And in that corner…The Michigan State Spartans

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After two straight games where the Irish were expected to win, No. 20 Notre Dame faces the first significant test of the 2012 season when they head to East Lansing as underdogs to take on No. 10 Michigan State. The Spartans are the early favorite in the Big Ten, winning an opening week showdown against Boise State before dominating Central Michigan.

A year after a disappointing loss to the Irish in South Bend, the Spartans seek to enact some revenge. With a defense that’s one of the nation’s best, but some question marks on the offensive side of the ball, we tracked down Ben Wilensky of  The Only Colors and got his take on this year’s Spartan squad.

1. On paper, the Spartans look every bit the Rose Bowl contenders they were expected to be. They gutted out a tough victory against Boise State and breezed to a win against Central Michigan. Take a snapshot after two games. Have there been any surprises or disappointments?

In short, MSU is 2-0, the defense has been terrific, and the majority of the other Big Ten contenders’ play so far can be best described as somewhere between disappointing and dismal. So, yeah, things are a-okay in East Lansing.

To add a bit more detail: the game against Boise State was close – although not nearly as close as the final score indicates, as MSU kneeled on the ball twice inside the BSU 5 yard line to end the game – but MSU was clearly the better team, dominating yardage, time of possession, and nearly every important statistic aside from turnovers. (More about those turnovers in a bit.) Yes, Boise is in rebuilding mode, but they’ve built their entire program on winning early-season games against powerhouse teams … and MSU escaped unscathed. The only real negative from the Boise game was the passing game – which turned around in a big way against Central Michigan, when Andrew Maxwell went 20-31 for 275 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Meanwhile, opponents have scored 20 points in two games against the Spartans. 14 have come by way of pick sixes (one thrown by Andrew Maxwell in the Boise game, and one by his backup, Connor Cook, against CMU), and 3 of the points happened when Boise took over at the MSU 22 yard line. That leaves one solitary field goal that can be fully charged against the defense.

The surprise is that everything has gone so well so far; there really isn’t much to complain about. There have been isolated disappointments – Maxwell’s performance against Boise, the relative lack of pass rush at times, some struggles with pass protection against Boise – but even those have been either improved (Maxwell) or totally nitpicky. The bottom line is that the team has looked every bit as good as Spartan fans hoped it would.

2. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell rebounded after a disastrous start to the season. How confident are you in the Spartans’ passing game, with the first-time starting quarterback tasked with building chemistry with an almost entirely new receiving corps? How often do you see Michigan State throwing the football on Saturday?

“Disastrous” is probably a bit strong. Maxwell definitely had struggles against against Boise, but of the three interceptions he threw, the first was not at all his fault, the second was, at most, partially his fault, while the third was his fault. The interceptions all occurred in the first half. In the second half, Maxwell was 10-15, including 5-5 in the critical last two drives of the game, where, in turn, MSU took the lead and then closed the game out. Against CMU, Maxwell was really quite good. He struggled a bit in the first two series of the game, when the wind was blowing very hard, but after that he was very good.

Many of Maxwell’s errors have occurred when he has thrown fastballs where changeups would do; the coaching staff apparently has been working with him on putting a bit more touch on his passes. He has struggled a bit when under heavy rush, so I’d expect ND to blitz often. Overall, however, he’s exactly what he appeared to be at the beginning of the season: immensely talented, but inexperienced. That inexperience has resulted in mistakes, but taken as a whole, the good has outweighed the bad.

The wide receivers are quite inexperienced, as you described. What they lack in experience, however, they make up for in sheer numbers, as 10 different players caught passes against Central Michigan. Bennie Fowler is probably the best of the bunch; he’s fast and physical and had a big day against CMU last week. Tony Lippett had a nightmare game against Boise State, and (probably as a result) received less playing time against CMU. But, he’s big and fast and will probably still play a role on Saturday. Keith Mumphery took much of Lippett’s playing time against CMU and acquitted himself fairly well. The remaining receivers are young but talented. DeAnthony Arnett is the most well-known, as he was impressive for Tennessee last year and then transferred to MSU. He has only one reception on the year, but it was for 48 yards. Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings are both freshmen who show quite a bit of promise.

The best receiver on the team – and at the very least, Maxwell’s favorite receiver – may be Dion Sims, the tight end, whose 10 catches this season have all resulted in first downs. Sims made some terrific plays in the second half against Boise, and at 6’5”, 285 he presents all kinds of matchup problems.

For obvious reasons, the offense is built around Le’Veon Bell, and I expect that won’t change against ND. However, I think there will be a concerted effort to establish the passing game, particularly given that the secondary seems to be the weakest part on the Irish defense. Bell nearly won the Boise game on his own; I doubt that he can do that against Notre Dame, and I doubt even more strongly that the coaching staff will ask him to do so. I’d expect to see quite a bit of passing on Saturday.

3. That’s two games without giving up an offensive touchdown. Eight starters return on a defense that was already pretty good. How good is this unit? Elite? On paper, it seems rock solid at all three levels — where should the Irish offense attack?

I’d take the MSU defense over any in the country save Alabama and maybe LSU. I suspect that Irish fans are a bit skeptical as ND had quite a bit of success on offense last year. Make no mistake, that was by far the worst game the defense played all season, and they’ve been absolutely terrific since then.

There are very few weaknesses. The linebackers are smart and very, very strong against the run. The secondary is shutdown-quality, and I think Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard may be the best pair of cornerbacks in the country. William Gholston is a terrorbeast at one defensive end – and if anything, Marcus Rush’s statistics at the other end are even better. They were incredible against Boise, repeatedly bailing out the offense. Notre Dame will present a bigger test, and I expect that they’ll give up their first touchdown of the year, but it will not come easy for the Irish.

If there’s one weak point on the defense, it’s probably on the interior of the line. The Spartans really miss Jerel Worthy’s pass rushing skills and big-play ability – though it’s probably unreasonable to expect to replace a player like that. MSU’s defensive tackles haven’t been able to generate much pass rush. So, the two-headed Golson/Rees monster may have more time to throw than you might expect. (They’ll still have to deal with the secondary.)

That said, CMU had some success running the ball to the outside. (CMU’s success was limited, however: all CMU running backs combined for a total of 88 rushing yards). As my co-author KJ wrote, “Given the insanely small rush defense numbers MSU posted against Boise, we’ll chalk that up to the “nobody’s perfect” category.” Furthermore, neither Boise nor CMU were able to run the ball on the inside at all. Still, if you’re looking for something to exploit, that may be it – and given Cierre Wood’s speed, I bet ND will try to run him to the outside.

4. Last year, the Spartans offensive line was learning on the fly. This year, some expected it to be the strongest of Dantonio’s offensive fronts. After putting the game on Le’Veon Bell’s back against Boise State, the Spartans didn’t run the ball as effectively as you’d have expected in their easy win over Central Michigan. A fluke? How will this OL match up with an Irish front seven that’s just outside the top ten in sacks?

I don’t think the sample size is big enough yet to call anything a fluke. But, I’m not particularly concerned. No doubt based on what they saw against Boise, CMU really stacked the box against MSU and dared Maxwell to beat them. Which he did. (And bear in mind, Bell still had two touchdowns before he was effectively shut down during the second half.) Bell was fine, and his carries were limited enough for him to be fresh for the ND game, which was the more important result anyway.

Overall, MSU’s offensive line has been good if not great. More than 80 of Bell’s yards against Boise came after contact, and those yards are all his – but the offensive line put him in a position to get those yards by repeatedly opening up holes for him.

The pass protection is a bit more of a concern – though, again, it’s a limited concern, because Maxwell hasn’t been sacked yet this year. Still, Boise had 7 hurries, and Maxwell made some poor decisions as a result of those hurries. I bet that ND will be able to get some pressure, and it’ll lead to at least one interception.

5. The Spartans are a four-to-five point favorite in Las Vegas. Is that how you see it? What does Michigan State have to do to hold off the Irish?

Given the home field advantage, that seems about right. I know that some Spartan fans are very, very confident about this game. I think MSU has a better team than Notre Dame, but ND is better than Boise State, and MSU didn’t exactly blow out the Broncos.

To win the game, MSU’s offensive line needs to fight ND’s defensive line to at least a draw. I think that’s the strongest unit for the Irish, and if ND wins that battle decisively, I think you’ll see a young quarterback (Maxwell) make some mistakes that MSU may not be able to recover from. Even if things go really poorly, I can’t see the Irish scoring more than 21 – 24 points. So, MSU’s offense doesn’t have to put up huge numbers, but I don’t think Bell can do it on his own – and for Maxwell to be successful, he’s going to need pass protection.

6. Any advice for Notre Dame on beating the Wolverines? Mark Dantonio seems to have the maize and blue figured out.

The best way to beat them is to totally overlook the MSU game and focus entirely on beating Michigan. I wholeheartedly endorse that plan.

More seriously, blitz Denard Robinson like there’s no tomorrow. He’ll probably slip out of the pressure once or twice for big gains, but he also makes terrible decisions under pressure. On offense, my usual answer would be to pound them with the running game, because their defensive line really isn’t good and their linebackers aren’t terrific either. But with the loss of Blake Countess, they’re really thin at cornerback. (The safeties, especially Kovacs, are pretty good.) The Michigan defense is much, much sounder than they were under Rodriguez, but it’s still filled with average players who played way above their pay grade last year, and are now coming back down to earth. (Man oh man do they miss Martin and Van Bergen.) I bet you’ll beat them this year.

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