Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

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Robert Blanton wasn’t taking the bait. After doing everything but putting on Superman’s cape in Notre Dame’s 31-13 victory over No. 15 Michigan State, NBC’s Alex Flanagan asked the senior cornerback if this was the best game he’s ever played.

“No, ma’am,” Blanton replied matter-of-factly.

The response is the perfect one for a veteran leader on a football team that needs to keep playing better if it wants to continue digging out from it’s 0-2 start. But his answer might be truthful as well, as it was Blanton that swung the momentum of the Irish season last year, when he came off the edge and blocked a Utah punt and returned it for a touchdown, opening the floodgates and turning around a season that had reached a treacherous tipping point after losing 28-27 to Tulsa.

With the season on the brink, it was Blanton who did it again, having a monster game with six tackles, an interception, three tackles for loss, a quarterback sack, and three passes broken up.

“You talk about guys that lead by example,” Brian Kelly said when asked about his senior cornerback. “He also leads, but he’s probably one of our more emotional leaders out there. So when you need a big play, he seems to be around the ball quite a bit.”

Blanton was all over the field for the Irish, and with Notre Dame out to a big lead, the ball was in the air plenty of times, with Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins forced to throw 53 times. Late in the game, with Cousins deep in Irish territory and the chance to cut the game to a one-score deficit, Blanton stepped in front of the senior quarterback’s pass and snatched back the game’s momentum, sealing the victory with an 82-yard return to the Spartans 12 yard line.

The Irish certainly weren’t perfect, but Notre Dame convincingly beat the defending co-champs of the Big Ten and salvaged their season.

“You’ve got to make your own luck,” Kelly said after the game. “And we did.”

Let’s find out what we learned in Notre Dame’s 31-13 victory over No. 15 Michigan State.

1. That’s the Notre Dame defense that everybody expected. 

After playing their worst quarter of football in the Brian Kelly era, the Irish defense went out and made an impressive statement against a team that needed to run the football to win the game. The Irish defense held the Spartans to 29 yards on 23 carries, a minuscule 1.3 yards per carry, with the two-headed monster of Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker — a duo that ran for over 200 yards and two touchdowns last year against the Irish — held to only 53 yards.

More impressively, the Irish defense had continual pressure on Cousins. While the Irish only got two sacks, the defensive line and linebackers were in the backfield all afternoon, and the Spartans 12 penalties were mostly a product of not being able to stop an Irish pass rush with a reconstructed offensive line.

“I think our defensive mentality is such that they feel like they can play with anybody,” Kelly said after the game.

After imploding last Saturday in front of a prime-time audience, the Irish defense, led with 12 tackles by Manti Te’o, ten by Gary Gray, and eight by Harrison Smith, put on quite a show.

2. Against a stout opponent, the Irish running game beat the Spartans’ rushing attack.

While the Irish offense sputtered for most of the second half, the Irish’s opening drive dictated the tone of the afternoon, with Cierre Wood and the Irish pounding the ball down the Spartans’ throat for an opening drive touchdown that was just what the home crowd needed. After losing yardage on the game’s opening play, Wood had carries of 11 yards, 16 yards, two yards, and 11 yards before bursting around the corner for 22 yards and a touchdown. That’s 59 yards on the opening drive for Wood, or more than Florida Atlantic managed the entire game.

Wood scored two rushing touchdowns on the afternoon, but if you’re looking for an encouraging statistic, it’s that Jonas Gray led the team in yards, rushing 65 yards on only 12 carries, pounding the ball hard between the tackles and nearly breaking a few runs with his deceptive speed. More importantly, Gray showed he had Kelly’s confidence when he took carries deep in Irish territory with the game on the line.

Wood’s play early this year may be the most encouraging thing for this offense, but Gray stepping up as a capable No. 2 running back is what the Irish will need if they’re going to make a run this season.

3. Here come the freshman. 

With the Irish needing a spark, Notre Dame turned to two of its youngest players to provide it, with freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch and running back George Atkinson making game changing plays.

“Aaron is an outstanding pass rusher,” Kelly said after the game. “I think he showed that today. If he didn’t get to the quarterback, he got held.”

What Lynch did was nearly replicate a performance from last spring that had Irish fans anxiously awaiting the pass rush specialist’s impact on the Irish defense. While it took until the season’s third week, Lynch was all over the field, playing defensive tackle in some alignments and rushing off the edge in others, constantly drawing penalties and chasing down Cousins when he was back to pass. Lynch made five tackles, had one sack and had an incredible six quarterback hits on Cousins. (Ethan Johnson was second with three.) With Lynch and Stephon Tuitt getting more comfortable, the Irish should be able to roll through four guys at the position, giving the Irish plenty of depth.

On special teams, Atkinson gave the Irish the lift that it needed, returning a first quarter kick 89 yards for a gigantic touchdown. It was the Irish’s first kick return for a touchdown since Armando Allen, and Atkinson was the first freshman to run one back since some guy named Raghib Ismail did in his debut season.

Atkinson’s speed was apparent, and watching the freshman running back pull away from Bennett Jackson and everybody else on the football field reminds you of his game-breaking ability. While the freshman was also guilty of laying a fumble on the ground late in the game, credit Kelly and special teams coach Mike Elston for seeing an opportunity against the Spartans’ kickoff team and taking advantage of it.

In all, six freshman saw the field, with outside linebacker Troy Niklas forced into the starting lineup in place of Prince Shembo after the sophomore missed the game with a family medical emergency. Niklas contributed three tackles at the ‘Dog’ linebacker position and while he wasn’t perfect, he stepped up and contributed when the Irish needed it most.

4. Turnovers are still killing the Irish. 

There’s no celebrating three turnovers. The Irish’s two first half turnovers nearly kept the Spartans in the game if it weren’t for the solid work of Bob Diaco‘s defense, giving up only three points in “sudden change” situations. Tommy Rees was blinded-sided early in the game by defensive lineman Kevin Pickelman, and the hit jarred the football loose giving the Spartans the ball. Rees also threw a bad interception in the first half, at that point his seventh pick in seven quarters.

After the game, Kelly mentioned Rees’ interception and fumble were part of his maturation process, with the sophomore knowing immediately the mistake he made on the interception.

“Tommy’s developing,” Kelly said. “I’m not happy with the interceptions, but he knows what’s happening and he’s going to continue to get better.”

If you’re looking for a head-scratcher, John Goodman provided the weekly heart-attack for Irish fans, with the sure-handed senior muffing an easy punt return deep in the Irish territory when a fair catch would’ve basically iced the game. The ball slid through the seniors arms, the Spartans recovered, and were on the verge of scoring a touchdown that would’ve brought the game to one score when Blanton stepped in with his heroics.

Asked if Kelly can take the bad with the good as log as the Irish win the game, the usually slick-talking head coach became unexpectedly tongue-tied.

After stopping and starting, tripping on all the words that probably wanted to come out, the head coach managed to get his message out succinctly.

“I don’t. No.”

5. It might have been a little early to bury the Irish secondary. 

If you only watched the highlights of the Irish’s meltdown against the Wolverines, you’d be excused to think that the Irish secondary was one of the weaknesses of the team. But with Kirk Cousins forced to throw the ball 53 times, the Irish secondary stood up well against the pressure, with Blanton, Smith, Gray, Zeke Motta, and Jamoris Slaughter all making their presence felt during Saturday’s victory.

While the story of the game is rightfully Blanton, Smith played an incredible second half, breaking up an impressive four passes by Cousins and covering the field sideline-to-sideline as the Spartans tried in vain to play catch-up. And after a game to forget, Gray shrugged off an early completion over his head to add ten tackles and one pass break-up.

“I think they played outstanding down the stretch,” Kelly said of his secondary. “Came up with a big interception. It’s nice when you’re coaching a team and they’re able to bounce back from adversity as a team, as a unit. As an individual, Gary Gray played one of his best games at Notre Dame since I’ve been here.”

Cousins was able to throw for 329 yards, not exactly minimal yardage, but the Irish secondary kept the big plays to a minimum. While B.J. Cunningham had 12 catches for 158 yards, his longest was the sideline fade on Gray. With the pressure on the Irish secondary, the group came up with an interception and eight pass breakups, a great day at the office for a group that needed to rebound.

In a season that still holds lofty aspirations, the Irish got the win they desperately needed.

“They just needed to finish,” Kelly said after the game. “Finish the game, find a way to win.”

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 40 Drew White, linebacker

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-¼, 225 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Sophomore with four seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: At least somewhat due to a foot injury, White (above, on right) fell down the depth chart this spring. Junior Jonathan Jones entrenched himself as the backup Mike linebacker behind senior Te’von Coney, while sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath moved from safety late in the spring and immediately positioned himself as the backup at Buck behind fifth-year Drue Tranquill. At best, White is in the mix with early-enrolled freshmen Jack Lamb and Bo Bauer on the defense’s third-string.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star recruit, White chose Notre Dame from a lengthy offer list including the likes of LSU, Michigan and Ohio State.

CAREER TO DATE
White saw no action his freshman season, preserving a year of eligibility.

SPRING
White never came up in conversation this spring, though that certainly traces in part to his foot being in a boot with crutches at his side for much of the stretch.

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Every tackle White records on defense should register with some amount of surprise. There are simply too many established veterans ahead of him for White to see much, if any, playing time this season on that side of the ball.

“But that does not mean a year spent preserving eligibility is on the horizon. It does not even mean White will not log tackles.

“Notre Dame’s lack of defensive depth stood out in spring practice whenever the view turned to special teams. Most pertinently, Irish special teams coordinator Brian Polian lamented the dearth of available bodies for his kick and punt coverage units. White could be a prime candidate to help out in those regards, and given his penchant for finding the ballcarrier, he could tally as many as 10 tackles, which, given only a smattering of chances, is actually a notable figure.

“The transfer of junior Josh Barajas (to FCS-level Illinois State) does open an opportunity for White to see some mop-up duty at linebacker, but sophomores Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation) would theoretically be ahead of White in those spots.”

2018 OUTLOOK
When Tranquill moved to the interior role of Buck linebacker, he greatly reduced the chances of White seeing time this season. Rather than Jones or one of the freshmen earning starting honors and White working as the backup, each of those roles was knocked down a rung, not to mention Genmark-Heath joined the fray.

All that is to say, White should see time on special teams this season, but that may end up the extent of his work.

DOWN THE ROAD
Part of White’s fall down the depth chart is a credit to the linebackers coming in behind him. Bauer and Lamb — and in a different respect, early-enrolled Ovie Oghoufo and incoming freshman Shayne Simon — were brought in by former defensive coordinator Mike Elko and new defensive coordinator (and linebackers coach) Clark Lea. Elko and Lea knew what they were looking for to fit their system. They targeted Bauer and Lamb and Co. with that in mind.

Could White move back up the depth chart? Of course. Coney and Tranquill will be at the next level in a year, and even if Jones and Genmark-Heath establish themselves as the backups du jour, that is still a big step from proving worthy of a starter’s workload. White will have that chance next offseason, albeit alongside the two frontrunners, the current class of freshmen and a few more in the recruiting class of 2019 (starting with consensus four-star linebabckers Osita Ekwonu).

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 98 Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
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. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 68 Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 60 Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically) Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 56 John Dirksen, offensive lineman, 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. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end, sophomore
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker, junior
No. 44 Jamir Jones, defensive end, junior
No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end, junior
No. 41 Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 24 Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

Monday’s Leftovers & Links: Consensus four-star guard gives Notre Dame four OL commits

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Notre Dame hosted a promising group of recruits over the weekend, and the effort has already paid a handsome dividend. Consensus four-star offensive guard Zeke Correll (Anderson High School; Cincinnati) cut short his selection process with a Monday morning commitment to the Irish.

Correll had been expected to visit Ohio State this coming weekend and make his decision after that. Instead, Correll chose Notre Dame over the Buckeyes, Stanford and Clemson, becoming the 14th commit in the Irish class and fourth offensive lineman. Rivals.com rates Correll the No. 11 recruit in Ohio and No. 14 guard in the country.

Three of those four linemen are four-star prospects, including Correll, as are all four of the pledged defensive line recruits. If iron sharpens iron, then those practice sessions in the trenches should lead to many sparks flying the next few years.

That is especially true of the offensive quartet, as the practice work may be the vast majority of work they see for a couple seasons. Current Notre Dame junior Tommy Kraemer should remain a starting guard through 2021, and the freshman and sophomore classes have a few guard possibilities, as well, in the likes of sophomores Josh Lugg and Dillan Gibbons and freshman John Dirksen.

At 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds already, Correll has the muscular frame wanted on the inside of the offensive line, and his discipline in blocks sets him apart from most high schoolers.

Continued mailbag request
A litany of reader questions were received in the last week. A handful were set to be answered this morning, but Correll’s commitment bumped those thoughts down the editorial calendar a bit. In the meantime, any more criticisms, questions or meanderings are welcome at insidetheirish@gmail.com.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
— If Notre Dame is 33-to-1 for the title, what does that actually mean?
No. 52 Bo Bauer, four-star linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
Indiana LB stays close to home with commitment to Notre Dame
No. 33 Shayne Simon, four-star linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
Notre Dame adds commitment of four-star linebacker Ekwonu to stellar defensive line haul
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker
No. 44 Jamir Jones, linebacker-turned-defensive end
No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end
No. 41 Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle

OUTSIDE READING:
Notre Dame reels in Rivals250 LB Osita Ekwonu
Can Notre Dame contend for the national championship? ($)
D1 football to offer more participation opportunities
‘Bull Durham’ at 30

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 41 Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-1 ¾, 292 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Sophomore with three seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Hinish will back up fifth-year nose tackle Jonathan Bonner, though there are conceivable scenarios where Hinish takes on a starter’s workload, even if not officially starting.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star prospect out of Pittsburgh, Hinish committed to Notre Dame early in the recruiting cycle and never waffled despite the 4-8 season from the Irish in 2016.

CAREER TO DATE
Somewhat unexpectedly, Hinish became an interior staple as a freshman. The injury losses of Daniel Cage and Elijah Taylor created a need for a snap-eater, a role Hinish proved ready for. Though he finished the season with only eight tackles, he held the point of attack whenever seeing action and kept junior Jerry Tillery — then at nose before flipping to the three-technique position this offseason — fresh throughout the year.

Hinish saw action in 12 games, adding half a tackle behind the line of scrimmage.

QUOTE(S)
The depth chart attrition a year ago put Hinish in position to provide an impact as a freshman, but he still had to make the most of that opportunity in preseason practices.

“His ability to play with great pad leverage — he gets low, gets underneath linemen,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in mid-April. “[He] can physically handle himself when he has to extend and use his hands.

“I think it starts with being very smart. He knows the defense extremely well. He knows his responsibility. He just plays with great leverage. Strong enough and leverage is going to allow you to play the [nose] in most defenses.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Hinish will likely preserve a year of eligibility in 2017. Injuries could certainly force him into action, but all signs indicate he will not be needed on the defensive front this season. The talk of a lack of depth on the interior is not necessarily referencing a lack of bodies, but rather a lack of proven talents. The former does not need yet another name in the mix, and as an incoming freshman, it will be difficult for Hinish to establish himself as a proven talent.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Hinish will be a vital piece of Notre Dame’s defense this season. At the absolute least, he will remain Bonner’s backup, ahead of classmate Darnell Ewell and incoming freshman Ja’Mion Franklin. In that situation, Hinish should be primed for a solid dozen tackles, if not more.

Bonner was held out of contact drills this spring to protect his recovery from a wrist injury. The immediate effect of that was Hinish spent time with the top-line defense. The long-term result could have Hinish still with the starters as often as not if Bonner’s fitness or strength is limited due to this prolonged rehab.

That may not be the ideal in Kelly’s mind. In fact, it certainly isn’t. Bonner starting and holding his own in his final season of eligibility would be the best-case scenario for the defense as a whole, but having a contingency plan of giving half the snaps to Hinish is not a terrible spot to be. The Irish know what he is capable of, which could not be said of any defensive tackles at the beginning of 2017.

DOWN THE ROAD
As long as Ewell remains on Notre Dame’s roster, speculation about his high-profile recruiting and his potential becoming reality will persist. It should, but it should not get in the way of an honest discussion praising Hinish. With Bonner out of eligibility after this season, not to mention Tillery as well, Hinish will be in position to start in 2019 and 2020.

Until some of Ewell’s potential actually becomes reality, beginning with competing through the whistle on multiple plays in one series, Hinish will be well ahead of him on the depth chart.

Franklin may be more of the threat to Hinish’s future playing time. His ability to shed blocks will be a step ahead of Hinish’s skill of holding his ground against them. The latter is the expectation of a nose tackle, but the former can set apart a defensive interior.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 98 Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
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. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 68 Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 60 Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically) Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 56 John Dirksen, offensive lineman, 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. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end, sophomore
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker, junior
No. 44 Jamir Jones, defensive end, junior
No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end, junior
No. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 24 Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

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