The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Nevada

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What a difference a week makes. Brian Kelly’s post-Texas proclamation to “relax” seems much easier now than last Monday. That’s what an easy notch in the win column does for you. And a defense that looked much better playing in its base set than trying to slow down Texas.

While a true test of what this team looks like won’t come until next Saturday night against Michigan State, a 25-point second quarter—and some big plays by Brian VanGorder’s defense—made sure that the sky wasn’t falling.

Let’s put the win against the Wolf Pack behind us as the preparations turn towards Sparty. The battle for the Megaphone awaits.

 

THE GOOD

Red Zone Offense. What a difference a year makes. At least so far. Notre Dame’s offense clearly lacks the explosiveness of last season’s. That’s to be expected when you lose freaks like Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise. But the Irish efficiency is much improved, a credit to DeShone Kizer and the Irish red zone offense.

The Irish were six for six again this week, scoring five touchdowns in their drives inside the 20-yard line. (And memo to the RTDB Crowd: Justin Yoon’s field goal came after three-straight runs inside Nevada’s 10-yard line.) The biggest change? Kizer’s accuracy.

A tweet from Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated laid it out best: In 2015’s regular season, Kizer went 17 of 40 in the red zone, throwing nine touchdowns and five interceptions. This season, Kizer’s already completed 7 of his 10 throws, with five touchdowns and, most importantly, no interceptions.

 

The Run Defense. Things aren’t necessarily broken up front for the Irish, with Notre Dame’s under siege front seven limiting Nevada to just 99 rushing yards on 30 attempts. The strength of the Wolf Pack offense was the ground game, and the Irish withstood a few wrinkles—including a dose of triple option—to keep Nevada’s offense offtrack.

A return to base defense certainly helped. So did a strong performance for Te’von Coney, making his first start at Will linebacker, replacing Greer Martini in the lineup. But once the Irish found their footing on the opening series, the unit built on that crucial 4th-down stop and played very good football.

“We still have a lot of work to do, but we came together,” Daniel Cage said postgame. “We got on each other and took over the game.”

Cage’s knifing stop on fourth down triggered that. So did a very nice game by James Onwualu, who chipped in two TFLs from the Sam linebacker position. Throw in an impactful game by Jonathan Bonner, who almost doubled his snap count from a week earlier, and the front seven is evolving and finding its footing in time for another stiff test.

 

The Kids. There were a lot of firsts for the Irish on Saturday. Catches for receivers Corey Holmes, Kevin Stepherson, Chris Finke and Chase Claypool. Starts for Te’von Coney and Devin Studstill, and appearances for young players Jamir Jones, Khalid Kareem, Tristen Hoge and Trevor Ruhland.

Just as important as any debuts was deepening the rotation. Cornerback Donte Vaughn is a key piece of the puzzle now with Shaun Crawford lost for the season. Julian Love is now the team’s starter at nickel back. And if Nick Coleman continues to struggle, don’t be surprised if Jalen Elliott finds his way onto the field more as well.

Last season’s defensive rotation was almost nonexistent. That won’t be the case this year, as Kelly commented on how he thinks his defense can improve with more players taking on key roles.

“I think it makes us a better defense. I think moving forward you’re going to see a combination of more guys instead of maybe just one or two guys in that rotation.” Kelly was talking specifically about the linebackers in that comment, though it clearly applies to all pieces of the defensive puzzle.

 

Quick Hits: 

Sure, it was a slow start. But Notre Dame’s second quarter explosion had the Irish scoring 25 points, the most in a quarter since the Irish scored 28 against Pitt in 2005, Charlie Weis’ debut.

Brian VanGorder’s defense has usually featured a playmaker at Sam linebacker. Senior captain James Onwualu is quickly becoming one, his two TFLs very impactful. (He nearly had three, but crashed a bit too far inside on a Nevada end-around.)

No, the interception didn’t count. But it was a really nice play by Cole Luke, who was his steady self on Saturday, and also very good against the run.

Great hands by Kevin Stepherson, who took a big hit, but held on to his first touchdown. That’s a lot of trust in a freshman in the red zone.

Nice hands by Jarron Jones, too. Snagging that screen pass that set up an Irish score.

“I think I have great hands,” Jones said postgame. “These hands aren’t big for nothing. I know I can grab a ball.”

A week after Greer Martini earned the starting job at the Will linebacker spot, it looks like Te’von Coney took it back. The sophomore tied for the team lead with five tackles, including one for loss.

 

THE BAD

Pass Rush. With Nevada chasing the Irish after a big second quarter, the Wolf Pack needed to go to the air to try and mount a comeback. So while Nevada quarterbacks Tyler Stewart and Ty Gangi threw 26 times, the Irish defense didn’t get a single sack.

Adding in the Texas stats and the Irish defense has yet to sack the quarterback on 53 passing attempts. They’ve statistically gotten seven quarterback hits, with only Isaac Rochell notching more than one (he has three).

While Jay Hayes continues to recover from a high-ankle sprain, Andrew Trumbetti is manning the weakside defensive end spot. And for the second-straight week, Trumbetti hasn’t mounted anything close to a pass rush, locked down by offensive linemen and generating a second week of negative grading in the pass rush category by PFF College.

We saw young players get their shot at generating a pass rush. Khalid Kareem took a 15-yard personal foul for a late hit (announced during the broadcast as Jay Hayes), while Jon Bonner, Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara and Jamir Jones also played.

But the Irish need to find a way to get a pass rush. Especially to support a secondary that’s going to be learning as they go with Crawford down and freshmen Julian Love and Devin Studstill playing key roles.

 

The Slow Start. I had a hard time finding a more frustrating first 15 minutes in recent memory than Saturday’s. Whether it was the offense committing penalties to slow themselves down or the opening drive for Nevada, it was an ugly start to a game where I’m sure the coaching staff stressed “start fast.”

Some of that could be attributed to Shaun Crawford’s injury. Some to the new wrinkles from first-year Nevada offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey. But whatever the cause, it took some time for the Irish to settle in, something that won’t make next weekend easy.

 

THE UGLY

Shaun Crawford’s season-ending injury. We talked about the on-field implications. But watching Shaun Crawford go down after making another big play was devastating.

After the game, Cole Luke talked about moving forward without him.

“Shaun’s a great player. He’s just a freak of nature and one of those guys who loves the game,” Luke said. “He comes out to work every single day. That’ll be hard to replace, but we’ll try to lock that in on the young guys.

“You never know when your last play or rep will happen, so you have to treat it like your last. We have a lot of great young guys who will step up and try to fill that role.”

Expect Brian Kelly to reveal more on the time frame of Crawford’s surgery and recovery later today and this week. But we’ve already heard from Crawford on social media—and his response is incredible.

 

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