Wood and Gray are running to a historic season

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Tango and Cash. Turner and Hooch. Murtaugh and Riggs. HollyWood and Meatball.

The last duo might not have the notoriety yet, but it hasn’t been for a lack of effort by Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray. At the midway point of the 2011 season, Wood (nickname still pending) and Gray (Meatball has already stuck) haven’t reached the cult status of some of the hallowed duos of a generation past, but they have run the Irish ground attack into some pretty rarified air, waking up some echoes that many Irish fans had long forgotten when it came to running the football effectively.

For much of the past 25 years, running the ball has been embedded into the DNA of the Fighting Irish. When Lou Holtz took over the Notre Dame football program in 1986, he immediately pronounced the Irish a ground machine, relying on a steady rotation of ball carriers to power the Irish offense. In Holtz’s first season, the Irish averaged 189.4 yards a game rushing, good for 33rd in the nation. The Irish wouldn’t average less than 215 yards a game or finish worse than 20th in the country again until 1997, the first year of the Bob Davie era. Davie had some football teams that were adept at running the ball — his 1998 and 2000 teams both averaged more than 200 yards a game. But the Irish running games that moved so efficiently under Holtz’s saw a steady decline in efficiency in the tail end of the Davie era, and then a precipitous drop when Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis took over the Irish program, with the Irish failing to average 4.0 yards a carry in seven of the eight seasons between the two coaches.

There are plenty of logical reasons why the Irish running game has taken a step back in the years since Holtz coached in South Bend. Passing quarterbacks like Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen do nothing to help a team’s rushing average (especially with sack yardage counting against the running totals). Plus, Holtz’s teams never liked passing that much either, with the Irish ranking in the top 50 in passing offense only once, with the 1992 team tying for 49th best in the country.

The Irish will never return to the days of averaging 250 yards on the ground a game, like they did under Holtz. The sports has changed too much and the Irish have too much talent at wide receiver, tight end, and quarterback. But for the first time in almost two decades, Brian Kelly has put together a rushing attack that embodies the great days of old.

With Cierre Wood averaging 5.8 yards a carry and on pace to run for 1,400 yards, the Irish look to have their most prolific runner since Reggie Brooks ran for 1,343 yards in 1992. (With a breakout game, Wood could also put Vagas Ferguson‘s 1,437 yard 1979 season in in his sights.) After a slow start, Jonas Gray’s 8.4 yards a carry have forced Kelly to give the powerful senior a bigger role in the rushing attack, and the duo — along with one of the best Irish offensive lines in the past two decades — has put the Irish ground game into some hallowed space after six games.

Even at its most explosive, no Irish ground game under Holtz ran for six yards a carry, like the Irish are doing at the midpoint of the regular season. With both Wood and Gray on pace to get 100 carries each, the Irish one-two punch ranks up there with Jerome Bettis and Tony Brooks in 1991 and Bettis and Reggie Brooks in 1992 as the top duos of the last 25 years. (The 1991 rushing attack was so prolific that senior Rodney Culver averaged 5.6 yards a carry on 114 carries.)

Operating from a spread formation, the process might look vastly different than it did 20 years ago, but the results are the same. Ed Warinner‘s run game relies on time-tested power, counter and zone blocking concepts, while doing it exclusively from a one-back set. Those that pine for the day of Joe Moore‘s offensive line pulling and leading the way are seeing the modern version, with center Braxston Cave, and guards Chris Watt and Trevor Robinson just as likely leading the way around the outside.

With Andrew Hendrix added into the mix against Air Force, the Irish averaged over nine yards a carry against the Falcons while adding a quarterback running option to Kelly’s spread system. As the running game hits its stride and Tommy Rees gets the pass attack playing at a more efficient level, the Irish offense is on track to be one of the most balanced units in school history.

After six football games, Wood and Gray are on pace to do something special. While their Q Rating and nicknames need work, HollyWood and Meatball could go down in the record books.

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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2 ½ , 210 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Fifth-year with only the 2018 season remaining.
Depth chart: Newsome will handle all the Notre Dame punting duties while also serving as one of four Irish captains.
Recruiting: Though only a punter, rivals.com marked Newsome as a three-star recruit and the No. 6 kicker/punter in his class.

CAREER TO DATE
Newsome preserved a year of eligibility as a freshman while former Irish leg extraordinaire Kyle Brindza both kicked and punted. Since then, Newsome has rarely faltered, averaging 43.8 yards on 172 career punts.

2015: 55 punts at an average of 44.5 yards per punt with a long of 62 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 38.1 yards per punt.
2016: 54 punts (in only 12 games) at an average of 43.5 yards per punt with a long of 71 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 35.3 yards per punt.
2017: 63 punts at an average of 43.6 yards per punt with a long of 59 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 37.9 yards per punt.

QUOTE(S)
Newsome’s rise to captainship this offseason was chronicled when Irish head coach Brian Kelly named him a captain along with fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill and fifth-year center Sam Mustipher to begin spring practices. (Fifth-year left guard Alex Bars joined their ranks the morning of the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.)

The week before the spring finale, Kelly revisited what led his team to elevate Newsome as a leader.

“He’s a guy that holds all players to a level, a standard of excellence that we have here at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “When you’re not meeting that standard, he’s going to take the load from you to make sure that it gets done. He’s a remarkable teammate.

“Our losing SWAT team weekly, they have to come in to run. [Newsome] didn’t lose once, his team, but he came in every Wednesday to be there for that losing team, to support them. Just that kind of wanting to hold everybody to the same standards. He was there to help them. He wasn’t there to yell at them. He was there to encourage them. That was recognized by his teammates.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Notre Dame does not necessarily want Newsome to excel. If he is getting enough work to truly stand out, that simply means the Irish offense has turned stalling into a routine occurrence.

“Whether he gets frequent use or not, Newsome has proven to be a consistent performer, largely immune to the pressure so often found to figuratively cripple college kickers and punters. Expect that steadfastness to continue this season.”

2018 OUTLOOK
First and foremost, the peace of mind provided by a lack of punting concerns should not be overlooked. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to worry Newsome may develop the yips in his final season.

His off-kilter leadership, meanwhile, intrigues. Two-year captain Tranquill can and will lead the defense as Mustipher and Bars combine to lead the offense. That does not simply leave the special teams for Newsome’s guidance, however.

He should serve as an offbeat catch-all for any unusual circumstances. That role would be behind the scenes, beneath the radar, etc., but Newsome’s effect could be a unique dynamic helping to easy any locker room tension.

Even with that capacity, it will almost certainly still be Tranquill and now Bars, stepping into former Notre Dame captain Mike McGlinchey’s stead, answering the media’s questions in a distant arena after a fourth quarter goes awry.

DOWN THE ROAD
Newsome’s leg does not offer the booming power necessary to break into the NFL. His Irish career alone may warrant an invite to an offseason camp, but Newsome does not look to be the next rendition of Craig Hentrich.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting surge continues with Texas four-star’s commitment

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Defensive line coach Mike Elston predicted Notre Dame would enjoy great recruiting success along its defensive line this cycle. With Saturday’s commitment of consensus four-star defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic High School; Fort Worth, Texas), Elston can consider his boasts backed up.

“I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said on Feb. 7, the most-recent National Signing Day.

“This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Osafo-Mensah is the third consensus four-star defensive end to join the Irish class of 2019 and the highest-rated of the trio, joining Howard Cross (St. Joseph H.S.; Montvale, N.J.) and Hunter Spears (Sachse; Texas). Per rivals.com, Osafo-Mensah is the No. 160 prospect in the country and the No. 17 in Texas. The recruiting service lists Osafo-Mensah as an outside linebacker, and the No. 6 outside linebacker in the country, but his 6-foot-4 frame holding about 220 pounds projects as a pass-rushing defensive end in the future.

Osafo-Mensah is not only explosive, but he has the length of a top-flight quarterback hound. Obviously, he remains a bit light as he finishes his junior year in high school.

Osafo-Mensah chose Notre Dame over his homestate Texas, with Oklahoma and Texas A&M also pursuing him strongly. Just about every college football power offered him a scholarship, notably including Alabama, Michigan and USC.

With the Irish, he becomes the 10th commit in the class, including consensus-four star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren; Bowling Green, Ky.). Clearly the defensive line is an emphasis for Elston, defensive coordinator Clark Lea and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly.

If not for the changes to NCAA recruiting rules in the last cycle, Osafo-Mensah and the rest may still be in the early parts of the recruitment process. First of all, December’s early signing period gave the coaching staff a head start on chasing the next set of recruits.

“A lot of it is because I’ve been able to put [the class of 2018] to bed and get moving on the ‘19s and go visit in their schools all throughout January,” Elston said.

Those impressions led to Osafo-Mensah’s official visit last month. Before the new rules, he would not have been able to take a paid-for trip to campus until the fall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore