the Irish

Jordan Johnson transfer
Notre Dame Athletics
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Looking for “a fresh start,” sophomore receiver Jordan Johnson announced an intention to transfer from Notre Dame on Monday morning. The highest-rated receiver recruit of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s 12 years in South Bend, Johnson appeared in two games at Notre Dame and recorded no other statistics, including in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. He was targeted on one pass in the spring scrimmage.

Not that fan demand and message board conversations should drive Irish roster decisions, but they often drive questions asked at press conferences. In early April, Kelly acknowledged that head-on when discussing Johnson, though also hinting at what may have kept Johnson sidelined through much of 2020.

“I know you guys love Jordan Johnson, and he’s doing a nice job,” Kelly said. “I think what I’m most impressed with Jordan is what he’s doing in the classroom right now. He’s really turned the corner there. And you can start to see that confidence showing itself on the football field too.”

That confidence will show itself on someone else’s football field now. Johnson has four years of eligibility remaining, and with the recent implementation of a one-time transfer waiver, the St. Louis-native will be immediately eligible at his next stop. (The one-time transfer waiver: All players may transfer once in their careers without sitting out a season afterward. Simple as that.)

Fellow St. Louis-native and junior running back Kyren Williams consistently offered promising words for Johnson’s future, including just a week ago.

“I look at him as a little brother, so I’m always over there trying to help him get to where he wants to be,” Williams said. “I think he’s had a great spring. He has to keep working on the little details of everything, but that just comes with being a wide receiver and being a football player. You’re never going to be perfect, so he knows that he has to keep working and come fall camp, it’s time for him to really excel and get to where he wants to be as a player.”

In order to crack the receiver rotation in fall camp, Johnson would have needed to surpass one of a senior trio in Braden Lenzy, Kevin Austin and Joe Wilkins. While Johnson’s idling for a year should scream volumes about expecting immediate playing time from praised recruits, even a five-star All-American rated as the No. 3 receiver in the class, the arrival of three more highly-touted freshmen only further clouded the receiver depth chart.

When it comes to those three — Lorenzo Styles, Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas — an indicator of their paths will be that Kelly has never shied away from using the same concerning words. When he addressed Johnson’s lack of playing time in October, Kelly’s phrasing echoed that once used to discuss Austin, once used to discuss Chase Claypool, and so forth. Sometimes it pans out into a second-round NFL draft pick, sometimes it ends up with a transfer after one year.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame gets the letter: Five-star WR Jordan Johnson

“He had been making some progress in how he is dealing with the transition to college,” Kelly said. “This has never been an issue of lack of ability. We knew of Jordan’s ability. There are other things that are important here at the University and we all know that. He’s been focused heavily on making the transition, the things that are really difficult are in the classroom. He’s made some progress, enough that we brought him up. He’s a talented player. In the rotation? We’ll kind of have to see how that goes, but I think that we all see that he’s got the skill set. Now we’ll have to kind of build that as we go forward.”

With Johnson’s transfer, Notre Dame expects to have 87 scholarship players on its roster next season, now meeting the NCAA maximum of 85 adjusted for two pandemic exceptions (fifth-year kicker Jonathan Doerer and fifth-year nose tackle Kurt Hinish).