Opponent preview: Michigan State Spartans

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This is the third of many opponent previews, leading us into the opening week of the season. Suggestions and comments are welcome. For more, check out previews for Purdue and Michigan.

The Overview:

It was a season of “what could’ve been” for the Spartans. Mark Dantonio, who Brian Kelly replaced at Cincinnati three seasons ago, enters his fourth year coaching the Spartans. After two promising seasons under Dantonio, the Spartans reverted into the inconsistent squad that existed under former coach John L. Smith, losing five games by single digits including heart-breakers to Central Michigan, Notre Dame (more on this in a second), and Iowa. While Dantonio was brought into East Lansing to instill his trademark defense and toughness, it was the defense that let the Spartans down, giving up over 26 points a game and ranking an abysmal 114th in passing. The result was a mediocre 6-7 season, ending with a 41-31 loss to Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl.

Last time against the Irish:

For the second week in a row, it looked as if the Irish were going to fall in the final seconds to a rival from Michigan. But Kirk Cousins overthrew Larry Caper who was all alone in the end zone with just over a minute left, and the next play Kyle McCarthy stepped in front of Cousins’ throw on the Irish four yard-line, allowing Notre Dame to escape with a home win against Michigan State for the first time since 1993.

Earlier in the second quarter, the Irish suffered two injuries that would help define their season. When a jailbreak sack came up the middle, Jimmy Clausen tried to protect himself from a big hit, but instead injured his foot. While he remained in the game, the injury hobbled him for the remainder of the season, and eventually necessitated surgery during the winter. Later that quarter, Clausen threw a fade route to the right corner of the end zone where Michael Floyd skied above a Spartan defensive back and looked to come down with his two feet in bounds for a touchdown. The officials disagreed, and worse for the Irish was the loss of their star receiver to a broken clavicle, suffered when he hit the ground. Clausen returned to the game, Floyd did not and the woeful Irish defense again struggled, getting torched for 354 yards passing and giving up 459 total yards. The Irish were also sloppy — broken plays, falling prey to an onside kick, and committing 11 penalties (including back-to-back personal foul calls), but it wasn’t enough to stop the cardiac kids, who somehow held on for the win in dramatic fashion.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins had this to say after the game: “I need to throw the ball away or take a sack, do anything to throw the ball away.”

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 opponents, I rank the Spartans as the fifth most difficult on the schedule. While there are still question marks in the secondary, Michigan State has seemed to have been a thorn in Notre Dame’s side, with the Irish splitting the last eight contests, with all four of their wins being decided by a touchdown or less. Winning a night game in East Lansing is never an easy task.

Bonus Reverse Degree of Difficulty:

Michigan State fansite The Only Colors ranks the Irish the fourth-hardest game on the Spartan’s schedule, with Wisconsin, Iowa, and Penn State seemingly tougher opponents. Here’s the crux of the issue for them:

“Essentially, your opinion on ND’s chances this season must rest on your opinion of Brian Kelly. I think he’s excellent, and ND will be significantly improved.”

The Match-up:

Kirk Cousins returns to pilot an offense that only lost Blair White from an offense that averaged just a touch under 30 points a game. Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham, who combined for 13 catches, 195 yards and two touchdowns against the Irish last year will once again challenge the Irish secondary. The question on offense is whether or not the Spartans can replace three starting offensive linemen.

On defense, Michigan returns All-American linebacker and Big Ten defensive player of the year Greg Jones, the Spartans leader in just about every defensive category, who was third in the country in tackles. Linebacker Eric Gordon is no slouch either, returning after 92 tackles and a starting streak of 27 games. The defensive line has a steady anchor in sophomore Jerel Worthy, but behind him they are unproven. The secondary needs big years out of underachieving Chris L. Rucker and Johnny Adams, who missed last season for disciplinary personal and medical reasons.

How the Irish will win:

If the Irish want to neutralize Greg Jones and pick on a thin secondary, they’ll have the weapons available to do so. If they can protect the quarterback, Notre Dame can spread teams out, using four and five wide receiver sets, running mostly one and no-back formations to give themselves as good a match-up as possible with the questionable Spartan defense. (Theo Riddick will be huge.) Last year, the Irish ran the ball almost to prove a point, content to eat clock and unsuccessfully protect the defense. We already know Brian Kelly won’t do that. The defense will still need to avoid giving up the big play, as the Spartans threw every trick in the book at the Irish, including a successful onside kick recovery. While it’ll be more than unruly in Spartan Stadium that night, a quick start by the offense could have fans sitting on their hands.

How the Irish will lose:

There might not be a more hostile environment for the Irish this season than this Saturday night, and it’ll be the first trip away from the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium for the Irish and starting quarterback Dayne Crist. This game comes down to handling the pressure of an away game, and if Crist and the offense stumble out of the gates it could be tough sledding for the Irish. Look out for big games from Jones, the proven commodity and true freshman William Gholston, the unproven one. On defense, the Irish still need to figure out how to stop a Spartans offense that racked up gigantic yardage throwing the ball while platooning their quarterbacks. With back-up Keith Nichol now playing wide receiver, one trick play may be all the Spartans need to capitalize on the Irish defense, that will surely be tested in the air.

Gut feeling:

If you’re a Notre Dame fan, your gut should never feel good against the Spartans. That said, if this team is as good as many believe they can be, there’s no reason they shouldn’t walk out of East Lansing with an undefeated record. Consider me Missouri: I’m in a “Show Me” state.
 

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.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-6, 245 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Early-enrolled freshman with four years of eligibility remaining, including the 2018 season.
Depth chart: One could argue Takacs is the second option as an H-back blocker behind sophomore Brock Wright, but the arrival of Auburn transfer fullback Keenan Sweeney could diminish the immediate need for Takacs in that regard.
Recruiting: A rivals.com four-star recruit and No. 15 tight end in the class, the U.S. Army All-American chose Notre Dame over Georgia, Wisconsin and homestate Florida, also holding offers from much of the southeast, including Florida State, Tennessee and Auburn.

QUOTE(S)
A meniscus tear before spring practice started cut short Takacs’ early impressions. Thus, the only available insights into Takacs trace back to National Signing Day proceedings.

“George is already here doing a great job,” Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long said on Feb. 7. “… The good thing I got to see this year with George, though, is he was split out wide and did a lot of good things in the passing game.”

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN TAKACS’ NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
“The target Takacs presents to his quarterback makes him an intriguing possibility all on its own. With reach to match his 6-foot-6 frame, Takacs can get to nearly any ball in his vicinity, making up for a lack of top-end speed.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Takacs will likely be healthy before the fall, if not already. He underwent surgery for the bucket tear in his cartilage, which typically reduces recovery time from the injury. Nonetheless, the step back limited the positive effects of Takacs’ early enrollment.

The most logical result of that is Takacs spends the season on the sidelines, getting healthy and getting up to college fitness levels.

DOWN THE ROAD
Long’s praise of Takacs’ ability in the passing game indicates the tight end may be more of a complete player than he was originally recruited to be. On the surface, Takacs looks to be the successor to Wright as an attached tight end, strengthening the Notre Dame running game.

If he can do both that and catch passes, even if only short routes in the flat or on bootlegs, Takacs will fit right into Long’s multiple tight end schemes. Those formations make it so every tight end on the Irish roster matters. Three rotate in frequently, making the fourth tight end actually within the two-deep depth chart. When fifth-year Nic Weishar runs out of eligibility and senior Alizé Mack ponders the NFL, Takacs will be that fourth tight end, at the absolute least, with classmate Tommy Tremble the third tight end, especially if he sees action this year while Takacs reaches full health.

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

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ¾, 244 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Senior with two seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018, though Notre Dame is sometimes stingy in extending fifth-year offers to players who missed a season due to academic issues.
Depth chart: Mack will start as the detached tight end with sophomore Cole Kmet now another vertical threat at the position.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American, Mack originally committed to UCLA before opting for Notre Dame.

CAREER TO DATE
One would be generous to describe Mack’s career as “up-and-down.” Aside from a 45-yard reception at Temple as a freshman in 2015, Mack’s actual play has hardly gotten off the ground, partly due to an academic suspension that cost him his sophomore season.

Last year, Mack made only 19 catches for 166 yards and one touchdown in 10 games, starting six of them. More notable than the plays he did make, Mack missed three games entirely, all with concerning reason. A concussion kept Mack sidelined against Wake Forest. He then did not line up for any snaps in the season finale at Stanford, though he was there and, as far as is known, healthy. Less ambiguously, Mack was suspended for an “internal issue” before the Citrus Bowl.

That distinction ruled out another academic concern, but the disciplinary matter still stands out as another hiccup for Mack’s progression.

2015: 13 games, five starts, 13 receptions for 190 yards.
2017: 10 games, six starts, 19 receptions for 166 yards and one touchdown.

QUOTE(S)
Despite his repeated drops and rare instances of separation from coverage in 2017, Mack’s physical gifts have hardly been questioned. His maturity, consistency and eligibility, however, have often been disputed and subsequently defended.

“As it relates to Alizé Mack, a lot of things were areas that he had to clean up off the field, which he has,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said at the start of spring practice. “He has not been on any lists. I’m really proud of him and what he’s done. He knows he’s got to go prove it now. He’s got to be consistent as a ball catcher. He’s got to be great in-line as well as detached.

“He’s got some good players around him that he’s got to go and beat out because he’s coming off a suspension. He’s very humble. Like I said, he’s done all the little things the right way for us off the field. His attention to detail has been great. Good for him. Now he’s got to go put that together.”

As spring progressed, Kelly’s assessment of Mack sounded quite similar. Mack had performed well and slowly regained at least some of the coaching staff’s trust.

“He’s been more consistent. … From a traits standpoint, he lost the opportunity to play in the bowl game and all of that was based upon understanding how important it is to do all the things the right way all the time.

“I’m happy for him that he’s showing more consistency when he does. The jury is still out there. He still has a ways to go.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“More than [former Notre Dame receiver Equanimeous] St. Brown receiving an appropriately high number of targets, the biggest hurdle between Mack and impressive statistics will indeed be his blocking and overall attitude. The Irish have other options at tight end to contribute to [offensive coordinator Chip] Long’s preference for two tight ends. If Mack does not earn the playing time in all aspects of the game, he will not receive it.

“… The excitement around Mack this spring may have exceeded realistic expectations. In that regard, Mack is set up for perceived failure in 2017. If he matched the above theoretical stat line [of 55 catches for 750 yards and four touchdowns], some would lament the fact that he scored only four times.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Mack’s off-field missteps color any forward-looking projections, but his lack of production when on the field should minimize any expectations just as much. Notre Dame could have desperately used his play-making abilities throughout 2017, especially considering the inconsistency offered at quarterback.

Instead, Mack offered little but sporadic glimpses of what he could be.

The senior could be a game-changing utility. His four catches for 37 yards in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21 would be an excellent baseline. When Irish senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush found Mack for 15 yards on the very first play from scrimmage, it showed a devotion to finding that baseline by both Wimbush and the coaching staff. Wimbush targeted his classmate an additional three times in the exhibition, all completed.

Looking for that level of a floor moving forward may be the most practical path. Extending those stats across a full season, Mack would make 52 catches for 451 yards.

What would be most notable about such a season? Mack would appear in all 13 games, just as he did his freshman season. Furthermore, two of his four spring exhibition catches were for first downs. Accounting for 26 first downs in a season would be about 10 percent of the times the offense moves the chains via any method.

DOWN THE ROAD
Mack’s physical abilities alone will make the NFL consider him, be it after this season or following 2019. Whether or not he returns for a fifth year is a different question altogether. If Kmet plays as well in 2018 as this spring’s praise forecasts, then the combination of him and Mack putting defenses in compromising positions for two full seasons would be the equivalent of Long’s ideal form of an offense.

Kmet’s emergence would also diminish the need for Mack to return, along with classmate Brock Wright and two freshmen tight ends in George Takacs and Tommy Tremble.

Mack’s past academic issues will not entirely preclude the offer of a fifth year, but they further complicate the conversation.

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