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Irish A-to-Z: Daniel Cage

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With the departure of Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara, Notre Dame’s defensive line will have a new identity. And if the Irish front four is going to return to its stout ways against the run, they’ll need Daniel Cage to be a major part of it.

Jarron Jones’ return will likely keep Cage out of the starting lineup. But if the Irish are going to play improved football on the defensive side of the ball—no easy task considering the personnel loses—it’ll be because Cage steps forward in the trenches.

A nose guard who is more than capable of playing physical at the point of attack, after two seasons hampered by injury, Cage will need to take a big step forward as a junior for the Irish to reach their goals.

 

DANIEL CAGE
6’1″, 315 lbs.
Junior, No. 75, DT

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Late to his recruitment, Notre Dame beat out Michigan State for Cage on Signing Day, winning at the fax machine after a late-January recruiting visit.

Cage’s recruitment started when Brian VanGorder took over for Bob Diaco. The three-star prospect picked the Irish even without a long-established relationship, with the Cincinnati native putting his trust in Brian Kelly, VanGorder and then position coach Mike Elston.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, one of six true freshmen to do so on defense. Pitched in four tackles including a half-TFL against USC. Missed the Louisville game with a knee injury and didn’t play against LSU.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 11 games, making 18 total tackles including four for loss. Battled a late-season injury that hampered him, taking just 13 snaps against Stanford and only six against Ohio State. Per PFF College, Cage was the defense’s fifth-most productive player, earning a +7.5 rating, with excellent games against USC and Temple.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This still feels like Cage is on track, even if an apprenticeship to Jones will happen a year later than expected.

It’s an important season for Cage, and really for the entire defensive line. We tend to forget the success of September and October, but the Irish defensive line was tough to run against, and that should be the case again in 2015.

But there’s no training wheels on to start this season, and that means Cage better be ready to go come jump street, because the opening seven weeks will test the Irish, especially against Georgia Tech and Navy. (Boston College, one of the nation’s best running attacks, is a November opponent as well.)

As for Cage, playing behind Jones will allow him to stay fresh and keep both players at optimal levels. And adding more importance to Cage’s play is the fact that Jones is still making his way back from a significant foot surgery, all but absent during spring drills.

Cage looks like a good one. We’ll find out if he projects to be great after this season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Get ready to hear a whole lot about fitness, with “work volume” a phrase likely to be uttered by Kelly during August’s press conference season. Paired with Jones, it’s safe to think that Cage will find himself in the 30-40 snap range this season, after playing 25+ snaps in seven games in 2015. But that’ll necessitate a 100-percent Jones, something we haven’t seen in the past 18 months.

While the stat sheet doesn’t necessarily show this type of progress, Cage has the ability to be an impact player. He showed flashes against USC and Temple during an impressive October, wreaking some havoc behind the line of scrimmage while also showing himself to be a load in the middle. But an injury derailed the end of his season. He tried his best to play against Ohio State but ended up on the field for less than 10 snaps.

Ultimately, this is a season where Cage will either ascend, especially utilized in a specialty role, or level out. That could turn him into an NFL prospect or a middle-of-the-road BCS-level starter.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think a season like the one Jarron Jones had in 2014 might be a nice ceiling for Cage, with a 7.5 TFL and 40 tackles being a really nice year. (Remember, that was done in 11 games, too.) Realistically, Cage might get some of his productivity eaten up by a highly-motivated Jones, who is playing a fifth-year that’s essentially an audition for NFL talent evaluators.

Reading between the lines, Keith Gilmore and VanGorder have talked about a larger rotation up front for the defensive line. That’ll likely be some by necessity—Sheldon Day isn’t walking through those doors anymore—and the fact that there’s some versatility among the group of linemen who will hopefully provide answers this season.

Cage is a huge piece of that ensemble. Even last season, he was Notre Dame’s fifth-most productive player, per the PFF College rankings. He’s got the bulk and strength to play in the trenches, assuming his fitness and health cooperate this year.

