Amidst coaching shuffle, Denbrock turned down CMU head job

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Brian Kelly very nearly had to replace another key assistant.

That’s because Inside the Irish has learned that offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock turned down the heading coaching job at Central Michigan to stay at Notre Dame.

After Dan Enos left the Chippewas to be Arkansas’ offensive coordinator, the MAC program was looking for a new head coach. And before eventually hiring former Chippewa player and Detroit Lions special teams coordinator John Bonamego, Denbrock declined the opportunity.

That type of loyalty to Brian Kelly comes at a crucial time for the sixth-year Irish head coach. Tasked with replacing Kerry Cooks, Matt LaFleur and now Tony Alford, Denbrock remaining in charge of the offense — and likely resuming his recruiting work on the West Coast — provides a few constants in an algebra equation that needs to be solved between now and the beginning of March, when spring practice begins.

Rumors have swirled since Signing Day regarding replacements on the staff. Todd Lyght seems to be a done deal. Jeff Quinn reuniting with Kelly as well. And the return of Autry Denson to his alma mater could add the third piece, though that’s more speculation at this point than any reported fact.

But after successfully replacing three assistants and then making a run to the BCS title game after the 2011 season, Kelly will have an incredibly important three-week stretch on his hands. And that’s before one of the more intriguing spring practices in recent years.

So much for a dull February.

 

 

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

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 44 Jamir Jones, linebacker-turned-defensive end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-3 1/8, 242 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Junior with two seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Jones finally made the long-hinted-at move to defensive end this spring, now behind classmates Khalid Kareem and Ade Ogundeji at strong-side end.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star recruit, Jones chose Notre Dame over offers from Boston College, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. The East Coast emphasis makes sense when remembering Jones comes from upstate New York, not exactly the most-fertile football recruiting ground. Rivals.com rated him as the No. 43 outside linebacker in the class of 2016 and the No. 2 prospect in New York.

CAREER TO DATE
Mired deep down the linebacker depth chart the last two seasons, Jones’ greatest impacts came on special teams.

2016: 10 games; eight tackles.
2017: 12 games; four tackles.

QUOTE(S)
Irish head coach Brian Kelly had been publicly anticipating Jones’ move to the defensive line since last year’s spring practices, so when he slipped in an acknowledgement of it actually happening at the start of this year’s spring practices, it hardly warranted a follow-up question or any elaboration.

“We’ve decided to move Jamir out to the drop position,” Kelly said. “We feel like he’ll be best suited at the end position.”

By the end of spring practice, Jones had moved to the strong-side position, perhaps partly to provide depth after the outgoing transfer of fifth-year Jay Hayes.

“It’s probably, from top to bottom, our most steady position group right now,” Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea said in mid-April of the defensive line as a whole. “They have good depth, experienced depth. A guy like Jamir Jones has stepped in and solidified that. He’s done a great job.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“It is tough to project more than special teams action for Jones this season. If injuries severely limited Notre Dame’s veteran linebackers … then perhaps Jones would be needed, but even that scenario would include competition from incoming freshmen David Adams and Drew White, both more traditional linebackers than Jones.

“If his transition to the defensive line were to be expedited this fall, there is already a quartet of sophomores fighting for playing time alongside senior defensive ends Jay Hayes and Andrew Trumbetti.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Hayes’ departure makes Jones’ position move suddenly more worthwhile. His experience at linebacker should have him prepared to set the edge against the run, a skill both Kareem and Ogundeji still need to further develop. It may not be enough to make Jones a frequent contributor, but he could find a role in specific situations.

DOWN THE ROAD
Kareem has grown into a player from whom much is expected. That will limit the opportunities Jones sees. To compound that concern, Ogundeji was discussed as part of the playing time crunch which led, in part, to Hayes’ transfer — Jones was not.

The best hope for Jones is to follow a similar trajectory as his older brother, Jarron, former Irish defensive tackle and a recent signee by the New York Giants as an offensive tackle (a one-year, $480,000 non-guaranteed contract). Jarron took a few years to develop into the troublesome inside defensive presence he flashed as. Jamir lacks his older brother’s length, but his underlying athleticism is reminiscent of Jarron’s.

This space makes a habit of advocating for defensive line depth and rotations. If Jamir can develop over the next three-to-15 months and aid those causes for one or two years, that would become a veritable need solidly filled.

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. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker

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Listed Measurements: 5-foot-11 ½, 222 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Junior with three seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Jones remains the presumptive backup to senior linebacker Te’von Coney, though Jones has a couple freshmen ton contend with in early enrollees Bo Bauer and Jack Lamb.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star recruit, Jones chose Notre Dame over offers from Michigan, Stanford, LSU and Florida, as well as many others. Rivals.com rated him the No. 19 inside linebacker in the class of 2016 and the No. 66 prospect in Florida.

CAREER TO DATE
Jones preserved a year of eligibility as a freshman before becoming the fourth man in a three-man rotation at inside linebacker last year. While Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini and Coney split time, Jones got mop-up duty.

2017: 13 games; 10 tackles with one for loss against USC and one broken-up pass.

QUOTE(S)
Yes, Jones is an unknown, to put it gently. No, he does not have much of a track record of any kind. That made this spring a chance to prove his potential and validate the Irish coaching staff’s view of him.

“We have to leave this spring knowing [Jones] can be our No. 2 there,” head coach Brian Kelly said at the start of spring practice. “Can he back up Te’von Coney?

“We believe he can. He’s got to go now do it. He knows what his role’s going to be. He’s got to be a great special teams player for us, as well. We need a lot from him there. … Jonathan’s got to do a great job of being a guy that can give Te’von a blow when he needs one.”

Kelly echoed those comments later in March.

“Jonathan Jones has to be a guy that consistently shows up for us because he has to be able to step in there in a more active role.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Aside from time on special teams and in mop-up duty of blowouts, it is hard to see Jones getting much action this season. Morgan will play. It is as simple as that.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Kelly made it pretty clear: Jones will be a reserve again this season, but a reserve relied upon for some genuine snaps. Coney could probably play 80 solid snaps per game, but that simply begs for another defensive letdown in November. He will nonetheless be asked for that unless a capable substitute is available for 15-25 plays each weekend, and Jones will either be that backup or be supplanted by Bauer or Lamb.

If Jones plays behind Coney, he should end up with 20-25 tackles, some of which will likely come via special teams. Fitting a few running lanes without hesitation and making a few tackles behind the line of scrimmage would leave enough of a good impression to possibly keep Bauer and Lamb a line down on the depth chart next season, as well. In that regard, motivation should not be lacking for Jones, even as a backup behind an All-American candidate.

DOWN THE ROAD
There are two paths forward for Jones, both hinted at in the previous section. Either he stays ahead of Bauer and Lamb this season, meaning he will be the frontrunner to succeed Coney in the middle of the Notre Dame defense, or at least one of the freshmen will pass Jones this season and relegate him to career backup. In the first scenario, Jones could end up a two-year starter for the Irish.

The most-likely resolution falls somewhere between multi-year starter and career reserve. Bauer and Lamb both have higher ceilings than Jones, but neither is yet ready for the grind of a college football (true more of Lamb than of Bauer) and they have a full playbook to learn. Those advantages will keep Jones ahead of them for the start of 2018, if not its entirety. As Bauer and Lamb grow figuratively and literally, Jones’ opportunities will gradually be shared amongst the three.

If Jones handles that appropriately in the locker room and stays ready to play, he will never be phased out entirely. Using a rotation at linebacker to keep players fresh may not be as common as it is along the defensive line, but there is still value to it.

Jones can add proof to that concept as Coney did last season. His rise will almost assuredly not be as quick as Coney’s August-to-October jump from afterthought to tackling machine, but there is still time for Jones to become a consistent contributor, even if in a below-the-radar role in the long-run.

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. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

Notre Dame adds commitment of four-star linebacker Ekwonu to stellar defensive haul

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As of Thursday afternoon, more than half of Notre Dame’s 13 commitments in the class of 2019 are consensus four-star recruits. Of those seven, five line up on the defensive side of the ball and the other two spend their time in the trenches of the offensive line.

In other words, it seems the Irish coaching staff is impressing the players it wants to in this cycle.

Linebacker Osita Ekwonu (Providence Day; Charlotte, N.C.) joined the grouping with a Thursday announcement. The No. 181 player in the country and No. 5 prospect in North Carolina, per rivals.com, Ekwonu’s finalists included Ohio State, Penn State, Duke and Northwestern while he also held offers from Alabama, Auburn and Michigan.

Ekwonu projects as a prototypical linebacker, currently holding about 215 pounds on a 6-foot-2 frame. Add 15 or 20 pounds of muscle to his already impressive tackling form and Ekwonu could become a hound for the ballcarrier from the Buck linebacker position. His ability to shed blocks and read plays well — be it via instinct or thorough film study — should suit him well in the inside-outside duties required of the Buck linebacker.

Defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea served as Ekwonu’s primary recruiter.

“Seeing how he coaches and talking with him has been great,” Ekwonu told rivals.com. “Football is the last thing we talk about. He’s open to any discussion and he cares about his players as students and wants them to be active members of society.”

Ekwonu is the second linebacker to commit to Notre Dame this week, joining consensus three-star Jack Kiser (Pioneer High School; Royal Center, Ind.). Of the 13 commitments in the class, nine will start their collegiate careers on defense.