How we got here: A look at the Irish secondary

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What we know is that presumed starting field cornerback Lo Wood is out for the season after rupturing his achilles tendon in a non-contact drill. What we don’t know is who’ll replace him in the starting lineup.

But maybe Brian Kelly does.

“I’m absolutely sure who’s going to replace him,” Kelly said yesterday when he addressed the media. “It’s just a matter of where and when that decision is going to be made. We know we’ve got four corners outside of Bennett that are going to compete, and we know all of them can play that position.

“Now they’re on stage, they get an opportunity over the next 10 days to determine who that’s going to be.”

For those just getting up-to-speed on Notre Dame football this August, the candidates for the job are sophomores Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown, and freshmen KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate. Combined, they’ve played a total of three defensive snaps. Three. All taken by Atkinson in mop-up time against Air Force.

The loss of Wood undoubtedly hurts the Irish and weakens a position that already had a magnifying glass on it. But before we clear the deck chairs, it bears mentioning that Wood only played 11 percent of the snaps last season and only saw more than 10 in comfortable wins against Purdue, Air Force, Navy and Maryland, before playing 19 snaps in the defensive slugfest against Boston College.

Still, Kerry Cooks‘ cornerbacks now have little margin for error. Even if Cam McDaniel stays full-time at cornerback, the Irish have little depth and none of it is tested.

How’d we get there? Glad you asked. Let’s turn back the clock and check out the defensive back recruiting classes:

2008 (fifth-year players): Three DBs recruited. 
Robert Blanton — Played four years. Drafted by the Minnesota Vikings to play safety.
Dan McCarthy —  Fifth-year reserve safety. Looked as if his career was finished until surprise 5th year.
Jamoris Slaughter — Hybrid player, multi-year starter for Irish at safety.

2009 (seniors): Two DBs recruited.
E.J. Banks — Left Notre Dame after one season. Now a walk-on DB at Pitt.
Zeke Motta — Starting safety for Irish.

2010 (juniors): Five DBs recruited
Chris Badger — Left on Mormon mission. Now a freshman safety.
Spencer Boyd — Academic and personal issues had Boyd depart before ever taking a snap.
Austin Collinsworth — Torn labrum will likely cost him 2012 season.
Lo Wood — Torn achilles tendon will cost him 2012 season.
Bennett Jackson — Former WR. First year starting cornerback.

2011 (sophomores): Four DBs recruited
Matthias Farley — Spent 2011 as WR. Fighting for time at safety.
Josh Atkinson — Spent 2011 on special teams. Fighting for starting CB job.
Jalen Brown — Redshirted freshman season. Fighting for CB job.
Eilar Hardy — Knee injury cost him freshman season.

2012 (freshman): Six DBs recruited 
Nicky Baratti — Getting strong reviews at safety.
KeiVarae Russell — Moved to CB first day of practice.
CJ Prosise — Playing safety and outside linebacker.
Tee Shepard — Left school in spring after early enrolling.
Elijah Shumate — Shifted from safety to cornerback.
John Turner — Developmental safety prospect.

How the Irish got to where they are is a product injuries, Brian Kelly’s recruiting choices, and the roster management of Charlie Weis. Holes in the 2008 and 2009 recruiting classes, where the Irish only signed five total defensive backs and zero true corners, have come back to bite Notre Dame, with the situation only exacerbated by Banks and Boyd leaving the program and a rash of injuries.

While missing out or losing key cornerback recruits like Ronald Darby, Tee Shepard, Yuri Wright, Bennett Okotcha (now transferring from Oklahoma after a redshirt season) and a handful of others, the shuffling of the roster — and recruitment of versatile players like Farley, Russell, and McDaniel (who will also spend more time in the defensive backfield) — has helped the Irish weather the storm as well as they can while they’ve put their focus on filling other noticeable roster holes (defensive end, outside linebacker, and wide receiver, to name a few.)

If you expected Brian Kelly to cry poor in preseason because of his untested depth chart, you don’t know anything about the third-year Irish coach. But if you listen carefully, you get the sense that Kelly knows what he has in his defensive backfield. After expressing how terrible he feels for Wood, who had an incredible offseason and put himself in a position to perform well this season, Kelly spoke of his confidence in the untested depth behind the injured junior.

“I feel really good about the other five corners that we have as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve got five scholarship corners that we believe can play the kind of football necessary for us to be successful. So we’ll move forward at that position. I think we have enough depth there to play very good football.”

In the past Kelly has talked about how he evaluates his roster. There’s a three-pronged rating system that he uses to evaluate players on his roster. If a player receives a three, he’s capable of playing championship football. If a player receives a two, he’s capable of playing winning football. If a player receives a one, he’s not ready to play.

Digging deeper into that quote, you get the feeling that the five cornerbacks might not garner many threes, but their ability to “play the kind of football necessary for us to be successful,” lets you behind the curtain on the internal evaluation process, and gives you a clue of what to expect out of the Irish defense as they protect their liabilities, something defensive coordinator Bob Diaco talked about on Media Day.

“The biggest thing that’s going to impact the style of defense that we play is the secondary and who’s in there,” Diaco told Jack Nolan at UND.com. “If particular guys are in there, we may need to manage the game which will create a different pattern of calls.”

Diaco made these comments before the loss of Wood, giving you an insight into the thought process even before the junior went down. But with one less hand on deck, it’ll be the defense’s ability to protect the secondary not just by coverage choices but by pressure in the front seven, that’ll determine whether the Irish defense can withstand its difficult 2012 schedule.

Until then, Diaco, Cooks and safeties coach Bob Elliott have some work to do.

 

Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick to step down in 2024, to be succeeded by NBC’s Pete Bevacqua

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Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick will step down in early 2024 after more than 15 years in the role, the University announced Thursday morning. NBC Sports Chairman Pete Bevacqua will succeed Swarbrick, first joining Notre Dame this July as a special assistant to University President Fr. John Jenkins, focusing on athletics.

Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde first reported these plans.

“It speaks volumes about Notre Dame and Father Jenkins’ leadership that we can implement such a well-conceived succession plan and attract someone of Pete’s talent and experience,” Swarbrick said in a statement. “I have worked closely with Pete throughout his time at NBC and based on that experience, I believe he has the perfect skill set to help Notre Dame navigate the rapidly changing landscape that is college athletics today and be an important national leader as we look to the future. I look forward to helping Notre Dame’s student-athletes and coaches achieve their goals in the months ahead while also helping Pete prepare for his tenure as athletics director.”

Swarbrick took over the role in the summer of 2008. Since then he hired football head coaches Brian Kelly and Marcus Freeman, as well as women’s basketball coach Niele Ivey and men’s basketball coach Micah Shrewsberry, navigated Notre Dame’s partial entry into the ACC and kept the Irish actively engaged with the twice-expanded College Football Playoff.

Swarbrick told Sports Illustrated he would “love to do one more thing in the industry,” suggesting this is not an outright retirement for him, but it was important to him for Jenkins to choose the next AD.

“There’s a sense that it’s the appropriate time,” Swarbrick said. “It’s important for Father John to make the selection of the next AD, because I don’t know how much longer he’s going to go.”

A 1993 alumnus of Notre Dame, Bevacqua has worked at NBC since 2018, securing a Big Ten partnership that goes into effect this summer, as well as extending NBC’s deals with the NFL and the PGA Tour.

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Pete Bevacqua, left, with former Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz in 2018. (Photo by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images for SiriusXM)

“This is an unbelievable honor for me and a dream come true,” Bevacqua said in a statement. “With the exception of my family, nothing means more to me than the University of Notre Dame. As a Notre Dame alum, I have a keen understanding and deep appreciation of the lifetime, transformational benefit our student-athletes receive in a Notre Dame education, one that is unique and unlike any other institution in the world.”

NBC has broadcast every Notre Dame home game since the 1991 home opener with the current deal running through the 2025 season.

Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 75 Chris Terek, incoming freshman offensive lineman, four-star recruit

Chris Terek Notre Dame
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Listed measurements: 6-foot-6, 295 pounds
2023-24 year, eligibility: An incoming freshman, Terek has all four seasons of eligibility remaining.
Depth Chart: Terek will come nowhere near Notre Dame’s two-deep this season, needing to focus more on strength and conditioning while also getting a better feel for the idea of a move to an interior, something the Irish will at least consider with Terek.
Recruiting: A long-time Wisconsin commit, Terek reconsidered his college destination when the Badgers abruptly and rather surprisingly fired Paul Chryst. The rivals.com four-star joined Notre Dame’s class right about the exact same time Wisconsin was announcing the hiring of Luke Fickell.

“Notre Dame, they’ve got a pretty crazy track record,” Terek told Inside ND Sports. They do very well with their O-linemen. (Former Irish offensive line) coach (Harry) Hiestand is awesome. And they seem like they’re really building something there.”

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN TEREK SIGNED IN DECEMBER
“His massive lower body — which Notre Dame strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis should enjoy molding — gives Terek ample power, something that Hiestand could turn loose on many Irish running plays. …

“Give Terek some time to develop physically before locking him into the two-deep anywhere.”

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS

2023 OUTLOOK
Do not expect to hear Terek’s name again until the spring. That is not a knock on him, not in any regard. Rather, it is an acknowledgment of what to expect from most freshmen offensive linemen and, in particular, what to expect from them when Notre Dame has 17 scholarship offensive linemen on the roster.

Five of them are freshmen, and while early enrollee Sam Pendleton could perhaps crack the paper version of a three-deep at center, none should press for playing time in 2023.

Terek, perhaps more than the others, will need the year with no expectations. He played right tackle in high school, and the Irish are likely to try him out on the interior. At 6-foot-5, he is not yet too long to play inside, but much more vertical growth could change that.

Learning the interior footwork will be enough of a task for Terek as a freshman, along with the usual strength and conditioning work.

DOWN THE ROAD
With 17 scholarship offensive linemen knocking around, and three already committed in the next class, position competitions will be the norm moving forward, though there will naturally be front runners.

Current sophomore Billy Schrauth and fifth-year Andrew Kristofic should emerge as the starting guards this season. If Kristofic spurns his final year of eligibility in 2024, current junior Rocco Spindler should get next crack at a starting role.

Both Schrauth and Spindler could be around in 2025, with current junior Pat Coogan supplementing them if he has not grabbed hold at center. Only then can names like Terek, classmate Joe Otting and sophomore Ashton Craig begin to be considered.

All of which is to say, Notre Dame is in an enviable position. Offensive line talent is scarce on the transfer market. Individual players need to be staring at uphill trajectories like this if the program wants to be a genuine contender instead of just the 10th team into the expanded Playoff.

WHY No? 75?
Terek wore No. 77 in high school, but current sophomore Ty Chan owns those digits in the Irish locker room. With offensive linemen largely focused on numbers in the 70s, 75 is one of just two available numbers (along with No. 71).

Perhaps Terek drops to No. 67, but for this penciling him into the content calendar, 75 fits well enough.

NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
The summer countdown begins anew, Rylie Mills to Deion Colzie
No. 99 Rylie Mills, senior defensive tackle, moving back inside from end
No. 98 Devan Houstan, early-enrolled four-star defensive tackle
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, junior defensive tackle, one of three Irish DTs with notable experience
No. 95 Tyson Ford, sophomore defensive tackle, up 30 pounds from a year ago
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, a senior defensive tackle now ‘fully healthy’ after a 2022 torn ACL
No. 91 Aiden Gobaira, sophomore defensive end, former four-star recruit
No. 90* Brenan Vernon, incoming freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 90* Boubacar Traore, incoming freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, the next starter at ‘TE U’
No. 86* Cooper Flanagan, incoming freshman tight end, four-star recruit
No. 85 Holden Staes, sophomore tight end, up 20 pounds in a year
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, senior tight end coming off a torn ACL
No. 83 Jayden Thomas, junior receiver, probable No. 1 target in 2023
No. 79 Tosh Baker, senior tackle, again a backup but next year …
No. 78 Pat Coogan, junior interior offensive lineman
No. 77 Ty Chan, sophomore offensive tackle, former four-star recruit
No. 76 Joe Alt, first-team All-American left tackle
Rhode Island transfer safety Antonio Carter gives Notre Dame desperately needed backline depth
Penn State RB transfer Devyn Ford gives Notre Dame newly-needed backfield depth, experience

Notre Dame adds four-star RB and in-state OL after biggest recruiting weekend of summer

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Following its biggest on-campus recruiting weekend of the summer, Notre Dame has already added two pieces to its future rushing game. First, consensus four-star running back Kedren Young (Lukin High School; Texas) committed to the Irish late Monday night, and then consensus three-star offensive lineman Styles Prescod (Hamilton Southeastern H.S.; Fishers, Ind.) followed suit midday Tuesday.

The No. 16 running back in the class and No. 213 overall prospect, per rivals.com, Young chose Notre Dame over Missouri, Texas A&M, Texas and Michigan. In total, eight Division I programs from his homestate of Texas offered Young scholarships.

At 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds, he runs angry before running away from defenders, who have a hard time squaring him up on the rare occasions they get a chance at a tackle. Young’s highlight reel borders on tedious it is filled with so many breakaway runs, scoring 19 touchdowns and averaging more than seven yards per carry as a junior.

He is the second running back in Notre Dame’s class of 2024, joining consensus four-star running back Aneyas Williams (Hannibal H.S.; Mo.). The Irish need such a duo given the distinct likelihood current junior Audric Estimé heads to the NFL after this season, leaving Notre Dame with only three unproven ball carriers in the backfield.

Either sophomore Gi’Bran Payne or Jadarian Price could break through as Estimé’s complement in 2023, but both have worrisome injury histories, making a sheer numbers approach to the position prudent.

Both Young and Prescod were at Notre Dame for the so-called Irish Invasion this past weekend, a camp the Irish coaching staff uses as a chance to evaluate many top prospects in person while also giving them an opportunity to see campus before possibly taking an official visit this fall.

For Prescod, it was a shorter trip. From a suburb north of Indianapolis, he had about a two-hour drive to South Bend, the rare prospect close enough to Notre Dame to give the Irish a geographic advantage, even as half the Big Ten chased the offensive lineman, including Iowa, Michigan and Indiana.

Notre Dame first sought the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Prescod when Harry Hiestand was still the Irish offensive line coach, with new position coach Joe Rudolph finishing the push.

Prescod plays tackle in high school, and while Indiana high school football is not the stiffest of competition, he looks the part of a collegiate tackle, as well. Most notably, Prescod sets a clean edge even if he is not yet fully grown. He also has some power to his blocks, while still needing to add 20-30 pounds of muscle.

If that day comes, Hiestand’s, Rudolph’s and Notre Dame’s expectations of Prescod as a prospect should become reality.

The third offensive lineman in the class, he joins four-star Peter Jones (Roswell; Ga.) and three-star Anthonie Knapp (Malvern Prep; Penn.).

The combination of Young and Prescod brings the Irish class of 2024 to 19 total commits, the most in the country at the moment. Notre Dame ranks No. 2 in class rankings, per rivals.com, behind only Georgia (with 17 commitments) and ahead of Michigan (17), LSU (16) and Penn State (17).

This is the second year in a row the Irish have spent the summer in the top three, falling to No. 11 when all was said and done last cycle. There are obviously no assurances another such late drop will not befall Notre Dame, but regardless, the summer momentum furthers the Irish coaching staff’s recruiting pitch.

Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 76 Joe Alt, first-team All-American left tackle

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Listed measurements: 6-foot-8, 315 pounds.
2023-24 year, eligibility: A junior, Alt has two years of eligibility remaining.
Depth Chart: Alt will be the Irish starting left tackle this fall, not surprising given he will be the first-team All-American left tackle in most, if not all, preseason considerations.
Recruiting: Notre Dame recruited Alt as an offensive lineman when he was a 240-pound tight end. He was up to 280 pounds by the time he signed with the Irish in December of 2020, still needing to add weight as his frame continued to grow.

Throughout that entire process, he remained a three-star prospect despite his father’s NFL pedigree, a 13-year NFL tackle. Few three-star recruits are drafted, even fewer are surefire first-round draft picks, and fewer yet are All-Americans as sophomores.

CAREER TO DATE
Alt’s career hit the fast track when injuries to three young tackles ahead of him in the first month of the 2021 season left Notre Dame with no choice but to throw him into a starting role; less than two years after Alt was a high school tight end, he was the starting left tackle following in the footsteps of Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey.

There is obviously no way to ever know how long it would have taken Alt to blossom on Saturdays if not for the back-to-back-to-back injuries of Blake Fisher’s torn meniscus, Tosh Baker’s concussion and Michael Carmody’s sprained ankle in September of 2021, but it is an entertaining parlor wonder.

Instead, Alt will go down as a three-year starter at left tackle, not missing a game in 2022. Counting this coming season, Alt will be the fifth consistent starter at left tackle for the Irish in the last 14 seasons. Three of those previous four were drafted in the top 20 with Liam Eichenberg going No. 42 overall in 2021.

2021: 13 games, 8 starts.
2022: 13 starts.

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
Logically, Alt is likely making more this year than all but one or two other players on Notre Dame’s roster. Given he has proven himself and will consistently be a headline player in 2023, even as an offensive lineman, that should not surprise anyone.

Much of that income will not be noticed publicly, but some of it will come from the most obvious of sources, working with the next generation of players.

This space has said it before, and it will say it again. The NCAA’s prohibiting players from working in camps like that up until a few years ago was the most obtuse of its many obtuse policies.

Alt will also profit off sports cards and signing them. Again, an obvious thing that was never going to harm anyone except the NCAA’s monopoly and schools’ control of players, which is why it was outlawed for so long.

QUOTES
When Harry Hiestand retired, it was generally understood Irish head coach Marcus Freeman would have his pick of offensive line coaches from across the country. Notre Dame returns three veteran starters up front, including a clear first-round draft pick in Alt. That line should make its position coach look good the next couple of years. Pulling Joe Rudolph out of Virginia Tech, where Rudolph had made a long-term commitment just a year ago, proved that understanding to be true.

“Some guys just have amazing talent,” Rudolph said of Alt in mid-April. “Amazing athleticism, amazing size.

“And then there’s some guys that just have the quality of leadership and the grit and the way they’re going to get it done in the moment. They’re going to be a great leader and make guys around them better. You don’t always find that all in one guy.

“He’s as close as I’ve got to see all of that in one guy. He brings it from all facets, and it’s much appreciated. … Very unique young man.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“If Alt was able to help solidify the Irish line, along with left guard Andrew Kristofic stepping in for Zeke Correll, with his size after just one summer in a collegiate strength and conditioning program, then all expectations should be fast-forwarded even further. It defies logic to think someone once projected as a possible 2024 contributor could now be a stalwart on the Notre Dame line in 2022, but Alt has made that a potential reality.

“That is not meant to jump the proverbial shark or to move the figurative goal posts. It is just the possible continuation of Alt’s rapid ascent.

“At the absolute least, he should start throughout the season, barring injury. His length was what made Alt an intriguing prospect as a recruit, along with his lineage. Taking so well to adding weight already should make him durable, as well.

“He will give up some sacks, just as he did early in his first start, but that is the inevitability of the position. Under returned offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s eye for fundamentals, Alt should correct those mistakes shortly after he makes them. That could make for a very impressive November.”

2023 OUTLOOK
Alt ended last season as a first-team All-American. Remember: He was recruited as a project, not as a three-and-done, multi-year All-American first-round draft pick.

Walter Camp has already named him a preseason first-team All-American for 2023, and a pile more of those nods should come before the season. So his 2023 will be marked by three possibilities: unanimous All-American, Outland Trophy, Joe Moore Award.

If Alt pulls off those first two, Notre Dame will be in good position for the third, the honor given to the best offensive line every season. If that becomes reality, then the Irish ceiling in 2023 ticks toward Playoff contender.

There are few other ways to genuinely track a left tackle, but Ohio State’s primetime visit on Sept. 23 will shine a light on Alt. Buckeyes junior defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau could be a top-15 pick in the spring. Alt faced a similar prospect last season, not giving up a pressure to Clemson defensive end Myles Murphy on 15 snaps matched up against each other. Worth noting: Murphy went No. 28 in the NFL draft.

DOWN THE ROAD
There is an easy way to judge the veracity of a 2024 mock draft right now: Is Alt in the top 15? If not, find a more in-touch analyst.

Not much else needs to be said here. If Alt is looking at a top-15 projection, and that is on the low end, no one in South Bend should try to dissuade him from jumping to the NFL. Tosh Baker or Blake Fisher should assuage most 2024 worries about the left tackle position.

Some pieces of context to Notre Dame left tackles in the NFL draft to remember when Alt hears his name called:

2014: Four-year starter Zack Martin goes No. 16 overall.
2016: Two-year starting left tackle Ronnie Stanley goes No. 6 overall.
2018: Two-year starting left tackle Mike McGlinchey goes No. 9 overall.
2021: Three-year starting left tackle Liam Eichenberg goes No. 42 overall.

NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
The summer countdown begins anew, Rylie Mills to Deion Colzie
No. 99 Rylie Mills, senior defensive tackle, moving back inside from end
No. 98 Devan Houstan, early-enrolled four-star defensive tackle
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, junior defensive tackle, one of three Irish DTs with notable experience
No. 95 Tyson Ford, sophomore defensive tackle, up 30 pounds from a year ago
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, a senior defensive tackle now ‘fully healthy’ after a 2022 torn ACL
No. 91 Aiden Gobaira, sophomore defensive end, former four-star recruit
No. 90* Brenan Vernon, incoming freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 90* Boubacar Traore, incoming freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, the next starter at ‘TE U’
No. 86* Cooper Flanagan, incoming freshman tight end, four-star recruit
No. 85 Holden Staes, sophomore tight end, up 20 pounds in a year
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, senior tight end coming off a torn ACL
No. 83 Jayden Thomas, junior receiver, probable No. 1 target in 2023
No. 79 Tosh Baker, senior tackle, again a backup but next year …
No. 78 Pat Coogan, junior interior offensive lineman
No. 77 Ty Chan, sophomore offensive tackle, former four-star recruit
Rhode Island transfer safety Antonio Carter gives Notre Dame desperately needed backline depth
Penn State RB transfer Devyn Ford gives Notre Dame newly-needed backfield depth, experience