He’s not going to get confused for a NFL-sized monster like Jones, though he does have the ability to flash at the level of someone like Ian Williams—a guy who is wearing a ‘C’ on his jersey in the NFL right now. So all in all, Cage is a good player who could put together a great season.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 8 Donte Vaughn, cornerback

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2 ¾, 205 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Vaughn is a junior on a prototypical eligibility path, now having only two years remaining, including the 2018 season.
Depth chart: Backing up a second-team All-American can be a thankless and quiet role, one which Vaughn is becoming familiar with behind junior boundary cornerback Julian Love.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star prospect, Vaughn turned down the likes of Auburn, LSU and Miami to choose Notre Dame. Rivals.com considered him the No. 20 safety in the country.

CAREER TO DATE
The 2016 secondary was ravaged by dismissals and injuries, forcing a number of freshmen into action, including Vaughn. With Shaun Crawford’s and Nick Watkins’ returns in 2017, as well as the continued emergence of Love, Vaughn’s role became less significant as a sophomore.

2016: 10 games, four starts; 22 tackles with six pass breakups and one interception.
2017: Nine games; six tackles, including three in the fourth quarter of a 38-18 victory at Michigan State.

QUOTE(S)
Along with the revived depth at his position, Vaughn’s sophomore season was limited by injuries that greatly restricted his springtime work a year ago. This spring he finally showed he had progressed past those issues, per Irish cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght.

“Donte Vaughn is having an outstanding spring,” Lyght said in early April. “Last spring was extremely tough for him, dealing with the back injury and the nerve issue that he had where he was having a lot of shooting pains down his leg. He’s not hampered by that now. His development and his progression has been great.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Notre Dame will rely on its veteran linebackers to compensate for a weakness along the defensive line’s interior. Similarly, the Irish will count on its cornerback depth to assist its inexperienced safeties. With that in mind, all five cornerbacks will be needed, including Vaughn.

“His length and high school playing experience make Vaughn an intriguing last-ditch possibility for a safety replenishment. Even if that does not come to be, those attributes make Vaughn nearly the ideal extra defensive back in passing-specific situations. He can cover both deep threats and physical route-runners.

“That is not to mention the looming possibility of the backup behind Watkins suddenly becoming the starter. An injury kept Watkins out in 2016. Presuming health following a missed season is an optimistic, though possible, tactic.”

2018 OUTLOOK
It is hard to envision Notre Dame pulling Love from many competitive moments. Thus, it is hard to expect Vaughn’s role to grow significantly this season unless he becomes a factor elsewhere. There are not many other opportunities available, though. Seniors Nick Coleman and Crawford provide the options needed at nickelback, while junior Troy Pride appears to have emerged as a reliable field cornerback, hence the outbound transfer of Watkins.

Nonetheless, dime packages exist and with reason in the current iteration of college football. A fourth cornerback will be needed, and that is where Vaughn will see most of his meaningful work.

DOWN THE ROAD
Love very well may head to the NFL after this season. At the least, he will have a decision to make. If he takes that leap, Vaughn will be in excellent position to start as a senior with only current freshmen breathing down his neck on the depth chart.

However, if Love returns, then Vaughn could become the rare freshman starter to spend the next three seasons in a backup role. More than a commentary on Vaughn’s career, that will reflect the stellar development of Love and the promising possibility of Pride.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 98 Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83 Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82 Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver, senior
No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman
No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 68 Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 60 Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically) Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 56 John Dirksen, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 55 Jonathan Bonner, defensive tackle, fifth-year senior
No. 54 John Shannon, long snapper, junior
No. 53 Khalid Kareem, defensive end, junior
No. 53 Sam Mustipher, center and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 52 Bo Bauer, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end, sophomore
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker, junior
No. 44 Jamir Jones, defensive end, junior
No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end, junior
No. 41 Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 40 Drew White, linebacker, sophomore
No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, kickoff specialist, sophomore
No. 34 Jahmir Smith, running back, early-enrolled freshman
No. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 31 Jack Lamb, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 30 Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, linebacker, sophomore
No. 29 Ovie Oghoufo, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 28 Nicco Fertitta, safety, senior
No. 27 Julian Love, cornerback, junior, second-team All-American
No. 25 Braden Lenzy, receiver, incoming freshman
No. 24 Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 24 Nick Coleman, defensive back, senior
No. 23 Drue Tranquill, linebacker, two-time captain, fifth-year senior
No. 22 Asmar Bilal, rover, senior
No. 21 Jalen Elliott, safety, junior
No. 20 Shaun Crawford, nickelback, senior
No. 20 C’Bo Flemister, running back, incoming freshman
No. 19 Justin Yoon, placekicker, senior
No. 19 Justin Ademilola, defensive end, incoming freshman
No. 18 Joe Wilkins, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 17 Isaiah Robertson, safety-turned-rover, sophomore
No. 16 Noah Boykin, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 15 D.J. Morgan, safety-turned-linebacker, junior
No. 15 Phil Jurkovec, quarterback, consensus four-star incoming freshman
No. 14 Devin Studstill, safety, junior
No. 13 Lawrence Keys, receiver, incoming freshman
No. 13 Paul Moala, local safety, incoming freshman
No. 12 DJ Brown, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 12 Ian Book, quarterback, junior
No. 11 Alohi Gilman, safety, Navy transfer
No. 10 Tariq Bracy, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 10 Chris Finke, receiver, senior, former walk-on
No. 9 Daelin Hayes, defensive end, junior
No. 8 Jafar Armstrong, running back/receiver, sophomore

MEDICAL EXEMPTION
No. 35 David Adams, linebacker, sophomore

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

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 8 Jafar Armstrong, running back/receiver

rivals.com
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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-¾, 213 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Sophomore with four seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Before spring practice commenced, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Armstrong would split his time between receiver and running back. At receiver, he would have been one of half a dozen possibilities lacking experience looking to crack the rotation, but at running back he could quickly become the first or second backup to junior Tony Jones.
Recruiting: The rivals.com three-star recruit was committed to his homestate Missouri before he took a visit to Notre Dame the weekend before National Signing Day, sparking a quick flip to the Irish.

CAREER TO DATE
Armstrong saw no action his freshman season, preserving a year of eligibility. In April’s Blue-Gold Game, he played through a high ankle sprain to break two plays of more than 20 yards, finishing with five rushes for 48 yards and a touchdown along with one catch for 21 yards.

QUOTE(S)
Spending his spring bouncing between two position groups could have left Armstrong lost in the playbook. Irish receivers coach Del Alexander saw no such confusion, only a need for a bit more time to learn everything given the influx of material on Armstrong’s figurative syllabus.

“It has slowed him down, but he has not made mistakes,” Alexander said. “… He’s just got to do it faster. He’s got to feel comfortable.

“A guy that is built with speed and power can be great in both areas. He knows what to do, [but] his reaction time is a little bit slower right now. We’re in a great place with him.”

Running backs coach Autry Denson was so pleased with the limited time he spent with Armstrong, he outright campaigned for the slash-receiver to be removed from Armstrong’s duties. Nonetheless, Denson also understands the perks of having a playmaker seamlessly motion from the backfield to the slot or vice versa.

“That fact that he can play both, you can never have too many guys that can play multiple positions,” Denson said in late March. “We run a spread offense. It’s about getting the best five guys on the field from those skill positions and just trying to threaten the defense with the best players possible. That’s the bonus to us as an offensive unit.

“… He has big strong hands. He can catch really well at receiver, natural catcher. With the ball in his hands, he’s just a very strong runner.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“This fall, Alexander will have 10 receivers at his disposal (11 if counting receiver-turned-running back Deon McIntosh), not to mention the couple of tight ends who could line up in the receiver position in specific situations. It is hard to envision all of those players seeing worthwhile snaps in the Irish offense.

“With that in mind, a season preserving eligibility appears to be Armstrong’s most likely path. He and fellow incoming freshman Michael Young are obviously the most inexperienced of the grouping.

“For that matter, few — if any — of the 10 receiver options come across as placeholders. Each one brings a tangible skillset to the field. Thus, there are no candidates prime for Armstrong to move ahead of in his first few months on campus.

“Unless it is decided Armstrong is needed on special teams — a distinct possibility given how special teams coordinator Brian Polian lamented his lack of options this spring — a season learning the offense is his most likely outcome in 2017.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Armstrong’s move to running back from receiver could prove all the difference this season. At receiver, a quartet of returning contributors will fill most of that rotation, but at running back, half of the expected 2018 depth chart was dismissed during the winter and the availability of senior Dexter Williams is murky with questions and rumors.

That leaves Armstrong as the possible primary backup to Jones. Even if Williams is available, then Armstrong falls only to third, still a needed spot among running backs as clearly illustrated last season when the fourth-string back became the second-most productive.

Armstrong will still run some routes. When Notre Dame received his national letter of intent a little less than 18 months ago, Kelly described Armstrong as a “deep threat … that can really push the field vertically for us.” That speed has not vanished, though it has been complemented by a weight gain of 30 pounds thanks to a year in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.

That combination may have made Armstrong a viable speed option out wide. It will also make him a dangerous one-cut rusher, finding a crease and gaining six yards before a defender can get a clean shot on him. If durable, that kind of running attack can be very dangerous.

DOWN THE ROAD
Whether or not Williams is around for some, all or none of this season, he will be out of eligibility in 2019, leaving Armstrong as the frontrunner to join Jones as the primary ballcarriers. The freshmen duo of C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith may have something to say about that, but it seems most likely they will have to work their way past Armstrong.

Even then, three or four pertinent running backs are a necessity in all but the rarest situations. An ankle sprain to one back and a quad strain to another (sound familiar?) can quickly reduce a deep depth chart to its most basic of options. That happened in 2017 and will undoubtedly occur at some point again in the next four years.

Armstrong is part of that picture now. Moving him back to receiver full-time feels impractical, given the conflicting depth situations. Players have made livelihoods out of such a split in Kelly’s system before, namely Theo Riddick and CJ Prosise.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 98 Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83 Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82 Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver, senior
No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman
No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 68 Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 60 Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically) Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 56 John Dirksen, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 55 Jonathan Bonner, defensive tackle, fifth-year senior
No. 54 John Shannon, long snapper, junior
No. 53 Khalid Kareem, defensive end, junior
No. 53 Sam Mustipher, center and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 52 Bo Bauer, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end, sophomore
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker, junior
No. 44 Jamir Jones, defensive end, junior
No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end, junior
No. 41 Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 40 Drew White, linebacker, sophomore
No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, kickoff specialist, sophomore
No. 34 Jahmir Smith, running back, early-enrolled freshman
No. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 31 Jack Lamb, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 30 Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, linebacker, sophomore
No. 29 Ovie Oghoufo, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 28 Nicco Fertitta, safety, senior
No. 27 Julian Love, cornerback, junior, second-team All-American
No. 25 Braden Lenzy, receiver, incoming freshman
No. 24 Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 24 Nick Coleman, defensive back, senior
No. 23 Drue Tranquill, linebacker, two-time captain, fifth-year senior
No. 22 Asmar Bilal, rover, senior
No. 21 Jalen Elliott, safety, junior
No. 20 Shaun Crawford, nickelback, senior
No. 20 C’Bo Flemister, running back, incoming freshman
No. 19 Justin Yoon, placekicker, senior
No. 19 Justin Ademilola, defensive end, incoming freshman
No. 18 Joe Wilkins, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 17 Isaiah Robertson, safety-turned-rover, sophomore
No. 16 Noah Boykin, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 15 D.J. Morgan, safety-turned-linebacker, junior
No. 15 Phil Jurkovec, quarterback, consensus four-star incoming freshman
No. 14 Devin Studstill, safety, junior
No. 13 Lawrence Keys, receiver, incoming freshman
No. 13 Paul Moala, local safety, incoming freshman
No. 12 DJ Brown, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 12 Ian Book, quarterback, junior
No. 11 Alohi Gilman, safety, Navy transfer
No. 10 Tariq Bracy, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 10 Chris Finke, receiver, senior, former walk-on
No. 9 Daelin Hayes, defensive end, junior

MEDICAL EXEMPTION
No. 35 David Adams, linebacker, sophomore

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

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 9 Daelin Hayes, defensive end

Associated Press
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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-3 ¾, 264 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Junior with two seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Hayes will start as the drop end just as he did last, with classmate Julian Okwara providing able backup.
Recruiting: Rivals.com rated Hayes as a five-star prospect, the only such recruit to choose Notre Dame in the last four cycles. The U.S. Army All-American bypassed offers from the likes of Ohio State, Michigan and Alabama. The No. 7 outside linebacker in the country, per rivals.com, and the No. 31 player overall, Hayes enrolled early.

CAREER TO DATE
Hayes is on pace to play every game of his Irish career. Coming out of high school, multiple shoulder injuries gave reason to wonder about his durability, but 12 starts amid appearances in 25 games have largely eliminated those concerns.

2016: 12 games; 11 tackles, one forced fumble.
2017: 13 games, 12 starts; 30 tackles including 6.5 for loss and three sacks, along with one pass breakup and two fumbles recovered.

Hayes did not start against Navy last season — senior Andrew Trumbetti took his place — a common disclaimer with upperclassmen sparked by the triple-option offense. Hayes’ season highlight came in the blowout victory against USC, notching five solo tackles and one sack.

QUOTE(S)
Across Notre Dame’s final five games last season, Hayes managed only six tackles. Irish head coach Brian Kelly attributed that to inexperience showing itself with time.

“The only thing [Hayes is] missing, really, is continued confidence in the position in which he plays,” Kelly said during spring practice. “Not in himself, he’s an extremely confident young man and carries himself as such.

“The position he plays was new to him. The nuances of that position maybe got him a little tentative as the year went on. His knowledge base is so much better this year of understanding his position and how it relates to the 11 players.”

More practice and game reps will only aid that cause, just like more time on campus furthers any player’s development.

“He’s physical, and he’s playing the kind of football that we expect him to play next year right now,” Kelly said.

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“In 2010, [former Notre Dame defensive end] Prince Shembo recorded 15 tackles, with five for loss including 4.5 sacks and forced one fumble (as a freshman). Hayes essentially matched those gross numbers (in 2016), the tackles just did not come behind the line of scrimmage.

“Obviously, that is a big difference, and one Notre Dame will be desperate to see change in 2017. Hayes represents [former Irish] defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s best chance at a true pass rush. He is, perhaps, Elko’s only chance at a true pass rush.

“Continuing to use Shembo’s on-field career arc as a template, he started eight games in 2011, saw action in 12 games and recorded 31 tackles. His numbers behind the line of scrimmage dipped — illustrating how much those may hinge on constant variables — to 3.5 tackles for loss with two sacks.

“Hayes should start 13 games this season, and in doing so easily notch 30-plus tackles. His raw speed alone could get him close to that number. Elko, defensive line coach Mike Elston and Kelly will all very much hope for more than two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. If healthy, Hayes should exceed those numbers, and after a healthy freshman season, there is no longer reason to readily presume injury.”

2018 OUTLOOK
At some point, potential must become performance lest it be seen as unfulfilled. Hayes is not at that point yet, but if he does not flash this season, it may indicate his ceiling is lower than always perceived. While that may sound extreme, keep in mind it came with a rather strong if.

Hayes improved drastically between his first two seasons, as most-evidenced by his 30 tackles and 6.5 for loss. (While on that topic, let’s give some kudos to nailing Hayes’ 2017 projected stats. Pure skill, obviously, no chance whatsoever.) His snap count this season will only increase without Trumbetti siphoning off a handful of plays a game, even if Okwara is ready to handle more. An increased snap count and more effectiveness should boost Hayes’ figures closer to 40 tackles with at least six for loss once again.

A dozen or so more tackles this year (meaning in the low 40s) would likely point to Hayes finishing the season stronger than he did last. That is one aspect of the sought improvement. The other will come in the simplest measurement of any defensive end: sacks.

From a defensive coordinator’s point of view, a sack not only pushes the opponent backward, it also takes away the opportunity of a play. If Hayes provides that twofold effect twice as often this season as last, he will be in line with the coaching staff’s hopes for him tracing back to his recruitment. More than that and Hayes will become a focal point of opposing offensive coordinators, helping the defensive line as a whole.

DOWN THE ROAD
It would take quite the jump this season for Hayes to ponder the NFL in the spring. Thus, expect him to start next season, making him a three-year starter for the Irish. That alone will send Hayes to the next level; how high he is drafted will hinge on what Hayes offers in 2019.

Guessing at those outcomes would be more conjecture than usual without seeing how Hayes fares this season first. Ideally for Notre Dame, he becomes an all-around end and Okwara shows elite pass-rush abilities. That combination would allow defensive coordinator Clark Lea a litany of possibilities in preparing for his second year.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 98 Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83 Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82 Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver, senior
No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman
No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 68 Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 60 Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically) Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 56 John Dirksen, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 55 Jonathan Bonner, defensive tackle, fifth-year senior
No. 54 John Shannon, long snapper, junior
No. 53 Khalid Kareem, defensive end, junior
No. 53 Sam Mustipher, center and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 52 Bo Bauer, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end, sophomore
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker, junior
No. 44 Jamir Jones, defensive end, junior
No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end, junior
No. 41 Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 40 Drew White, linebacker, sophomore
No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, kickoff specialist, sophomore
No. 34 Jahmir Smith, running back, early-enrolled freshman
No. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 31 Jack Lamb, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 30 Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, linebacker, sophomore
No. 29 Ovie Oghoufo, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 28 Nicco Fertitta, safety, senior
No. 27 Julian Love, cornerback, junior, second-team All-American
No. 25 Braden Lenzy, receiver, incoming freshman
No. 24 Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 24 Nick Coleman, defensive back, senior
No. 23 Drue Tranquill, linebacker, two-time captain, fifth-year senior
No. 22 Asmar Bilal, rover, senior
No. 21 Jalen Elliott, safety, junior
No. 20 Shaun Crawford, nickelback, senior
No. 20 C’Bo Flemister, running back, incoming freshman
No. 19 Justin Yoon, placekicker, senior
No. 19 Justin Ademilola, defensive end, incoming freshman
No. 18 Joe Wilkins, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 17 Isaiah Robertson, safety-turned-rover, sophomore
No. 16 Noah Boykin, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 15 D.J. Morgan, safety-turned-linebacker, junior
No. 15 Phil Jurkovec, quarterback, consensus four-star incoming freshman
No. 14 Devin Studstill, safety, junior
No. 13 Lawrence Keys, receiver, incoming freshman
No. 13 Paul Moala, local safety, incoming freshman
No. 12 DJ Brown, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 12 Ian Book, quarterback, junior
No. 11 Alohi Gilman, safety, Navy transfer
No. 10 Tariq Bracy, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 10 Chris Finke, receiver, senior, former walk-on

MEDICAL EXEMPTION
No. 35 David Adams, linebacker, sophomore

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

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 10 Chris Finke, receiver, punt returner

Associated Press
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Listed Measurements: 5-foot-9 ½, 179 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Senior with two seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Finke is in the mix to contribute in the passing game from the outset this year, competing with sophomore Michael Young to complement the size of junior Chase Claypool and senior Miles Boykin. Of the entire receiving corps, only those four bring any experience whatsoever.
Recruiting: A preferred walk-on to start his career, Finke earned a scholarship heading into his sophomore season.

CAREER TO DATE
Finke’s junior year mirrored his sophomore year’s receiving stats, a disappointing byproduct of the Notre Dame passing game struggling throughout 2017. His greatest impact came in the early September loss to Georgia, pulling in three receptions for 36 yards, all coming in the fourth quarter of the 20-19 defeat, as did all five of his targets. He had no more than one grab in any other game.

2016: 10 games; 10 catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns.
2017: 13 games, one start; six catches for 102 yards.

Finke has also served as the primary punt returner most of the last two seasons, with a seeming-allergy to fair catches in obvious situations.

2016: Nine punt returns for 70 yards; five kick returns for 85 yards.
2017: 24 punt returns for 156 yards.

QUOTE(S)
Finke is many things: relatively sure-handed, outright quick, shifty to the point of it being a cliché. He is also mistake-free to such a degree it earns notice.

“Chris had the least amount of [missed assignments],” Irish receivers coach Del Alexander said in late March. “At this point in the game, Finke knows everything. I can move Finke anywhere, I can beat Finke up, I can get him in front of blockers.”

Those are all compliments, but there is still plenty of work to be done to improve Finke’s game.

“We’re doing so many little things with Finke that help him have a knack for the game outside of the playbook,” Alexander said. “… Because he understands exactly what we want, he knows the playbook, but at the same time, we’re talking about leverage, we’re talking about using his height to an advantage, using his quickness, timing on break and anticipation of people around him.

“We’re doing some things that help you play for a long time.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Finke will almost certainly exceed last year’s numbers, but the question will be when and where. Notre Dame is not wanting at receiver, and that assuredness is not even factoring in the number of skilled tight ends available, as well. Finding a role in the rotation for all those capable, including Finke, will be a unique balancing act.

“… Nothing in spring indicated Finke had yielded that second-half momentum surge. With it, he should be ready to contribute at either the slot or the field receiver position whenever Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long wants to downsize his target.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Finke’s consistency and unique playmaking ability puts him in position to contribute for Notre Dame, no matter how diminutive his frame may be. The presumed emergence of Young, though, will likely limit the opportunities. Some situations may call for multiple 5-foot-10, sub-200-pound receivers, but those moments are few and far between, especially when the offensive coordinator prefers targets with size and has the luxury of two upperclassmen receivers taller than 6-foot-4 and a trio of pass-catching tight ends even taller.

Finke will still see a non-negligible amount of playing time; it is just hard to project him as one of senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s primary targets, odd considering how much Wimbush relied on Finke in trying to mount a comeback against the Bulldogs.

As for punt returns, Finke’s desire to make a play has put his role there in jeopardy in the past. Recklessly hauling in punts inside the 10-yard-line is a surefire way to aggravate any coach. If Irish head coach Brian Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian have drilled rules into Finke’s head by now, then the job should remain his. He has shown the needed flashes to shift field position, most-recently in the third quarter at Stanford when he returned a punt 41 yards to set up a lead-taking field goal, also known as Notre Dame’s last points of the regular-season finale. Finke returned the Cardinal’s next punt 20 yards to position the Irish for a last-ditch effort, which stalled.

If, however, Finke continues to take unnecessary risks unfit a senior, then a change will need to be made to preserve future possessions.

DOWN THE ROAD
Finke will be an interesting case for roster construction discussion following the season. Including sophomore receiver/running back Jafar Armstrong, the Irish currently have 10 players at the position, all with 2019 eligibility available. If Boykin, Claypool and Young separate as a leading trio and any or all of the freshmen quartet impress, then Finke could be the fifth or sixth option as a fifth-year.

In such an instance, the coaching staff may opt to devote that scholarship to a player in the class of 2019, a grouping which could be tight for space as is.

Of course, if Finke catches 25 passes this season for 300 yards and a couple scores, that conversation would shift entirely.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 98 Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83 Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82 Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver, senior
No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman
No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 68 Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 60 Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically) Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 56 John Dirksen, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 55 Jonathan Bonner, defensive tackle, fifth-year senior
No. 54 John Shannon, long snapper, junior
No. 53 Khalid Kareem, defensive end, junior
No. 53 Sam Mustipher, center and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 52 Bo Bauer, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end, sophomore
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker, junior
No. 44 Jamir Jones, defensive end, junior
No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end, junior
No. 41 Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 40 Drew White, linebacker, sophomore
No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, kickoff specialist, sophomore
No. 34 Jahmir Smith, running back, early-enrolled freshman
No. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 31 Jack Lamb, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 30 Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, linebacker, sophomore
No. 29 Ovie Oghoufo, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 28 Nicco Fertitta, safety, senior
No. 27 Julian Love, cornerback, junior, second-team All-American
No. 25 Braden Lenzy, receiver, incoming freshman
No. 24 Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 24 Nick Coleman, defensive back, senior
No. 23 Drue Tranquill, linebacker, two-time captain, fifth-year senior
No. 22 Asmar Bilal, rover, senior
No. 21 Jalen Elliott, safety, junior
No. 20 Shaun Crawford, nickelback, senior
No. 20 C’Bo Flemister, running back, incoming freshman
No. 19 Justin Yoon, placekicker, senior
No. 19 Justin Ademilola, defensive end, incoming freshman
No. 18 Joe Wilkins, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 17 Isaiah Robertson, safety-turned-rover, sophomore
No. 16 Noah Boykin, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 15 D.J. Morgan, safety-turned-linebacker, junior
No. 15 Phil Jurkovec, quarterback, consensus four-star incoming freshman
No. 14 Devin Studstill, safety, junior
No. 13 Lawrence Keys, receiver, incoming freshman
No. 13 Paul Moala, local safety, incoming freshman
No. 12 DJ Brown, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 12 Ian Book, quarterback, junior
No. 11 Alohi Gilman, safety, Navy transfer
No. 10 Tariq Bracy, cornerback, incoming freshman

MEDICAL EXEMPTION
No. 35 David Adams, linebacker, sophomore

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