Five things we’ll learn: Spring football kicks off

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When Brian Kelly steps in front of the podium at the Guglielmino Athletic Complex Tuesday afternoon, he’ll be a man facing a drastically different set of expectations. Gone are the question marks about the coach from a sheer survival perspective. Last season’s 12-1 record, and the still-in-progress long term contract extension mean Jack Swarbrick has found his man. But with success comes a new set of goals. Yet before we get there, it’s worth taking a look back at where the football team was this time last year.

After a disappointing close to recruiting, Kelly made radical changes to his staff. Part out of necessity, but mostly to acknowledge the need to get better on offense. Some changes were jump-started by Ed Warinner and Tim Hinton’s move to Ohio State, where they joined Urban Meyer’s coaching staff. Charley Molnar took over UMass’ football program, in what seemed to some a coaching golden parachute, allowing Kelly to move his longtime confidant Chuck Martin to the offensive side of the ball.

Reconfiguring the staff wasn’t the only hurdle for a head coach that put together back-to-back 8-5 seasons. A four-quarterback competition needed to conclude with a signal-caller, however raw, that would stop turning the football over. Talk about counter-intuitive.

The blue-print that was laid in the long winter months of conditioning obviously was executed to incredible success last year, with an improbable run to the BCS Championship game. Before Kelly kicks off the 2013 season in earnest, let’s take a look at five things we’re likely to learn this spring.

***

Everett Golson will become the offensive identity of this football team.

In his first three seasons, Brian Kelly leaned on his top playmakers to power the offense. For two years, that meant pushing the football to wide receiver Michael Floyd. Last year, that meant leaning on Theo Riddick and All-American Tyler Eifert. But for the first time since taking over the Irish program, Kelly’s top offensive weapon is his quarterback. And that mean’s junior Everett Golson needs to step forward into the spotlight.

Golson’s debut season was impressive. Learning on the fly, Golson — along with some help from Tommy Rees — piloted the Irish through some rocky waters on the way to an undefeated regular season. For a young starter who many assumed was prone to turnovers, he did an impressive job holding onto the football. He also showed the type of athleticism that you can’t teach, improvising with his legs while creating plays downfield. He also showed a flair for the dramatic, with his late game heroics beating Pitt to continue the Irish’s dream season.

In 2013, Golson needs to elevate his game. The offense needs to move because of him, not in spite of him. Kelly finally has a quarterback of his molding steering the ship. Without a singular talent to push the offense through, it’s up to his quarterback to steer this team forward.

***

On the field, we’ll see what the defense looks like in life after Manti Te’o.

If there’s a gigantic hole in the Irish defense, it’s the loss of Manti Te’o. For the past four seasons, Te’o was the one constant at the epicenter of a unit that improved every season. This spring, we’ll get a look at Kelly and Bob Diaco’s plan for what the Irish defense looks like without the All-American, and what the Irish will do at both inside linebacker positions.

For the past two seasons, Diaco has used Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox as complimentary pieces next to Te’o. They’ll now be given the opportunity to play next to each other. Also added to the equation is Jarrett Grace, a promising young linebacker that’s waited his turn. Kendall Moore will also likely take this spring to force himself back onto the radar, a veteran that’s flashed big play potential but never had the chance to see consistent minutes.

Before Te’o’s breakout 2012 season, Diaco’s inside linebackers were often susceptible to the playaction pass game, caught playing downhill while quarterbacks took advantage of the soft zone behind them. Replacing a 100-tackle linebacker, who also was one of the nation’s leaders in takeaways, is no easy task. While that certainly won’t take place in fifteen practices, we’ll get a look at the staff’s early plans to move on with life after Te’o.

***

In the locker room, we’ll see what the leadership of this team looks like in life after Manti Te’o.

As important as Te’o was to the team on the field, he provided more off of it. Before we ever heard the name Lennay Kekua or Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, Te’o helped completely transform the culture of the Irish football program. The veteran linebacker provided transcendent leadership, bridging the gap between coaching staffs, while helping a roster filled with Charlie Weis players buy into Brian Kelly’s tough-love approach.

