Can Irish force Sooners offense to be one-dimensional?

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Coming off a game where quarterback Blake Bell completed over 70 percent of his passes, threw for over 400 yards and four touchdowns, it might feel counterintuitive to say that Notre Dame’s best chance to beat the Sooners will come from forcing Oklahoma to pass more. But after controlling the line of scrimmage last year with a dominant performance up front, the Irish would be wise to try and do the same thing a season later.

Trying and doing are two different things. Bob Stoops has recommitted to running the football and the early season returns are impressive. While Notre Dame enters Saturday with the 100th ranked rushing attack, the Sooners are running for a robust 270 yards per game, averaging 5.4 yards per carry. Yet they understand that they’re in for a challenge far greater than what they’ve seen in their first three games.

“It’s no disrespect to anybody that we’ve played up to this point because they are good and you have to prepare every week … but this will be the best defensive line that we’ve faced by far and possibly the best we’ll see all year,” OU offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh told the Oklahoman. “You look at their defensive line across the board and there’s not a weak guy, and that doesn’t happen very often in college football.”

Part of Stoops offseason plans revolved around fixing the offensive line. Gone are Bruce Kittle and James Patton, the two coaches most responsible for the offensive line. Bedenbaugh was brought in from West Virginia to rebuild the Sooners front. He also had experience working with Mike Stoops at Arizona, where he served as co-offensive coordinator, offensive line coach and ground game coordinator during his time in Tuscon.

After not having a carry longer than seven yards last season against the Irish, the Sooners are hoping to take their big play run game with them to South Bend. As Tim Prister of Irish Illustrated pointed out today, “big chunk” runs (as Brian Kelly calls them) have been a specialty for Oklahoma’s talented backfield.

Although the sample size is small and against a struggling Louisiana-Monroe, a star-depleted West Virginia, and a taken-a-step-back Tulsa, Oklahoma is biting off huge chunks of real estate this season.

The Sooners have an incredible 27 runs of 10 yards or more through three games. Seven of those double-digit runs have been by freshman quarterback Trevor Knight, who no longer is in the starting lineup. But there are plenty of others who can carry the load, including Bell with four of his own double-digit-yardage runs.

Brennan Clay, Damien Williams, Roy Finch and Keith Ford all have contributed to the explosive ground game that ranks 16th nationally (271.7 yards per game). Against West Virginia alone, Clay had runs of 33, 34, 26 and 32 yards. Finch had a 21-yarder against ULM and a 48-yarder against Tulsa. Williams, who missed the Tulsa game for disciplinary reasons, had four double-digit-yardage runs against West Virginia. Ford had a 23-yarder against Tulsa.

(An aside: It’s interesting that one of the most dangerous running quarterbacks of the past few years is now starting in Blake Bell, but Trevor Knight is the quarterback that’s had the most success on the ground.)

The Sooners know they’ve got their hands full up front, especially at the point of attack where Louis Nix will need to be active on Saturday. His match-up with Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard, a preseason All-American in his own right, should be one of the biggest X factors of the game.

“He’s the best in the country, especially at controlling the line of scrimmage, making plays and being active for his size,” Ikard told the Oklahoman, when talking about Notre Dame’s nose tackle. “I’m very excited to be able to play against someone like him.”

The battle won’t just be between those two, but a veteran offensive line taking on an Irish front that played better last weekend and expects Sheldon Day back on Saturday. If the Irish can control the line of scrimmage, then they’ll need to continue to tackle better in space, rallying to the football and preventing the Sooners’ personnel from getting loose in space.

“We have to minimize the big-chunk plays,” Kelly said on Tuesday. “That’s one of our goals each and every week, minimizing those big-chunk plays. We were able to do that last year. We’re going to do it this year if we want to win the football game.”

***

For more from Irish Illustrated, check out the entire article below: 

From IrishIllustrated.com
Chunks could be chink in Notre Dame’s armor
No. 14-ranked Oklahoma has ability to take large gashes out of Notre Dame’s defense.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 29 Ovie Oghoufo, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-3, 217 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Early-enrolled freshman with four years of eligibility remaining, including the 2018 season.
Depth chart: Of the quartet of freshman linebackers, Oghoufo is the least likely to see the field in a competitive situation this year, meaning it will probably be a season spent working with the scout team defense.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star prospect, Oghoufo looked past the two big names in his homestate, choosing Notre Dame over both Michigan and Michigan State. Rivals.com considered him the No. 36 outside linebacker in the class of 2018.

QUOTE(S)
Oghoufo’s slim chances at playing time this season stem from two items, one positional and somewhat out of his control, the other simply a piece of time.

Oghoufo could end up at any of the three linebacker spots, making it more difficult to focus him on one task this preseason.

“They are guys that are extremely athletic,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of Oghoufo, among others in the class, on December’s signing day. “We would rather take them and then begin to hone in on where they can best fit in that defensive structure rather than saying, he’s a box player, that’s all he can play.

“These guys give us flexibility to see how they’re going to fill out and develop.”

That fill out and develop is a common theme for freshmen at all positions, and is quite applicable to Oghoufo, apparently.

“Ovie has some physicality issues in terms he’s not ready for prime-time playing, but he’s really athletic and he’s a smart kid,” Kelly said in mid-March. “He has to get bigger and stronger so this offseason is going to be really important to him to see if he can break through and maybe help us in special teams.”

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN OGHOUFO’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
“[Now-former] Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko lucked into an ideal rover candidate in current senior Drue Tranquill, who will man the position again next year. Such ready-made athletes to fill Elko’s preferred defensive wrinkle will not always be available, but it is worth considering whether a lean linebacker with strong coverage skills will fit into that positional grouping more than among traditional linebackers.

“If Oghoufo fills out, however, a move inside could be within the realm of possibility.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Before the four-game possibility was created for freshmen to play without losing a year of eligibility, there was very little chance of Oghoufo competing this season.

As it stands now, he is athletic and quick. If trotting Oghoufo out for punt and kick coverage units throughout November keeps starting safeties’ and linebackers’ legs from those dozen sprints down the field, then it is worth it. Quite literally, there will be no loss involved presuming Oghoufo will mentally be ready for those five second bursts after going through eight weeks of the season.

If Oghoufo plays in more than those four games, that is an indication he impressed more than was realized in spring practices and will continue to do so in preseason practice.

DOWN THE ROAD
2019 or 2020 entirely depends on where Oghoufo projects long term. Whether at rover or one of the interior linebacker positions, he will have to compete with at least one more strongly-recruited classmate.

Shayne Simon looks to be an ideal rover candidate. His pass coverage skills may not yet be on par with Oghoufo’s, but that is a mental development process, one which Simon should have time to embrace.

Jack Lamb and Bo Bauer both elevated themselves above Oghoufo in depth chart conversations this spring. They may not be in line to take over the starters’ roles next year, but the two are certainly in position to challenge for those.

It may be a year or two before Oghoufo becomes another voice in this group. That will leave him with two or three seasons to establish himself as a known piece of the rotation.

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. 40 Drew White, linebacker, sophomore
No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, kickoff specialist, sophomore
No. 34 Jahmir Smith, running back, early-enrolled freshman
No. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 31 Jack Lamb, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 30 Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, linebacker, sophomore
No. 24 Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman

MEDICAL EXEMPTION
No. 35 David Adams, linebacker, sophomore

OUTGOING TRANSFER
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 30 Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-1 ½, 210 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Sophomore with four seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: If looking at the two-deep immediately after fifth-year captain Drue Tranquill moved to Buck linebacker from rover in January, Owusu-Koramoah appeared to be the second rover in line behind only senior Asmar Bilal, but since then sophomore safety Isaiah Robertson has moved up a defensive level and freshman Shayne Simon is set to join summer practices. Nonetheless, Owusu-Koramoah projects as Bilal’s backup, albeit now with genuine competition for the role.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star prospect, Owusu-Koramoah originally committed to Virginia before shifting to a decision between Notre Dame and Michigan State. The No. 40 linebacker in the class, per rivals.com, he chose the Irish the afternoon of National Signing Day, calling Brian Kelly while the head coach was meeting with the media, though that was undoubtedly arranged ahead of time to give Owusu-Koramoah a unique commitment experience.

CAREER TO DATE
Owusu-Koramoah saw no action his freshman season, preserving a year of eligibility. Already with a plethora of unproven bodies at safety and a stout veteran in Tranquill at rover, there was no inherent need to play Owusu-Koramoah.

QUOTE(S)
Kelly simultaneously praised Owusu-Koramoah’s physical abilities while referencing his inexperience when discussing the possible rover in mid-March.

“It is strictly about his ability not to bust and that’s just going to take time,” Kelly said. “He has traits, there’s no question about that from a physical standpoint. He has to get the traits from the other side of it — understanding the game and what we’re doing.”

If listening to defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea a month later, Owusu-Koramoah had made the most of that interim.

“Between Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Isaiah [Robertson], you have two young guys that are learning and are growing but have had a chance to make some strides,” Lea said. “I don’t know that the depth chart is set yet. I think we’re still working on that and we’ll be working through the fall on that, but I’ve been pleased with the strides that we’ve shown.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Tranquill will lead the Irish defense this year from the rover position. The discussion of playing Bilal against teams such as Georgia, Michigan State and Stanford is valid in theory, but don’t be surprised to see Tranquill still taking the majority of the snaps in those games.

