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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. 40 Drew White, linebacker

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-¼, 225 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Sophomore with four seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: At least somewhat due to a foot injury, White (above, on right) fell down the depth chart this spring. Junior Jonathan Jones entrenched himself as the backup Mike linebacker behind senior Te’von Coney, while sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath moved from safety late in the spring and immediately positioned himself as the backup at Buck behind fifth-year Drue Tranquill. At best, White is in the mix with early-enrolled freshmen Jack Lamb and Bo Bauer on the defense’s third-string.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star recruit, White chose Notre Dame from a lengthy offer list including the likes of LSU, Michigan and Ohio State.

CAREER TO DATE
White saw no action his freshman season, preserving a year of eligibility.

SPRING
White never came up in conversation this spring, though that certainly traces in part to his foot being in a boot with crutches at his side for much of the stretch.

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Every tackle White records on defense should register with some amount of surprise. There are simply too many established veterans ahead of him for White to see much, if any, playing time this season on that side of the ball.

“But that does not mean a year spent preserving eligibility is on the horizon. It does not even mean White will not log tackles.

“Notre Dame’s lack of defensive depth stood out in spring practice whenever the view turned to special teams. Most pertinently, Irish special teams coordinator Brian Polian lamented the dearth of available bodies for his kick and punt coverage units. White could be a prime candidate to help out in those regards, and given his penchant for finding the ballcarrier, he could tally as many as 10 tackles, which, given only a smattering of chances, is actually a notable figure.

“The transfer of junior Josh Barajas (to FCS-level Illinois State) does open an opportunity for White to see some mop-up duty at linebacker, but sophomores Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation) would theoretically be ahead of White in those spots.”

2018 OUTLOOK
When Tranquill moved to the interior role of Buck linebacker, he greatly reduced the chances of White seeing time this season. Rather than Jones or one of the freshmen earning starting honors and White working as the backup, each of those roles was knocked down a rung, not to mention Genmark-Heath joined the fray.

All that is to say, White should see time on special teams this season, but that may end up the extent of his work.

DOWN THE ROAD
Part of White’s fall down the depth chart is a credit to the linebackers coming in behind him. Bauer and Lamb — and in a different respect, early-enrolled Ovie Oghoufo and incoming freshman Shayne Simon — were brought in by former defensive coordinator Mike Elko and new defensive coordinator (and linebackers coach) Clark Lea. Elko and Lea knew what they were looking for to fit their system. They targeted Bauer and Lamb and Co. with that in mind.

Could White move back up the depth chart? Of course. Coney and Tranquill will be at the next level in a year, and even if Jones and Genmark-Heath establish themselves as the backups du jour, that is still a big step from proving worthy of a starter’s workload. White will have that chance next offseason, albeit alongside the two frontrunners, the current class of freshmen and a few more in the recruiting class of 2019 (starting with consensus four-star linebabckers Osita Ekwonu).

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. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 24 Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

Monday’s Leftovers & Links: Consensus four-star guard gives Notre Dame four OL commits

rivals.com
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Notre Dame hosted a promising group of recruits over the weekend, and the effort has already paid a handsome dividend. Consensus four-star offensive guard Zeke Correll (Anderson High School; Cincinnati) cut short his selection process with a Monday morning commitment to the Irish.

Correll had been expected to visit Ohio State this coming weekend and make his decision after that. Instead, Correll chose Notre Dame over the Buckeyes, Stanford and Clemson, becoming the 14th commit in the Irish class and fourth offensive lineman. Rivals.com rates Correll the No. 11 recruit in Ohio and No. 14 guard in the country.

Three of those four linemen are four-star prospects, including Correll, as are all four of the pledged defensive line recruits. If iron sharpens iron, then those practice sessions in the trenches should lead to many sparks flying the next few years.

That is especially true of the offensive quartet, as the practice work may be the vast majority of work they see for a couple seasons. Current Notre Dame junior Tommy Kraemer should remain a starting guard through 2021, and the freshman and sophomore classes have a few guard possibilities, as well, in the likes of sophomores Josh Lugg and Dillan Gibbons and freshman John Dirksen.

At 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds already, Correll has the muscular frame wanted on the inside of the offensive line, and his discipline in blocks sets him apart from most high schoolers.

Continued mailbag request
A litany of reader questions were received in the last week. A handful were set to be answered this morning, but Correll’s commitment bumped those thoughts down the editorial calendar a bit. In the meantime, any more criticisms, questions or meanderings are welcome at insidetheirish@gmail.com.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
— If Notre Dame is 33-to-1 for the title, what does that actually mean?
No. 52 Bo Bauer, four-star linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
Indiana LB stays close to home with commitment to Notre Dame
No. 33 Shayne Simon, four-star linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
Notre Dame adds commitment of four-star linebacker Ekwonu to stellar defensive line haul
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker
No. 44 Jamir Jones, linebacker-turned-defensive end
No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end
No. 41 Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle

OUTSIDE READING:
Notre Dame reels in Rivals250 LB Osita Ekwonu
Can Notre Dame contend for the national championship? ($)
D1 football to offer more participation opportunities
‘Bull Durham’ at 30

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 41 Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-1 ¾, 292 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Sophomore with three seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Hinish will back up fifth-year nose tackle Jonathan Bonner, though there are conceivable scenarios where Hinish takes on a starter’s workload, even if not officially starting.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star prospect out of Pittsburgh, Hinish committed to Notre Dame early in the recruiting cycle and never waffled despite the 4-8 season from the Irish in 2016.

CAREER TO DATE
Somewhat unexpectedly, Hinish became an interior staple as a freshman. The injury losses of Daniel Cage and Elijah Taylor created a need for a snap-eater, a role Hinish proved ready for. Though he finished the season with only eight tackles, he held the point of attack whenever seeing action and kept junior Jerry Tillery — then at nose before flipping to the three-technique position this offseason — fresh throughout the year.

Hinish saw action in 12 games, adding half a tackle behind the line of scrimmage.

QUOTE(S)
The depth chart attrition a year ago put Hinish in position to provide an impact as a freshman, but he still had to make the most of that opportunity in preseason practices.

“His ability to play with great pad leverage — he gets low, gets underneath linemen,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in mid-April. “[He] can physically handle himself when he has to extend and use his hands.

“I think it starts with being very smart. He knows the defense extremely well. He knows his responsibility. He just plays with great leverage. Strong enough and leverage is going to allow you to play the [nose] in most defenses.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Hinish will likely preserve a year of eligibility in 2017. Injuries could certainly force him into action, but all signs indicate he will not be needed on the defensive front this season. The talk of a lack of depth on the interior is not necessarily referencing a lack of bodies, but rather a lack of proven talents. The former does not need yet another name in the mix, and as an incoming freshman, it will be difficult for Hinish to establish himself as a proven talent.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Hinish will be a vital piece of Notre Dame’s defense this season. At the absolute least, he will remain Bonner’s backup, ahead of classmate Darnell Ewell and incoming freshman Ja’Mion Franklin. In that situation, Hinish should be primed for a solid dozen tackles, if not more.

Bonner was held out of contact drills this spring to protect his recovery from a wrist injury. The immediate effect of that was Hinish spent time with the top-line defense. The long-term result could have Hinish still with the starters as often as not if Bonner’s fitness or strength is limited due to this prolonged rehab.

That may not be the ideal in Kelly’s mind. In fact, it certainly isn’t. Bonner starting and holding his own in his final season of eligibility would be the best-case scenario for the defense as a whole, but having a contingency plan of giving half the snaps to Hinish is not a terrible spot to be. The Irish know what he is capable of, which could not be said of any defensive tackles at the beginning of 2017.

DOWN THE ROAD
As long as Ewell remains on Notre Dame’s roster, speculation about his high-profile recruiting and his potential becoming reality will persist. It should, but it should not get in the way of an honest discussion praising Hinish. With Bonner out of eligibility after this season, not to mention Tillery as well, Hinish will be in position to start in 2019 and 2020.

Until some of Ewell’s potential actually becomes reality, beginning with competing through the whistle on multiple plays in one series, Hinish will be well ahead of him on the depth chart.

Franklin may be more of the threat to Hinish’s future playing time. His ability to shed blocks will be a step ahead of Hinish’s skill of holding his ground against them. The latter is the expectation of a nose tackle, but the former can set apart a defensive interior.

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. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 24 Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ½, 230 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Junior with two seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: While Okwara remains behind classmate Daelin Hayes on the depth chart at the drop end, he is more of a complement than a backup.
Recruiting: A rivals.com three-star prospect, Okwara chose Notre Dame over offers from Clemson, Georgia and his homestate North Carolina. Rivals listed Okwara as the No. 18 defensive end in the class of 2016 and the No. 17 recruit in North Carolina. His time with the Irish missed overlapping with older brother Romeo by a few months but having that connection certainly aided the wooing.

CAREER TO DATE
Just like his brother, Julian Okwara saw action in his freshman season due to a Notre Dame roster short on defensive playmakers. He had a bigger role last year, similar to the one he should have this season.

2016: 11 games; four tackles.
2017: 12 games; 17 tackles with 4.5 for loss including 2.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one interception, an athletic play against North Carolina in which he batted up a pass and caught it mid-air in the same stride. He did not play against triple-option dependent Navy. (See the 0:24 mark in the below video.)

QUOTE(S)
The only real mentions of Okwara this spring came in discussions of his weight, down from an August measurement of 235 pounds.

“He fluctuates,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “You might find the difference between 10 pounds for these athletes is post-workout to a good weekend and a Monday weigh-in.

“… It’s a challenge for [Okwara]. He knows he has to put on more weight. One of the things is, he’s a bit of a unique player. He’s as strong as anyone we have on the team. We know about his ability to bend and come off the edge. He knows he can’t play at 230 pounds. He needs to be bigger and he’s working at it.”

Adding and maintaining some weight would help Okwara survive the natural attrition of fitness in the season and perhaps put together a stronger November.

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Hayes was the talk of spring practice, and deservedly so. The flipside of that hype is it diminished Okwara’s likelihood of impact this season. That said, Hayes will not man the edge for every snap. Keeping fresh pass-rushers is a luxury Notre Dame can enjoy thanks to the triumvirate of sophomore rush ends — a quartet when including Khalid Kareem on the other side of the line — and Okwara is a vital piece of that.

“Knowing he will have those opportunities, Okwara will also know if he makes the most of them, more will be afforded to him. He may not surpass Hayes this year in snaps or production, but providing a tangible complement would mean the Irish pass rush really has improved immensely, something perhaps most notable if it results in exceeding last year’s disappointing total of 14 sacks.”

2018 OUTLOOK
It will be more of the same from and for Okwara. Given another year of development and work in Matt Balis’ strength and conditioning program, that may be even more of more of the same from Okwara.

There were points in 2017 when former Irish end Andrew Trumbetti would flip to the rush end spot from his usual role at strong-side, cutting into some of Okwara’s opportunities. Theoretically, that should set up Okwara for a few more snaps this season. Combine that with his continued development, and building on last year’s numbers makes complete sense.

Projecting a defensive lineman’s stats is a difficult gambit, considering how much they depend on the unit as a whole, and doing so for a complementary piece is that much more difficult, but there is no reason not to fully expect Okwara to end up with at least 25 tackles and four or five sacks, although the turnovers may not be replicated if the ball does not bounce just right. If Okwara shines in pass-rush situations, that handful of sacks could become twofold, but anticipating such would just be greedy.

DOWN THE ROAD
Okwara and Hayes should continue to progress in-step as a threatening duo, relieving each other to keep their legs fresh, into 2019. Splitting reps like that may reduce their personal profiles, but it will best behoove the Irish defense.

Okwara undoubtedly holds NFL aspirations, buoyed by his brother’s success. In many respects, Romeo playing well in 2018 and 2019 would raise Julian’s draft profile, with front offices knowing Julian had three more years of Stateside development than Romeo did.

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
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. 79 (theoretically) Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 77 (theoretically) Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 73 (theoretically) Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 (theoretically) John Dirksen, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically) Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, 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. 48 (theoretically) Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end, sophomore
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker, junior
No. 44 Jamir Jones, defensive end, junior
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer