Tommy Tremble Notre Dame
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Where Notre Dame was, is & will be: Tight ends

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Cole Kmet’s decision to head to the NFL makes sense, given he may be the top tight end in the draft, but for at least a few more weeks, if not months, it will leave a taste of “What if?” for Notre Dame.

That unavoidably-frustrating thought will linger as long as the Irish wonder who will fill in down the seam for Kmet. Then again, that question might not last much longer than the beginning of the summer …

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Kmet’s preseason broken collarbone threw his potential breakout season into doubt, but a quick recovery had him in action against Georgia, much to Irish relief. Notre Dame turned to him on three of its first four plays in Athens, the junior tight end finishing the loss with nine catches for 108 yards and a touchdown.

“We feel like he’s a difference-maker as a player,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said just outside the hedges. “He kind of set the tone in the game with a physical run early on and then he got everybody feeling like this is the way we can play this game. He opens up a lot of things for us.”

Kmet’s immediate impact was welcomed, but sophomore Tommy Tremble (pictured at top) had already waylaid some Irish nerves with his debut at Louisville in the season opener. His first career catch was a 26-yard touchdown, a distinct first impression if there ever was one. By the end of Labor Day, he had added two more snags for 23 additional yards.

“He’s an outstanding athlete,” Kelly said back in the beginning of September. “We knew that when we recruited him. He had crazy numbers in all his testing when we recruited him. We knew it was just a matter of maturation, mostly off the field, as he transitioned to college and balancing both football and academics. As he’s done that and become more comfortable with balancing both, he started to emerge as a football player.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Tremble’s athleticism downfield diminished current junior Brock Wright’s expected role as the No. 2 tight end. That will presumably continue, but with Kmet in the NFL, Wright’s time to provide more than blocking in jumbo packages may have arrived. After a recruitment with just as much hype as Kmet’s, Wright has managed only four catches for 57 yards with one score in three seasons.

His 6-foot-4 ½, 246-pound frame simply does not have the speed for Wright to be a fluid threat down the seam, the type Tremble displayed in September and now has Kmet hoping for a first-round honor. Wright has made no other misstep than that.

Sophomore tight end George Takacs made only two catches in 2019, but one of them showcased his strong hands such that it alone suggests he could be a red-zone threat in seasons to come. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

A similar struggle may face current sophomore George Takacs (6-foot-6, 247 pounds), though he flashed strong hands with his touchdown grab at Duke, a pass that may have been forced by senior quarterback Ian Book to get Takacs on the scoreboard in a blowout, but one that Takacs converted, nonetheless.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
While Tremble may be the already-seen successor to Kmet to carry forward the “Tight End University” reputation and Wright is the former recruiting star who could theoretically fit that mold, incoming freshman Michael Mayer is arguably most likely the next among Irish tight ends. Mayer and fellow recent signee Kevin Bauman will arrive this summer, and each should have a genuine chance at complementing Tremble as he did Kmet, at the absolute least.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame gets the letter — Consensus four-star TE Michael Mayer
Notre Dame gets the letter — Consensus four-star TE Kevin Bauman

In the meantime, this spring will be Wright’s best (read: last) chance to become a genuine part of the offense. If he cannot establish himself ahead of Tremble by the Blue-Gold Game, it may be hard to envision him even matching his meager career stats in 2020.

Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s opponents lose plenty early to the NFL draft

Jonathan Taylor NFL draft
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Notre Dame’s 2020 regular season may feature two top-10 opponents for the first time since 2012, but neither will be as intimidating as could have been before this weekend’s deadline for early entrance into the NFL draft. Both Clemson and Wisconsin lost more to the draft than the Irish did, though the Tigers also welcomed an unexpected return of season-changing magnitude.

While Notre Dame lost tight end Cole Kmet, running back Tony Jones and safety Alohi Gilman before they used up their eligibility, the 2020 opponents will have to make do without …

Arkansas: The first Irish foe of September will no longer be able to count on safety Kamren Curl, who finished with 76 tackles and two interceptions this season. The Razorbacks will, however, still hand off the ball to running back Rakeem Boyd. Maybe that should have been expected, but any running back leading his team in rushing for two straight seasons, gaining 1,133 yards in 2019, will consider the NFL simply due to the nature of the position.

Wake Forest: First-team All-ACC defensive end Carlos Basham will return after notching 10 sacks this season, a matchup to look forward to against Notre Dame’s pair of established tackles in Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey. More notably, the Demon Deacons lost quarterback Jamie Newman to a graduate transfer to Georgia.

Wisconsin: The Badgers will likely still begin 2020 in the top-15 of most preseason rankings and could certainly reach the top 10 before heading to Lambeau Field, but that will be more difficult without prolific running back Jonathan Taylor, the most productive back in the country the last three years.

Taylor’s departure was to be expected, but receiver Quintez Cephus’ was less predictable, despite his career’s injury and legal concerns. Those off-field issues will cloud Cephus’ draft projections, no matter his 901 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 2019. For one last blow, Wisconsin will need a new center, as Tyler Biadasz hopes to hear his name on the draft’s second day.

Stanford: In an offseason of much roster turnover, the Cardinal actually fared well amid draft concerns. Towering tight end Colby Parkinson will not need to adjust to a new quarterback at The Farm — quarterback KJ Costello is in the portal. Parkinson will be the only one testing the NFL, though; cornerback Paulson Adebo will worry Ian Book anew after an injury kept him from plaguing Book in November. Adebo is the No. 29 returning defensive back in the country, per Pro Football Focus, but his best can quickly warrant greater notice than that.

Travis Etienne
Even though Clemson has spared junior running back Travis Etienne extensive work the last three seasons, he has still scored 56 touchdowns and gained 4,038 yards, averaging 7.8 yards per rush. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

Clemson: Star receiver Tee Higgins (2,103 yards and 25 touchdowns in the last two years) and star linebacker Isaiah Simmons (104 tackles with 16.5 for loss including eight sacks in 2019) will both head to the next level and undoubtedly hear their names early in the draft. Cornerback A.J. Terrell will join them, though his draft stock is not nearly as high as the deep threat and the unanimous first-team All-American, respectively.

None of that was a surprise. Running back Travis Etienne returning is. While Taylor racked up the yards due to the Badgers’ use, Etienne may have been the most effective back of the last three years when the Tigers turned to him.

Louisville: The Cardinals lost all 6-foot-7 and 369 pounds of second-team All-American left tackle Mekhi Becton, who should not fall past the second round.

USC: Let’s steer into repetition … The Trojans lost all 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds of left tackle Austin Jackson, who should not fall past the second round.

Navy, Western Michigan, Pittsburgh, Duke and Georgia Tech did not lose anyone to early entree in the draft, take that for what you will. The NFL draft is April 23-25 in Las Vegas, for any scheduling concerns.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Notre Dame’s early enrollees arrive
Notre Dame names Tommy Rees offensive coordinator
Tommy Rees the right call for Notre Dame, at least for 2020
Where Notre Dame was, is & will be: Running backs
Where Notre Dame was, is & will be: Receivers

OUTSIDE READING
Eagles interviewing Graham Harrell for offensive coordinator
Mississippi State reportedly eyeing Navy’s Brian Newberry as defensive coordinator
Top 30 defensive backs returning to college football in 2020 (including Kyle Hamilton)
2020 Pac-12 football schedule announced

Where Notre Dame was, is & will be: Receivers

Braden Lenzy Notre Dame
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It is becoming an annual cycle for Notre Dame: Enter a season without an established receiver. Enjoy a stellar season from one target in particular. Watch him go to the NFL. Lament the lack of experience entering the next season. Repeat.

Following 2017, the early departure for the NFL draft by Equanimeous St. Brown left the Irish with a total of 72 catches among four returning receivers. Chase Claypool’s 34 career catches led the group.

Then Miles Boykin broke out in 2018 and turned that into hearing his name in the third round of the draft, leaving Notre Dame with only two receivers with more than a dozen career catches.

Claypool didn’t flinch, becoming just the sixth Irish receiver to reach both 1,000 yards (1,037) and 10 touchdowns (13) in one season. His dominance, along with Chris Finke’s general reliability in his final year, leaves Notre Dame with little returning production once again.

On the flip side, the Irish have talent at receiver. The real question is not will someone fill in for Claypool, but who will?

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
If this cycle is to repeat anew, the emerging receiver should make himself apparent sooner than later, just as Claypool did in the spring (and Boykin did before that). Talk of Claypool becoming the ninth Irish receiver to reach 1,000 yards in a season was in full swing during the summer. He fulfilled those expectations in every way and in a few unforeseen (leadership, mental and physical toughness, continued special teams success).

Finke did not necessarily deliver as resoundingly, done in for much of the season by nagging injuries. But come November, Ian Book’s strong finish coincided with one from Finke, the latter catching 20 passes for 228 yards and three touchdowns in four games before a hamstring injury held him at bay at Stanford.

Without sophomore Kevin Austin the entire season due to a silent suspension, it took a while for Notre Dame to lean into another receiver as a consistent threat.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Once the Irish did work sophomore Braden Lenzy into the game plan routinely, his impact was undeniable. Lenzy finished the season with 454 total yards from scrimmage with four touchdowns, highlighted by 254 yards and two scores on 10 touches in the regular season’s final three games.

In other words, it took 22 games for Lenzy to gain his 201st yard, and then he gained 254 in just three weeks. That wait began with being undersized as a freshman — “I probably came in at a mean 160,” Lenzy said after the Boston College victory. — and continued when he suffered a concussion before the trip to Georgia. Lenzy then also missed the trip to Duke due to fatigue issues.

Then came the impact.

“I’ve definitely found a role within the team,” Lenzy said after taking one carry for a 61-yard score against the Eagles. While that role needed to be more than just as a speed demon, that talent was and will be his calling card. In Lenzy’s mind, it serves as much to complement the rest of the offense as to break big plays like that one when two tight ends opened up a wide seam for him to dash through.

“Of course it feels great, it’s cool,” Lenzy said. “That’s what I have to do for us. Just a slight hesitation, you can get those speed motions. If the safety peaks at me, fake it and [Claypool] is over the top, touchdown. I think the most effective thing about it isn’t the plays that I get, but how it affects the other plays. That’s college football. You take a slight hesitation, that’s a touchdown.”

Lenzy felt those same thoughts apply to classmate Lawrence Keys, who took 19 touches for 180 yards and a score in 2019. Both figure to be in the starting conversation moving forward, along with Austin should everything go well.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
Northwestern graduate transfer Bennett Skowronek will also be in that competition to start. Some of that thought process will be framed by how newly-named offensive coordinator Tommy Rees opts to align the receivers. The last three years have featured a big-bodied, multi-dimensional receiver isolated on the boundary, a technically-sound receiver on the wide side and a prototypical slot receiver. There is no guarantee that remains the status quo.

If that does remain the status quo, Austin, Lenzy and Keys could fill out the starters’ roles on their own, respectively. If Rees opts to lean into size, though, then the 6-foot-4 Skowronek could impress enough in the spring to become a front-line factor.

Or, less likely, Javon McKinley could produce against genuine competition in his fifth season, which the South Bend Tribune’s Tyler James reports is an increasing possibility. To fill out the talented possibilities, five-star incoming freshman Jordan Johnson will arrive in the summer.

Someone will inevitably step forward this offseason; that has become too predictable the last few years. Austin’s year in purgatory may make him a trendy projection, but Lenzy’s 183-pound frame and springtime focus — “Track is over.” — could make him more of a likelihood.

“The way I look at it, last year was very difficult for me to even go with the 2s,” Lenzy said. “From a football standpoint, I wasn’t ready, clear-cut and dry. Now I stand out in the game. For me, it’s just come everyday and work hard. I would love to see my progress there.”

Where Notre Dame was, is & will be: Running backs

Jafar Armstrong Notre Dame
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If a position competition lacking clarity is acceptable anywhere on the football field, it is at running back. Even in 2017 and 2018, when Notre Dame had star workhorse running backs, their backups still carried plenty.

When Josh Adams dabbled in a Heisman campaign in 2017, his 206 rush attempts set the bar, but the next three running backs had 148 combined carries. When Dexter Williams made his suspension an afterthought with a dominant showing in 2018, he had only three more rushes than the next two backs.

No one needs to rush (pun intended) clarifying who the lead Irish running back will be in 2020. That decision does not need to come to light this spring, not this summer, not before Notre Dame heads to Dublin.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Entering 2019, some of the optimism around the Irish offense hinged on junior running back Jafar Armstrong breaking out. The idea of a dual-threat back spreading defenses thin was a tantalizing one. Combine that with the all-around abilities of senior Tony Jones and offensive coordinator Chip Long might finally have the full array of two-back sets he long wanted.

That was, in fact, exactly how Notre Dame began the season. On its first drive on Labor Day, the Irish deployed two backs on each snap of a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. Armstrong was a part of the first five of them, injured on the fourth while making a 16-yard catch.

That abdominal muscle tear essentially robbed Notre Dame of Armstrong for the entire season. Though he returned to action against USC, it took until the regular-season finale for Armstrong to flash any of his athleticism.

“It’s been a process for him,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in mid-November. “It’s taken him time to develop his core strength back. He had a pretty significant injury. For him to get back on the field the way he did is a great testament to him. That doesn’t mean you’re back to the level of playing the game before the injury.”

Without Armstrong, Notre Dame leaned on Tony Jones, and he delivered as he did throughout his career, reliably. His 857 yards on 144 carries may not have put him in the class of Jones or Williams, but Jones kept the Irish ground game relatively effective, largely single-handedly.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
With Jones off to the NFL, the first thoughts return to Armstrong. While he has never shown a running style with his pads appropriately low, he has also never had the chance to prove himself week after week. Some may criticize Armstrong’s durability, or lack thereof, but his injuries have been the types that do not suggest future likelihood. A knee infection in 2018 preceded 2019’s abdomen tear. Those are unrelated and each a bit flukey.

But this spring, Armstrong will not be alone trying to stand atop the backfield pecking order. Current sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister have each shown competence in limited time, and freshman Kyren Williams looked suitable in September before preserving a season of eligibility.

The myriad skills among the four suggest a timeshare will be in order. Armstrong’s aptitude catching passes should mix well with Smith’s bowling ball rushing, just as it was originally supposed to alongside Jones. Flemister’s shiftiness could offer a change of pace, and Williams may present a bit of each of these.

Much time will be spent tracking who gets more first-team reps in the spring; more time will be spent in the summer overreacting to each internal rumor of weight room impressions; and seeking a clear starter will fill the preseason content mill. However, that fretting will all be somewhat misplaced. It is more likely the Irish continue to split carries among a few backs, just as they did even when they had record-setting backs on hand.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
A fifth name will join the fray in the summer, five-star running back Chris Tyree. His 4.38 speed will force him onto the field in 2020, presumably for a full season rather than an eligibility-preserving four games.

That said, there is little chance Tyree will be the lead back from the outset. No matter how promising a recruit he may be, Tyree is still an undersized 18-year-old at one of the most physical positions in sports.

“We’ll develop him naturally from that [179 pounds] and continue to build a coat of armor on him once he gets in here,” Kelly said on December’s National Signing Day.

A running back committee will have space for Tyree, even if it does not feature him.

Tommy Rees the right call for Notre Dame, at least for 2020

Tommy Rees Brian Kelly
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One thing is clear and obvious: Public criticisms of Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator hire do not matter. Less apparent? The most important opinion regarding Tommy Rees’ abilities at offensive coordinator may not be that of the head coach who just promoted him, though he has the most at risk with the move.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly has only a handful of years left in that role. Whether it be three more seasons or five, the number is low enough that each one needs to be approached as a version of make-or-break if Kelly is to win a national championship. The decision upon who would replace Chip Long after three mostly-successful seasons could not be one made with 2022 in mind or even 2021. It had to be about 2020; jeopardizing Playoff chances in the short-term with an eye on the long-term is not a viable approach in the slightest in Kelly’s 11th year.

Thus, the most important opinion about Rees moving from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator may be Ian Book’s as he enters his third season as Notre Dame’s clear starting quarterback.

That is not overly-catering to the Irish locker room. It is not a short-sighted approach. It is a version of pragmatism mixed with betting the hand Kelly already holds.

And Book has been praising Rees for nearly three years already.

“Meeting with him once a day and going through coverages and reads, learning from someone who has done it before, it’s helped me,” Book said way back in the spring of 2017, months into Rees’ tenure. “I really like the way he teaches. It has just helped me visualizing and then going out on the field and being able to see exactly what he is talking about.”

On the surface that may seem like plenty of praise for a quarterbacks coach to stay, well, a quarterbacks coach. But keep in mind two things: That was three years ago; Rees has undoubtedly learned more about offensive scheming since then. And, again, Book’s opinion might matter most at this point.

Maybe Notre Dame will have a better national championship chance in 2021 when safety Kyle Hamilton is in his final collegiate season and Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence has left the collegiate ranks. Maybe it will come in 2022 with Drew Pyne or Tyler Buchner at the helm and the incoming freshmen star skill players making their quarterback look great. Maybe it will be in 2023, led by some recruit not yet on many radars.

Those are all “maybe”s. Book leading the way as a third-year starter with a talented defensive line on the other side of the ball is a reality now, one Kelly cannot afford to squander in hopes of building into one of those down-the-road possibilities.

A build was understandable, even needed, in Kelly’s early years, the ones Rees quarterbacked, part of the equation that got the Irish to a national title game appearance, finding his way to 23 wins while starting only one season opener.

Under Tommy Rees’ tutelage, Ian Book has gone from distant backup to three-year starting quarterback on the cusp of numerous Notre Dame career records. (Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“He’s done it,” Book said of his own early impressions. “Not too long ago he was running this offense here. He can show you what the reads look like. He knows. He’s done it before. It’s the best information because he’s experienced.”

A build was also reasonable coming out of the 2016 debacle — no one exactly expected 33 wins in the next three seasons, including one Playoff berth — when Rees showed up to mentor the quarterbacks and, to some extent, challenge Kelly like previous assistants had not. That concept was a holdover from memorable exchanges on the sideline between head coach and quarterback, ones that both galvanized the team and were quickly moved past by mature minds.

“Tommy wasn’t a guy who was going to back down if he thought he was right,” Rees’ former teammate Mike Golic, Jr., said when Rees first returned to their alma mater. “Both of them could certainly have that heated conversation and then come back and understand that is just part of the working environment there.”

A build now, though, would jeopardize the rest of Kelly’s tenure. Any year could be his last genuine chance at a title. Thus, he could not risk losing any chemistry with Book in 2020. Rees and Book trust each other, and that has led to good results thus far. Leaning into that trust may yield better outcomes yet.

Rees and Book speak the same language, an underrated need when discussing a playbook of any design. They have lived through parallel career trajectories, with Book’s reaching greater heights despite similar frustrations with coming of age in the spotlight. They have no learning curve to overcome this spring, instead able to focus on developing rapport with a young receivers corps.

Tearing at those dynamics would have had less of a chance of success.

If for no other reason, Book’s opinion of Rees made naming the former Irish quarterback as the offensive coordinator the right move for Kelly, who has more staked in the decision than anyone else. In that respect, Kelly has wagered a portion of his future on Book’s arm as much as he has Rees’ playcalling.