Pregame Six Pack: It’s still the big one

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During a week where much of the attention has been diverted to off-the-field drama, Saturday night’s rivalry matchup between Notre Dame and USC seems to have been pushed off center stage. Part of that comes from the Trojans entering with two-losses, an early-season national matchup fizzling out before October. But as the Trojans head to South Bend with an interim leader, fifth-year linebacker Joe Schmidt said it best.

“USC doesn’t like us, and we don’t really like them,” Schmidt said after the Navy game. “And that’s just how it’s going to be forever.”

So the glitz and glamour of the nation’s premier intersectional rivalry might be a bit subdued this year. But that doesn’t make the game any less important. Especially after the Trojans absolutely humiliated the Irish last year in the Coliseum.

With Southern Cal bringing legends in to the practice field to try and keep the team on the tracks, what Trojans team takes the field Saturday night will be anybody’s guess. But they’re a dangerous outfit—a talented team with nothing to lose.

Let’s get to the pregame six pack. Even with chaos surrounding Troy, it doesn’t make the game matter any less.

Notre Dame needs to show it won’t suffer from the dreaded Navy hangover. 

After Navy won three of four games starting in 2007, Notre Dame took back control of the series, with last week’s relatively easy victory the fifth-straight win over the Midshipmen. But that’s only one element of beating Navy. The Irish need to go out this week and prove they can defeat the other.

Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman first coined the “Body Blow theory” a few years back when considering the physical punishment that hits a team a week after a physical game. The theory was designed with a heavyweight like Stanford in mind. But one astute reader of Bruce’s pointed out the punishment Navy puts on its opponents. (The Midshipmen had just hung tough with Ohio State until the Buckeyes pulled away, only for Ohio State to lose the week after to Virginia Tech, their only loss of the 2014 season.) The theory stuck.

The last eight times Notre Dame has played Navy, they’ve gone 2-6 the next week. Those two wins? The Tommy Rees save over Purdue in 2012 and the come-from-behind victory a year earlier against Wake Forest. Neither the Boilermakers nor the Demon Deacons had a winning record.

The six losses range the spectrum. Charlie Weis fought the good fight against a solid Pitt team in 2009, but had brutal losses in 2007 and 2008. In 2010, Kelly suffered his lone dismantling at the hands of Navy only to lose the following week to Tulsa in one of the toughest weeks in recent memory. In 2013, the Irish followed up a nail-biter against Navy by playing horribly against Pitt, killing any BCS hopes with a disappointing road loss.

Last year, Kelly seemed to downplay any sense of a potential hangover. Then the Irish went into Sun Devil Stadium and spotted ASU a 34-3 lead in the second quarter. This year, he acknowledged the physicality that comes with banging in the trenches every play with Navy, but also talked about the week off that’s just around the corner.

“We’ve got a week off next week, so our guys have a totally different mindset with the bye week,” Kelly said.

This USC team is more talented than any of the teams that hung those six losses on the Irish. Then again, Notre Dame is better, too.

For both the Irish and the Trojans, keys to their offensive attack need to get back on track. 

As our good friends at Pro Football Focus took a closer look at Saturday night’s game, an interesting datapoint emerged. The strength of both teams’ offenses aren’t quite clicking on all cylinders.

After lighting up Arizona State two weeks ago, USC had a week off and then laid a surprising egg against Washington. A week after Cody Kessler completed 19 of his 33 passes for 375 yards and threw five touchdowns against just one interception, the USC passing game was completely out of sorts against the Huskies.

While he completed 68 percent of his passes when he wasn’t pressured, Kessler was just three of ten for 24 yards under pressure, per PFF. He threw an interception and was sacked five times. That made for a stat line that was near a career-worst for Kessler, completing just 16 of 29 throws for 156 yards and two interceptions.

Notre Dame’s struggles in the run game were obvious to anybody watching the Clemson game. But even against Navy, the Irish’s usually prolific ground game wasn’t in sync either. Per PFF, the Irish managed a negative grade from their offensive line against the Midshipmen.

The main culprits? Mike McGlinchey and Steve Elmer, who both garnered negative grades. That’s two straight tough starts for McGlinchey, who also struggled at Clemson. In his first start, Alex Bars was slightly below average with a -0.7 grade, while only Nick Martin (0.2) and Ronnie Stanley (0.6) had positive days.

As we dig into the keys of Saturday evening, Notre Dame’s running game dictating terms is a key piece of the puzzle. And just as important for an Irish win? Making sure the Trojans passing attack stays inefficient.

With the focus on Notre Dame’s safety play, Elijah Shumate is emerging as a senior playmaker and leader. 

Max Redfield will move back into the starting lineup, taking on the hometown team he committed to as a recruit until he gave Notre Dame a longer look. And after a tough week against the option, Redfield will need to be on top of his game.

But one player who is already there is Elijah Shumate. The senior who has long had all the physical ability in the world, seems to have put his struggles behind him. Quietly, Shumate is having a very nice year, no longer challenged to match his physical skills with his performace in Brian VanGorder’s scheme. After a very strong performance against Navy (one bone-rattling TFL and a game-clinching interception), Kelly talked about the emergence of the New Jersey native.

“Skyrocketing. I wish I had him another couple of years,” Kelly said. “He’s really coming into his own. I’m really proud of him.”

When asked what took so long for the lightbulb to go on, Kelly didn’t point to one particular thing or the other. Rather he talked about the maturation process of a college football player, something he’s seeing take shape in his other starting safety as well.

“Some guys it just takes longer to get to that point. He was still cooking, he just wasn’t done yet,” Kelly explained. “He’s one of those guys that are ascending for us. It’s really nice to see. He’s such a great kid. He cares so much. He was working so hard at his craft and he was struggling. And it was wearing on him and to see him start to break through, it’s one of the gratifying things for a coach.”

When Notre Dame and USC play in the elements, the Irish haven’t lost since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president. 

Want to know why USC visits Notre Dame in October, but USC still hosts the Irish in November? Cold weather. In 1959, the Trojans last visit to South Bend was so cold that USC athletic director Jess Hill proposed moving USC’s next visit to Notre Dame to October, while the Irish would continue coming to the Coliseum in late November. Notre Dame agreed, and it’s been that way ever since.

But with November temperatures coming to South Bend this weekend, it’ll be another interesting data point for a football program that hasn’t spent much time playing in chilly weather. In the history of USC’s program, they’ve only played 20 “cold weather” games. And while their record in those is 11-8-1, against the Irish it hasn’t been good at all.

USC hasn’t beaten Notre Dame in “cold weather” (as defined by USC’s media relations department) since 1939. That includes a loss in 2013, a 2010 game in a cold November rain storm in Southern California in 2010, a tie game in 1994, and losses in 1959, 1952, and 1949.

So while those visiting campus this weekend will be grumbling that they’re in need of long johns and an extra layer or two, the Trojans could be feeling the same way, too. And that’s a very good thing for the Irish.

As injuries mount, USC’s passing game will need to rely on some untested talent. 

Notre Dame suffered it’s share of devastating injuries. But as the Trojans head to South Bend, they’ll be pushed to the brink at some key positions. We’ve already talked about the loss of starting center and Rimington Trophy candidate Max Tuerk. But for as talented as JuJu Smith-Schuster and two-way talent Adoree Jackson are, the rest of the Trojan receiving corps is badly banged up.

The Los Angeles Times’ Lindsey Thiry lays out just how limited the Trojans could be at receiver.

Junior Isaac Whitney will not be available after he suffered a broken collarbone this week, interim Coach Clay Helton announced Thursday.

Steven Mitchell Jr., a third-year sophomore, also is unlikely to be available because of an ankle sprain.

Whitney and Mitchell have combined for 23 receptions, six for touchdowns.

Junior Darreus Rogers, who has been slowed because of a hamstring injury, will be a game-time decision. Rogers was sidelined in the first half against Arizona State on Sept. 26 and did not play last week against Washington.

Next in line to see the field is redshirt freshman Jalen Greene, a converted quarterback who became a receiver in fall camp. After that is true freshman Deontay Burnett. Both come from SC feeder school Serra, the football juggernaut that features eight players on the Trojan roster.

It’s going to be a busy recruiting weekend on campus, and Notre Dame hopes to show its best to a talented group of prospects. 

While the weather will be cooling off, the Irish recruiting efforts will be heating up. Notre Dame will welcome a large group of 2016 and 2017 recruits to campus, a signature weekend on the recruiting calendar.

Here are some of the prospects who’ll be on campus this weekend taking in the game.

Notre Dame commits:
Ian Book, QB
Tony Jones Jr., RB
Tommy Kraemer, OL
Julian Love, DB
Adetokunbo Ogundeji, DE
Spencer Perry, S
John Shannon, LS
Kevin Stepherson, WR
Cole Kmet, TE (2017)
Josh Lugg, OL (2017)

That group of Irish commits will likely make sure this talented crew of visitors is having a great time:

Brandon Burton, S
Damar Hamlin, CB
Daelin Hayes, LB
Khalid Kareem, DE
Jeffrey McCullouch, LB
Javon McKinley, WR
Ikenna Okeke, S
Tony Pride, CB
Devin Studstill, S

Hayes is just coming off a high-profile de-commitment from USC this week while Kareem no longer considers himself an Alabama commit. As spots in the Irish recruiting class fill up—especially in the secondary—it’ll be interesting if there’s a commitment or two to be had this weekend.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2 ½ , 210 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Fifth-year with only the 2018 season remaining.
Depth chart: Newsome will handle all the Notre Dame punting duties while also serving as one of four Irish captains.
Recruiting: Though only a punter, rivals.com marked Newsome as a three-star recruit and the No. 6 kicker/punter in his class.

CAREER TO DATE
Newsome preserved a year of eligibility as a freshman while former Irish leg extraordinaire Kyle Brindza both kicked and punted. Since then, Newsome has rarely faltered, averaging 43.8 yards on 172 career punts.

2015: 55 punts at an average of 44.5 yards per punt with a long of 62 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 38.1 yards per punt.
2016: 54 punts (in only 12 games) at an average of 43.5 yards per punt with a long of 71 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 35.3 yards per punt.
2017: 63 punts at an average of 43.6 yards per punt with a long of 59 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 37.9 yards per punt.

QUOTE(S)
Newsome’s rise to captainship this offseason was chronicled when Irish head coach Brian Kelly named him a captain along with fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill and fifth-year center Sam Mustipher to begin spring practices. (Fifth-year left guard Alex Bars joined their ranks the morning of the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.)

The week before the spring finale, Kelly revisited what led his team to elevate Newsome as a leader.

“He’s a guy that holds all players to a level, a standard of excellence that we have here at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “When you’re not meeting that standard, he’s going to take the load from you to make sure that it gets done. He’s a remarkable teammate.

“Our losing SWAT team weekly, they have to come in to run. [Newsome] didn’t lose once, his team, but he came in every Wednesday to be there for that losing team, to support them. Just that kind of wanting to hold everybody to the same standards. He was there to help them. He wasn’t there to yell at them. He was there to encourage them. That was recognized by his teammates.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Notre Dame does not necessarily want Newsome to excel. If he is getting enough work to truly stand out, that simply means the Irish offense has turned stalling into a routine occurrence.

“Whether he gets frequent use or not, Newsome has proven to be a consistent performer, largely immune to the pressure so often found to figuratively cripple college kickers and punters. Expect that steadfastness to continue this season.”

2018 OUTLOOK
First and foremost, the peace of mind provided by a lack of punting concerns should not be overlooked. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to worry Newsome may develop the yips in his final season.

His off-kilter leadership, meanwhile, intrigues. Two-year captain Tranquill can and will lead the defense as Mustipher and Bars combine to lead the offense. That does not simply leave the special teams for Newsome’s guidance, however.

He should serve as an offbeat catch-all for any unusual circumstances. That role would be behind the scenes, beneath the radar, etc., but Newsome’s effect could be a unique dynamic helping to easy any locker room tension.

Even with that capacity, it will almost certainly still be Tranquill and now Bars, stepping into former Notre Dame captain Mike McGlinchey’s stead, answering the media’s questions in a distant arena after a fourth quarter goes awry.

DOWN THE ROAD
Newsome’s leg does not offer the booming power necessary to break into the NFL. His Irish career alone may warrant an invite to an offseason camp, but Newsome does not look to be the next rendition of Craig Hentrich.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting surge continues with Texas four-star’s commitment

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Defensive line coach Mike Elston predicted Notre Dame would enjoy great recruiting success along its defensive line this cycle. With Saturday’s commitment of consensus four-star defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic High School; Fort Worth, Texas), Elston can consider his boasts backed up.

“I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said on Feb. 7, the most-recent National Signing Day.

“This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Osafo-Mensah is the third consensus four-star defensive end to join the Irish class of 2019 and the highest-rated of the trio, joining Howard Cross (St. Joseph H.S.; Montvale, N.J.) and Hunter Spears (Sachse; Texas). Per rivals.com, Osafo-Mensah is the No. 160 prospect in the country and the No. 17 in Texas. The recruiting service lists Osafo-Mensah as an outside linebacker, and the No. 6 outside linebacker in the country, but his 6-foot-4 frame holding about 220 pounds projects as a pass-rushing defensive end in the future.

Osafo-Mensah is not only explosive, but he has the length of a top-flight quarterback hound. Obviously, he remains a bit light as he finishes his junior year in high school.

Osafo-Mensah chose Notre Dame over his homestate Texas, with Oklahoma and Texas A&M also pursuing him strongly. Just about every college football power offered him a scholarship, notably including Alabama, Michigan and USC.

With the Irish, he becomes the 10th commit in the class, including consensus-four star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren; Bowling Green, Ky.). Clearly the defensive line is an emphasis for Elston, defensive coordinator Clark Lea and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly.

If not for the changes to NCAA recruiting rules in the last cycle, Osafo-Mensah and the rest may still be in the early parts of the recruitment process. First of all, December’s early signing period gave the coaching staff a head start on chasing the next set of recruits.

“A lot of it is because I’ve been able to put [the class of 2018] to bed and get moving on the ‘19s and go visit in their schools all throughout January,” Elston said.

Those impressions led to Osafo-Mensah’s official visit last month. Before the new rules, he would not have been able to take a paid-for trip to campus until the fall.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-6, 245 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Early-enrolled freshman with four years of eligibility remaining, including the 2018 season.
Depth chart: One could argue Takacs is the second option as an H-back blocker behind sophomore Brock Wright, but the arrival of Auburn transfer fullback Keenan Sweeney could diminish the immediate need for Takacs in that regard.
Recruiting: A rivals.com four-star recruit and No. 15 tight end in the class, the U.S. Army All-American chose Notre Dame over Georgia, Wisconsin and homestate Florida, also holding offers from much of the southeast, including Florida State, Tennessee and Auburn.

QUOTE(S)
A meniscus tear before spring practice started cut short Takacs’ early impressions. Thus, the only available insights into Takacs trace back to National Signing Day proceedings.

“George is already here doing a great job,” Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long said on Feb. 7. “… The good thing I got to see this year with George, though, is he was split out wide and did a lot of good things in the passing game.”

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN TAKACS’ NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
“The target Takacs presents to his quarterback makes him an intriguing possibility all on its own. With reach to match his 6-foot-6 frame, Takacs can get to nearly any ball in his vicinity, making up for a lack of top-end speed.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Takacs will likely be healthy before the fall, if not already. He underwent surgery for the bucket tear in his cartilage, which typically reduces recovery time from the injury. Nonetheless, the step back limited the positive effects of Takacs’ early enrollment.

The most logical result of that is Takacs spends the season on the sidelines, getting healthy and getting up to college fitness levels.

DOWN THE ROAD
Long’s praise of Takacs’ ability in the passing game indicates the tight end may be more of a complete player than he was originally recruited to be. On the surface, Takacs looks to be the successor to Wright as an attached tight end, strengthening the Notre Dame running game.

If he can do both that and catch passes, even if only short routes in the flat or on bootlegs, Takacs will fit right into Long’s multiple tight end schemes. Those formations make it so every tight end on the Irish roster matters. Three rotate in frequently, making the fourth tight end actually within the two-deep depth chart. When fifth-year Nic Weishar runs out of eligibility and senior Alizé Mack ponders the NFL, Takacs will be that fourth tight end, at the absolute least, with classmate Tommy Tremble the third tight end, especially if he sees action this year while Takacs reaches full health.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ¾, 244 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Senior with two seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018, though Notre Dame is sometimes stingy in extending fifth-year offers to players who missed a season due to academic issues.
Depth chart: Mack will start as the detached tight end with sophomore Cole Kmet now another vertical threat at the position.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American, Mack originally committed to UCLA before opting for Notre Dame.

CAREER TO DATE
One would be generous to describe Mack’s career as “up-and-down.” Aside from a 45-yard reception at Temple as a freshman in 2015, Mack’s actual play has hardly gotten off the ground, partly due to an academic suspension that cost him his sophomore season.

Last year, Mack made only 19 catches for 166 yards and one touchdown in 10 games, starting six of them. More notable than the plays he did make, Mack missed three games entirely, all with concerning reason. A concussion kept Mack sidelined against Wake Forest. He then did not line up for any snaps in the season finale at Stanford, though he was there and, as far as is known, healthy. Less ambiguously, Mack was suspended for an “internal issue” before the Citrus Bowl.

That distinction ruled out another academic concern, but the disciplinary matter still stands out as another hiccup for Mack’s progression.

2015: 13 games, five starts, 13 receptions for 190 yards.
2017: 10 games, six starts, 19 receptions for 166 yards and one touchdown.

QUOTE(S)
Despite his repeated drops and rare instances of separation from coverage in 2017, Mack’s physical gifts have hardly been questioned. His maturity, consistency and eligibility, however, have often been disputed and subsequently defended.

“As it relates to Alizé Mack, a lot of things were areas that he had to clean up off the field, which he has,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said at the start of spring practice. “He has not been on any lists. I’m really proud of him and what he’s done. He knows he’s got to go prove it now. He’s got to be consistent as a ball catcher. He’s got to be great in-line as well as detached.

“He’s got some good players around him that he’s got to go and beat out because he’s coming off a suspension. He’s very humble. Like I said, he’s done all the little things the right way for us off the field. His attention to detail has been great. Good for him. Now he’s got to go put that together.”

As spring progressed, Kelly’s assessment of Mack sounded quite similar. Mack had performed well and slowly regained at least some of the coaching staff’s trust.

“He’s been more consistent. … From a traits standpoint, he lost the opportunity to play in the bowl game and all of that was based upon understanding how important it is to do all the things the right way all the time.

“I’m happy for him that he’s showing more consistency when he does. The jury is still out there. He still has a ways to go.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“More than [former Notre Dame receiver Equanimeous] St. Brown receiving an appropriately high number of targets, the biggest hurdle between Mack and impressive statistics will indeed be his blocking and overall attitude. The Irish have other options at tight end to contribute to [offensive coordinator Chip] Long’s preference for two tight ends. If Mack does not earn the playing time in all aspects of the game, he will not receive it.

“… The excitement around Mack this spring may have exceeded realistic expectations. In that regard, Mack is set up for perceived failure in 2017. If he matched the above theoretical stat line [of 55 catches for 750 yards and four touchdowns], some would lament the fact that he scored only four times.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Mack’s off-field missteps color any forward-looking projections, but his lack of production when on the field should minimize any expectations just as much. Notre Dame could have desperately used his play-making abilities throughout 2017, especially considering the inconsistency offered at quarterback.

Instead, Mack offered little but sporadic glimpses of what he could be.

The senior could be a game-changing utility. His four catches for 37 yards in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21 would be an excellent baseline. When Irish senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush found Mack for 15 yards on the very first play from scrimmage, it showed a devotion to finding that baseline by both Wimbush and the coaching staff. Wimbush targeted his classmate an additional three times in the exhibition, all completed.

Looking for that level of a floor moving forward may be the most practical path. Extending those stats across a full season, Mack would make 52 catches for 451 yards.

What would be most notable about such a season? Mack would appear in all 13 games, just as he did his freshman season. Furthermore, two of his four spring exhibition catches were for first downs. Accounting for 26 first downs in a season would be about 10 percent of the times the offense moves the chains via any method.

DOWN THE ROAD
Mack’s physical abilities alone will make the NFL consider him, be it after this season or following 2019. Whether or not he returns for a fifth year is a different question altogether. If Kmet plays as well in 2018 as this spring’s praise forecasts, then the combination of him and Mack putting defenses in compromising positions for two full seasons would be the equivalent of Long’s ideal form of an offense.

Kmet’s emergence would also diminish the need for Mack to return, along with classmate Brock Wright and two freshmen tight ends in George Takacs and Tommy Tremble.

Mack’s past academic issues will not entirely preclude the offer of a fifth year, but they further complicate the conversation.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore