Five things we learned: Notre Dame 31, Purdue 24

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For those hoping that Notre Dame would use Saturday night as a sparring session against an outmanned Purdue team, it took just 12 plays to know that this wouldn’t be a cakewalk. Dreams of getting freshmen playing time and defenders stats by the bushel came crashing to a halt as Purdue took it to the No. 21 Fighting Irish for much of the first half, before Notre Dame pulled away late to win 31-24.

After getting smacked in the nose by Cincinnati and barely beating Indiana State, this game didn’t look like it’d be much on paper, with Purdue a hefty three touchdown underdog. But the Boilermakers came out of the gates sprinting, putting together an impressive first half, dominating the stat sheet and taking a lead into halftime with the Irish offense faltering and the defense a step behind and lucky to be down by just a touchdown.

But after some halftime adjustments on both sides of the ball, Tommy Rees and DaVaris Daniels put together a prolific game, while the defense buzzed Purdue quarterback Rob Henry, all but icing the game when senior cornerback Bennett Jackson returned an interception 34-yards for a touchdown.

A win is a win is a win. But Saturday night’s victory accentuated the difference between this football team and last year’s edition, with the defense once again struggling to play the type of fundamental defense that was a bedrock for Bob Diaco’s unit. But the Irish shrugged off a slow start, scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter to win 31-24, scoring four touchdowns in the second half after being stymied for the game’s first 30 minutes.

Let’s take a look at what we learned during Notre Dame’s hard fought 31-24 victory in West Lafayette.

***

With no true pass rush to speak of, the Irish need to find a way to get off the field on third down. 

We can talk until we’re blue in the face about the Irish’s fearsome front seven. But stats eventually tell the story and Notre Dame’s trio of All-American caliber players, Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Prince Shembo have a whopping one sack between the three of them after a quarter of the regular season.

The hallmark of Bob Diaco’s defense will never be rushing the passer, but eventually the Irish are going to need to be able to dial up a pass rush without selling the farm and putting their secondary in man coverage. And while Tuitt got a sack against Temple when head coach Matt Rhule said he gambled by taking on the All-American defensive end one-on-one, this defense desperately needs more out of its star defensive end, who has tallied just one tackle in the past two games.

Nix is playing great football, with the senior nose guard taking on constant double teams while plugging the middle of the field. But Shembo and Tuitt have yet to get on track, with Tuitt a step slow on a number of pass rush opportunities while Shembo seems to be spending a lot of time in pass coverage. (The last time we saw that it was a wasted season for Shembo, who as a sophomore struggled in space while manning the Dog linebacker position.)

The lack of pass rush was apparent for most of the first half, when Purdue converted some tough third downs that just didn’t happen last season. The Irish gave up four conversions of third and seven or longer in the game’s first 30 minutes, lucky to get out of the first half down by just one score.

Even when the Irish defense buckled down there were still some head-scratching conversions, none more so than the 4th and 7 conversion that resulted in a touchdown that got Purdue back within one score in the fourth quarter. With three Irish defenders dropping into zone coverage, Henry had to unload his throw early. But KeiVarae Russell watched tight end Justin Sinz catch a nine yard touchdown in front of him, pulling Purdue back into the game.

That type of defense can’t happen if the Irish want to be a BCS team. After allowing Purdue to convert 7 of 16 third downs and the Irish getting their only sack by Bennett Jackson on a broken play, it’s time for this group to figure out a way to get after the quarterback and get off of the field.

***

For much of the first half, the Irish were their own worst enemy on offense, refusing to stretch the field. 

Nobody will believe that Tommy Rees can throw the ball down the field if Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin don’t either. And that’s what happened for most of the first half as the Irish offense stifled itself, refusing to stretch the field vertically while allowing Purdue to jam the box, play tight on their receivers, and shut down an offense that was supposed to roll.

It wasn’t all playcalling that made things tough on Notre Dame. The Irish dropped four passes in the first half, with Troy Niklas, Amir Carlisle and DaVaris Daniels doing Tommy Rees no favors as they failed to make some routine plays. But with Purdue unafraid of the Irish trying to beat them over the top, defensive coordinator Greg Hudson made running the football mighty tough for Notre Dame, with the Irish averaging a mediocre 2.5 yards a carry against a team that gave up 221 rushing yards to Cincinnati. They also were routinely blowing up the Irish screen game, nearly intercepting a few throws as their defenders went all-in stopping the short passing game.

Rees hit Chris Brown for a beautiful long strike for 40-yards in the second quarter. But it took an acrobatic catch by TJ Jones on the Irish’s first drive of the third quarter for the Irish to consistently challenge Purdue down field, which they did for much of the second half.

Only after stretching the Purdue defense were the Irish able to get some offensive flow going, with Daniels playing his best game in an Irish uniform, leading the team with eight catches for 167 yards and two touchdowns, with the highlight being a go route Daniels caught in stride and then tip-toed the sideline while stiff-arming Ricardo Allen away for an 82-yard touchdown. But it shouldn’t take two quarters to remember that this team can strike down the field, and Rees has shown a much better touch downfield than he’s had in the past.

***

While using a lot of personnel is a good thing, being predictable certainly isn’t. 

Last year, Chuck Martin and Brian Kelly showed a propensity for using different players for different jobs. Troy Niklas was a glorified offensive tackle. Theo Riddick was the Irish’s lone pass catching option out of the backfield while also doubling as the short yardage running back. Calling plays that utilize players’ abilities is a good thing. But being predictable certainly isn’t.

Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell verbalized one of the knocks against Brian Kelly’s offensive philosophy at half time when he credited film study for knowing what and where the Irish offense would be.

“They’re doing a good job of recognizing some formations and some tendencies out of formations,” Hazell said of his defense.

The Irish offense was almost burnt a few times when the Purdue defense keyed on formational tendencies tells you that some formations are starting to become a giveaway to opposing defenses.

It’s not just Notre Dame fans that know when Daniel Smith and Troy Niklas are split out wide, it’s usually because they’re blocking. Defensive coordinators notice that, too. And while you need to give credit to Chuck Martin for calling a quarterback draw out of the empty set (Rees converted it for one of the ugliest two-yard gains of the night), it’s time for the Irish to make sure they’re doing enough self scouting.

***

A year after doing all of the little things right, the Irish’s growing pains on defense are quite obvious. 

That the Irish defense isn’t the dominating group that most expected is a surprise. But on second thought, maybe it shouldn’t be. While it’s easy to point to the large group of returning starters, the leader of every unit needed to be replaced. Kapron Lewis-Moore’s void on the defensive front is felt. Losing Zeke Motta as the leader of the secondary is glaring. And Manti Te’o’s absence is painfully obvious. For all the punchlines that came with Te’o’s catfishing and draft slide, his instincts are sorely missed at linebacker.

Kelly talked about the defense’s struggles last week on Sirius XM radio with Jack Arute and Rick Neuheisel, speaking candidly about the transition.

“You know I don’t have Harrison Smith, who’s starting for the Vikings, and I don’t have Zeke Motta, who’s with Tampa Bay, and those were my last two safeties,” Kelly said. “Our safeties have to play better, there’s no question. And our corners have to improve. Our backer play is getting better, we’re playing a true freshman at the outside backer position. Those are the guys we’ve got. And we’ve got to get them better and coach them better. Our front is getting the job done, but we have to play better in the secondary and we’re committed to making sure that happens.”

Getting back to the basics — especially for young players — will be key for this group. Guys like Cole Luke are being counted on to play a lot of snaps, and learning from your mistakes will be important. Credit Luke for not getting beat inside on a slant route after having it happen to him earlier in the game. But after playing major minutes last season, it’s still clear KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley are still learning on the job. That’s fine for a guy that’s playing a complementary role. It’s a lot tougher when you’re counting on them to be frontline starters.

***

A season after riding ugly victories all the way to the National Championship game, give credit to Tommy Rees and the Irish for getting out of West Lafayette alive. 

Selective memory is a wonderful thing. As the Irish were struggling to hang in there during the first half, the groans from the fans grew louder and louder (on the live blog at least). Some called for Tommy Rees’ head. Some questioned if Bob Diaco had lost it. Others yearned for the days of Charlie Weis the playcaller. (Really, I’m not kidding.) But on a Saturday night where not everything went right, give credit to Notre Dame for doing everything it needed to do in the second half to go home a winner.

“We didn’t start very well, but we hung in there,” Kelly said after the game. “We kept playing, kept fighting. I told our team we’re still kind of defining who we are. We’re still trying to find ourselves. Here’s what we did. We played hard for four quarters and we fought our butts off. Then we found a way to make some plays, and we feel really good about our kids and the way they played.”

At running back, Cam McDaniel was the guy that got the call, brushing off four stitches to the head at halftime to carry the ball ten times as the Irish held onto the ball for the game’s final 7:22 to run out the clock. And after struggling last weekend in coverage, captain Bennett Jackson made a huge play running back a pick six while also getting a sack on Rob Henry.

Nobody did more in the second half than Tommy Rees. After struggling with the offense in the first half, Rees played a lights out second half completing 13 of his 17 throws 215 yards and two touchdowns, while converting a clutch five of six on passing third downs.

“I’m really proud of the way he settled down in the second half and helped our football team win,” Kelly said after the game.

In the end, it wasn’t pretty, but it was a win. On a day when Michigan stopped Akron on two plays inside the five yard line to pull out a win and Army gave Stanford all they could handle, an ugly victory counts the same as a dominant one. But if this team is going to achieve what it needs to, there’s work to be done.

And don’t think for a second Brian Kelly doesn’t know it.

“We know we’ve got good players and we’ve got good personnel,” Kelly said. “We’re trying to figure out the parts and the pieces and where they go and I really like the way they fought and some of the things that came out tonight.”

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