If there was a benefit to Te’o’s public humiliation, it’s that this football team sees that Te’o isn’t a deity. While his embarrassment may temporarily knock Te’o of the Irish’s Mount Rushmore, it will also allow others to feel worthy of stepping into his shoes. These past few months helped remind everyone that Manti Te’o was just a kid playing football. He’s already given teammates like Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Bennett Jackson a perfect person to emulate. But his story has also pushed him enough off the pedestal for his former teammates to realize Te’o was also human as well.

Can George Atkinson develop the complete skillset to compliment his home run potential?

With two seasons under his belt and a depth chart that’s wide open in front of him, George Atkinson will be given every opportunity to be the big play leader of this offense. But he’ll have to show that he’s mature enough to take on the responsibility.

As we saw last season, Brian Kelly is more interested in having a running back he can trust than one that shows glimpses of greatness. That meant Theo Riddick getting the lion’s share of carries, even if Cierre Wood was the better home run threat. That also meant limiting Atkinson to single-digit touches, even though he had the world-class speed needed to be a big-play threat every time he touched the ball.

Not many players in college football are bigger home run threats than Atkinson. Yet the growing pains Atkinson has battled through the past two seasons, which included learning the position on the fly, need to be conquered heading into his third year.

He’s got the size, speed and strength needed to be the most complete back of the Kelly era. Now he’s got to take control of the job.

***

Finding the right combination on the interior of the offensive line is one of spring’s main objectives.

Returning three starting offensive linemen is a good start. But finding a replacement for two key interior spots will be one of spring’s main objectives. Gone are Braxston Cave and Mike Golic, the former a key three year starter while the latter played productive minutes the past two seasons. In their place will be youthful replacements — and could likely trigger a few dominoes as Kelly and Harry Hiestand determine the best starting five.

After battling back from a scary heart procedure, Matt Hegarty is a capable option at center. So are Mark Harrell and Nick Martin, who both have the ability to play guard as well. With Conor Hanratty and Bruce Heggie also competing, there are a variety of scenarios that could cause a ripple effect up front for the Irish.

While Zack Martin, Chris Watt and Christian Lombard all return, where they return might be the question. Consider Martin locked in at left tackle. But Lombard has been pegged by many to be a better guard than tackle and Watt has spent time cross-training as a center. If the Irish want to spread out some of their youth, there’s a version of the offensive line that moves Watt to the middle and Lombard to guard, allowing promising youngster Ronnie Stanley (or early enrollee Steve Elmer) the opportunity to take over at right tackle.

All of this is a long way from being decided, and Hiestand will likely work with a shortened deck, with line numbers still thin until reinforcements come this summer. But finding a center that can athletically fit the system will be the next step in the offensive line’s evolution, and will be one of the keys to improving the run game.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 82 Nic Weishar, tight end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ¾, 245 pounds.
2018-19 year, eligibility: Fifth-year tight end with only eligibility in 2018 remaining.
Depth chart: The springtime emergence of sophomore Cole Kmet bumped Weishar down to third on the depth chart among Notre Dame’s tight ends, but in Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system with a dependence on multiple tight end sets, Weishar should still be considered part of the two-deep.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American, rivals.com rated Weishar as the No. 7 tight end in his class. He chose Notre Dame over offers from Michigan, Ohio State and Oklahoma, among others.

CAREER TO DATE
Weishar’s career has been spent backing up future NFL tight ends, including fourth-round pick Durham Smythe. That has limited his statistical impact to date, highlighted by his nine catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns last season, including an impressive display of strong hands in the end zone in the season opener against Temple.

2014: Preserved a year of eligibility.
2015: 12 games; three catches for 19 yards.
2016: 12 games; three catches for 47 yards.
2017: 13 games; nine catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns.

QUOTE(S)
Known commodities are not discussed much in the spring. Tracing back to September, Irish head coach Brian Kelly frequently praised Weishar’s hands and tenacity.

“He can catch the damn football,” Kelly said following the victory over Temple. “Doesn’t matter where you throw it. … He created that on his own, and he’s just had so much confidence in the way he’s been playing and it’s carried over.”

Weishar’s skillset extends beyond his hands and to his willingness to engage as a blocker. In some respects, that combination makes him the ideal red-zone tight end.

“He will stick his nose in there,” Kelly said in late September. “… He’s got some grit and toughness to him. We all know he can catch the football, but it’s hard to take him off the field because he’ll throw his body in there and he’ll do whatever is necessary to get the job done.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“[Equanimeous] St. Brown’s breakout campaign last year, [Miles] Boykin’s strong spring showing, sophomore receiver Chase Claypool’s intriguing potential and [Alizé] Mack’s return all diminish Weishar’s role in the Irish offense.

“If Mack were to flash the inconsistency or immaturity that cost him the 2016 season, suddenly Weishar would be back in the conversation. Offensive coordinator Chip Long has a history of using two tight ends. That makes the third spot on the tight end depth chart less the figurative imprisonment sentence it usually would be. Provided Smythe and Mack both stay healthy and in good graces, though, Weishar’s path to significant playing time in 2017 may have closed.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Notre Dame may hope Weishar hardly impacts the season. That would mean both Mack and Kmet play well enough to be featured throughout three months. Considering the former’s track record of inconsistency and immaturity and the latter’s résumé consisting solely of a solid spring, the odds of both Mack and Kmet playing to their potentials are slim.

It is more likely Weishar’s experience and veteran savvy is needed by midseason, if not sooner. His red-zone presence alone should lead to him equaling last year’s meager stats.

If the former situation unfolds, Weishar will assuredly deserve some of the credit even as his role is reduced. His mentorship may be what anchors the tight end meetings and development as a whole.

DOWN THE ROAD
Weishar will not start against Michigan, so if he does not get drafted he will not jeopardize the lengthy streak of starting Irish tight ends hearing their name called by an NFL front office. That is not to say Weishar has no chance at getting drafted. After all, former Irish tight end Ben Koyack was drafted in the seventh round, and at this point in his career, he had totaled only 14 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns, not all that much more than Weishar’s 15 receptions for 118 yards and two scores to date.

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

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 83 Chase Claypool, receiver

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 3/8, 229 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Junior with two seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Claypool’s positioning on the depth chart hinges on how he compares to sophomore Michael Young. One of the two will be the second option among the receivers, earning the starting duties at the field receiver position, with the other lining up in the slot and splitting time with the tight ends. If focusing solely on three-receiver sets, Claypool may yet line up at slot, providing a physical option on the interior while Young threatens the top of the secondary.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, the intriguing Canadian chose the Irish over offers from Michigan, Oregon and Arizona, among others. Do not think Claypool’s development has been slowed by crossing the border. He insists the only difference in the game in arriving at Notre Dame was the speed on the field, a typical challenge for anyone coming from high school, no matter the country.

CAREER TO DATE
Claypool’s initial impact may have come on special teams, making 11 tackles in 12 games as a freshman, but he broke through as a receiver in 2017, especially against Wake Forest when he caught nine passes for 180 yards and a touchdown. He started eight games and finished the season second on the team in both catches and receiving yards, trailing Equanimeous St. Brown in each category.

Claypool missed the Citrus Bowl against LSU with a shoulder injury, but was ready for full contact in spring practice by early April.

2016: 12 games, five catches for 81 yards.
2017: 12 games, 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns.
2018 Blue-Gold Game: Six catches for 151 yards and two scores.

QUOTE(S)
Irish head coach Brian Kelly suggested in early April he expects Claypool to wind up in the field position. His physical abilities certainly would make him a threat along the sideline.

“We think that’s where he can best impact what we want to do,” Kelly said. “Chase is a young man that the attention to detail, the focus, he’s got to bring traits every day. He’s a great-looking kid (physically). He can make plays. We just have to keep working the process with him.

“If he just respects the process and sticks with it, he’s going to be a really good player.”

On one hand that process takes time. On the other, it is expedited when a player buys in entirely, something Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long was still waiting for from Claypool this spring.

“We’re still counting on him to grow,” Long said April 12. “Obviously, he is a great talent. … The moment he decides that, he’s going to be a big-time player. The shoulder held him back a little bit, so he’s kind of getting into the flow of things.

“When he decides he wants to be great, he’s going to be great.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Long’s predilection to larger receivers fits in with his tendencies to utilize two tight ends. In some alternate universe, Long has not arrived at Notre Dame and Claypool’s career could have an entirely different direction.

“Sending Claypool’s frame on quick routes across the middle should provide quarterback Brandon Wimbush an especially-dynamic safety valve of sorts. Typically the last read is a running back in the flat or a tight end on a delayed release. That is not to say Claypool will be the last read — he won’t be. It is to say envisioning him running a five-yard slant from the slot position is to foresee a can’t-miss target only a few yards away from the quarterback.

“The slot obviously does other things, and Claypool will do them. The point here is to illustrate some of why Long may want to try such height and length at a position usually reserved for shifty converted running backs.

“This season’s ceiling for Claypool may be about 30 catches and a couple scores.”

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

2018 OUTLOOK
Where does one collect his winnings for nailing the projection of Claypool’s 2017? Oh, sports gambling was not legal yet? Too bad.

Looking forward, it may hardly matter if Claypool or Young ends up the No. 2 receiver. Their opportunities opposite senior Miles Boykin may come down to situation and matchup. If a third-and-goal against USC with 6-foot-2 safety Marvell Tell providing man coverage now that cornerback Jack Jones has been ruled out for the season (academics), then perhaps simply throwing a jump ball to Claypool may be the best option.

Expecting a player to replicate the previous season’s numbers does not usually sound like progress. When suggesting Claypool again end up with 30 catches for a few hundred yards and a couple touchdowns, the more demanding hope would be he avoid Saturday afternoons with none or only one reception, as happened four times in 2017. Some of last year’s ups-and-downs may be attributed to the inconsistent quarterback play, but Claypool was equally unreliable. Overcoming that would mean Kelly’s and Long’s spring-long messages were heard and tended to.

DOWN THE ROAD
Claypool and Boykin are on the same timeline in terms of eligibility, but Claypool has put up more career stats than the senior, yet Boykin’s Citrus Bowl heroics and solid spring performance have established him as the top receiver heading into 2018. Claypool (and Young) will have a chance to change that. Whichever receiver proves the steadiest in September will presumably become the primary target through the rest of the fall.

Claypool has the talent to do that. After his acknowledgements of that ceiling — and the emotions that have kept him from it, following the Blue-Gold Game on April 21 — perhaps he can finally capitalize on that potential in his final year of eligibility in 2019. In that instance, Claypool undoubtedly has the physical gifts to entice NFL front offices.

RELATED READING: Claypool’s emotions could set the ceiling on Notre Dame’s receivers

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

Monday’s Leftovers: On gambling and Notre Dame’s 2018 odds; With links to read

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Just about every sports website last week bore a version of the same headline: “Sports gambling is now legal!” This site did not, in no small part because wagering on sports is hardly more legal now than it was two weeks ago, and for the vast majority of us, that will not change between now and the start of Notre Dame’s season.

The Supreme Court did not legalize sports gambling across the United States; it removed the illegality of 46 states individually deciding to allow sports gambling. Few states will pass such laws and host operating sportsbooks before Sept. 1. Those that do are likely to be confined to the Atlantic Coast (as in New Jersey and possibly Delaware).

Even if those headlines had been completely accurate, the greatest purpose of including sports gambling in an intelligent discourse does not change. More than a means to make money — it barely ever is, and the only true exceptions include a boxer beating up on a mixed martial arts fighter in a squared circle — gambling odds offer a truer and more precise method of predictive evaluation than hot takes and polls do. When they were mentioned around these parts last season, it was with those intentions.

Whereas the headline’s goal is to attract readers, the tweet’s goal is to earn retweets and the poll’s seeming purpose is to offend every fan base, the bookmaker’s goal is to attract equal investment on both sides of a wager, earning his book a five percent return on the entire handle. Money talks, literally so if paying attention.

With those disclaimers in mind, noticing a few pertinent over/under win totals for the coming season feels like a good use of time. It should be remembered, sportsbooks will not put any win total above 10.5 in college football. Too many variables are in play.

This scribe predicted the Irish over/under would be set at 9.5. That was apparently high, with the line holding steady at 8.5 wins. Unlike a few to come, it will likely remain at that mark through the offseason, barring any massive suspension.

Michigan, Stanford, Virginia Tech and Florida State also all hold at 8.5 as of this morning, though the Cardinal opened as high as 9.5 in some locations and the Hokies can still be found at 7.5 if shopping around. USC opened at 7.5 wins before getting moved all the way up to 9.0 in reliable books.

Of the Power Five programs with lines set (so, not Ball State and Navy), only Wake Forest and Northwestern are also expected to be better than .500 this season, at 6.5 and 7.5 wins, respectively. Vanderbilt (5.0), Pittsburgh (5.5) and Syracuse (5.5) will be considerable underdogs when they face Notre Dame.

Speaking of facing Syracuse, perhaps that much-maligned move to play that game at Yankee Stadium in New York City can hold an unexpected benefit for those covering it. New Jersey happens to be so tantalizingly close. Now go ahead and mark off that sentence as one never before written in history.

ON NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP ODDS
Again, only looking at the 10 major-conference foes on the Irish schedule, as well as Notre Dame … and listed in order of likelihood:

Michigan: 15-to-1.
Florida State: 30-to-1.
Notre Dame: 33-to-1 in most places, sometimes as high as 55-to-1.
Virginia Tech: 45-to-1 for the most part, seen as high as 50-to-1.
USC: 50-to-1 usually, but some 40-to-1 options exist.
Stanford: 55-to-1.
Wake Forest: 225-to-1.
Syracuse: 350-to-1.
Northwestern: 350-to-1.
Pittsburgh, Vanderbilt: 600-to-1 each, otherwise known as 20 percent more of a payout than one would receive if holding an early futures ticket predicting the Las Vegas Golden Knights would win the 2018 Stanley Cup. That is, if the Knights manage to win four more games.

A LONG HELD HOLLYWOOD GRIEVANCE
It will shock exactly no one who reads this space to learn I have a few friends who place the occasional wager. If I ever personally live in a state where sports gambling is legal, maybe than I will publicly admit my notebook paying homage to the Philadelphia 76ers is filled with more than hypothetical wagers. Until then, it is certainly nothing more than a proof of concept.

Frankly, Don Cheadle’s (left) English accent in the “Ocean’s” trilogy does not get the critical praise it deserves. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

One of those friends considers “Ocean’s 11” to be among his favorite movies, understandably so. Within that, he elevates the most-quoted Daniel Ocean line above all other bits of that script.

“Because the house always wins. Play long enough, you never change the stakes, the house takes you. Unless when that perfect hand comes along, you bet big, and then you take the house.”

What card game exactly is Mr. Ocean playing? The perfect blackjack hand is not seen until the wager has already been placed, and it can still be foiled by the dealer flipping 21. Poker is not played against the house. It is against players. Go ahead, when that perfect hand comes along, bet big, but you are only taking other losers’ money. You never take the house.

As it pertains to sports gambling, a topic to which Danny was not referring, herein lies the flaw to presuming profits. There is no perfect hand. UMBC beats Virginia. Leicester City wins the Premier League. An expansion team reaches the Stanley Cup Final. The house always wins.

Use gambling odds to put a conversation in perspective. Perhaps place a small bet to make a meaningless September afternoon more entertaining. Do not expect the supposed legalization of sports gambling to lead to a new source of taxable income.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Tricks with jersey numbers; Troy Pride’s sprinter’s speed
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end
Auburn walk-on fullback transfers to Notre Dame, following in family’s footsteps
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end
Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting surge continues with Texas four-star’s commitment
No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain
No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end

OUTSIDE READING
USC starting CB Jack Jones to miss 2018 season (academics)
Incoming Irish receiver Braden Lenzy earns four top-two finishes at Oregon Track Championships
Notre Dame football’s Brian VanGorder got at least $257,000 in buyout
A smattering of initial win totals from betonline.ag
Joe Staley preparing Mike McGlinchey to one day take his job
Jaylon Smith expects to be ‘better than Notre Dame 100 percent’
Bears waive Nyles Morgan

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-5 ½, 255 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Sophomore with three seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Kmet will be the second option among Notre Dame’s vertical threats at tight end, behind senior Alizé Mack, provided Mack proves more reliable than he has in the past.
Recruiting: Not only was Kmet a consensus four-star prospect, he was a consensus top-five tight end in the country. Rivals.com, for example, rated Kmet as the No. 3 tight end in the class of 2017.

CAREER TO DATE
Kmet appeared in all 13 games last season, catching two passes for 14 yards against Wake Forest, both completions from back-up quarterback Ian Book, on back-to-back passes in fact. Kmet also dropped a red-zone pass on a third down that November afternoon, that one attempted by starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

QUOTE(S)
Much of the praise around Kmet this spring revolved around his ability to excel both in football practices and baseball games. In his first collegiate season on the mound, Kmet appeared in 25 games, notching eight saves with a 4.76 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in 45 1/3 innings, striking out 37 batters.

“He handles two sports here and is never on a list,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in late March. “He never is a guy we have to worry about in terms of going to class and representing Notre Dame in the fashion that he needs to. A pretty extraordinary young man in terms of the whole picture.

“… He catches the ball, soft hands, he’s physical at the point of attack, and when he catches the ball, he runs through tacklers, which is in itself pretty impressive.”

At some points this spring, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long gave Kmet the option of taking a football practice off if following a late baseball game. The tight end dismissed that notion.

“You can see some days where it wears on him,” Long said in mid-April. “… But he’s been extremely consistent. Staying with us all last fall, you can see where the carryover has been big for him to blossom this spring.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“A situation in which Kmet plays in 2017 is nearly beyond fathoming. An injury crisis would have to tear through the Irish tight ends in order to make playing the sixth and most-inexperienced option a necessity.

“Kmet’s odds of seeing action this season were further diminished when [classmate Brock] Wright not only enrolled early but also held his own in spring practice. It is not that Wright is far-and-away better than Kmet, it is the head start will be most noticeable in their freshman campaign. If Notre Dame opts to play a freshman tight end, it will be Wright, not Kmet.”

2018 OUTLOOK
This projection cannot be more inaccurate than last year’s, so that’s a start.

Kmet complements Mack as a viable receiving option among the Irish tight ends, but he could become more than that. That speaks as much to Mack’s habitual inconsistency as it does to Kmet’s soft hands and aptness at the point of attack. His rise, though, could be the push Mack needs to focus. For the team, that may be the best-case scenario: Kmet plays well, leading to Mack playing better. Both would get their fair share of opportunities in Long’s multiple tight end schemes. That is the version of the Irish offense which would be a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators.

If Kmet were to statistically surpass Mack for a week or two in September, that could just as equally result in Mack checking out mntally. To be blunt, such a disappointment could happen with or without Kmet’s success this fall, but having another dangerous pass-catcher at tight end for Long to tinker with would diminish the possible debilitating effects.

The gap between those two scenarios is vast. Last year, Notre Dame’s top-three tight ends (Mack, Durham Smythe and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar) combined for 43 catches for 462 yards and four touchdowns. If Kmet and Mack could combine for about those totals, maybe 500 yards and four touchdowns on 45 catches, then that would be a solid baseline, no matter how those stats are distributed.

DOWN THE ROAD
Mack could return in 2019, but Kmet will continue to rise to prominence in Long’s system. His combination of height and hands makes him an intriguing piece for a tight end-heavy offense. However, some caution needs to be exercised. Kmet looked solid in his freshman season and certainly impressed across the board this spring, but that is all a far cry from excelling in the fall.

Kmet should contribute this season and take the lead in 2019, with or without Mack on the Irish roster, but he may not yet become an offensive staple even then. If his progression follows an understated rate, that day may come in 2019 or 2020. Part of that inevitable outlook traces to Notre Dame’s tight end reputation. They keep becoming NFL contributors, Smythe after Koyack after Niklas after Eifert …

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