The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Arizona State

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What a difference a win makes.

With the Irish back in South Bend with a week off before needing to prepare for Southern Cal, Notre Dame can look to the second half of the season, where the schedule could stack up nicely for a late season showdown against Stanford, who survived a scare from Washington late last night.

In a game that swung back and forth quite a few times, the Irish made the plays they needed to make to get the win, all while reminding us that this team is still a work in progress. Let’s run through the good, the bad, and the ugly of Notre Dame’s wild 37-34 victory.

THE GOOD

Jaylon Smith. The freshman linebacker led the Irish in tackles, making nine stops, including 1.5 behind the line of scrimmage. Playing his best game in a Notre Dame uniform, Smith’s growing before our eyes, something that Brian Kelly talked about Sunday in his weekly conference call.

“That position is being constantly probed and attacked on a game‑to‑game basis,” Kelly said. “I think the biggest improvement is that he’s learning football and how he’s being attacked at his position week‑in and week‑out.”

Matched up with a set of very quick receivers and a mobile quarterback, Smith was up to the task, while still learning on the job. Crack back blocks, containment on the edge, and different pass coverage responsibilities are all part of what he’ll need to master. But Smith’s got the opportunity to do a lot of great things, many that we noticed Saturday night.

Prince Shembo. He was a man on a mission, playing primarily with his hand on the ground. Shembo reminded Irish fans — and opposing coaching staffs — why the quick passing game might be mandatory, as he was relentless in his pressure of quarterback Taylor Kelly.

Stephon Tuitt. Another really impressive football game for Tuitt, who is playing a ridiculous amount of snaps and doing a really nice job. Tuitt had a key strip sack and was a step away from a couple others, forcing Kelly to run for his life on a a few occasions.

Kelly talked about Tuitt’s recovery from offseason surgery, and his plans for Tuitt’s week off, a break desperately needed for the 6-6 defensive end.

“He needs rest,” Kelly said. “The surgery that he had has affected his back, it’s affected his hip flexors… Some people dismiss it and say, well, you know, you just had minor surgery.  Well, it’s affected a lot of things.  This is a big man, and you know, he’s really struggled all week with back tightness.”

Tuitt answered the bell, playing a key role for the Irish and playing at a high level for much of the evening.

TJ Jones. In my final thoughts before kickoff, I had Jones tabbed as the team’s most important offensive player. He did more than that, contributing a big return on special teams as well as he led the offense with a rock solid performance.

Against a defense that played basically man to man all evening, Jones and Tommy Rees being in lock-step was essential.

“I think really Tommy feels comfortable knowing where he’s going to be getting in and out of his breaks,” Kelly said. “You know, some of the younger guys, at times, there’s not that certainty of where they are going to be sometimes in press coverage, and obviously one thing TJ does is he gets people off him, because they respect his ability to get over the top easily.”

Dan Fox. After losing his starting job, Fox came back in and played a ton of good football after Jarrett Grace went down. Fox made seven tackles, recovered a fumble and returned an interception for a touchdown.

A great job by a veteran that’s going to be counted on down the stretch.

Cam McDaniel. Heckuva job by the Texan who ran for the tough yards down the stretch. After suffering what looked like a stinger on a violent head-to-head collision, McDaniel came right back in and continued carrying the load.

Ben Koyack. He’s been a punching bag more than a few times in his three seasons in South Bend, but Koyack came through in the clutch with a big touchdown and some solid blocking, playing the role of a fullback more than a few times.

The Pass Protection. Facing a relentless blitzing defense, Harry Hiestand’s crew did their jobs immaculately, not giving up a sack of Tommy Rees. On the year, the pass blocking as been rock solid, giving up just four sacks on over 200 throws.

THE BAD

Tough injuries to Jarrett Grace and Daniel Smith. Nobody wants to lose a guy for the season, and on Saturday night the Irish lost two. Grace spent the night in Dallas, getting a rod inserted in his fibula. Smith has a fracture in his ankle that’ll end his career playing for Notre Dame.

Kelly talked about the loss of both, with Grace being the biggest blow on the field and Smith being a tough one to stomach in the locker room.

“Jarrett had surgery this morning in Dallas, in which they put a rod in his leg for the fibula fracture,” Kelly explained. “He’ll spend the next couple of nights there.  Just talked to him, got off the phone.  His spirits are good.  You know, that’s a process that could take four to six months.  But obviously a big loss for us.”

Kelly also talked about the loss of Smith, whose injury became an emotional moment during halftime.

“I usually don’t use a win‑one‑for‑the‑Gipper talk, and I don’t want to equate it in those terms, but generally speaking, we talked about losing Danny and in particular that he probably wasn’t going to play again,” Kelly said. “There was a lot of emotion in the locker room, because they love Danny Smith and what he’s done for our program as a dedicated player for Notre Dame.  He loves Notre Dame, and we’ve seen him grow as a person and as a player and he’s going to be sorely missed.”

Giving up big third and fourth down conversions. For as well as the Irish defense played, they gave up two critical conversions on third and fourth down. The Sun Devils converted a clutch fourth down beating Austin Collinsworth in man coverage, and then found a hole in Notre Dame’s zone defense on third and 20, especially back-breaking considering that the Irish called a timeout to get on the same page before the play, and ASU tied the game later on that drive.

Add in some uneven play by both Collinsworth and Matthias Farley and there’s still plenty of work to be done by the back end of the defense. As many wondered, Kelly was asked about the progress of Max Redfield, wondering what could be taking so long for the young freshman.

“He’s getting closer and closer,” Kelly said of Redfield. “There’s so many calls, so many things going on out there. It’s a quarterback position when you’re out there at that safety position.  It’s not just dropping into cover two.”

Nick Martin’s struggles. With multiple snap infraction calls and some confusion on another false start call, it appears that his match-up with Will Sutton kept Martin’s attention divided.

It wasn’t all bad for Martin. Sutton made just three tackles on the night, with one coming on TJ Jones’ punt return.

THE UGLY

Other than Kyle Brindza’s snap-hook mulligan on his first field goal attempt, that he more than made up for with his clutch kicking the rest of the game, the ugly category is going to stay deservedly empty.

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

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 87 Michael Young, receiver

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Listed Measurements: 5-foot-10, 192 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Sophomore with three seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Young should start as the boundary receiver, a position where he can best use his speed and strong hands to challenge an isolated cornerback.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star recruit, Young was one of only two receivers to arrive at Notre Dame in the class of 2017, a late de-commitment leading to the subsequent addition of Jafar Armstrong. With Armstrong now a running back/receiver hybrid, Young is the sole full-time pass-catcher left in the class, an important fact to remember as four strongly-recruited freshmen receivers join the ranks.

CAREER TO DATE
Young played in all 13 games as a freshman, but finished with only four catches for 18 yards and one touchdown, adding one rush for six yards and 18 kick return yards on one chance. As injuries depleted the Irish receivers corps before the Citrus Bowl, Young’s opportunity presented itself. He made the relative most of it, catching the touchdown pass from Ian Book which first tied LSU in the fourth quarter.

QUOTE(S)
While Young saw playing time throughout his freshman season, it took some time for him to produce on the field. Notre Dame receivers coach Del Alexander pointed to a bit of a freshman wall as having slowed Young between preseason practice and his late-season development.

“[Young] showed his talents early in [2017 preseason] camp,” Alexander said in late March. “Sometimes it is hard to sustain the drive and the grit to get to the end of the season. He was able to self-evaluate, take a good look in the mirror, say I have more, and he was capable of doing this. He was able in the second half of the season to push again and to find opportunities.”

That freshman wall was both a physical and a mental hindrance.

“He wasn’t as open to coaching, he didn’t see things as clearly,” Alexander said. “As time went on and he became more and more eager to play, he started to listen a little more, and that helped him see more. That freed his game up where he was able to make more plays.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Notre Dame enjoys depth at the receiver position. It will be difficult for Young to crack that this season. Defaulting to a season preserving eligibility seems too simple an answer, even if it is unlikely Young contributes to the offense in a meaningful manner.

“Special teams coordinator Brian Polian publicly wished for more options for his coverage units this spring. Young could help fill that void, and while he is spending the eligibility, chip in offensively in spot duty.

“The slot might be the thinnest of the Irish receiving positions, especially if the cloud around [former Notre Dame receiver Kevin] Stepherson turns out to be more than idle speculation. At that point, having Young in the rotation could prove useful.”

2018 OUTLOOK
With the exception of the incoming freshmen, specifically Braden Lenzy, Young provides the best and arguably singular top-end speed among the Irish receivers. Senior Chris Finke is very quick and senior Miles Boykin has underrated burst, but Young’s ability to alter an opposing secondary’s coverage is unparalleled at this point. Notre Dame will need that.

Projecting specific statistical benchmarks is difficult since they depend so much on the Irish quarterbacks’ development. More importantly than predicting a floor (perhaps 25 catches for 400 yards and five touchdowns), a consistent season would help with the passers’ progress. A year ago, Notre Dame’s receivers were just as up-and-down as quarterback Brandon Wimbush was. If Young can prove to be a productive option week-in and week-out, that safety valve could do wonders for the passing game as a whole.

Admittedly, the same thing can, should and will be said about Boykin, although with a higher floor considering his advantage in experience and greater spring praise from the Irish coaches.

DOWN THE ROAD
Few receivers end up as three-year starters. Young may have that ahead of him. By the tail end of that, he would be one of the most-established receivers during Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s entire tenure.

A sub-six-foot receiver with three seasons of starts? That sounds a lot like TJ Jones, who racked up 37 starts across his four seasons, finishing with 2,429 yards and 19 touchdowns on 181 receptions in 51 games. His senior season is often overlooked despite its stellar nature, catching 70 passes for 1,108 yards and nine touchdowns.

If Young ever puts together a year like that, it will be noticed. That may be an ideal scenario, but a 40-start career, be it that actual number or only figuratively-speaking, will produce numbers at some point or another.

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