ND vs. UM: Final questions with Michael Rothstein

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It’s not just another Saturday. It’s Notre Dame-Michigan Saturday, with both fans waiting about four hours longer than they’re used to for this game, now kicking off under the lights of Michigan Stadium. With early photos streaming in on Twitter from ESPN’s College GameDay set, tonight has all the ingredients to be one for the ages in a series that’s been remarkably close the past thirty-plus years.

With kickoff a few hours away, I had a chance to run down ESPN.com’s Michael Rothstein, one of the fine writers of Wolverine Nation. Mike is no stranger to this rivalry, having covered it from Notre Dame’s side when he wrote for the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette.

Mike was kind enough to take time away from writing massive features on guys like Al Borges and Greg Mattison to answer a few final questions before the big game.

Inside the Irish: What do you take from Michigan’s opener. Did the Wolverine’s staff go vanilla on purpose?

Michael Rothstein: I take three things from it. First, Michigan’s defense is better — if for no other reason than they are mixing up defenses and blitz packages better than they ever did under Greg Robinson. Second, Denard Robinson at least showed he has the capability of staying in the pocket and making progression reads. The throwing is still a work-in-progress on mid-to-deep routes but that’ll come. Third, this team is going to be well coached. You just saw it.

As far as going vanilla, I don’t think they did that offensively or defensively. Offensively you saw some of what Al Borges can call and a bunch of shotgun — more than I was expecting. Defensively, Michigan was anything but vanilla. The Wolverines blitzed a lot, disguised and mixed up coverages and were fairly aggressive.

ITI: You’ve said the Michigan defense is trending upwards. That said, it looked like the Broncos had plenty of early success moving the football. What do you see out of that unit on Saturday?

MR: Western had early success while Michigan wasn’t blitzing. The Wolverines were hoping to get more out of their front four when it came to rushing — one of the things Michigan should be concerned about Saturday. Notre Dame is a tougher test because it has an NFL-caliber running back in Cierre Wood, one of the best wide receivers in college football in Michael Floyd, a massive pass-catching tight end in Fort Wayne’s Tyler Eifert and a capable quarterback in Tommy Rees. Western had a good quarterback, Alex Carder, and a good wide receiver. That’s about it.

I think Michigan’s defense will struggle a bit Saturday because it’ll have to account for all of those weapons. If the front four, which I pegged as the strongest unit on the team in the preseason, can get some pressure it’ll alleviate a lot for the corners and safeties. If they can’t, Michigan could be in trouble.

ITI: You had plenty of interesting things to say about Al Borges in a recent feature you wrote. Can he keep the offense playing at the same level it did last season? 

MR: I think it is going to be at a different level. Denard Robinson is still a special talent, no one questions that. But I think he’ll be used in a more balanced setting now. You saw that against Western when he was Michigan’s third-leading rusher.

So I think it’ll still be a very progressive offense — just a more balanced one.

ITI: Finish these sentences:

Michigan will win this game if their defense can: 

MR: Michigan will win this game if their defense can properly pressure Tommy Rees and not give him 4-7 seconds to find Michael Floyd every passing play.

Michigan will win this game if their offense can:

MR: Michigan will win this game if their offense can get off to a quick start, get a lead and let Denard Robinson make 5-6 plays with his feet.

ITI: Night game. Big House. Desmond Howard being honored. The Big House has a reputation for being quieter than 100,000-plus people should be. How hostile of an environment will this be?

MR: I think it’s going to be loud and crazy. There’s never been anything like this before and the fans are very excited. When Dave Brandon says he can sell 150,000 tickets for this, I think he is being conservative. I think if they could seat 200,000 in the stadium for this, they would sell those tickets. It is going to be a very loud, very crazy atmosphere — and the towers on each side of the stadium have done a good job of keeping sound in anyway. I’m expecting it to be the loudest crowd I’ve seen in my eight years covering college football.

ITI: Brian Kelly is 3-0 against Brady Hoke. Do you get the feeling that these coaching staffs know what to expect from each other? 

MR: Yes and no. I think Brady Hoke’s defensive philosophy and Brian Kelly’s offensive philosophy has largely remained the same. But that was a long time ago and things can change. Borges and Mattison are very skilled coordinators and both teams have more talent than they did in the MAC. I think they know each other and can predict some things — but I think there’s going to be a lot of things that are still unfamiliar to both coaches when it comes to playing each other.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 79 Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-6, 275 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Incoming freshman with four years of eligibility remaining, including the 2018 season.
Depth chart: Largely due to signing four offensive linemen a cycle ago, Notre Dame’s line reserves are well-stocked. Junior Liam Eichenberg will start at left tackle with sophomore Robert Hainsey at right tackle, and some combination of those now-sophomores backing them up. Thus, Mabry is a ways down the depth chart presently.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star prospect, Mabry chose the Irish over offers from Cincinnati, Indiana and Memphis when he committed a year before he expected to sign. If he had not been so firm in his commitment, it is conceivable he would have been chased by the likes of Arkansas, where his grandfather played and his uncle was an All-American offensive tackle.

QUOTE(S)
If Mabry has slipped below anyone’s radar, it is only because December’s early signing period feels so long ago already. Back then, recruiting coordinator Brian Polian spoke of the development awaiting Mabry in a collegiate weight program.

“I think Mabry and [fellow early-signee John Dirksen] in terms of their length and their size [are underrated],” Polian said. “These are going to be really big men that can move their feet. He weighs 270 right now, is he going to get big enough? We have a great strength staff — the world is filled with big guys. Big and can move their feet and bend with athleticism. You recruit that and hand them over to [strength coordinator Matt] Balis and his staff and let nature take its course.”

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN MABRY’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
“Bringing in Mabry helps counteract the effects of losing two linemen to transfer in the 2017 offseason. He may not be a contributor from the outset, but the practice depth he provides is a value on its own, let alone the future possibilities he offers.

“… Mabry would enhance his future possibilities by becoming a utility knife of a lineman, a la Hunter Bivin. At some point, one of those can then become his specialty.”

2018 OUTLOOK
The only non-injury-related way for Mabry to find himself playing time this season would be to make an unexpected jump a la Hainsey a year ago, perhaps combined with Eichenberg regressing in preseason practice. Even then, Irish offensive line coach Jeff Quinn would likely be inclined to give Eichenberg time to improve before then turning to sophomore Josh Lugg.

Hainsey will stand as this generation’s exception to the rule of Notre Dame not starting freshmen offensive linemen. Not even Quenton Nelson saw playing time as a freshman, after all.

DOWN THE ROAD
Mabry joins the Irish a year after two touted tackles arrived, meaning he will have to outright impress Quinn and Kelly to earn a first-team role in the next few seasons. Just in discussing who might be the next man in along the offensive line in 2018, Quinn praised all three sophomores not named Hainsey.

“I would say the next group coming in would be [senior] Trevor Ruhland, Josh Lugg, another young man who has really gained a lot of confidence,” Quinn said in mid-April. “You look at guys like Aaron Banks and Dillan Gibbons, all those guys are in the mix. As their development continues to improve, their opportunities will come.”

Even if/when Mabry moves past those sophomores, Eichenberg and Hainsey each have three years of eligibility remaining, meaning Mabry will need to wait until 2021 to have a clean shot at starting at tackle, barring an early departure for the NFL from one of the current starters.

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. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

Freddy Canteen announces another transfer, leaving Notre Dame at 86 scholarships

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The hook when receiver Freddy Canteen transferred to Notre Dame was he would get a chance to face his former school to open the 2018 season with Michigan visiting Sept. 1. That storyline will go unfulfilled after Canteen announced another transfer Friday afternoon.

Canteen graduated from Michigan in only three years, leaving him two seasons of eligibility when he joined the Irish. A torn labrum ended his 2017 season after only three games, meaning he could have hopes for a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA and retain that year of eligibility wherever he lands. He finishes his time at Notre Dame with one catch for seven yards.

A shoulder injury also truncated Canteen’s 2015 season and eliminated his 2016 while with the Wolverines. The former consensus four-star prospect hoped to be healthy enough with the Irish to showcase his speed, the primary allure he immediately brought to the roster.

His most-recent injury allowed the likes of Chase Claypool and Michael Young to move well past Canteen on the depth chart, while senior Chris Finke’s reliability served as a direct foil to Canteen’s injury history. Without this newest transfer, it is unlikely Canteen would have seen much competitive action in 2018.

Notre Dame now has 86 projected scholarships for the fall, one above the NCAA maximum allowed.

Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson first reported Canteen’s pending transfer.

FREDDY CANTEEN 99-TO-2
No. 11
Listed Measurements:
6-foot, 192 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Fifth-year graduate with two possible seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018, depending on the NCAA’s view of his injury history.
Depth chart: Currently a second-stringer behind sophomore Michael Young, Canteen could have fallen further down the depth chart quickly this summer with the arrival of four highly-touted freshmen receivers.
Recruiting: Canteen first chose Michigan over offers from Maryland and Tennessee, among others, back in 2014, as the No. 47 receiver in the class, per rivals.com.

CAREER TO DATE
2014: 10 games, two starts; five receptions for 22 yards and one touchdown.
2015: Five games, one start before an injury ended his season; one reception for no gain.
2016: No action.
2017: Three games, one start; one catch for seven yards. Again, injury-shortened.

QUOTE(S)
Canteen’s if-healthy speed and experience made him an easy player to praise for receivers coach Del Alexander this spring.

“Freddy is playing fast,” Alexander said in late March. “He’s coming off an injury, but at the same time, he knows what to do. Freddy is also the guy that had limited mistakes when you count them over the last couple practices. He knows what to do, it’s just a matter of where he is and how he uses his strength and the strength to keep separation. … We’ve got to do something to use our hands and our arms to create separation because there is some hesitation there because he is still recovering.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“He should fit right into Kelly’s long-standing preference to have a deep threat available to take the top off the secondary. (Think of former Irish receiver Chris Brown’s role, even if he wasn’t frequently targeted.) [Former Notre Dame receivers Kevin] Stepherson or [Cam] Smith could also offer that top-end speed, but Canteen’s acceleration in the first 10 yards should set him apart.

“That particular skill will also likely be seen on special teams. Special teams coordinator Brian Polian has hoped for more options on his coverage and return units. Canteen was not around the team in the spring to aid in that regard — he only graduated from Michigan in April, despite the February transfer announcement — but this fall could earn some notice by shining on Polian’s coverage units.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Canteen’s future depends more on his health than on where he opts to transfer. No matter where that is, the last line of his announcement rings loudly. “My primary focus will be to prepare for a career that expands beyond football.” Perhaps Canteen realizes there will not be much waiting for him at the next level of the sport.

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

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