“Owusu-Koramoah will not be in the conversation, barring injury, but as a freshman learning the keystone duties in Elko’s defense, a season’s delay is both understandable and productive in its own right.

“He could, however, be involved in special teams. Coordinator Brian Polian would be thrilled to have a physical athlete with good speed to send after kick and punt returners. This may seem a small role to use up a season of eligibility, but the Irish special team units have needed to improve the last few seasons. Using what tools you have to do such is an easy choice to make.”

2018 OUTLOOK
From the moment he joined the roster, Bilal has been considered physically ready. Three full seasons later, he has yet to force his way onto the field for more than spot duty. With that in mind, and an acknowledgement of Bilal’s struggles against the passing game, there may be an opportunity for Owusu-Koramoah this season.

He was recruited for the role of rover, unlike either Bilal or Robertson. In Lea’s system, hardly changed from former Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s, the rover is counted on to match up against both physical tight ends and shifty slot receivers while still offering a viable pass rush. In other words, a high school safety who likes playing at the line of scrimmage is an ideal candidate … such as Owusu-Koramoah.

Notre Dame would probably prefer Bilal emerge as Tranquill’s successor, but if he missteps, Owusu-Koramoah is more likely to get an extended look than Robertson is, with the exception of against exceptionally pass-happy teams (see: Wake Forest and sophomore receiver Greg Dortch).

Even if not at rover, Owusu-Koramoah should be a lock for special teams this season.

DOWN THE ROAD
Bilal is a likely candidate to follow Tranquill’s path to Buck linebacker from rover in a year, better fitting his skillset. That will leave Owusu-Koramoah and Simon as the frontrunners to shine in the preferred wrinkle of Lea’s system, and that will remain the case for the following three seasons.

With Simon only just arriving on campus in the last week or so, projecting that position competition is a fool’s errand, but expect it to be a frequent discussion beginning in January.

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. 40 Drew White, linebacker, sophomore
No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, kickoff specialist, sophomore
No. 34 Jahmir Smith, running back, early-enrolled freshman
No. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 31 Jack Lamb, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 24 Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman

MEDICAL EXEMPTION
No. 35 David Adams, linebacker, sophomore

OUTGOING TRANSFER
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 31 Jack Lamb, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-3 ¾, 216 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Early-enrolled freshman with four years of eligibility remaining, including the 2018 season.
Depth chart: Recruiting rankings may have slotted Lamb a bit ahead of fellow early-enrollee Bo Bauer, but spring practices showed a more college-ready Bauer, even if only slightly. Irish head coach Brian Kelly specifically mentioned Bauer’s physicality as his advantage at this point. Thus, Lamb fits in just below his classmate on the defensive third-string at both/either interior linebacker roles.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, Lamb chose Notre Dame over UCLA, basically in his hometown, with most of the Pac 12 pursuing him as well. Rivals.com rated the Under Armour All-American as the No. 2 inside linebacker in the class, No. 10 prospect in California and No. 77 in the country overall.

QUOTE(S)
If Lamb plays this season, that action will be driven by his athleticism. His limited time in a collegiate strength and conditioning program, though, could keep those moments to only brief appearances, even if his early enrollment provided Lamb six extra months of weight room work.

“Lamb is somebody that is extremely athletic,” Kelly said in mid-March. “[He] can run sideline to sideline, but then is he strong enough physically to take on the pounding that’s required at that position?”

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN LAMB’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
“Lamb will provide immediate depth at a position surprisingly lacking in the commodity. A physical linebacker with solid football instincts, Lamb should work his way up the depth chart in short order.

“… Lamb might jump the current freshman duo of Drew White and David Adams. At that point, he could be in the linebacker rotation by the end of September.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Lamb likely would have seen time this season, even if only on special teams and in mop-up situations, before the NCAA granted a four-game window for freshmen to play before losing a season of eligibility. Now, it would not be a complete shock to see Lamb appear in only four or fewer games.

While he may provide the Irish defense with depth, only a rash of injuries would force Lamb into an abundance of competitive snaps. Instead, focusing those moments into a full quarter or half of action in a blowout (read: vs. Ball State on Sept. 8) and some spot relief duty as the defense tires in November could be mutually beneficial for both the team as a whole and Lamb’s long-term development.

It may be Lamb plays on special teams throughout the season, at which point the NCAA’s new wrinkle never mattered in this instance.

DOWN THE ROAD
Lamb will have a chance at starting in 2019, especially if his ability to handle the collegiate wear-and-tear does not diminish the hype once wrought by his recruitment. Notre Dame will be without both the current starters in fifth-year Buck linebacker Drue Tranquill and senior Mike linebacker Te’von Coney. Sophomore safety-turned-linebacker Jordan Genmark-Heath and junior Jonathan Jones have the pole positions for rights as the next starter at each of those positions, respectively, but Lamb (and Bauer) will have an entire fall of practice to establish a need for genuine competition in the spring and next preseason.

