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And in That Corner … The Michigan State Spartans and a recovery from a 3-9 season

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Michigan State has yet to be tested this season. Certainly, the Spartans have not seen a test the likes of Notre Dame, no matter what one’s view of the Irish may be. To get a better idea of who Notre Dame will face Saturday night, let’s turn to Chris Solari of the Detroit Free Press.

Chris, I appreciate you taking the time to educate us here at “Inside the Irish.” First off, how long have you been covering the Spartans for the Free Press?
I have been with the Detroit Free Press since last August, but I spent the previous 10 years following Michigan State for the Lansing State Journal and have been covering the Spartans off and on since 1994 when I was attending MSU.

It is somewhat remarkable how closely Notre Dame and Michigan State have paralleled each other over the last 13 months. Two miserable seasons followed by interminable offseasons, and now hopes of strong returns to success, though yet somewhat unfounded. At least, that is the mood around the Irish. Is it something similar up in East Lansing?
MSU’s situation goes beyond the 3-9 season last year, along with having four players dismissed for their involvements in two separate sexual assault cases and nine others having left the program. The optimism from the 2-0 start is very much tempered based on beating two Mid-American Conference opponents, but fans are warming to the improved efforts on offense and defense. However, coaches and fans alike know this is a young team with a lot of questions remaining to be answered.

I don’t know that the Spartans have realistic College Football Playoff hopes this year, but playing spoiler in the Big Ten certainly seems a possibility, especially with games at Michigan and Ohio State and home against Penn State. (Lucky to dodge the Boilermakers offensive powerhouse this year.) Where does facing Notre Dame fall in a macro view up there?
The next three games against ND, Iowa and Michigan will go a long way to determining both the Spartans’ identity and the course of their season. The game with the Irish really is the start of that trilogy after playing two up-tempo teams. It’s the first traditional, line-em-up, smashmouth game — in primetime on national television, no less — for a team with 19 true and redshirt freshmen playing.

It’s a young but talented collective, and MSU has shown surprising depth despite the aforementioned attrition. This week’s game will show just how deep the rotation will be going into those first two Big Ten games. All that said, after last season’s swoon, the young Spartans know they cannot be looking two or three opponents ahead.

Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke, left, and coach Mark Dantonio react following Lewerke’s 61-yard touchdown against Western Michigan in the Spartans’ season opener. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Junior quarterback Brian Lewerke saw some work last year, but has become the offensive leader only this season. Through two games, he has rushed for 150 yards and thrown for 411. Has his dual-weapon effectiveness been a result of Michigan State’s MAC-filled schedule so far, or is that kind of playmaking something Irish fans should expect to see this weekend?
Lewerke showed his legs last year at Maryland with 79 rushing yards and against Michigan with a 24-yard run, so it’s a significant part of his arsenal. He runs the read-option better than his predecessors, but MSU needs more from his arm to maintain its successful start. Brian Kelly knows this and, like I expect the Spartans to do with Brandon Wimbush, will attempt to make Lewerke show he can hit throws downfield and make wise decisions when he takes shots deep. He hasn’t shown great accuracy on long passes yet early in his career, but he has a strong arm (as Wimbush does) and is not afraid to take chances and be a “gunslinger” QB.

Maybe I am being presumptuous, but I would have expected junior running back LJ Scott to be the engine behind the Spartans offense. Averaging 5.4 yards per carry and gaining 994 yards in a dismal team campaign catches my attention like that. As Lewerke emerges, is there any chance Scott continues to be the secondary piece or is his assertion something of an inevitability?

Michigan State running back LJ Scott (3) stretches over the goal line for a touchdown against Western Michigan, Scott’s only rushing score thus far this season. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Take out Scott’s 44-yard run on fourth-and-1 against Western Michigan, and he’s averaging 2.5 yards on 32 other carries this season. He had two fumbles in the opener against Bowling Green, and he’s coming off multiple shoulder surgeries in the offseason that were meant to correct a “numbness” he said he would feel when he gets hit that goes all the way back to high school. Of the three running backs, all of whom have been featured at times the past three seasons, Scott provides the most versatility in running styles and ability to catch passes (including a touchdown catch on a wheel route against the Broncos). The staff remained committed to giving him the ball after his fumbling issue in the opener, but Gerald Holmes also showed last year at Notre Dame he can be the bell cow if Michigan State wants him to shoulder the load of carries. Nonetheless, there’s no question the Spartans expect and want Scott to be their feature back.

In Michigan State’s nine losses last year, the defense allowed more than 32 points per game. That would be disappointing for any team, but even more so for a Mark Dantonio-led unit. Before looking at this year, what went wrong defensively a season ago?
First, start at the MSU-ND game a year ago. That’s when Riley Bullough first got injured and missed the first three of a seven-game skid. Then Jon Reschke, who shined against the Irish, got hurt against Wisconsin and missed the rest of the year before leaving the program in the offseason. Malik McDowell was on and off the field all season with one minor injury after another. Demetrious Cox battled leg issues, and then Vayante Copeland was lost for the season. Losing those veterans last year forced MSU to play a number of untested players, many of whom were not quite ready early in the year but improved with experience (showed against Ohio State). Beyond that, MSU managed just 11 sacks all last season with those injury issues and inexperience. The Spartans also struggled to get off the field on third downs and wore down in the second half. They were outscored 220-136 after intermission, including 120-59 in fourth quarters and overtime. That was the first time in Dantonio’s first 10 seasons MSU was outscored after halftime and just the second time the Spartans got outscored in the fourth quarter and overtime in his tenure.

How much of that has changed this year?
The depth through two games has been surprising, even with most of the offseason attrition coming on defense. MSU has rotated six defensive ends and four defensive tackles, and its flipped pairings at both safety and cornerback regularly. That has kept the front seven fresh and quick to stop the run and get more pressure in the backfield. The Spartans’ third-down package has changed to more of a three-man front, with redshirt freshman Brandon Randle and senior Demetrius Cooper the pass-rushing ends. They are first in the country in allowing just an 11 percent third down conversion rate.

A year ago, the Spartans limited Notre Dame to 68 rushing yards (sacks adjusted). These days, as made quite clear last weekend at Boston College, the Irish could not be much more reliant on the run. Presuming Michigan State can’t limit Notre Dame to sub-70 again, will it be able to still force Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to win via the pass?
Dantonio admitted that allowing a quarterback to run for 200-plus yards is a recipe for failure, so expect the Spartans to spy him throughout Saturday night. Linebacker Chris Frey called him a “capture” quarterback as opposed to one who the defense believes it can go for sacks, which means they likely will put more eyes in the box on Wimbush and force him to show more accuracy in the passing game. There could be chances for Wimbush as well. True freshman Josiah Scott has made an immediate impact at cornerback, though the Spartans’ young secondary has benefitted from opposing quarterbacks missing throws and receivers dropping passes when they’ve been burned in coverage. As Kelly showed in the 2013 game, Notre Dame believes it can move the chains by throwing the ball up against Michigan State when it plays press man coverage and simply hoping the Spartans get too handsy and are called for pass interference penalties.

What else am I missing? Who or what should Notre Dame fans be looking for this weekend?
It’s expected to be a hot night in mid-Michigan, which could affect the players and cause cramping. Honorary captain Kirk Gibson’s Ring of Honor ceremony for being elected to the College Football Hall of Fame will amp up the crowd. So, too, will the first game under the new permanent lights at Spartan Stadium — night games in East Lansing create a different intensity Notre Dame teams have survived (2006) and failed (2010) in front of. It’s also worth noting Michigan State has won 11 of the last 18 meetings in the series, and this could be the last time these two teams play again until 2026. Everyone up here is cognizant of those facts, especially Dantonio, who knows it might be his last game coaching against a Notre Dame team he followed as a kid growing up in Ohio.

It strikes me you keep as close an eye as I do on spreads and such. Certainly, those are only for evaluation purposes and no other endeavors. This game opened with Notre Dame favored by 4 or 4.5 points, depending where you looked. It has already fluctuated toward 3 and 3.5 before seeming to settle at 4. How do you see Saturday night playing out?
I expect this to be a close game like most of the Michigan State-Notre Dame games have been during the Dantonio-Kelly era. It very well could come down to which team executes best on special teams. Justin Yoon is experienced, while Spartans kicker Matt Coghlin has yet to attempt a field goal.

While we’re at it, can I get you to commit to a score prediction?
Notre Dame 27, Michigan State 24.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 29 Ovie Oghoufo, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-3, 217 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Early-enrolled freshman with four years of eligibility remaining, including the 2018 season.
Depth chart: Of the quartet of freshman linebackers, Oghoufo is the least likely to see the field in a competitive situation this year, meaning it will probably be a season spent working with the scout team defense.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star prospect, Oghoufo looked past the two big names in his homestate, choosing Notre Dame over both Michigan and Michigan State. Rivals.com considered him the No. 36 outside linebacker in the class of 2018.

QUOTE(S)
Oghoufo’s slim chances at playing time this season stem from two items, one positional and somewhat out of his control, the other simply a piece of time.

Oghoufo could end up at any of the three linebacker spots, making it more difficult to focus him on one task this preseason.

“They are guys that are extremely athletic,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of Oghoufo, among others in the class, on December’s signing day. “We would rather take them and then begin to hone in on where they can best fit in that defensive structure rather than saying, he’s a box player, that’s all he can play.

“These guys give us flexibility to see how they’re going to fill out and develop.”

That fill out and develop is a common theme for freshmen at all positions, and is quite applicable to Oghoufo, apparently.

“Ovie has some physicality issues in terms he’s not ready for prime-time playing, but he’s really athletic and he’s a smart kid,” Kelly said in mid-March. “He has to get bigger and stronger so this offseason is going to be really important to him to see if he can break through and maybe help us in special teams.”

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN OGHOUFO’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
“[Now-former] Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko lucked into an ideal rover candidate in current senior Drue Tranquill, who will man the position again next year. Such ready-made athletes to fill Elko’s preferred defensive wrinkle will not always be available, but it is worth considering whether a lean linebacker with strong coverage skills will fit into that positional grouping more than among traditional linebackers.

“If Oghoufo fills out, however, a move inside could be within the realm of possibility.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Before the four-game possibility was created for freshmen to play without losing a year of eligibility, there was very little chance of Oghoufo competing this season.

As it stands now, he is athletic and quick. If trotting Oghoufo out for punt and kick coverage units throughout November keeps starting safeties’ and linebackers’ legs from those dozen sprints down the field, then it is worth it. Quite literally, there will be no loss involved presuming Oghoufo will mentally be ready for those five second bursts after going through eight weeks of the season.

If Oghoufo plays in more than those four games, that is an indication he impressed more than was realized in spring practices and will continue to do so in preseason practice.

DOWN THE ROAD
2019 or 2020 entirely depends on where Oghoufo projects long term. Whether at rover or one of the interior linebacker positions, he will have to compete with at least one more strongly-recruited classmate.

Shayne Simon looks to be an ideal rover candidate. His pass coverage skills may not yet be on par with Oghoufo’s, but that is a mental development process, one which Simon should have time to embrace.

Jack Lamb and Bo Bauer both elevated themselves above Oghoufo in depth chart conversations this spring. They may not be in line to take over the starters’ roles next year, but the two are certainly in position to challenge for those.

It may be a year or two before Oghoufo becomes another voice in this group. That will leave him with two or three seasons to establish himself as a known piece of the rotation.

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. 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. 30 Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-1 ½, 210 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Sophomore with four seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: If looking at the two-deep immediately after fifth-year captain Drue Tranquill moved to Buck linebacker from rover in January, Owusu-Koramoah appeared to be the second rover in line behind only senior Asmar Bilal, but since then sophomore safety Isaiah Robertson has moved up a defensive level and freshman Shayne Simon is set to join summer practices. Nonetheless, Owusu-Koramoah projects as Bilal’s backup, albeit now with genuine competition for the role.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star prospect, Owusu-Koramoah originally committed to Virginia before shifting to a decision between Notre Dame and Michigan State. The No. 40 linebacker in the class, per rivals.com, he chose the Irish the afternoon of National Signing Day, calling Brian Kelly while the head coach was meeting with the media, though that was undoubtedly arranged ahead of time to give Owusu-Koramoah a unique commitment experience.

CAREER TO DATE
Owusu-Koramoah saw no action his freshman season, preserving a year of eligibility. Already with a plethora of unproven bodies at safety and a stout veteran in Tranquill at rover, there was no inherent need to play Owusu-Koramoah.

QUOTE(S)
Kelly simultaneously praised Owusu-Koramoah’s physical abilities while referencing his inexperience when discussing the possible rover in mid-March.

“It is strictly about his ability not to bust and that’s just going to take time,” Kelly said. “He has traits, there’s no question about that from a physical standpoint. He has to get the traits from the other side of it — understanding the game and what we’re doing.”

If listening to defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea a month later, Owusu-Koramoah had made the most of that interim.

“Between Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Isaiah [Robertson], you have two young guys that are learning and are growing but have had a chance to make some strides,” Lea said. “I don’t know that the depth chart is set yet. I think we’re still working on that and we’ll be working through the fall on that, but I’ve been pleased with the strides that we’ve shown.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Tranquill will lead the Irish defense this year from the rover position. The discussion of playing Bilal against teams such as Georgia, Michigan State and Stanford is valid in theory, but don’t be surprised to see Tranquill still taking the majority of the snaps in those games.

“Owusu-Koramoah will not be in the conversation, barring injury, but as a freshman learning the keystone duties in Elko’s defense, a season’s delay is both understandable and productive in its own right.

“He could, however, be involved in special teams. Coordinator Brian Polian would be thrilled to have a physical athlete with good speed to send after kick and punt returners. This may seem a small role to use up a season of eligibility, but the Irish special team units have needed to improve the last few seasons. Using what tools you have to do such is an easy choice to make.”

2018 OUTLOOK
From the moment he joined the roster, Bilal has been considered physically ready. Three full seasons later, he has yet to force his way onto the field for more than spot duty. With that in mind, and an acknowledgement of Bilal’s struggles against the passing game, there may be an opportunity for Owusu-Koramoah this season.

He was recruited for the role of rover, unlike either Bilal or Robertson. In Lea’s system, hardly changed from former Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s, the rover is counted on to match up against both physical tight ends and shifty slot receivers while still offering a viable pass rush. In other words, a high school safety who likes playing at the line of scrimmage is an ideal candidate … such as Owusu-Koramoah.

Notre Dame would probably prefer Bilal emerge as Tranquill’s successor, but if he missteps, Owusu-Koramoah is more likely to get an extended look than Robertson is, with the exception of against exceptionally pass-happy teams (see: Wake Forest and sophomore receiver Greg Dortch).

Even if not at rover, Owusu-Koramoah should be a lock for special teams this season.

DOWN THE ROAD
Bilal is a likely candidate to follow Tranquill’s path to Buck linebacker from rover in a year, better fitting his skillset. That will leave Owusu-Koramoah and Simon as the frontrunners to shine in the preferred wrinkle of Lea’s system, and that will remain the case for the following three seasons.

With Simon only just arriving on campus in the last week or so, projecting that position competition is a fool’s errand, but expect it to be a frequent discussion beginning in January.

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. 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. 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