And in that corner… The Oklahoma Sooners

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Broken streaks. Stolen slogans. Biggest game in a decade. It’s the kind of hype most Notre Dame fans didn’t see possible heading into this season, but with the Irish at 7-0 and No. 5 in the country, just about every fan under the Golden Dome is hoping for this magical ride to continue.

If it will, Notre Dame will have to pull off their most impressive road win in a decade. Beating Bob Stoops’ Sooners, a squad that has an outrageous 79-4 record at home, will be a herculean task. To give us a better idea of what the Irish are up against, I’ve brought in the Oklahoman’s Jason Kersey, who covers the daily beat on the Sooners. In an incredibly busy week, Jason has gone above and beyond for us, and he’s laid out some really strong stuff.

Let’s get right down to it.

1. Before the season, this game looked like a good one. Now it looks like a great one. Most had Oklahoma pegged as an elite team, not many had Notre Dame there. Bob Stoops called this the biggest game his team’s had since 2000. Could that possibly be the case? Just how fired up are the Sooners (and their fans) for this game?

I definitely think — especially from the fans’ perspective — the Notre Dame game is the most anticipated home game since Nebraska in 2000. That game had a special feel to it because the Sooners were nationally relevant again after the largely forgettable 1990s. In Bob Stoops’ second year, the Sooners were ranked No. 2 in the BCS standings, and Nebraska came in at No. 1. Add in the classic Oklahoma-Nebraska, Barry Switzer-Tom Osborne rivalry from the Big Eight era, and it just made the whole thing such a special moment in Sooner football history.

OU has been in a couple top-10 battles since then — the most memorable coming when the 2008 Sooners beat No. 2 Texas Tech in a rout, which ultimately vauled the Sooners into the national title game — but the reason Nebraska in 2000 and Notre Dame in 2012 are being compared is mostly because of history. This Saturday’s game was already going to be special for OU fans because it pits traditional powers, the Irish snapped Bud Wilkinson’s 47-game win streak and the fact that Notre Dame football hasn’t visited Norman since 1966.

But the excitement surrounding this game has increased exponentially because of how good Notre Dame has played so far. With OU having one loss, this game is viewed by everyone around the program as a huge opportunity to knock off a top-5 team on national television and jump all the way back in the national-title conversation.

OU players really don’t seem to know or care all that much about OU’s 1-8 record against Notre Dame, the busted win streak or the Fighting Irish’s 13 national titles. They’re fired up to face a great team at home with so many of their 2012 goals on the line.

2. Notre Dame feels battle-tested after beating seven legitimate opponents to start the season, even if some of those teams have disappointed. The Sooners have played three mediocre teams (UTEP, Florida A&M, and Kansas ) looked really good against Texas and Texas Tech, while losing to a K-State team that was flying under the radar.

The common thought is that the Sooners are playing their best football at an opportune time. Is that the case? If so, what did this team need to straighten out?

Yes, Oklahoma is absolutely playing its best football right now, and yes, it couldn’t come at a better time. With a No. 8 BCS ranking and a pretty tough remaining schedule, the Sooners are right in the thick of the BCS race, which seemed crazy to even think about after the first three games of the season. Less than two months ago, this very team was clinging to a 10-7, fourth-quarter lead on UTEP for crying out loud.

The early-season struggles can be attributed to a lot of things, but I think the biggest causes were inexperience at offensive line and receiver, which each caused QB Landry Jones to have some early problems, and adjusting to Mike Stoops’ tweaked defensive system.

Entering the Notre Dame game, though, OU’s defense looks excellent. The receivers have developed quickly, and the offensive line has jelled. The Sooners’ line lost two seniors — center Ben Habern and guard Tyler Evans — to season-ending injuries right around the time fall camp started. Those guys had 59 career starts between them.

3. Oklahoma’s defense has been solid with Mike Stoops back in Norman. It certainly isn’t the Sooners’ biggest or most physical group, but the secondary seems to be a strength and they’ve been pretty good against the run. Is Notre Dame’s resurgent running game its best shot to put up points on the Sooners? Is there a match-up that looks good for the Irish?

The defense has really been pretty good for most of the season, with a few breakdowns here and there early on. UTEP running back Nathan Jeffery had a big game in the opener. Kansas State had success in the fourth quarter that allowed the Wildcats to win, but for the first three quarters, OU really handled Collin Klein and the KSU offense pretty well.

The biggest difference in the OU defense between its first three and last three games has been takeaways. The Sooners only forced one turnover in the first three, but over the last three, they’ve got nine takeaways.

The secondary has definitely been a strength. Mike Stoops’ scheme really funnels plays to the defensive backs, which is why they are many of OU’s leading tacklers. Juniors Aaron Colvin and Tony Jefferson have been the defense’s top players this season.

Considering how OU’s 2011 season ended, it’s crazy to think how good the secondary is playing right now. That very unit — and most of those very players — was largely responsible for OU’s three losses last year.

I think Notre Dame will give itself its best chance at success by finding ways to stay on the field and control the clock with the run game. With how good this defense is playing right now, it won’t be easy, but it definitely isn’t impossible.

4. On the other side of the ball, Landry Jones has played a lot of football. Oklahoma is scoring a ton of points, doing it with an efficient running game and a strong passing game. Obviously, K-State had some success against the Sooners’ offense, but where do you see Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell attacking Notre Dame’s defense? Will they utilize the hurry-up?

Kansas State ’s defense was successful against OU because it forced Landry Jones into mistakes, which he’s shown a propensity to make when he’s put under that kind of pressure. He’s looked much, much better and more poised the last three weeks in the pocket, even under pressure, but Notre Dame is an entirely different animal with that big-time defensive front.

I don’t think the Irish have seen anything quite like OU’s no-huddle, pass-heavy offense this season, though, so I think Sooner coaches will try to take advantage of that and keep Notre Dame on its heels. If OU can shock-and-awe Notre Dame early with some big plays — which they’ve been capable of in both the pass and run games — I would think that gives the Sooners a big edge for the rest of the game, especially with the home crowd. Not saying that will be easy at all, because I know how good the Irish are defensively, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see OU dial up some home-run plays early.

5. I was surprised when I saw the gambling line open up with the Sooners a commanding 9.5 point favorite. The Irish certainly haven’t been winning with style points, but does this seem right to you? What’s the key to an underdog Irish team beating Oklahoma ? How do the Sooners avoid the upset?

I honestly wasn’t very surprised by the line. Notre Dame is a top-5 team and has absolutely earned that ranking by winning all its games through a pretty tough schedule, and an Irish win definitely isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

But right now, Oklahoma is playing at such a high level on offense, defense and in special teams — last week vs. Kansas, OU returned both a kick and a punt for touchdowns in one game for the first time ever — that I just don’t see the Sooners losing Saturday.

I think the most likely scenario resulting in a Notre Dame win is if it follows Kansas State ’s model of putting major pressure on Landry Jones, making him uncomfortable in the pocket and forcing some turnovers. That could possibly keep the game low-scoring enough for Notre Dame to win it.

On offense, the Irish need to run the ball effectively, convert lots of third downs and control the clock. Brian Kelly said during his news conference Tuesday that Oklahoma is extremely tough to beat when it is scores lots of points and makes big plays. As good as they’ve been defensively, I’m just not convinced the Irish have enough experience against this offensive attack to limit it the way Notre Dame would need to in order to leave Norman with national-title hopes still intact.

***

For more from Jason, check out all his excellent work in sports section of the Oklahoman, the Sooners Sports Blog, or his Twitter feed @JasonKersey.

 

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