Even if that reshuffling does not occur before 2019’s opener, the early-enrolled interior duo will force the issue at some point, even if Genmark-Heath takes to his new position as ably as would ever be dared to hope. In Lamb’s case specifically, time will strengthen his pass coverage abilities, the only clear deficiency in his game, somewhat expected of any high school linebacker. He already excels in tackling and the needed form.

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. 40 Drew White, linebacker, sophomore
No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, kickoff specialist, sophomore
No. 34 Jahmir Smith, running back, early-enrolled freshman
No. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 24 Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman

MEDICAL EXEMPTION
No. 35 David Adams, linebacker, sophomore

OUTGOING TRANSFER
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 34 Jahmir Smith, early-enrolled freshman running back

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Listed Measurements: 5-foot-11, 200 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Early-enrolled freshman with four years of eligibility remaining, including the 2018 season.
Depth chart: The actions of others (dismissed running backs Deon McIntosh and C.J. Holmes) will have immediate consequences for Smith. He finished spring third on the depth chart of prototypical running backs, behind junior Tony Jones and senior Dexter Williams, while sophomores Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis worked as receiver/running back possibilities in that mix, as well.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star prospect, Smith was recruited far and wide, hearing from both his homestate North Carolina and from the opposite coast in Cal and USC. He committed to Notre Dame in July of the summer before his senior year, though, ending any possible drama as the No. 20 running back in the class, per rivals.com.

QUOTE(S)
Given Smith’s likelihood of playing this fall, his early enrollment’s innate head start in the weight room and learning the playbook should pay quick dividends.

“[He’s] just retaining information really good at a fast rate, so that’s very encouraging,” Irish running backs coach Autry Denson said in late March. “Right now, every one of those [running backs] is being relied on to play. He’s doing a great job retaining information, a great job of just going out and playing football, trusting the process right now.”

Denson went on to praise Smith for “catching the ball a lot better than I thought he would,” something of a back-handed compliment. Smith briefly illustrated those abilities during the Blue-Gold Game, pulling in a 19-yard catch and a three-yard reception, both from junior quarterback Ian Book.

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN SMITH’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
“Smith breaks tackles rather than avoiding them. A low center of gravity and eagerness for contact will knock defenders backward more often than not, in many respects offering a skillset currently lacking from Notre Dame’s backfield.

“… The Irish have capable running backs floating around aplenty, but as 2017 showed, there can never be enough of those. Smith might as well expect to see some action his freshman season, especially if current junior Josh Adams heads to the NFL as is expected and logical.”

Editor’s Note: Smith signed with Notre Dame during December’s early signing period, before the issues with McIntosh and Holmes escalated, hence the usage of the ‘aplenty’ characterization.

2018 OUTLOOK
Smith was quite likely to play this season even before the NCAA’s rule change allowing freshmen to play in up to four games without losing a season of eligibility. That new quirk makes it a bit more difficult to project if a player will play in four or five (and more) games, but with Smith it is safe to presume he will see action in the majority of Notre Dame’s contests.

He will be needed. Running backs get hurt, especially it would seem Jones and Williams. When a victory becomes a blowout, the Irish will not want to continue to expose Jones’ ankles or Williams’ quads. Smith (and/or incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister) will get the carries, possibly racking up stats a la McIntosh last year. McIntosh’s 368 yards and five touchdowns were primarily the result of running behind the country’s best offensive line, but that line should be solid again this year, putting Smith in position for 200 yards and three touchdowns, perhaps.

Armstrong and Davis may keep Smith from an excess of competitive carries, as they will offer changes of pace to Jones’ bruising that Smith will not.

DOWN THE ROAD
Williams runs out of eligibility this season, creating a need for at least one contributing back in 2019. The best bet is Smith and Flemister split those carries while Jones remains the lead ballcarrier.

In 2020, though, Notre Dame will need to rely on one of this year’s two freshmen, especially considering the near vacuum in offensive skill position players in the current recruiting cycle; only Thursday evening did the Irish secure the commitment of consensus three-star running back Kyren Williams (St. John Vianney High School; St. Louis).

Armstrong and Davis may continue to pick up some carries, but neither projects as primarily a running back, but rather each as a slot receive comfortable motioning into the backfield.

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. 40 Drew White, linebacker, sophomore
No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, kickoff specialist, sophomore
No. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 24 Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman

MEDICAL EXEMPTION
No. 35 David Adams, linebacker, sophomore

OUTGOING TRANSFER
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer