Stepping up… The offensive line

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We’re starting a feature here that should get everybody ready for Spring Practice. “Stepping Up” (not to be confused with the Channing Tatum/Jenna Dewan tour-de-force dance movie) looks at the holes on the depth chart and who is likely to fill them. I hope everybody enjoys…

If one position’s inconsistency defined the Charlie Weis era, it was the offensive line. While the defense was the unit that ultimately led to Weis’ ouster after five seasons, the offensive line’s volatility and inconsistency — sometimes expected, sometimes mind-boggling — mirrored the struggles of Charlie Weis as a coach and the Irish during his tenure.

While Weis’ 3-9 2007 team is a reflection on the recruiting failures of Tyrone Willingham, the staggering inefficiency of the offensive line also showed how difficult Weis’ pro-style scheme was to pick up for a group of lineman thrown into action after last playing significant minutes at the high school level. 2008’s up-and-down season along the offensive line resulted in the departure of offensive line coach John Latina, and Frank Verducci was brought in to get better results out of a finally veteran group.

While last season’s offensive line saw vast improvements, and Verducci did a impressive job, there was rarely a time where the offensive line dominated an opponent. Whether it was inopportune penalties, inconsistent run-blocking, or ill-timed sacks, it never felt like the offensive line became the veteran force that the Irish needed.

Entering the Brian Kelly era, let’s take a look at who the offensive line loses, who’s returning, and the key lineman that need to step up.

KEY LOSSES:

With the departure of Paul Duncan, Eric Olsen, and Sam Young, the Irish arguably lose the three most important starters along the offensive line. While Duncan was hardly considered an elite left tackle, he did a service able job covering Jimmy Clausen’s blindside. As an offensive captain, Olsen supplied leadership and spearheaded the line, successfully shifting to center to open up playing time for sophomore Trevor Robinson. And while Sam Young may never have become the Outland candidate that many thought the Irish signed when he committed to the Irish from St. Thomas Aquinas, he ended up starting every game of his collegiate career, a pretty miraculous feat in this era of college football.

RETURNING STARTERS:

Chris Stewart returns at guard for the Irish as a fifth year player, where he’s expect to thrive in his final year of eligibility. Stewart’s redshirt should pay dividends, and I expect him to be a force on the interior of the Irish line. Trevor Robinson also returns to the starting lineup, though he might not be lining up on the interior of the offensive line if the Irish can’t find proper tackles to fill the open voids. Robinson battled some injuries last season, but played impressive football for a sophomore and hopefully will take the leap from good to great during his third season. Dan Wenger also comes back for his fifth year, likely returning to center and anchoring the inside of the offensive line. Wenger was the odd-man-out after Olsen shifted to center, but was a valuable reserve that picked up the slack when Robinson was hobbled.

STEPPING UP:

The battle for the two tackle positions is the key to next season’s offensive front. Replacing three starters puts the Irish in a none too envious position of having to replace the majority of minutes along the front line. Our friends over at Blue-Gray Sky point to an ominous statistic, comparing the 43 percent of returning playing time to the 42 percent that returned to the dreadful 2007 offensive line. 

Nobody expects the offensive to nose-dive like it did in 2007, and Brian Kelly’s spread attack doesn’t put nearly the same pressure on lineman that Weis’ offense did. But for the Irish to be an elite offense again, they’ll need some of the following guys to step up and win a job.

Matt Romine, Left Tackle: Romine was a highly-touted recruit, and long expected to challenge for a starting tackle position. Yet injuries, bad luck, and the depth chart have combined to get in the way of Romine playing a significant part of the offense. I expect the coaching change to benefit Romine greatly, as a fresh start and a new scheme will finally put Romine in a position to succeed.

Taylor Dever, Right Tackle: Dever found himself stuck behind Sam Young, which relegated him to only special teams duty the last two seasons. Yet all reports say Dever has the size and athleticism to play on the edge of the offensive front, where he’ll likely be given the first opportunity to win a job.

Dark Horses: Don’t count out guys like Andrew Nuss, who don’t necessarily have an open job to compete for, but will be given every chance to win a starting position. I also expect to hear from athletic tackle Lane Clelland, who profiles nicely into this offense. It’ll be interesting to see how freshman Chris Watt acquits himself this spring, fresh off a redshirt year where he reportedly impressed the former coaching staff. If Dan Wenger doesn’t get it done at center, both Braxton Cave and Mike Golic Jr. will look to challenge at the position.  

Monday’s Leftovers: On gambling and Notre Dame’s 2018 odds; With links to read

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Just about every sports website last week bore a version of the same headline: “Sports gambling is now legal!” This site did not, in no small part because wagering on sports is hardly more legal now than it was two weeks ago, and for the vast majority of us, that will not change between now and the start of Notre Dame’s season.

The Supreme Court did not legalize sports gambling across the United States; it removed the illegality of 46 states individually deciding to allow sports gambling. Few states will pass such laws and host operating sportsbooks before Sept. 1. Those that do are likely to be confined to the Atlantic Coast (as in New Jersey and possibly Delaware).

Even if those headlines had been completely accurate, the greatest purpose of including sports gambling in an intelligent discourse does not change. More than a means to make money — it barely ever is, and the only true exceptions include a boxer beating up on a mixed martial arts fighter in a squared circle — gambling odds offer a truer and more precise method of predictive evaluation than hot takes and polls do. When they were mentioned around these parts last season, it was with those intentions.

Whereas the headline’s goal is to attract readers, the tweet’s goal is to earn retweets and the poll’s seeming purpose is to offend every fan base, the bookmaker’s goal is to attract equal investment on both sides of a wager, earning his book a five percent return on the entire handle. Money talks, literally so if paying attention.

With those disclaimers in mind, noticing a few pertinent over/under win totals for the coming season feels like a good use of time. It should be remembered, sportsbooks will not put any win total above 10.5 in college football. Too many variables are in play.

This scribe predicted the Irish over/under would be set at 9.5. That was apparently high, with the line holding steady at 8.5 wins. Unlike a few to come, it will likely remain at that mark through the offseason, barring any massive suspension.

Michigan, Stanford, Virginia Tech and Florida State also all hold at 8.5 as of this morning, though the Cardinal opened as high as 9.5 in some locations and the Hokies can still be found at 7.5 if shopping around. USC opened at 7.5 wins before getting moved all the way up to 9.0 in reliable books.

Of the Power Five programs with lines set (so, not Ball State and Navy), only Wake Forest and Northwestern are also expected to be better than .500 this season, at 6.5 and 7.5 wins, respectively. Vanderbilt (5.0), Pittsburgh (5.5) and Syracuse (5.5) will be considerable underdogs when they face Notre Dame.

Speaking of facing Syracuse, perhaps that much-maligned move to play that game at Yankee Stadium in New York City can hold an unexpected benefit for those covering it. New Jersey happens to be so tantalizingly close. Now go ahead and mark off that sentence as one never before written in history.

ON NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP ODDS
Again, only looking at the 10 major-conference foes on the Irish schedule, as well as Notre Dame … and listed in order of likelihood:

Michigan: 15-to-1.
Florida State: 30-to-1.
Notre Dame: 33-to-1 in most places, sometimes as high as 55-to-1.
Virginia Tech: 45-to-1 for the most part, seen as high as 50-to-1.
USC: 50-to-1 usually, but some 40-to-1 options exist.
Stanford: 55-to-1.
Wake Forest: 225-to-1.
Syracuse: 350-to-1.
Northwestern: 350-to-1.
Pittsburgh, Vanderbilt: 600-to-1 each, otherwise known as 20 percent more of a payout than one would receive if holding an early futures ticket predicting the Las Vegas Golden Knights would win the 2018 Stanley Cup. That is, if the Knights manage to win four more games.

A LONG HELD HOLLYWOOD GRIEVANCE
It will shock exactly no one who reads this space to learn I have a few friends who place the occasional wager. If I ever personally live in a state where sports gambling is legal, maybe than I will publicly admit my notebook paying homage to the Philadelphia 76ers is filled with more than hypothetical wagers. Until then, it is certainly nothing more than a proof of concept.

Frankly, Don Cheadle’s (left) English accent in the “Ocean’s” trilogy does not get the critical praise it deserves. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

One of those friends considers “Ocean’s 11” to be among his favorite movies, understandably so. Within that, he elevates the most-quoted Daniel Ocean line above all other bits of that script.

“Because the house always wins. Play long enough, you never change the stakes, the house takes you. Unless when that perfect hand comes along, you bet big, and then you take the house.”

What card game exactly is Mr. Ocean playing? The perfect blackjack hand is not seen until the wager has already been placed, and it can still be foiled by the dealer flipping 21. Poker is not played against the house. It is against players. Go ahead, when that perfect hand comes along, bet big, but you are only taking other losers’ money. You never take the house.

As it pertains to sports gambling, a topic to which Danny was not referring, herein lies the flaw to presuming profits. There is no perfect hand. UMBC beats Virginia. Leicester City wins the Premier League. An expansion team reaches the Stanley Cup Final. The house always wins.

Use gambling odds to put a conversation in perspective. Perhaps place a small bet to make a meaningless September afternoon more entertaining. Do not expect the supposed legalization of sports gambling to lead to a new source of taxable income.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Tricks with jersey numbers; Troy Pride’s sprinter’s speed
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end
Auburn walk-on fullback transfers to Notre Dame, following in family’s footsteps
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end
Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting surge continues with Texas four-star’s commitment
No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain
No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end

OUTSIDE READING
USC starting CB Jack Jones to miss 2018 season (academics)
Incoming Irish receiver Braden Lenzy earns four top-two finishes at Oregon Track Championships
Notre Dame football’s Brian VanGorder got at least $257,000 in buyout
A smattering of initial win totals from betonline.ag
Joe Staley preparing Mike McGlinchey to one day take his job
Jaylon Smith expects to be ‘better than Notre Dame 100 percent’
Bears waive Nyles Morgan

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-5 ½, 255 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Sophomore with three seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Kmet will be the second option among Notre Dame’s vertical threats at tight end, behind senior Alizé Mack, provided Mack proves more reliable than he has in the past.
Recruiting: Not only was Kmet a consensus four-star prospect, he was a consensus top-five tight end in the country. Rivals.com, for example, rated Kmet as the No. 3 tight end in the class of 2017.

CAREER TO DATE
Kmet appeared in all 13 games last season, catching two passes for 14 yards against Wake Forest, both completions from back-up quarterback Ian Book, on back-to-back passes in fact. Kmet also dropped a red-zone pass on a third down that November afternoon, that one attempted by starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

QUOTE(S)
Much of the praise around Kmet this spring revolved around his ability to excel both in football practices and baseball games. In his first collegiate season on the mound, Kmet appeared in 25 games, notching eight saves with a 4.76 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in 45 1/3 innings, striking out 37 batters.

“He handles two sports here and is never on a list,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in late March. “He never is a guy we have to worry about in terms of going to class and representing Notre Dame in the fashion that he needs to. A pretty extraordinary young man in terms of the whole picture.

“… He catches the ball, soft hands, he’s physical at the point of attack, and when he catches the ball, he runs through tacklers, which is in itself pretty impressive.”

At some points this spring, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long gave Kmet the option of taking a football practice off if following a late baseball game. The tight end dismissed that notion.

“You can see some days where it wears on him,” Long said in mid-April. “… But he’s been extremely consistent. Staying with us all last fall, you can see where the carryover has been big for him to blossom this spring.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“A situation in which Kmet plays in 2017 is nearly beyond fathoming. An injury crisis would have to tear through the Irish tight ends in order to make playing the sixth and most-inexperienced option a necessity.

“Kmet’s odds of seeing action this season were further diminished when [classmate Brock] Wright not only enrolled early but also held his own in spring practice. It is not that Wright is far-and-away better than Kmet, it is the head start will be most noticeable in their freshman campaign. If Notre Dame opts to play a freshman tight end, it will be Wright, not Kmet.”

2018 OUTLOOK
This projection cannot be more inaccurate than last year’s, so that’s a start.

Kmet complements Mack as a viable receiving option among the Irish tight ends, but he could become more than that. That speaks as much to Mack’s habitual inconsistency as it does to Kmet’s soft hands and aptness at the point of attack. His rise, though, could be the push Mack needs to focus. For the team, that may be the best-case scenario: Kmet plays well, leading to Mack playing better. Both would get their fair share of opportunities in Long’s multiple tight end schemes. That is the version of the Irish offense which would be a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators.

If Kmet were to statistically surpass Mack for a week or two in September, that could just as equally result in Mack checking out mntally. To be blunt, such a disappointment could happen with or without Kmet’s success this fall, but having another dangerous pass-catcher at tight end for Long to tinker with would diminish the possible debilitating effects.

The gap between those two scenarios is vast. Last year, Notre Dame’s top-three tight ends (Mack, Durham Smythe and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar) combined for 43 catches for 462 yards and four touchdowns. If Kmet and Mack could combine for about those totals, maybe 500 yards and four touchdowns on 45 catches, then that would be a solid baseline, no matter how those stats are distributed.

DOWN THE ROAD
Mack could return in 2019, but Kmet will continue to rise to prominence in Long’s system. His combination of height and hands makes him an intriguing piece for a tight end-heavy offense. However, some caution needs to be exercised. Kmet looked solid in his freshman season and certainly impressed across the board this spring, but that is all a far cry from excelling in the fall.

Kmet should contribute this season and take the lead in 2019, with or without Mack on the Irish roster, but he may not yet become an offensive staple even then. If his progression follows an understated rate, that day may come in 2019 or 2020. Part of that inevitable outlook traces to Notre Dame’s tight end reputation. They keep becoming NFL contributors, Smythe after Koyack after Niklas after Eifert …

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2 ½ , 210 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Fifth-year with only the 2018 season remaining.
Depth chart: Newsome will handle all the Notre Dame punting duties while also serving as one of four Irish captains.
Recruiting: Though only a punter, rivals.com marked Newsome as a three-star recruit and the No. 6 kicker/punter in his class.

CAREER TO DATE
Newsome preserved a year of eligibility as a freshman while former Irish leg extraordinaire Kyle Brindza both kicked and punted. Since then, Newsome has rarely faltered, averaging 43.8 yards on 172 career punts.

2015: 55 punts at an average of 44.5 yards per punt with a long of 62 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 38.1 yards per punt.
2016: 54 punts (in only 12 games) at an average of 43.5 yards per punt with a long of 71 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 35.3 yards per punt.
2017: 63 punts at an average of 43.6 yards per punt with a long of 59 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 37.9 yards per punt.

QUOTE(S)
Newsome’s rise to captainship this offseason was chronicled when Irish head coach Brian Kelly named him a captain along with fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill and fifth-year center Sam Mustipher to begin spring practices. (Fifth-year left guard Alex Bars joined their ranks the morning of the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.)

The week before the spring finale, Kelly revisited what led his team to elevate Newsome as a leader.

“He’s a guy that holds all players to a level, a standard of excellence that we have here at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “When you’re not meeting that standard, he’s going to take the load from you to make sure that it gets done. He’s a remarkable teammate.

“Our losing SWAT team weekly, they have to come in to run. [Newsome] didn’t lose once, his team, but he came in every Wednesday to be there for that losing team, to support them. Just that kind of wanting to hold everybody to the same standards. He was there to help them. He wasn’t there to yell at them. He was there to encourage them. That was recognized by his teammates.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Notre Dame does not necessarily want Newsome to excel. If he is getting enough work to truly stand out, that simply means the Irish offense has turned stalling into a routine occurrence.

“Whether he gets frequent use or not, Newsome has proven to be a consistent performer, largely immune to the pressure so often found to figuratively cripple college kickers and punters. Expect that steadfastness to continue this season.”

2018 OUTLOOK
First and foremost, the peace of mind provided by a lack of punting concerns should not be overlooked. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to worry Newsome may develop the yips in his final season.

His off-kilter leadership, meanwhile, intrigues. Two-year captain Tranquill can and will lead the defense as Mustipher and Bars combine to lead the offense. That does not simply leave the special teams for Newsome’s guidance, however.

He should serve as an offbeat catch-all for any unusual circumstances. That role would be behind the scenes, beneath the radar, etc., but Newsome’s effect could be a unique dynamic helping to easy any locker room tension.

Even with that capacity, it will almost certainly still be Tranquill and now Bars, stepping into former Notre Dame captain Mike McGlinchey’s stead, answering the media’s questions in a distant arena after a fourth quarter goes awry.

DOWN THE ROAD
Newsome’s leg does not offer the booming power necessary to break into the NFL. His Irish career alone may warrant an invite to an offseason camp, but Newsome does not look to be the next rendition of Craig Hentrich.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting surge continues with Texas four-star’s commitment

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Defensive line coach Mike Elston predicted Notre Dame would enjoy great recruiting success along its defensive line this cycle. With Saturday’s commitment of consensus four-star defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic High School; Fort Worth, Texas), Elston can consider his boasts backed up.

“I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said on Feb. 7, the most-recent National Signing Day.

“This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Osafo-Mensah is the third consensus four-star defensive end to join the Irish class of 2019 and the highest-rated of the trio, joining Howard Cross (St. Joseph H.S.; Montvale, N.J.) and Hunter Spears (Sachse; Texas). Per rivals.com, Osafo-Mensah is the No. 160 prospect in the country and the No. 17 in Texas. The recruiting service lists Osafo-Mensah as an outside linebacker, and the No. 6 outside linebacker in the country, but his 6-foot-4 frame holding about 220 pounds projects as a pass-rushing defensive end in the future.

Osafo-Mensah is not only explosive, but he has the length of a top-flight quarterback hound. Obviously, he remains a bit light as he finishes his junior year in high school.

Osafo-Mensah chose Notre Dame over his homestate Texas, with Oklahoma and Texas A&M also pursuing him strongly. Just about every college football power offered him a scholarship, notably including Alabama, Michigan and USC.

With the Irish, he becomes the 10th commit in the class, including consensus-four star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren; Bowling Green, Ky.). Clearly the defensive line is an emphasis for Elston, defensive coordinator Clark Lea and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly.

If not for the changes to NCAA recruiting rules in the last cycle, Osafo-Mensah and the rest may still be in the early parts of the recruitment process. First of all, December’s early signing period gave the coaching staff a head start on chasing the next set of recruits.

“A lot of it is because I’ve been able to put [the class of 2018] to bed and get moving on the ‘19s and go visit in their schools all throughout January,” Elston said.

Those impressions led to Osafo-Mensah’s official visit last month. Before the new rules, he would not have been able to take a paid-for trip to campus until the fall.