Notre Dame football: What’s wrong with the defense?

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The play has been dissected for nearly a week. Just 15 seconds and roughly 25 yards separated Notre Dame from an eleventh victory, a game that the playoff committee very well could have viewed as one of the most impressive road victory of the college football season.

But as Kevin Hogan dropped back from his own 43-yard line, it looks as easy as pitch and catch. He stood well-protected, a perfect pocket formed with just three Irish defenders rushing the passer, Notre Dame’s leading sacker didn’t chase after Hogan, but rather shadowed him—a 265-pound defensive end doing a linebackers job.

On time and on rhythm, the veteran quarterback hit his target in stride, a receiver breaking inside of a defensive back that was all but flat-footed to a vacancy of green grass so large that it would’ve cost millions in the Palo Alto neighborhood surrounding Stanford Stadium.

Few plays have the ability to crystalize a season. But Hogan to Devon Cajuste did just that—exploiting a defense that’s woeful inconsistency kept Notre Dame from having an opportunity to play for a national championship.

The natural reaction is to assign blame. Plenty of angry pitchforks surround defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, the architect of a creaky house. Finishing up his second season in South Bend, the former NFL defensive coordinator hasn’t been able to elevate the play of a group that may very well be decimated by injury, but is still among the most talented we’ve seen over the last decade in South Bend.

But multiple factors go into the struggles of a defense that suffers from a multiple personality disorder. So let’s check into a Holiday Inn Express, throw on our lab coat, and do our best to diagnose the problems that have plagued the 2015 Irish defense.

 

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

On paper, Notre Dame’s 2015 defense doesn’t look like the flaming mess some are calling it. The Irish are giving up 22 points a game, a respectable 36th in the nation. They’re a middle of the pack unit stopping the run, perhaps explainable when you consider the two option teams on the schedule. They’re a Top 30 unit against the pass, likely buoyed by the same two opponents. The top line reveals a defense that’s roughly Top 40—not great, not horrible.

But it doesn’t take much of a deep dive to identify some of the critical problems. The Irish gave up big plays by the bushel. They were the ultimate boom-or-bust unit, one of the better teams at forcing three-and-outs, but also susceptible to giving up long touchdown drives. Over the last two seasons, Notre Dame has given up 53 touchdown drives of 70-yards or more, a staggering statistic dug out by Tim Prister at Irish Illustrated. Or approximately 52 more than they did in 2012.

The red zone was a similar horror show. Under Diaco, Notre Dame rarely gave up long touchdown drives and always seemed to stiffen near the goal line. The opposite has been true the past two seasons. This year, Notre Dame forced just three field goals in 34 red zone opportunities. That helps explain why the Irish are No. 21 when it comes to scoring percentage, but a staggering 103rd when it comes to giving up touchdowns.

The Irish won 10 football games this season, an important piece of the equation to remember as many kick dirt on a team that has a chance to win 11 games for just the second time since 1993. They’ll be doing it against one of the toughest schedules in the country and with a team that’s started 37 different players and lost two games against Top 10 competition by a combined four points.

But as Brian Kelly moves this program forward, it’s clear that while the offense has found a way to evolve and continue to produce even as injuries mount, the defense hasn’t. And that needs to change.

 

THE COORDINATOR

The struggles of this unit likely rest at the feet of VanGorder. Brought in to help Notre Dame take the next evolutionary step as a defense after Bob Diaco took over the UConn football program, VanGorder was billed as a teacher and developer of talent when Brian Kelly introduced him in January of 2014.

“The first thing I wanted in this position is a great teacher. I think first and foremost when you’re talking about the ability to bring together our defensive players, you need the ability to communicate and to teach, and Brian is one of the very best teachers, if not the best teacher, that I’ve ever been around, and I go way back with Brian,” Kelly said.

“I think the second thing that stands out is he understands player development, and so anyone that I want to be around on a day to day basis has to understand the important principles of player development in bringing them along and really understanding how important it is to get those traits out of our players. They’re not ready made. The players that we bring here to Notre Dame, we have to develop them, and not just on the football field, but off the field as well. Brian understands that.”

Through that lens, it’s hard to call the last two seasons successes. While VanGorder brought with him schemes and personnel groupings honed in the NFL, he hasn’t been able to get his team to fully comprehend the advanced calculus his schematics require. Even if VanGorder is the teacher that Kelly described, time constraints at the college level—not to mention the academic workloads Notre Dame student-athletes carry—have likely made it impossible for a complete understanding of what’s being asked. Twenty hours a week doesn’t give you the time to teach a system that requires NFL professionals to commit their livelihood to owning a system.

Kelly also praised VanGorder’s ability to develop players. That’s been a mixed bag. If you’re going to harp on certain players failing to live up to expectations, you need to acknowledge the ascent we’ve seen from others.

Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara have both excelled under VanGorder. Jaylon Smith’s game has become more dynamic when not confined by Diaco’s difficult Dog linebacker requirements. Struggles with current safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate have been consistent whether Diaco or VanGorder was coaching them and cornerbacks are more likely to be beat when you’re asking them to lock into man coverage as opposed to playing a Cover 2 zone.

VanGorder has shown himself capable of correcting issues. We saw that over the offseason when the Irish solved their issues against hurry-up attacks and implemented a system that allowed Notre Dame to successfully defend the triple-option run by Georgia Tech and Navy.

This offseason, the chalkboard has two very large objectives that need cleaning up: Big play prevention and red zone struggles. And those issues require a great deal more introspection than the challenges exposed by Larry Fedora or Ken Niumatalolo.

 

THE PERSONNEL

While there is plenty of talent on Notre Dame’s defense, personnel limitations can’t be discounted. That Devon Cajuste found his way between an undersized, in-the-box middle linebacker and defensive back who would’ve been the third choice for the role had the secondary been moderately healthy deserves mention. In a perfect world, neither Joe Schmidt nor Matthias Farley are on the field in end of game situations. A week earlier, Farley might not have been, and had Drue Tranquill not torn his ACL, Schmidt might not have been, either.

Notre Dame’s defensive personnel is still a work in progress. Trapped in that awkward phase between Bob Diaco’s physical 3-4 personnel and VanGorder’s scheme that sacrifices size for athleticism, the Irish were doomed by roster deficiencies that only became over-exposed once injuries hit.

Utilizing College Football Focus’s player evaluation tools, it’s simple to see that while Notre Dame’s offensive personnel can be viewed among the elite of college football, there’s still a long way to go for the defense. That’s clear when you look at the uniform grading system that CFF/PFF uses to breakdown every snap of ever game played in college football.

Only Sheldon Day and Jaylon Smith were elite players. Both played like stars this season. Day ranks as the No. 1 4-3 defensive tackle in the country in terms of overall grading. Smith grades out as the No. 3 OLB in a 4-3 system in the country. But from there, the defensive struggles show clearly, especially when you look at defenders with negative grades that were forced to play significant snaps.

Of the top six teams in the current College Football Playoff rankings, Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma, Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State have a total of five players who have played 300 snaps with a negative CFF rating. Notre Dame has six.

You’d suspect some of the names on that list—Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate, true freshman defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. Others you would not—seniors Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell. Game-specific deficiencies CFF picked up make sense from 30,000 feet. Max Redfield’s struggles as a run defender have been often discussed, same with Schmidt and Shumate’s difficulties in coverage.

Many thought Jarron Jones’ preseason injury was the biggest loss of the season. But the Irish defense might have been undone by the injuries to Shaun Crawford and safety Drue Tranquill.

Notre Dame’s ability to be multiple was lost when those two defenders went down. So much of what VanGorder wanted to do against the pass was lost when Crawford couldn’t play nickelback. Same for Tranquill’s injury, robbing the Irish not just of a perfect hybrid player who could excel on third down, but also taking away the ability of the defense to play Smith in the middle of the field on passing downs—essentially limiting his impact as a coverman and interior blitzer. Schmidt came within steps of a half-dozen sacks as he blitzed up the A-gap. Smith’s explosiveness would’ve likely turned many of those into big plays.

VanGorder has changed the way Notre Dame has recruited the defensive side of the ball. Gone are some of the hard-and-firm prototypes that Diaco demanded when looking for players. Those changes have built the Irish roster for the future.

But in addition to the injuries, roster attrition hasn’t allowed reinforcements to hit the field, players like Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams and Bo Wallace gone before having a chance to impact the team in situational jobs. That’s forced some legacy personnel into jobs that were tailored for a different type of football player.

 

MOVING FORWARD

Notre Dame’s success this season has elevated expectations for the future. But to play up to them, VanGorder and Kelly will need to recalibrate how they approach defending opponents.

Moving forward without Schmidt as the nerve center is one thing. The reality that Jaylon Smith is likely joining Sheldon Day in the NFL Draft is another, with significant personnel hits likely to be taken. Yet the Irish are well-equipped with the athleticism needed to fill those holes, even if we might not see another linebacker like Smith wearing a Notre Dame jersey for many years to come.

But without a simplified scheme, personnel advancements will only do so much. Elite athletes become ordinary very quickly if they don’t fully grasp their jobs. And a scheme that forces 11 players to defend without a safety net is a flaw in the foundation of the system.

One man missing a tackle can’t result in a 30-yard gain, like we saw so many times this season. Exotic schemes that force a linebacker to sprint into coverage for the sake of surprise does little when an opponent’s counter-punch exposes your own vulnerabilities.

Kelly and VanGorder know these things, of course. And as the coaching staff spends the offseason analyzing their strengths and weaknesses, there’s a very high likelihood that Kelly still comes out with the same answer he gave a few weeks back when asked why his defense was giving up long touchdown drives and big plays.

“I still think it’s personnel-driven. You’re still looking at who you’re putting on the field,” Kelly said. “I think Brian has brought the kind of pressure and aggressive defensive play that we’re looking for in a transition. We’re still evolving defensively. We’re still working to build our defense. We’re not there yet, clearly… We’re going to get better as we continue to recruit and develop our defense.”

The future of the program depends on it.

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

Notre Dame’s recruiting class gets an offensive skill player, consensus three-star RB Kyren Williams

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Notre Dame finally has an offensive skill player in the recruiting class of 2019 (again). Consensus three-star running back Kyren Williams (St. John Vianney High School; St. Louis) committed to the Irish on Thursday, joining and following four offensive linemen just as he will certainly hope to while actually in college.

Including those linemen and Williams, the Notre Dame class now has 15 commitments, but only the one running back among quarterback, running back, receiver and tight end possibilities. The modifier again is required in the lede because consensus four-star quarterback Cade McNamara (Demonte Ranch H.S.; Reno, Nev.) originally committed to the Irish before stepping away from that pledge in early March.

Even without a dynamic playmaker, the class had risen up recruiting rankings.

That should now not only continue but be a bit more legitimate.

Williams chose Notre Dame over a lengthy offer list, headlined by Michigan, Stanford and his homestate Missouri. Part of his allure to schools in general and specifically the Irish is his pass-catching abilities. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long’s ideal running back can motion out of the backfield and be deployed as a genuine receiving threat, thus creating a myriad of possibilities in two-back sets. That is one of the driving reasons junior Tony Jones is considered the top running back entering 2018; he is a more viable receiver than senior running back Dexter Williams.

Kyren Williams visited campus this past weekend.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, kickoff specialist

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-3, 200 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Sophomore with three seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Doerer will presumably handle kickoff duties to allow senior placekicker Justin Yoon to focus on the uprights.
Recruiting: Doerer’s de-commitment from Maryland to pledge to Notre Dame the weekend before National Signing Day came shortly after the Irish began focusing their pursuit on the kicker, a somewhat surprising recruitment considering Yoon had, at that point, two full years of eligibility remaining.

CAREER TO DATE
Doerer saw action in seven games last season with mixed results. His debut against Boston College consisted of three kickoffs yielding the Eagles an average field position of their own 30-yard-line, buoyed by a kickoff out of bounds.

He recovered only somewhat from his shaky debut two weeks later late in the blowout of Miami (OH), sending two of his five kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks.

2017: 32 kickoffs, nine touchbacks, one out of bounds.

SPRING
Doerer never came up this spring. Part of the reasoning for the coming indoor practice facility — to be completed next summer — is to allow for more springtime work for the specialists. Only two or three of Notre Dame’s spring practices were outdoors this year, and the current indoor facility’s ceiling is too low for a kicker like Doerer to properly work on hang time and placement.

He did convert a 20-yard field goal and one extra point in the Blue-Gold Game.

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Expect Doerer to handle kickoffs from the outset and retain that duty until/unless it goes awry. Yoon’s injury concerns should be in the past by September, but allowing him to focus on placekicks could hold value for Notre Dame. Hence, [Irish head coach Brian] Kelly welcomed the chance to fill a scholarship slot with Doerer.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Doerer arrived at Notre Dame praised for his ability to send deep kicks high with hang time. It is a unique skill, albeit one needed less and less as the NCAA and the NFL increasingly try to diminish the high-speed collisions of kickoffs.

As a freshman, Doerer eventually proved his ability to handle the specialty duties by pinning Wake Forest returners inside the five-yard line six of nine times, with the other three landing as touchbacks. The Demon Deacons couldn’t risk the ball bouncing away from the end zone, but fielding a kickoff at the three-yard line after it has decent hang time is, and indeed was, a recipe for poor field position.

No longer. The NCAA has now adopted a rule wherein such a kickoff could be fair caught and the ball would be subsequently placed at the 25-yard line. There is no longer anything to gain from lofting a kickoff to the two-yard line rather than simply blasting it out of the end zone.

Doerer will still be asked to do the latter, but the uniqueness of his abilities has been reduced drastically.

DOWN THE ROAD
Both Yoon and fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome will be out of eligibility after this season. Doerer will almost certainly take over as the placekicker, and working as the punter could reinvigorate some of the pertinence of his skillset. Pinpointing a punt out of bounds at the four-yard line does not incur a penalty like it does with a kickoff. Instead, it entirely alters an opposing offense’s strategy.

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. 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