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Things We Learned: Notre Dame is focused, but continues to struggle in the secondary & with Wimbush’s accuracy

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — It was decisive. It was never in doubt. It was efficient.

The 52-17 Irish victory over Miami (OH) on Saturday was exactly what it should have been, and that made it different.

This space poised the Thursday question, “Will Notre Dame stay focused on the RedHawks?” A year ago, the answer would have been a definitive no, though it should have been a shrill yes. Consider this weekend’s 59-minute, 35-second rout a demarcation of certainty that times have changed.

Even the Irish knew this was not a sure thing.

“It’s huge for us,” senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini said afterward. “This was a big week for us. We were going to see if we were mentally tough or not. We went out against an opponent that we were supposed to, on paper, beat. That’s not always how it goes.

“We had to come in mentally tough and go out and execute at a high level.”

Notre Dame did.

It can be left that simple. If insistent on more-specific metrics, the Irish committed five penalties for 60 yards Saturday, not much of an increase over the beforehand season average of 48.2 penalty yards per game. Notre Dame did not commit any turnovers. The defense allowed only one play of more than 30 yards. (More on that 34-yard RedHawks touchdown pass in a bit.)

All of these are indications the Irish focus did not stray. The scoreboard was another clear sign.

“We preach all the time we don’t want these up-and-down performances,” junior defensive tackle and game ball-recipient Jerry Tillery said. “That’s how you get beat. We were able to impose our will on this team consistently and that was our goal from the start.”

This is what should be expected. Good teams win in blowouts when the opportunities present themselves. That is exactly what Notre Dame just did. There is no need to nitpick the performance.

But if insistent on nitpicking and looking at items that were not egregious, because in a 52-17 victory, nothing is actually egregious …

The Irish secondary is not yet ready for true aerial threats.
First of all, let’s give credit where credit is due. RedHawks junior receiver James Gardner could be playing for most Power Five teams. His five catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns, including the aforementioned 34-yarder, are not the most terrible reflection of Notre Dame’s secondary, but they are tangible proof of an area needing improvement.

“We tried to defend the back shoulder, and we thought we were in some pretty good positions for back shoulder throws,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “They made some good throws down the field, quite frankly. We were in position one time where I thought it could have gone either way on a couple of calls here or there, but we were competing for the ball.”

No one in collegiate football excels at covering 6-foot-4 athletes with strong hands. That is why it has become such a passing-oriented sport. But Notre Dame struggles more than most.

Both Gardner’s touchdown catches were over senior cornerback Nick Watkins, who up until this weekend had quietly put together an impressive season. Gardner twice pulling in passes despite Watkins’ defense illustrates the greatest weakness in the Irish defense. As much as one may want to see Watkins break each of those passes up, it could also be wondered why there was not a safety helping on the occasion. That latter position remains the biggest Notre Dame concern, offensive or defensive.

Yes, it is even more concerning than Brandon Wimbush’s inconsistent accuracy.
The junior quarterback’s (in)accuracy remains questionable. He finished 7-of-18 for 119 yards passing. To the quickest memory, at least two of those incompletions were wise throwaways. Perhaps more were, but however many can rightfully have that justification, Wimbush still falls short of an expected completion percentage.

“It’s an apprenticeship,” Kelly said. “We’re still learning as we go, but [Wimbush is] making some really good progress.”

Perhaps the Irish rushing game grants Wimbush some leeway. Actually, it certainly does. But this could be of great concern if and when Notre Dame needs to convert a two-minute drill.

For that matter, it should be of worry well before then. Wimbush lucked out of an interception in the second quarter Saturday. The phrase “lucked out of an interception” has been used to describe his passes many times this season, to the point even this scribe is starting to consider it a trite wording. Yet, it remains accurate.

Much of any Irish success thus far this season has derived from the ability to avoid turnovers offensively while creating them defensively. The moment Wimbush’s luck runs out, that ratio quickly evens out and a 70-3 points off turnovers differential in Notre Dame’s favor may become an anomaly rather than a reliability.

Hello, Mr. Stepherson.
Yes, sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson played. He lined up wide, as Kelly said he would. He even caught a pass.

That reception lost three yards.

Stepherson was targeted three times, the first two coming on back-to-back snaps. One of those Stepherson dropped. The other fell to the turf due to either an overthrow or a misrun route.

“We weren’t able to get him the ball in the first half,” Wimbush said. “But just want to get him a couple of touches and get him up to speed with what we’re trying to do on the offensive side of the ball.”

At least Claypool is consistent.
Once again returning to Thursday’s wonderings: “Will Chase Claypool be a consistent No. 2 option?”

If the answer is no, it is because in time Claypool may challenge junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown for top target honors. Claypool finished with 28 yards on only two catches Saturday, but they were both vital receptions.

The first converted a fourth-and-11 which led to the second Irish touchdown. The other was the fourth Notre Dame score.

Wimbush dodged the question when asked if Claypool may be the best jump-ball receiver on the Irish roster, but that does not make it any less a viable concept.

“I’ve had a couple opportunities to throw them up,” Wimbush said. “Those guys, 6-5, all big bodies, all able to go up there and do what Chase did today. When those guys get the opportunity to go do that, they definitely go do it. I have tons of weapons out there.”

Kelly gave Claypool a touch more credit, though not asked as specific a question. When wondering if Notre Dame has established its preferred receivers yet, Kelly included Claypool in the two-man subset of known commodities.

“We feel a little bit more comfortable on the perimeter with Claypool and [St. Brown],” Kelly said. “We’re still a work in progress with some of the other receivers. … We’re still evolving. We’re getting closer, but no, I’m not ready to tell you that we’re solid in our first three guys yet.”

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