Pregame Twelve Pack: A Trojan finale

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We’re already here. The regular season finale is upon us as the Irish prepare to face off with their nemesis, the USC Trojans. As always, here are twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to play USC at the Coliseum in primetime.

1. After two seasons on the shelf, Michael Floyd makes his debut against the Trojans.

Many Irish fans are worried that junior wide receiver Mike Floyd’s career will end after just three seasons, meaning this could be the only time Floyd hits the field against the rival Trojans. The previous two seasons Floyd missed the game, a knee injury holding him out of the 2008 game and a broken collarbone keeping Mike on the sideline last season.

While Floyd says he hasn’t made any decisions on next season, it’s clear this game means something to him.

“I’m really excited,” Floyd said. “My first time playing SC. This is one of the reasons you go to Notre Dame. It’s kind of like starting a whole new tradition. New coaches and stuff like that. Kind of start our own history. We’re all excited. It’s a big rivalry, SC-Notre Dame and we’re up for it.”

If there’s ever a time for Floyd to make a statement in the biggest rivalry game of the season for the Irish, this is it.

2. This is not the Trojan defense of old.

Maybe the best thing on Lane Kiffin’s coaching resume is his father Monte, who followed Kiffin from Tennessee to USC after spending the majority of his career in the NFL as one of the best defensive minds in all of football.

Both the elder Kiffin and defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron run a defense that’s astounding full of star power, with nearly every player in their two-deep having a four-star rating, and those that don’t are almost as likely to have five stars than three.

But the defense is a shell of the ones put together under former coach Pete Carroll, and the Trojans rank an astoundingly mediocre 92nd in total defense in the country. (92nd. Right between Wyoming and Idaho. The Irish rank 55th.)

There are only six teams in the country doing a worse job stopping the pass than USC, most likely a testament to the two healthy scholarship cornerbacks that the Trojans have at their disposal. The Trojan run defense is middle of the road, so there’s very good reason to believe that Notre Dame should be able to move the ball, even with Tommy Rees playing in hostile territory for the first time in his career.

3. Another plus for the Irish? It’s looking less and less likely that Matt Barkley will play.

On Wednesday, Lane Kiffin went on the Dan Patrick show and reported that starting quarterback Matt Barkley has been held out of practice this week with a high ankle sprain, an injury suffered last week that would make playing on Saturday incredibly unlikely.

“Matt didn’t practice yesterday,” Kiffin said. “Mitch Mustain took all the snaps yesterday. We have great confidence in Mitch.”

The news from Wednesday’s practice was even more predictable, with Kiffin calling Mustain’s work in practice “Phenomenal. the best we’ve seen him since he’s been here.”

Meanwhile Barkley still hasn’t practiced, but no longer is in a walking boot.

“It’s improving every day, which is great,” Barkley said. “It’s still a day-to-day thing. I’m definitely above 50 percent.”

Barkley was one of many quarterbacks to have a career day against the Irish last season, but he’s struggled the past few weeks after getting out of the gate quickly. The Irish may get a break if he’s unable to go on Saturday night.

4. That said, Mitch Mustain is no slouch either.

Before there was hotshot, uber-recruit Matt Barkley, there was hotshot, uber-recruit Mitch Mustain, who signed with Arkansas after then head coach Houston Nutt made the nearly unprecedented move of hiring Mustain’s high school coach Gus Malzahn as his offensive coordinator. While Malzahn has become a star at the collegiate ranks, Mustain has fallen flat.

The consensus high school National Player of the Year took the reins of the Arkansas offense immediately, leading the Hogs to a freshman record eight straight wins before losing playing time before the SEC Championship game.

From there, Mustain’s relationship with Nutt and Arkansas soured in bizarre fashion, including Mustain’s family making an open records request for Nutt’s cell phone records that revealed a personal relationship between the head coach and a local female news reporter. With bridges burned in his home state, Mustain transferred to USC, where he has yet to win the starting job.

Now Mustain’s final two games as a Trojan might be two of the biggest starts of the season. And the senior quarterback is ready.

“There was always a chance it would never happen, but I’ve always looked forward to the chance, however slim it may be,” Mustain said this week. “It’s what I’ve been practicing for, and it’s why I stuck around this year. I’m ready to go.”

Mustain always has Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel to look at for inspiration, who spent his career at USC as a backup to Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart before being plucked out of obscurity by the Patriots and signing a monster contract with Kansas City.

5. Time to rise to the occasion, Tommy Rees.

If Notre Dame wants to end their losing streak against the Trojans, it’ll happen because Tommy Rees doesn’t get swept up in the moment.

A lot has been made about Rees’ entrance into college football — games at Notre Dame Stadium, Yankee Stadium and now the Coliseum. But this will be the first time Rees faces anything resembling a hostile crowd, and the freshman will need to keep his composure early for the Irish to have a chance. Kelly’s comments before the Army game likely still apply to Rees’ first true road start.

“We’ll try to give him some more opportunities within what I believe are is strengths,” Kelly said then. “He distributes very well, his ball placement, it’s all now about what he sees and how he reacts.”

Rees spent some of his youth in California, where his father spent fourteen years working in the football department for UCLA and his brother Danny Rees is a senior holder for the Bruins, making Tommy familiar with the crosstown Trojans. While he won’t face a linebacking corp with guys like Clay Matthews, Brian Cushing, and Rey Maualuga, he will face the fastest, most talented unit he’s seen, so keeping turnovers down will be imperative.

6. Can the Irish defense stop USC’s passing game?

At the beginning of the year, would anyone have thought the Irish would’ve given up just one less passing touchdown than Alabama? The Irish rank 8th in the country in limiting passing touchdowns with only nine conceded, only two behind the national leaders and ahead of teams like TCU and Nebraska.

The improvement the passing defense has shown is a testament to the improvement of the defensive backs under secondary coach Chuck Martin and the ability for the Irish to get after the passer better, ranking 29th in the country with 26 sacks, already a six sack improvement over last year’s unit that finished with just 20.

It’s been 11 consecutive quarters for the Irish defense without giving up a touchdown, the longest streak since 1981, and done against three teams that average about five touchdowns a game. The Irish have to come into Saturday’s game feeling very good about their defensive chances.

7. The star-crossed path of Dillon Baxter brings him back to the gridiron on Saturday.

Highly touted running back Dillon Baxter became a YouTube sensation for some fancy running during spring drills last year. Since then, he’s been mostly a headache for Southern Cal.

“It’s been an up-and-down season with him in general,” Lane Kiffin said diplomatically this week.

Baxter was suspended for the season opening game against Hawaii for what was largely reported as a on-campus incident that involved marijuana. He’s suffered injuries that have hurt his ability to push for playing time, and has gotten over 10 carries in a game just twice, gaining 75 yards on 14 carries against lowly Washington State in his best game as a Trojan. Almost surprisingly, Baxter’s longest play from scrimmage has been 17 yards, with a run against Virginia in his first collegiate game matched by a reception against Minnesota the week after.

Baxter sat out last week’s game after he reportedly received an improper benefit from a NFL certified agent — a golf cart ride from a USC student that’s started his own agency.

“I’m sure a lot of people look at this one as something that could happen to anybody and that he wasn’t necessarily in the wrong,” Kiffin said. “But it doesn’t matter. He’s already put himself in position where there isn’t room for any poor judgment.”

Regardless of the headaches, Baxter is a supremely talented player, and Irish fans hope the freshman’s coming out party is delayed another week.

8. Familiar faces roam both sidelines.

A quick look at both rosters reveals just how often the Trojans and the Irish compete for the same recruiting targets. USC is still smarting that they lost out on linebacker Manti Te’o, who just about everybody had pegged as going to USC. But for every Irish recruiting victory, there are Notre Dame targets dressed in Cardinal and Gold.

Starting running back Marc Tyler seemed a near lock for Notre Dame when his high school best friend Jimmy Clausen committed to the Irish with Tyler in attendance. Star freshman Robert Woods had an offer from the Irish before choosing the Trojans, and he’s become one of USC’s best offensive weapons. Names like Kyle Prater, Blake Ayles, Brice Butler (more on him later), Butch Lewis, Malcolm Smith, Chris Galippo, and Jawanza Starling all were targeted by the former Irish coaching staff.

The Irish pulled guys like Dayne Crist, Cierre Wood, and Ethan Johnson out from under the noses of the USC coaching staff so it isn’t exactly one-sided. Look for guys like Wood to play well, with plenty of motivation to show family and friends the progress they’ve made.

9. Former NBC commentator Pat Haden is now openly rooting against Notre Dame.

There wasn’t a week that went by last season where a reader didn’t openly accuse former NBC commentator and former USC quarterback Pat Haden of rooting against Notre Dame from the broadcast booth. While the accusation was always baseless, for the first time in a long while, Haden can openly root against the Irish this Saturday, when his alma mater takes on the Irish, and Haden is the new face of the Trojan athletic department.

Brought in to create a “culture of compliance” after former athletic director Mike Garrett openly scoffed at NCAA regulations, Haden stepped away from his announcing gig and his successful finance career to become athletic director at Southern Cal.

As the Dillon Baxter story shows, every week is a new challenge for the former Rhodes Scholar and first time university administrator. And while Trojan fans think the new emphasis on compliance is overkill, Haden’s take the drastic measures necessary to turn around an athletic department that had fallen far behind in its organizational structure.

“Where we’re at right now, getting so far ahead of things is good,” Haden said. “Although [recent issues have been] extremely minor, you’re finding them before they become major.”

There’s a large facet of Trojan fans that still have their head buried in the sand about the past regimes indiscretions, but there’s no better man than Haden to restore accountability in the athletic department.

10. Roby Toma is proving most of us wrong.

Of all the receivers you’d think quarterback Tommy Rees would develop a rapport with, you’d hardly expect it to be waterbug Roby Toma. But that was Toma making four big catches for 63 yards against Army, picking up first downs on three of them as he was targeted more often than any other Irish receiver on Saturday.

Messageboard legend Hobbs pointed out last week just how impressive Toma has been, especially when you compare him to one of the Irish’s top recruiting targets of the same class, Trojan Brice Butler, a four-star recruit from Georgia that had his pick of schools.

Butler’s only contributed nine catches this season for 112 yards, with a season high of three catches and 49 yards against Arizona State two weeks ago. After not seeing the field in the first six games, Toma has 12 catches for 172 yards, averaging almost 15 yards a catch.

Theo Riddick and TJ Jones are both likely back on Saturday for the Irish, but expect Toma to continue to play a key role in the Irish offense.

11. David Ruffer is kind of a big deal.

I’ve been out front driving the David Ruffer bandwagon and started the official unofficial David Ruffer for the Groza Award campaign a few weeks ago, but it looks like he won’t need our PR anymore.

Ruffer’s great week continued when just days after being named one of the three finalists for the Groza, Ruffer was named a first-team ESPN Academic All-American, making him the 31st Irish football player to be named an Academic All American.

Ruffer carries a 3.9 GPA in Economics, but more importantly for the football team carries a consecutive streak of 20 field goals into the Coliseum, making two kicks at Yankee Stadium from 47 and 39 yards. Is the streak getting to him?

“It is what it is,” Ruffer said. “As long as it’s on me, people are going to ask questions. I try not to pay attention to it.”

Ruffer’s streak started last year against Pitt when Nick Tausch couldn’t answer the bell after a leg injury. If it lasts through this weekend, it’ll be a very good thing for the Irish.

12. Michael Floyd wanted to be a… Trojan?

It’s hard to imagine it, but Michael Floyd tried his best to get the attention of the USC coaching staff when he was a high school star at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul.

“He wrote us a letter that SC was his dream school and this was where he always wanted to play at the time,” Kiffin said. “He was a dominant player then and still is.”

Kiffin may be practicing a little revisionist history this week, as Floyd’s letters and game tape went largely unnoticed by the coaching staff, who wanted Floyd to camp in Southern California to earn a scholarship offer.

Luckily for Irish fans, Floyd never made the trip to south-central Los Angeles and now Floyd has a chance to feast on a Trojan secondary that has talent, but is incredibly thin.

Floyd celebrates his 21st birthday today and no doubt would consider a victory Saturday night as icing on the birthday cake. Happy birthday wishes to MMF.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ½, 230 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Junior with two seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: While Okwara remains behind classmate Daelin Hayes on the depth chart at the drop end, he is more of a complement than a backup.
Recruiting: A rivals.com three-star prospect, Okwara chose Notre Dame over offers from Clemson, Georgia and his homestate North Carolina. Rivals listed Okwara as the No. 18 defensive end in the class of 2016 and the No. 17 recruit in North Carolina. His time with the Irish missed overlapping with older brother Romeo by a few months but having that connection certainly aided the wooing.

CAREER TO DATE
Just like his brother, Julian Okwara saw action in his freshman season due to a Notre Dame roster short on defensive playmakers. He had a bigger role last year, similar to the one he should have this season.

2016: 11 games; four tackles.
2017: 12 games; 17 tackles with 4.5 for loss including 2.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one interception, an athletic play against North Carolina in which he batted up a pass and caught it mid-air in the same stride. He did not play against triple-option dependent Navy. (See the 0:24 mark in the below video.)

QUOTE(S)
The only real mentions of Okwara this spring came in discussions of his weight, down from an August measurement of 235 pounds.

“He fluctuates,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “You might find the difference between 10 pounds for these athletes is post-workout to a good weekend and a Monday weigh-in.

“… It’s a challenge for [Okwara]. He knows he has to put on more weight. One of the things is, he’s a bit of a unique player. He’s as strong as anyone we have on the team. We know about his ability to bend and come off the edge. He knows he can’t play at 230 pounds. He needs to be bigger and he’s working at it.”

Adding and maintaining some weight would help Okwara survive the natural attrition of fitness in the season and perhaps put together a stronger November.

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Hayes was the talk of spring practice, and deservedly so. The flipside of that hype is it diminished Okwara’s likelihood of impact this season. That said, Hayes will not man the edge for every snap. Keeping fresh pass-rushers is a luxury Notre Dame can enjoy thanks to the triumvirate of sophomore rush ends — a quartet when including Khalid Kareem on the other side of the line — and Okwara is a vital piece of that.

“Knowing he will have those opportunities, Okwara will also know if he makes the most of them, more will be afforded to him. He may not surpass Hayes this year in snaps or production, but providing a tangible complement would mean the Irish pass rush really has improved immensely, something perhaps most notable if it results in exceeding last year’s disappointing total of 14 sacks.”

2018 OUTLOOK
It will be more of the same from and for Okwara. Given another year of development and work in Matt Balis’ strength and conditioning program, that may be even more of more of the same from Okwara.

There were points in 2017 when former Irish end Andrew Trumbetti would flip to the rush end spot from his usual role at strong-side, cutting into some of Okwara’s opportunities. Theoretically, that should set up Okwara for a few more snaps this season. Combine that with his continued development, and building on last year’s numbers makes complete sense.

Projecting a defensive lineman’s stats is a difficult gambit, considering how much they depend on the unit as a whole, and doing so for a complementary piece is that much more difficult, but there is no reason not to fully expect Okwara to end up with at least 25 tackles and four or five sacks, although the turnovers may not be replicated if the ball does not bounce just right. If Okwara shines in pass-rush situations, that handful of sacks could become twofold, but anticipating such would just be greedy.

DOWN THE ROAD
Okwara and Hayes should continue to progress in-step as a threatening duo, relieving each other to keep their legs fresh, into 2019. Splitting reps like that may reduce their personal profiles, but it will best behoove the Irish defense.

Okwara undoubtedly holds NFL aspirations, buoyed by his brother’s success. In many respects, Romeo playing well in 2018 and 2019 would raise Julian’s draft profile, with front offices knowing Julian had three more years of Stateside development than Romeo did.

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
No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman
No. 79 (theoretically) Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 77 (theoretically) Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 73 (theoretically) Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 (theoretically) John Dirksen, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically) Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 55 Jonathan Bonner, defensive tackle, fifth-year senior
No. 54 John Shannon, long snapper, junior
No. 53 Khalid Kareem, defensive end, junior
No. 53 Sam Mustipher, center and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 52 Bo Bauer, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 48 (theoretically) Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end, sophomore
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker, junior
No. 44 Jamir Jones, defensive end, junior
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 44 Jamir Jones, linebacker-turned-defensive end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-3 1/8, 242 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Junior with two seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Jones finally made the long-hinted-at move to defensive end this spring, now behind classmates Khalid Kareem and Ade Ogundeji at strong-side end.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star recruit, Jones chose Notre Dame over offers from Boston College, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. The East Coast emphasis makes sense when remembering Jones comes from upstate New York, not exactly the most-fertile football recruiting ground. Rivals.com rated him as the No. 43 outside linebacker in the class of 2016 and the No. 2 prospect in New York.

CAREER TO DATE
Mired deep down the linebacker depth chart the last two seasons, Jones’ greatest impacts came on special teams.

2016: 10 games; eight tackles.
2017: 12 games; four tackles.

QUOTE(S)
Irish head coach Brian Kelly had been publicly anticipating Jones’ move to the defensive line since last year’s spring practices, so when he slipped in an acknowledgement of it actually happening at the start of this year’s spring practices, it hardly warranted a follow-up question or any elaboration.

“We’ve decided to move Jamir out to the drop position,” Kelly said. “We feel like he’ll be best suited at the end position.”

By the end of spring practice, Jones had moved to the strong-side position, perhaps partly to provide depth after the outgoing transfer of fifth-year Jay Hayes.

“It’s probably, from top to bottom, our most steady position group right now,” Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea said in mid-April of the defensive line as a whole. “They have good depth, experienced depth. A guy like Jamir Jones has stepped in and solidified that. He’s done a great job.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“It is tough to project more than special teams action for Jones this season. If injuries severely limited Notre Dame’s veteran linebackers … then perhaps Jones would be needed, but even that scenario would include competition from incoming freshmen David Adams and Drew White, both more traditional linebackers than Jones.

“If his transition to the defensive line were to be expedited this fall, there is already a quartet of sophomores fighting for playing time alongside senior defensive ends Jay Hayes and Andrew Trumbetti.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Hayes’ departure makes Jones’ position move suddenly more worthwhile. His experience at linebacker should have him prepared to set the edge against the run, a skill both Kareem and Ogundeji still need to further develop. It may not be enough to make Jones a frequent contributor, but he could find a role in specific situations.

DOWN THE ROAD
Kareem has grown into a player from whom much is expected. That will limit the opportunities Jones sees. To compound that concern, Ogundeji was discussed as part of the playing time crunch which led, in part, to Hayes’ transfer — Jones was not.

The best hope for Jones is to follow a similar trajectory as his older brother, Jarron, former Irish defensive tackle and a recent signee by the New York Giants as an offensive tackle (a one-year, $480,000 non-guaranteed contract). Jarron took a few years to develop into the troublesome inside defensive presence he flashed as. Jamir lacks his older brother’s length, but his underlying athleticism is reminiscent of Jarron’s.

This space makes a habit of advocating for defensive line depth and rotations. If Jamir can develop over the next three-to-15 months and aid those causes for one or two years, that would become a veritable need solidly filled.

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
No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman
No. 79 (theoretically) Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 77 (theoretically) Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 73 (theoretically) Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 (theoretically) John Dirksen, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically) Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 55 Jonathan Bonner, defensive tackle, fifth-year senior
No. 54 John Shannon, long snapper, junior
No. 53 Khalid Kareem, defensive end, junior
No. 53 Sam Mustipher, center and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 52 Bo Bauer, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 48 (theoretically) Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end, sophomore
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker, junior
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker

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Listed Measurements: 5-foot-11 ½, 222 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Junior with three seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Jones remains the presumptive backup to senior linebacker Te’von Coney, though Jones has a couple freshmen ton contend with in early enrollees Bo Bauer and Jack Lamb.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star recruit, Jones chose Notre Dame over offers from Michigan, Stanford, LSU and Florida, as well as many others. Rivals.com rated him the No. 19 inside linebacker in the class of 2016 and the No. 66 prospect in Florida.

CAREER TO DATE
Jones preserved a year of eligibility as a freshman before becoming the fourth man in a three-man rotation at inside linebacker last year. While Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini and Coney split time, Jones got mop-up duty.

2017: 13 games; 10 tackles with one for loss against USC and one broken-up pass.

QUOTE(S)
Yes, Jones is an unknown, to put it gently. No, he does not have much of a track record of any kind. That made this spring a chance to prove his potential and validate the Irish coaching staff’s view of him.

“We have to leave this spring knowing [Jones] can be our No. 2 there,” head coach Brian Kelly said at the start of spring practice. “Can he back up Te’von Coney?

“We believe he can. He’s got to go now do it. He knows what his role’s going to be. He’s got to be a great special teams player for us, as well. We need a lot from him there. … Jonathan’s got to do a great job of being a guy that can give Te’von a blow when he needs one.”

Kelly echoed those comments later in March.

“Jonathan Jones has to be a guy that consistently shows up for us because he has to be able to step in there in a more active role.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Aside from time on special teams and in mop-up duty of blowouts, it is hard to see Jones getting much action this season. Morgan will play. It is as simple as that.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Kelly made it pretty clear: Jones will be a reserve again this season, but a reserve relied upon for some genuine snaps. Coney could probably play 80 solid snaps per game, but that simply begs for another defensive letdown in November. He will nonetheless be asked for that unless a capable substitute is available for 15-25 plays each weekend, and Jones will either be that backup or be supplanted by Bauer or Lamb.

If Jones plays behind Coney, he should end up with 20-25 tackles, some of which will likely come via special teams. Fitting a few running lanes without hesitation and making a few tackles behind the line of scrimmage would leave enough of a good impression to possibly keep Bauer and Lamb a line down on the depth chart next season, as well. In that regard, motivation should not be lacking for Jones, even as a backup behind an All-American candidate.

DOWN THE ROAD
There are two paths forward for Jones, both hinted at in the previous section. Either he stays ahead of Bauer and Lamb this season, meaning he will be the frontrunner to succeed Coney in the middle of the Notre Dame defense, or at least one of the freshmen will pass Jones this season and relegate him to career backup. In the first scenario, Jones could end up a two-year starter for the Irish.

The most-likely resolution falls somewhere between multi-year starter and career reserve. Bauer and Lamb both have higher ceilings than Jones, but neither is yet ready for the grind of a college football (true more of Lamb than of Bauer) and they have a full playbook to learn. Those advantages will keep Jones ahead of them for the start of 2018, if not its entirety. As Bauer and Lamb grow figuratively and literally, Jones’ opportunities will gradually be shared amongst the three.

If Jones handles that appropriately in the locker room and stays ready to play, he will never be phased out entirely. Using a rotation at linebacker to keep players fresh may not be as common as it is along the defensive line, but there is still value to it.

Jones can add proof to that concept as Coney did last season. His rise will almost assuredly not be as quick as Coney’s August-to-October jump from afterthought to tackling machine, but there is still time for Jones to become a consistent contributor, even if in a below-the-radar role in the long-run.

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
No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman
No. 79 (theoretically) Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 77 (theoretically) Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 73 (theoretically) Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 (theoretically) John Dirksen, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically) Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 55 Jonathan Bonner, defensive tackle, fifth-year senior
No. 54 John Shannon, long snapper, junior
No. 53 Khalid Kareem, defensive end, junior
No. 53 Sam Mustipher, center and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 52 Bo Bauer, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 48 (theoretically) Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end, sophomore
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

Notre Dame adds commitment of four-star linebacker Ekwonu to stellar defensive haul

rivals.com
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As of Thursday afternoon, more than half of Notre Dame’s 13 commitments in the class of 2019 are consensus four-star recruits. Of those seven, five line up on the defensive side of the ball and the other two spend their time in the trenches of the offensive line.

In other words, it seems the Irish coaching staff is impressing the players it wants to in this cycle.

Linebacker Osita Ekwonu (Providence Day; Charlotte, N.C.) joined the grouping with a Thursday announcement. The No. 181 player in the country and No. 5 prospect in North Carolina, per rivals.com, Ekwonu’s finalists included Ohio State, Penn State, Duke and Northwestern while he also held offers from Alabama, Auburn and Michigan.

Ekwonu projects as a prototypical linebacker, currently holding about 215 pounds on a 6-foot-2 frame. Add 15 or 20 pounds of muscle to his already impressive tackling form and Ekwonu could become a hound for the ballcarrier from the Buck linebacker position. His ability to shed blocks and read plays well — be it via instinct or thorough film study — should suit him well in the inside-outside duties required of the Buck linebacker.

Defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea served as Ekwonu’s primary recruiter.

“Seeing how he coaches and talking with him has been great,” Ekwonu told rivals.com. “Football is the last thing we talk about. He’s open to any discussion and he cares about his players as students and wants them to be active members of society.”

Ekwonu is the second linebacker to commit to Notre Dame this week, joining consensus three-star Jack Kiser (Pioneer High School; Royal Center, Ind.). Of the 13 commitments in the class, nine will start their collegiate careers on defense.