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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 90 Hunter Spears, early-enrolled consensus four-star defensive tackle

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-3 ⅝, 295 pounds.
2019-20 year, eligibility: An early-enrolled freshman, Spears has all four seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2019.
Depth chart: At any other position, Spears would have no chance at playing in 2019 due to his own injury issues (more on those later), but Notre Dame will take any contributions it can get at defensive tackle, meaning Spears may chip in a few snaps later in the season (if healthy), despite being third on the depth chart at the three-technique tackle behind junior Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and sophomore Jayson Ademilola.
Recruiting: As far as on-field performances go, Spears was pursued based almost entirely off his sophomore season, as a torn ACL robbed him of his entire junior year. A consensus four-star, Spears spurned much of his homestate — Texas Tech, TCU and Baylor all offered — to commit to the Irish.

QUOTE(S)
Spears first tore his ACL in the summer between his sophomore and junior years. He tore it again near the end of his senior season. In many respects, that latter tear made him an afterthought this spring, currently only a hypothetical pending his recovery time.

“Hunter, as an early enrollee, rehabbing an injury, he’s going to be better for his time spent here,” defensive coordinator Clark Lea said at the start of spring practice.

As for Spears’ rehab timetable, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly could not or would not put a clock on it after the Blue-Gold Game.

“We don’t know yet,” Kelly said. “We just got him moving in some football-related activities.”

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN SPEARS’ NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
“Spears’ frame can hold much more weight, hence the collegiate expectations of playing at defensive tackle. Combine that with his length and Spears could, in time, occupy multiple blockers at a time while his teammates wreak havoc.

“… Defensive line is the most important position in college football, and depth is as crucial as talent, especially on the inside where the beating can become particularly grueling. Spears will be needed to aid that cause as soon as he is 100 percent healthy.”

2019 OUTLOOK
If Spears was 100 percent healthy, especially with this spring’s head start, he could find himself in the rotation with Tagovailoa-Amosa and Ademilola, offering 10-15 snaps each week. Tagovailoa-Amosa is returning from a broken foot, so saving him those extra few moments would be valued.

Instead, Spears is not 100 percent, and most likely will not be when the season begins. Even if he has returned to all football activities by then, this is an 18-year-old who had his strength and conditioning interrupted for most of a year. Only so much can be expected from him. A prototypical redshirt would make the most sense, giving Spears a chance to be completely recovered and comfortable by 2020, but any injury to a defensive tackle — not just Tagovailoa-Amosa or Ademilola, but really any of them — could force Spears into a contributing role late in the season.

Even in that case, Spears should not exceed four games of action. That type of scenario, one in which an injury forces a questionably-ready freshman into action, was one of the clearest intended uses of the NCAA’s year-old eligibility leniency.

DOWN THE ROAD
Get healthy first. Stay healthy second. Then, chip in behind Tagovailoa-Amosa and Ademilola for a couple years. Spears should be two seasons of eligibility behind the two of them, and that is presuming both use up all their eligibility. Whether it be two seasons in a leading role or three, the path is there for Spears due to lackluster Irish recruiting way back in the 2016 cycle. To be clear, that is not following the 4-8 debacle; Notre Dame actually pulled in three defensive tackles following that struggle with Tagovailoa-Amosa, Kurt Hinish and Darnell Ewell.

Rather, the last full cycle of defensive recruiting led by defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder yielded zero defensive tackles. That is not to say the Irish signed one who has since transferred or changed positions. They simply signed none, a somewhat baffling tactic given the emphasis put on the defensive line that year. Its class produced the current riches at defensive end in Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara, Daelin Hayes, Ade Ogundeji and Jamir Jones.

With no tackles in that class, 2017’s signees, Tagovailoa-Amosa and Hinish, had to play early to provide some semblance of depth. The former’s injury then forced Ademilola to in 2018, as well, though he may have anyway. Ewell’s lack of development has amplified these concerns.

No seniors at the position is not an issue in 2019 only in experience, but also in depth. The accelerated eligibility timelines for the following classes are still being realized, such that missing 2019 will likely set up Spears for his own extended run.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
Introduction
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end