Guru Phil Steele has Irish ranked 16th

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If you’re a true college football dork like I am, Phil Steele’s College Football Preview marks a turn in the calendar. While there are still a few more months before we truly get back into football season, Steele’s magazine is like that half-way point of a long jog, and we’re at least working our way back home now.

The past few years, Steele has been bullish on the Irish. Even though he missed big on them last season and was mildly disappointed with the ’08 edition, Steele is the first of the big-name preview magazines to put Notre Dame in the Top 25, with the Irish checking in at #16, even after Steele himself points out that Notre Dame ranks 113th out of 120 teams in percentage of lettermen returning, with only 61.1 percent.

(Those are the kind of stats that get people excited about Phil Steele…)

Steele was kind enough to give a free preview of his positional outlook for the 2010 Irish, and here are a few tidbits I found interesting:

* For all the griping we’re sure to hear about Notre Dame’s ultra-soft schedule, Steele has it rated the 17th toughest in the country. While we’re sure to hear a few guys over at the Four-Letter mentioning games against Western Michigan, Tulsa, and Army (I think you can stop calling Navy a gimme game by now), once again the perception of Notre Dame’s schedule versus Steele’s number-crunching objectiveness presents two different realities.

* Ever want a sure bet? When Notre Dame is set to play Michigan State, just bet on the Spartans. Steele gives the last five betting lines against the Spartans. Here are the results:

          YEAR   LINE   RESULT    COVER
           2005     -6       44-41 L       No
           2006     -3       40-27 W     Push
           2007    +10     31-14 L       No
           2008    +8       23-7   L       No
           2009    -10      33-30 W     No
        
In other news, I’m 0-4-1 in predicting Notre Dame’s success against the Spartans since 2005.

* Since 1993, Notre Dame has only had two double-digit winning seasons: Tyrone Willingham’s first year in South Bend was a 10-3 season that ended in a Gator Bowl loss to North Carolina State in 2002. Charlie Weis’ 2006 campaign ended ugly with back-to-back losses to USC and LSU, but the Irish ended 10-3 as well.

Conversely, Brian Kelly has produced three double-digit win seasons since 2007, winning at least 10 games each season he coached at Cincinnati. Since 1993, Kelly has won 10+ game six times.

* For as much heartbreak as there was in the 2009 season for the Irish, you tend to forget just how frustrating the 2008 campaign was as well. Notre Dame gave up three double-digit leads in 2008, just an inexcusable amount. Even worse, Notre Dame was 1-8 in the last two seasons in the month of November. (1-3 in 2008, 0-4 in 2009).

* Looking for another area for improvement for the Irish? Try kickoffs. Notre Dame had just four touchbacks in the past three years, second worst in all of D-I football. With Brandon Walker looking healthy again, Nick Tausch and David Ruffer returning, let’s hope they figure out how to kick the ball past the goal line.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ½, 208 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Early-enrolled freshman with four years of eligibility remaining, including the 2018 season.
Depth chart: It would be quite a reach for Jones to crack the receiver rotation this season. It is not necessarily a deep position group, but there are four somewhat-established options in seniors Miles Boykin and Chris Finke, junior Chase Claypool and sophomore Michael Young. Rather than give Jones spot minutes behind them along with junior Javon McKinley and sophomore Jafar Armstrong, it is more likely the Notre Dame coaches opt to preserve a year of Jones’ eligibility.
Recruiting: A rivals.com four-star recruit and No. 36 receiver in the country, Jones committed to the Irish in February of 2017, a full year before he expected to be able to sign. That choice included looking past offers from half the Big Ten and both participants in the Egg Bowl.

QUOTE(S)
Enrolling early gives any player a head start, but that does not mean adjusting to the demands of college football is inherently easy, especially considering the somewhat isolating nature of being one of only seven freshmen rather than one of 27 and the sole receiver instead of one of four.

“When you come in as a freshman and you have the numbers in your favor as far as a group, we’re probably going 100 miles an hour,” Notre Dame receivers coach Del Alexander said in late March. “Right now it’s going at 1,000 miles an hour for Micah. His advantage won’t show up until we get to [preseason] camp.

“So for him, we’re not going to slow down, because we have a veteran group. He’s chasing his tail and trying to chase everybody out in front of him.”

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN JONES’ NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
“Jones’ size and strong hands made him a priority for Notre Dame. In today’s version of football, no team can have enough receivers, but Jones is more than simply a fill-in.

“… One of [Jones or fellow-signee Kevin Austin] is likely to spend 2018 preserving a year of eligibility, just given Irish coach Brian Kelly’s track record. Looking at Boykin and Claypool as comparable to Jones, at least in size, it seems likely he spends the year on the sideline.”

2018 OUTLOOK
The best chance for Jones to find playing time this fall is to earn it on special teams. He is not much of a speed threat yet, but he is far from slow and has the size to serve a role on the kickoff coverage unit.

If Jones does see competitive time at receiver, that will almost assuredly be the result of injuries further up the depth chart. Otherwise, if he is partaking in special teams, he may as well also get some work in mop-up duties and perhaps notch a handful of catches for a few dozen yards.

DOWN THE ROAD
Jones arrives as part of a stellar receiver class, one of four who cover every angle of the position from size to speed. While Boykin, Finke and Claypool each will have only one more year of eligibility after this fall, a bit of an eligibility and experience gap exists between them and this freshman class. Only McKinley, Young and hybrid-running back Armstrong fill out that interim, a byproduct of former Irish receiver Kevin Stepherson’s exit.

Thus, Jones will be competing with Austin and, to some extent, Lenzy to become the next sideline and red-zone threat. Even in 2019, one of the trio should emerge as the primary back-up to Boykin and/or Claypool, if both in fact return to Notre Dame for their final years of eligibility.

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
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver, senior

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4, 227 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Senior with two seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: The combination of a memorable Citrus Bowl showing and a strong spring set up Boykin as Notre Dame’s top receiver, presumably starting isolated on the boundary.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit from the greater Chicago area, Boykin chose the Irish over a number of prestigious offers, including Ohio State, Michigan and Oregon.

CAREER TO DATE
Boykin’s career stats do not precipitate an undisputed top receiver. Nonetheless, his New Year’s Day showing clearly illustrated why Boykin will probably start 2018 in that role. Quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book targeted him six times with both Kevin Stepherson (suspension) and Chase Claypool (shoulder) sidelined. Boykin caught three of those passes, all first downs, for 102 yards and a 55-yard game-winning touchdown in which he displayed jumping abilities, strong hands and quick acceleration.

2015: Preserved a year of eligibility.
2016: 12 games; six catches for 81 yards and a touchdown.
2017: 12 games; 12 catches for 253 yards and two scores. Named Citrus Bowl MVP.

QUOTE(S)
March and April were filled with praise of Boykin from both Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and receivers coach Del Alexander. Even when discussing the Irish secondary, Kelly’s focus turned toward the troubles Boykin gave those defensive backs.

“I want to defend Miles Boykin better,” Kelly said following the Blue-Gold Game on April 21, a day in which Boykin caught three passes for 132 yards and one touchdown. “He was obviously an issue. … If we were playing against a Miles Boykin, we would play a little differently, and he would get a lot more help.”

Throughout the spring, Kelly insisted Boykin was on a different level than the rest of the receivers, even on days when Claypool was at his best.

“They’re not in the same category,” Kelly said in late March. “[Boykin] is a guy who can defeat one-on-one coverage and get you out of a loaded box by just throwing a fade to him. Those guys don’t have that and we’re not asking them. We didn’t recruit them for that purpose. We recruited Miles for that and he’s giving that to us.

“If you drop an eighth hat [in the box] and you’re going to leave him one-on-one into the boundary, you’re going to have to deal with him going up and getting the football. We think he can take it away from anybody.”

In Alexander’s mind, Boykin’s progress started in the offseason immediately following the highs of the Citrus Bowl.

“He’s using his quickness, he’s using his size and length, he’s using his explosiveness,” Alexander said. “That comes from his conditioning and his experience in the offense.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Boykin’s [2017 spring] rise to the top of the depth chart was always a possibility, if not necessarily a likely one following the 2016 season. … Boykin’s pedigree kept this result in play despite his minimal role. The question now is, will he maintain this consistency and thus create more opportunities for himself?

“If he does, 20-plus catches and a couple touchdowns seems entirely reasonable.”

2018 OUTLOOK
One catch does not a career make, no matter how dramatic and well-timed it was. Before Boykin’s winning play, he had largely disappointed in 2017, to such a degree it cannot be traced entirely to Notre Dame’s inconsistent quarterback play. If 20-plus catches and a couple touchdowns was the expectation, then Boykin only came near it due to others’ absences in the bowl game. Otherwise, his season likely would have finished with only nine grabs for 151 yards and one score.

Finding the balance between those lackluster numbers and another touted spring is a difficult line to toe. The top Irish receiver should end up with an absolute minimum of 35 catches, 500 yards and half a dozen touchdowns, and that would be within a very balanced offense. Kelly made it quite clear this spring, he expects Boykin to be his top receiver. Thus, those should be the projected minimums for his senior year.

If sophomore Michael Young or Claypool excels in the fall, combined with Boykin again underwhelming, then those numbers will be but a pipe dream. As much as Boykin’s third career touchdown should be remembered for a long time, it does not guarantee great things will quickly follow. Nor does springtime excellence. Only fall Saturdays determine such.

DOWN THE ROAD
It is within the realm of possibility Boykin’s improved bench press maximums and quicker burst lead to a distinguished 2018. At his height and with that speed, he could opt to test the NFL waters. More likely, Boykin will return for a fifth year, which the coaching staff will certainly be grateful for.

Even with the likes of junior Javon McKinley, Claypool, early-enrolled freshman Micah Jones and incoming-freshman Braden Lenzy threatening to become the preferred big target of whomever is throwing passes for Notre Dame, having a veteran who has dealt with NFL-quality cornerbacks is a luxury not to be passed up, and Boykin already fits that description thanks to LSU’s secondary. That aspect of Boykin’s résumé will be further bolstered from the outset of 2017, considering the overall strength of Michigan’s defense.

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
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 82 Nic Weishar, tight end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ¾, 245 pounds.
2018-19 year, eligibility: Fifth-year tight end with only eligibility in 2018 remaining.
Depth chart: The springtime emergence of sophomore Cole Kmet bumped Weishar down to third on the depth chart among Notre Dame’s tight ends, but in Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system with a dependence on multiple tight end sets, Weishar should still be considered part of the two-deep.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American, rivals.com rated Weishar as the No. 7 tight end in his class. He chose Notre Dame over offers from Michigan, Ohio State and Oklahoma, among others.

CAREER TO DATE
Weishar’s career has been spent backing up future NFL tight ends, including fourth-round pick Durham Smythe. That has limited his statistical impact to date, highlighted by his nine catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns last season, including an impressive display of strong hands in the end zone in the season opener against Temple.

2014: Preserved a year of eligibility.
2015: 12 games; three catches for 19 yards.
2016: 12 games; three catches for 47 yards.
2017: 13 games; nine catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns.

QUOTE(S)
Known commodities are not discussed much in the spring. Tracing back to September, Irish head coach Brian Kelly frequently praised Weishar’s hands and tenacity.

“He can catch the damn football,” Kelly said following the victory over Temple. “Doesn’t matter where you throw it. … He created that on his own, and he’s just had so much confidence in the way he’s been playing and it’s carried over.”

Weishar’s skillset extends beyond his hands and to his willingness to engage as a blocker. In some respects, that combination makes him the ideal red-zone tight end.

“He will stick his nose in there,” Kelly said in late September. “… He’s got some grit and toughness to him. We all know he can catch the football, but it’s hard to take him off the field because he’ll throw his body in there and he’ll do whatever is necessary to get the job done.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“[Equanimeous] St. Brown’s breakout campaign last year, [Miles] Boykin’s strong spring showing, sophomore receiver Chase Claypool’s intriguing potential and [Alizé] Mack’s return all diminish Weishar’s role in the Irish offense.

“If Mack were to flash the inconsistency or immaturity that cost him the 2016 season, suddenly Weishar would be back in the conversation. Offensive coordinator Chip Long has a history of using two tight ends. That makes the third spot on the tight end depth chart less the figurative imprisonment sentence it usually would be. Provided Smythe and Mack both stay healthy and in good graces, though, Weishar’s path to significant playing time in 2017 may have closed.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Notre Dame may hope Weishar hardly impacts the season. That would mean both Mack and Kmet play well enough to be featured throughout three months. Considering the former’s track record of inconsistency and immaturity and the latter’s résumé consisting solely of a solid spring, the odds of both Mack and Kmet playing to their potentials are slim.

It is more likely Weishar’s experience and veteran savvy is needed by midseason, if not sooner. His red-zone presence alone should lead to him equaling last year’s meager stats.

If the former situation unfolds, Weishar will assuredly deserve some of the credit even as his role is reduced. His mentorship may be what anchors the tight end meetings and development as a whole.

DOWN THE ROAD
Weishar will not start against Michigan, so if he does not get drafted he will not jeopardize the lengthy streak of starting Irish tight ends hearing their name called by an NFL front office. That is not to say Weishar has no chance at getting drafted. After all, former Irish tight end Ben Koyack was drafted in the seventh round, and at this point in his career, he had totaled only 14 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns, not all that much more than Weishar’s 15 receptions for 118 yards and two scores to date.

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
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver, junior

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 83 Chase Claypool, receiver

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 3/8, 229 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Junior with two seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Claypool’s positioning on the depth chart hinges on how he compares to sophomore Michael Young. One of the two will be the second option among the receivers, earning the starting duties at the field receiver position, with the other lining up in the slot and splitting time with the tight ends. If focusing solely on three-receiver sets, Claypool may yet line up at slot, providing a physical option on the interior while Young threatens the top of the secondary.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, the intriguing Canadian chose the Irish over offers from Michigan, Oregon and Arizona, among others. Do not think Claypool’s development has been slowed by crossing the border. He insists the only difference in the game in arriving at Notre Dame was the speed on the field, a typical challenge for anyone coming from high school, no matter the country.

CAREER TO DATE
Claypool’s initial impact may have come on special teams, making 11 tackles in 12 games as a freshman, but he broke through as a receiver in 2017, especially against Wake Forest when he caught nine passes for 180 yards and a touchdown. He started eight games and finished the season second on the team in both catches and receiving yards, trailing Equanimeous St. Brown in each category.

Claypool missed the Citrus Bowl against LSU with a shoulder injury, but was ready for full contact in spring practice by early April.

2016: 12 games, five catches for 81 yards.
2017: 12 games, 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns.
2018 Blue-Gold Game: Six catches for 151 yards and two scores.

QUOTE(S)
Irish head coach Brian Kelly suggested in early April he expects Claypool to wind up in the field position. His physical abilities certainly would make him a threat along the sideline.

“We think that’s where he can best impact what we want to do,” Kelly said. “Chase is a young man that the attention to detail, the focus, he’s got to bring traits every day. He’s a great-looking kid (physically). He can make plays. We just have to keep working the process with him.

“If he just respects the process and sticks with it, he’s going to be a really good player.”

On one hand that process takes time. On the other, it is expedited when a player buys in entirely, something Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long was still waiting for from Claypool this spring.

“We’re still counting on him to grow,” Long said April 12. “Obviously, he is a great talent. … The moment he decides that, he’s going to be a big-time player. The shoulder held him back a little bit, so he’s kind of getting into the flow of things.

“When he decides he wants to be great, he’s going to be great.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Long’s predilection to larger receivers fits in with his tendencies to utilize two tight ends. In some alternate universe, Long has not arrived at Notre Dame and Claypool’s career could have an entirely different direction.

“Sending Claypool’s frame on quick routes across the middle should provide quarterback Brandon Wimbush an especially-dynamic safety valve of sorts. Typically the last read is a running back in the flat or a tight end on a delayed release. That is not to say Claypool will be the last read — he won’t be. It is to say envisioning him running a five-yard slant from the slot position is to foresee a can’t-miss target only a few yards away from the quarterback.

“The slot obviously does other things, and Claypool will do them. The point here is to illustrate some of why Long may want to try such height and length at a position usually reserved for shifty converted running backs.

“This season’s ceiling for Claypool may be about 30 catches and a couple scores.”

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

2018 OUTLOOK
Where does one collect his winnings for nailing the projection of Claypool’s 2017? Oh, sports gambling was not legal yet? Too bad.

Looking forward, it may hardly matter if Claypool or Young ends up the No. 2 receiver. Their opportunities opposite senior Miles Boykin may come down to situation and matchup. If a third-and-goal against USC with 6-foot-2 safety Marvell Tell providing man coverage now that cornerback Jack Jones has been ruled out for the season (academics), then perhaps simply throwing a jump ball to Claypool may be the best option.

Expecting a player to replicate the previous season’s numbers does not usually sound like progress. When suggesting Claypool again end up with 30 catches for a few hundred yards and a couple touchdowns, the more demanding hope would be he avoid Saturday afternoons with none or only one reception, as happened four times in 2017. Some of last year’s ups-and-downs may be attributed to the inconsistent quarterback play, but Claypool was equally unreliable. Overcoming that would mean Kelly’s and Long’s spring-long messages were heard and tended to.

DOWN THE ROAD
Claypool and Boykin are on the same timeline in terms of eligibility, but Claypool has put up more career stats than the senior, yet Boykin’s Citrus Bowl heroics and solid spring performance have established him as the top receiver heading into 2018. Claypool (and Young) will have a chance to change that. Whichever receiver proves the steadiest in September will presumably become the primary target through the rest of the fall.

Claypool has the talent to do that. After his acknowledgements of that ceiling — and the emotions that have kept him from it, following the Blue-Gold Game on April 21 — perhaps he can finally capitalize on that potential in his final year of eligibility in 2019. In that instance, Claypool undoubtedly has the physical gifts to entice NFL front offices.

RELATED READING: Claypool’s emotions could set the ceiling on Notre Dame’s receivers

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
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore