The independent voice of Notre Dame Athletics

  • Notre Dame Football Fall Primer

    by SEE

    As I’ve written before, Notre Dame is coming off a season of systematic failure. Strength and conditioning, defensive coaching, offensive coaching, special teams coaching, nutrition, team leadership and recruiting were all in various stages of dysfunction. In retrospect, 4-8 shouldn’t have surprised anyone, what should have surprised everyone is how such a storied program slid to such low points across so many fronts.

    Swarbrick has made his call, placed his bets and hopes to put that all in the past. The program has undergone a massive reboot with one exception, Brian Kelly is still at the helm. I’ll leave that argument for others to chew on and focus on what’s in front of us with a caveat, I’ve never seen such an overhaul on a college team before, but logic tells you it’s going to be hard to get that many new pieces highly coordinated and embedded into the team culture. With that out of the way here’s the season preview.


    Notre Dame has a surprising amount of talent. Here’s an objective star look (from rivals) at ND 2017 vs Clemson 2016. The cutoff for National Champions has been 55% at a 4-star rating or higher. ND is at 68%. That stat is certainly not an end to itself, but it is a rough guide.

    Offense – 73% Four Stars
    • 5-star players: Clemson 1, ND 1
    • 4-star players: Clemson 7, ND 7
    • 3-star players: Clemson 2, ND 3 (McGlinchy, Adams, Smythe)
    • Not-rated players: Clemson 1, ND 0

    Defense – 64% Four Stars
    • 5-star players: Clemson 2, ND 1
    • 4-star players:  Clemson 6, ND 6
    • 3-star players: Clemson 2, ND 4 (Bonner, Martini, Tranquil, Coleman)
    • 2-star players: Clemson 2, ND 0

    It should be noted that ND has 4-star backups behind every 3-star starter except Bonner (unless Ewell earns that spot or Jay Hayes slides in.) Notre Dame just hired Bill Rees (Tommy’s father) to head recruiting evaluation. ND is currently on track for a top 10 class, which could be a top 5 class with a good season or drop massively with a poor season. Overall the staff has upgraded recruiting ability almost across the board. Elko has certainly surprised people with his ability to bring in top talent given his Wake Forest background. Certainly, a wait and see approach is warranted, but some positive early returns on the recruiting front.


    Notre Dame’s massive restructuring of Strength in Conditioning boosted the staff from 4 to 9 (including interns) hiring Matt Balis as the head of football, David Ballou for velocity (essentially measuring not just power, but also technique/deployment of power) and Jacob Flint was retained to oversee Olympic lifts. The team now lifts in 8 different groups of 13 or so and each group is tracked every day on their progress (or lack thereof.) Ballou is also using technology to for injury prevention. Early returns have been positive, but… they always are at this point. Notre Dame has also added a nutritionist and a sports psychologist to round out development.


    It’s hard to overstate just how bad Notre Dame’s defense was under Brian Van Gorder. So, I’ll let the numbers do the talking, his defenses were ranked: 84, 39 and 90ish (through 4 games last season.) New defensive coordinator Mike Elko is stressing a few key points: fundamentals (tackling), resetting the line of scrimmage (to get negative yards), turnovers, finding homes that maximize player strengths and disguising defenses without overcomplicating them. Easier said than done after years of neglect.

    Defensive Line

    The biggest concern is the defensive line and there are a lot of concerns. The biggest of big concerns starts right up the gut. Nose tackle Jerry Tiller has been highly inconsistent and there’s a decent question around whether he’s really an offensive tackle playing defense. Behind him the loss of Cage leaves Mokwuah and Tiassum, two lower rated players with big bodies and possibly freshmen Darnell Ewell or Kurt Hinish. A lot of size, not a lot of proven ability, though I have noted the propensity of upper class defensive linemen to grow into their roles. The 3-technique or defensive tackle is in equally uncertain territory. Jonathan Bonner is up to 291 pounds, but he’s a tweaner (DE/DT) who’s undersized at DT and not fast enough for DE. Elijah Taylor showed some promise, but he’s coming off a lisfranc injury, has lost weight and still isn’t at full speed. There is hope in the form of Micah Dew Treadway, a big 305-pound kid who can bend and move, but he’s yet to make an impact. Freshmen will also be given a look here. Perhaps the best solution is for 4-star Kareem to take over the SDE position with Trumbetti and have 4-star Jay Hayes slide into the DT spot. Together with Hayes the younger (Daelin) that would give ND a 4-star defensive line across the board. Daelin Hayes at drop end is the big wildcard on the team, he has all the talent in the world, but with two shoulder surgeries, may not hold up all season. Behind him, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji are showing promise, but they’re all sophomores.


    This is the strongest area of the defense with experience across the board in Martini, Morgan and Tranquil backed up by 4-stars in Bilal and Coney. Martini, at 6’4” has been cited by Elko as a player with underrated athleticism, Morgan is expected to have a standout year and everyone seems to think that Tranquil’s natural position is Rover (he plays well close to the line of scrimmage.). Overall, an encouraging situation.


    Can 4-star Shaun Crawford come back from his Achilles injury? If he can, he’s the best athlete in the secondary. 4-stars Nick Watkins and Julian Love are penciled in as the starters with 4-stars Donte Vaughn (size) and Troy Pride (speed) behind them, both earned valuable playing experience. It doesn’t look like ND has shutdown corners, but highly capable corners with potential. Not a bad place to enter fall camp.


    Safety is a bigger worry. The transition of Nick Coleman and his sub 4.5 speed to free safety looks like it is paying off. The strong safety spot looks like it’s the highly athletic Jalen Elliott’s to lose, but Navy transfer Alohi Gillman (pursued by USC and Michigan) has been getting first team reps over the summer and is viewed as a run stuffing SS. If he’s cleared, many expect him to start over Elliott. Studstill, Morgan, Robertson and Genmark-Heath will be fighting for a spot on the two-deep. IF Coleman works out and Gillman is cleared, safety may move out of the major concern box.


    As bad as the numbers were on defense, Kelly’s offenses have been almost as terrible (actually worse over his tenure) ranking 66, 49, 80, 74, 40, 34 and 53. Please get him away from the damn offense. The stress our terrible offenses have put on the defense can’t be overstated. Chip Long is the new offensive coordinator, he brings with him some good and some bad. On the positive side, he likes to run two tight end sets and play-action (a foreign concept to Kelly) at tempo. Theoretically that stops defensive substitutions and COULD lead to a more physical offense. My enthusiasm is highly tempered by the reality that Long did not the run the ball often as an offensive coordinator. Look for some run pass options (RPOs) to be combined with play action and some zone read to keep teams off balance. There’s a lot of talk about physical football, but I’ll believe it when I see it.


    Brandon Wimbush is considered as good a raw talent as ND has had at the quarterback position. He has size, 4.6 speed, a rocket arm and has been a team leader. That said, he has almost no experience and his interceptions in the spring game are worrisome. Notre Dame can expect to have some growing pains, but also some Wow plays from a QB who has running back skills and the ability to throw it 70 yards down the field. Ian Book looked surprisingly good in the spring game.

    Running Back

    People around the program feel very good about the running back situation. Josh Adams is 225 pounds with breakaway ability, Dexter Williams is the most dynamic runner (as he showed in the spring game) and is up to 215 pounds and Tony Jones may be the best all-around back on the team. At 225 he has great feet, balance and a surprising burst. Notre Dame, barring a run of injuries will have a very good-looking backfield in 2017.

    Tight End

    Alize Mack is the headliner, at 6’5” 251 he has the speed to stretch the field and line up wide and is adding the size needed to support the run game. Some feel he’s a possible first round draft pick. Then there are Durham Smythe and Nic Weishar, neither has really distinguished themselves. They’re veterans, but neither is likely to be an all-American. That said, people are drooling over the potential of Brock Wright and Cole Kmet. Big kids who can run. Kmet, especially, is opening some eyes. He was viewed as more of a pass catching tight end, but is now up over 250 and still has the same speed and hands.

    Wide Receiver

    Now this is an interesting position. Notre Dame’s top two returning receivers are E. St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson. Stepherson had hell of a freshmen year, but has consistently been in the dog house which moved him down on the depth chart in the spring. That let 4-star recruits Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool, both 6’4” 225-pounders break into the starting lineup. With ESB, and the tight ends, Notre Dame can put some massive targets on the field who can also pound defensive backs in the run game. And both Boykin and Claypool can run. 225 pound Javon McKinley is actually the highest rated wide receiver on the team and he’ll be back to full speed this fall. Of course, then there are mighty mites CJ Sanders and Chris Finke who are both dangerous in the open field and transfers (old timers) Cam Smith (speed) and Freddie Canteen. Notre Dame will have a lot of toys to play with on the outside and be able to create a lot of matchup problems if they don’t get too cute.

    Offensive Line

    The best for last. On the left side, Kelly’s two most important recruits, Mike McGlinchy and Quenton Nelson are both considered possible first round picks in the NFL draft. In the middle, Sam Mustipher (with two years of eligibility) has been a leader throughout the spring and the summer and many believe could become an NFL pick himself. On his right is 4-star Alex Bars (who Kelly once called the best lineman on the team) and then two highly rated recruits in Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg. The freshman class has surprised everyone with 325 pound Aaron Banks and 290 pound Robert Hainsey leading the plaudits. Josh Lugg, the Pennsylvania lineman of the year, reported in at 6’6” 300 pounds.


    Special teams have had some special individual players, but have been missing the team part. CJ Sanders on returns, Justin Yoon at kicker and Tyler Newsome on punting have all shown the ability to be top flight players, yet special teams languished under Booker. Enter Brian Polian who had great special teams performance in his one year under Harbaugh at Stanford, but middling results at Notre Dame under Charlie Weis. With his sole responsibility on special teams and some really good pieces to play with, Polian will have to prove Stanford wasn’t the result of Harbaugh but his own coaching. Overall, ND will have very good skill players on special teams.


    The schedule is hard, but not excessively so. It’s ranked between 10 and 20 by most outlets. The slate is littered with bowl team, but USC, Stanford, Miami and Georgia are top rated teams almost across the board. Georgia looms as possibly the biggest game in Brian Kelly’s late career. A win would restore a lot of the lost confidence in the team, a loss… and it wouldn’t surprise me if the wheels started coming off the seemingly always broken red wagon of Brian Kelly.

    And then there’s the jumbotron factor…

    5 Responses to “Notre Dame Football Fall Primer”

    1. anchorman says:

      Candid, thorough, and well presented. The positive comparative data on overall talent and recruiting is shocking… and documents a program that has hugely under-achieved. The Georgia game really will be a pivotal moment, for team and coach.

    2. I think the schedule is brutal!! Excessively so!! Don’t forget about Navy (who will give us fits)..

      And games against N.C. State, BC, and Wake Forest always seem to be harder than they should be as
      we always play down to the level of competition..

      7-5 if we’re lucky (N0 MAJOR INJURIES).. 8-4 if Winbush is as good as advertised!!

      We’re a soft team.. I hope Elko toughens them us up.. If not, it’s going to be another long
      season especially on the D…

      I heard Jon Gruden is available.. LOL..

    3. ND Harvey says:

      See, Great job, well done. It all looks good on paper and I have plenty of confidence in the changes that Coach Kelly made on and off the field. It all begins in 32 days, let’s have no BS off the field stuff. “Here Comes the IRISH”……………Go IRISH!!!!

      • It ALWAYS looks good on paper. After 20 years of disappointment, I’ve finally learned not to expect much.

        I hope I am wrong, Go Irish!

    4. WeAreND2017 says:

      Good Analysis—Hasn’t it been widely talked about that Rivals is most generous in their rating of ND players hence the overall class rankings being a bit skewed? Maybe, I’m wrong but I thought I’ve read that before. Overall, they have underachieved even if that’s the case but I do think they have an overall lack of top end skilled defenders. When do you hear them land the elite pass rusher, safety or corner? They usually aren’t even in play for those kids and their putrid showing in the NFL drafts speaks volumes about landing the real elite players.