Pregame Six Pack: Streaking into the Spartans

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In an era where spread offenses and up-tempo attacks seem to have taken over college football, the 77th meeting between Notre Dame and Michigan State probably looks a lot like a game played a generation ago.

“You might as well just play it in the parking lot,” Kelly cracked earlier this week. “It’s a fight. Roll up your sleeves.”

With the stage set for another physical brawl between two teams that have plenty of history together, the Irish will face their stiffest defensive test yet with the Spartans putting up some very impressive numbers (even against some not-so-impressive competition). With four defensive touchdowns and opponents gaining only 177 yards a game against Michigan State, the Notre Dame offense will have its hands full a two weeks of very slow starts.

As the stage is set for the Megaphone Trophy, let’s dig into some details before the game airs this Saturday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC. Here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame and Michigan State do battle.

***

1. After practicing for the first time on Thursday, Sheldon Day looks like a game time decision.

After playing one of his most complete games of the season, Sheldon Day rolled an ankle late in the victory against Purdue. The Irish medical staff kept the sophomore defensive end’s foot in a boot until Thursday, when he gave it a test at practice.

Brian Kelly updated us on Day’s progress Thursday evening, with Kelly optimistic but still uncertain about his status for Saturday.

“He can play Saturday. We’ll see. He obviously missed Tuesday and Wednesday, but he’s available to us,” Kelly said. “We’ll see how he responds. It’ll be a game time decision. He practiced today, looked pretty good.”

The drop off after Day is significant, with sophomore Jarron Jones and freshman Isaac Rochelle next in line. After that, it’s likely a mix and match of guys like Kona Schwenke, Ishaq Williams and little used seniors Justin Utupo and Tyler Stockton.

“A little bit of everybody,” Kelly said. “All hands on deck.”

***

2. With his confidence in place and play improved, if Tommy Rees continues at this clip he’ll be having a great season… against an even more impressive schedule. 

After taking command of the offense against Purdue, Tommy Rees went out and played what was probably his best half of football in his Notre Dame career. Rees has started off the season quickly, throwing for 969 yards through three games, seventh in the FBS, and first among quarterbacks that haven’t played a FCS (formerly I-AA) opponent.

Just as impressive, Rees has created big plays down the field, completing seven passes of 32 yards or more, compared to just 11 plays of that distance all year. While his physical attributes still leave something for many to desire, Rees continuing at this clip — especially against the defenses he’ll face — is quite an impressive feat.

Let’s take a look at the gauntlet of highly rated defenses Rees will face, starting on Saturday.

No. 1 Michigan State
No. 4. USC
No. 14. Oklahoma
No. 15. Stanford
No. 21. Arizona State
No. 36. BYU

It’s the beginning of quite a stretch for Rees, who will face four Top 21 defenses in a row before facing off against Air Force and Navy. It’s also likely to be the defining stretch of the season for this team.

***

3. Finding touches isn’t the only hard part for a committee of running backs. Keeping your mindset plays a part as well. 

Over at the South Bend Tribune, Eric Hansen tracked down Randy Kinder this week to talk about what it’s like to be a part of a running back by committee. Kinder, who played during the final four seasons of Lou Holtz’s tenure in South Bend, was part of multiple backfields that got the ball to a wide variety of players.

“When you’re a young guy coming in, it’s a lot easier than when you’re an older guy,” Kinder told Hansen. “We knew when we got an opportunity, we had to make the most of it.”

Kinder did talk about the mental battle you wage as you fight to keep your confidence high. While we continually wonder about what this is doing to freshmen Greg Bryant or Tarean Folston, it could be making things even tougher on junior George Atkinson, who has looked really tentative and struggled breaking tackles.

“The flip side of that for me is going into my senior year, we had a young guy behind me who kind of blew things away,” Kinder said of Autry Denson. “And I found myself struggling to get as much playing time as possible. It’s a difficult thing. It’s something where you have to be very strong of mind and look for your spots. We were lucky because we had a good group who were very supportive and tried to keep us all focused on the team winning more than anything else.”

In ’93, Kinder, Ray Zellars and Lee Becton all got at least 89 touches, with Becton leading the team with 164 carries. In ’94, it was Kinder that led the team in carries with 119, while Becton got 100 and Zellars got 79. Kinder led the team again in ’95, with 143 carries to Marc Edwards 140 and Autry Denson’s 137. But in ’96, Kinder only had 53 carries and a career worst 4.7 yards-per-carry, a full yard below his previous season.

Talent is a champagne problem. But sometimes too much of it makes it even harder to utilize the personnel on your roster.

***

4. Another year, another injury plagued Michigan State offensive line. Let’s see if the Irish defensive front can take advantage of it again. 

After three home games against underwhelming opponents, the Spartans will play in an opposing team’s stadium for the first time this year. That could be a very big test for another offensive line that Mark Dantonio has had to patch together.

“We’re going to find out a little bit more about who is who in our football team as we move forward,” Dantonio said this week. “It’s going to be exciting to see that.”

Up front is where the biggest challenge lies for the Spartan offense, with three starters only underclassmen, as well as half of the two-deep. This year, one of Michigan State’s best offensive lineman, right tackle Fou Fonoti, has been hobbled by injury. Center Travis Jackson missed last week with an injury and is listed as a co-starter. Neither will be at 100 percent on Saturday.

Sophomore left tackle Donovan Clark, a 6-foot-3, 300-pounder has himself quite a match-up with Stephon Tuitt this weekend. Redshirt freshman Jack Conkin has slid over to right tackle to make room for Clark. The Spartans had already lost likely starting right tackle Skyler Burkland after he retired this summer after multiple injuries.

Like in years past, it might not be an optimal group, but the edict is firm from the Spartans head coach.

“The best guys are gonna play, that’s all I can say,” Dantonio said this week. “The best guys are gonna play, and you’ve got to be able — especially as we move into our schedule — you’ve got to play firm at the tackles. You’ve got to pass protect and do the things you’ve got to do, but you’ve got to play with power as well.”

This looks like it could be the match-up of Saturday, with Tuitt and Prince Shembo likely liking their chops.

***

5. Let’s not get too worried about Notre Dame’s ability to self scout just yet. 

After many people (me included) worried about the Irish’s predictability when playing in certain formations and personnel groupings, Kelly was asked about the halftime comments from Darrell Hazell last week about formational giveaways.

He didn’t sound overly concerned.

“We lined up in the same formation twelve times, eleven times on the last drive,” Kelly said Thursday. “They knew exactly what we were doing, and we had the ball for 7:22. It’s still about execution.”

Still, he didn’t dismiss the need for the Irish to be diligent self-scouting.

“I’ve been doing it a long time. We’ve been self-scouting a long time,” Kelly said. “We know what our tendencies are. We have that self-scouting information at our fingertips first thing Sunday when we get in from our graduate assistants.”

Expect to see a new set of wrinkles this Saturday against a Spartan defense that’s going to challenge the Irish aggressively, especially quarterback Tommy Rees.

“(Michigan State defensive coordinator) Pat Narduzzi does a great job with the scheme. They are a team that’s done a great job of forcing turnovers,” Kelly said earlier this week to SiriusXM’s Jack Arute. “They force you to protect and if you don’t the quarterbacks are throwing under duress and you know what happens.”

A more thorough self-scouting evaluation will happen over the bye week, just in time for the Irish to face off with USC.

***

6. Maybe Notre Dame Stadium is turning into a home field advantage after all. 

Don’t look now, but Notre Dame Stadium isn’t quite the visitors’ paradise that it once was. The Irish are close to matching their longest home winning streak in 15 years, with a victory on Saturday potentially making it ten straight games.

After watching both Charlie Weis and Tyrone Willingham struggle at home, Kelly’s Irish have seen things turn around, maybe not coincidentally after they started piping music into the stadium. The Irish haven’t lost at home since that fateful night against USC, when Crazy Train became a prelude to impending doom.

Kelly hasn’t been shy tweaking the home game weekend schedule, moving things like the team mass or the players walk to the stadium. It’s all been in a quest to focus his team properly for the task at hand.

“I just think the way we’ve spaced out the day, Friday and Saturday, has really helped our kids a lot,” Kelly said. “It’s given them the opportunity to regroup a little bit, focus in on the game and not all the other things that are going on around the campus.”

As for the game environment, Kelly talked about the added benefit piped-in music has brought to Saturdays at Notre Dame, with the players and student body being the primary beneficiaries.

“Those are all little things that have been worked through the team, and they enjoy it and they like it,” Kelly said. “Those are all little pieces where they feel like they are part of that, and part of the tradition is great, and then having a little bit of say in that, they really take some ownership in it.”

Still, winning at home isn’t just about a few new songs and a change in the weekend schedule.

“I think there’s a lot of things. There’s a lot of levels,” Kelly said. “We’ve learned how to play the game. I’ve always wanted our teams to play hard for four quarters and just fight really hard and we’ll figure out a way to win the games.  We’ve managed to do that by and large in terms of the way we play.”

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