Analysis: Eight Notre Dame players who need a strong winter in the weight room
SOUTH BEND — Fifteen months ago, roughly 45 inches separated Notre Dame football from playing Clemson to a dead heat in regulation, on the road, in something that resembled a monsoon.
The Tigers moved on from that 24-22 survival, made possible by thwarting DeShone Kizer's two-point conversion run with seven seconds left, to play for national championships in consecutive Januarys.
With Monday's 35-31 toppling of Alabama, Clemson sits atop of the college football world. And while Kizer continued to ascend into a likely first-round draft choice, the gap between the two programs — ND and the Tigers — has widened.
The final 2016 Sagarin computer ratings puts the difference at 50 spots, with the Irish (4-8) checking in at No. 51. The Fremeau Efficiency Index has the teams separated by a more-modest 40 rungs.
When the Irish take the field on Sept. 2 at home against Temple and the Notre Dame Stadium JumboTron comes to life to start the 2017 season, six new assistant coaches are expected to be either up in the coaching box or on the sidelines looking to narrow the chasm between the reigning champs and a team whose head coach, Brian Kelly, will likely be subjected to a perceptual referendum on a weekly basis.
That number becomes seven assistants if the NCAA, as expected, in April approves a 10th full-time assistant for all of the FBS.
Not counted in the NCAA's total, but very much counting among ND's expected seven new arrivals, is the coach who can make an impact now, soon-to-be officially anointed director of football strength and conditioning Matt Balis.
Balis replaces Paul Longo, who had been Kelly's director of strength and conditioning for all 13 of his seasons as a head coach on the FBS level — at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and ND.
How ever the strength-and-conditioning evolution plays out beyond the change at the top, here are the eight not-so-obvious players who need to have a strong winter in the weight room to help fuel a turnaround on the field in 2017.
Alex Bars, offensive tackle, junior
Perhaps the best technician among ND's starting five offensive linemen in 2016, Bars at times didn't appear to have the burst you'd expect to go with that from a 6-foot-6, 320-pounder.
Some of that may be traced back to the aftermath of a broken left ankle Bars suffered midway through the 2015 season. He wasn't afforded a full offseason in the weight room, something he won't be denied this offseason.
All five O-Line starters return in 2017, but the next wave — Liam Eichenberg, Tommy Kraemer and Tristen Hoge, among them — brings physicality and is pushing hard to shuffle the lineup that underachieved last season. The Irish finished 80th in rushing offense and 85th in sacks allowed.
The latter ranking is the worst by an Irish line since the 2007 team finished dead last (119th) in that category, allowing a then-NCAA-record 58 sacks.
Julian Okwara, defensive end, freshman
New defensive coordinator Mike Elko must identify and develop pass rushers from a roster that got just three sacks from its defensive linemen in 2016, the worst showing among the 65 Power 5 teams.
Okwara came to ND last fall more advanced playbook-wise out of high school than older brother Romeo was in 2012, though perhaps not as physically developed. The elder Okwara went on to be ND's sack leader in 2015, his senior season, and impressed as a rookie with the New York Giants this season.
Julian's opportunities were very limited in 2016, with four cameos leading to four tackles for the year and none behind the line of scrimmage.
The pass-rush prodigy on the roster is still expected to be classmate Daelin Hayes, but if 6-4 Okwara can bulk up from 228 pounds, he could work his way into the mix as well.
Ian Book, quarterback, freshman
The more comfortable the coaching staff becomes that the 6-foot-1, 200-pound freshman is a legit No. 2 at the position, the more comfortable Kelly can be in exposing presumptive QB starter Brandon Wimbush as a runner.
Part of casting that impression for Book is adding strength. Durability will also be important for Book, who figures to get some game exposure in 2017 in low-leverage situations.
Texas high school senior Avery Davis, breathtaking athletically but not yet so mechanically, arrives in June to bolster depth at the position and perhaps challenge Book if he doesn't show the necessary progress.
Chase Claypool, wide receiver, freshman
Claypool flashed some pretty impressive athleticism as a freshman in 2016, both on offense and on special teams coverage duty. Now, what does he do for an encore? And will it be at wide receiver?
Elko could lobby for Claypool to flip to defense, either as an edge linebacker/pass rusher or a safety. The Canadian import could also become a wide receiver/tight end hybrid in 2017 and beyond. And in either scenario he'd likely add weight to his 6-4, 220-pound frame.
Even if Claypool stays at wide receiver, a more physically imposing version of his freshman self would help nudge him toward the top of the receiving rotation.
Micah-Dew Treadway, defensive lineman, sophomore
Three long-term defensive line projects in the 2015 recruiting class — Brandon Tiassum, Elijah Taylor and Dew-Treadway — have combined for three tackles in two seasons. All of them have come from Taylor and all in the 2016 finale against USC.
Tiassum and the 6-4, 300-pound Dew-Treadway, in fact, have yet to see game action. And the Irish need some production from that group in 2017, even if it comes from reserve roles.
Dew-Treadway likely would have gotten an audition of sorts last season had he not been battling injuries for most of the season. He's purported to be the most athletic of the three and with the most position flexibility.
How he trains and gains this winter will be telling as to whether that raw potential is ready to translate into actual production.
Julian Love, cornerback, freshman
Speculation that Love could move from a deep and talented cornerback corps to a safety pool that lacks both qualities only makes sense if Love is going to be a starter at the safety position. And at 5-11, 190, he'd need to get a little bigger to make a smooth transition.
He'll likely add strength and size this winter even if he stays at cornerback, and he already was plenty physical in run support. More muscle will only add to that impressive dimension of his game.
Brock Wright, tight end, early enrollee
After getting the least production from the tight end position since 2001 during the 2015 season (20 receptions), Kelly watched it fall off again in 2016 — just 12 receptions at Tight End U. In 2011, that number was 66.
Tight ends coach Scott Booker, who also coordinated special teams, was fired earlier this month, so there will be new leadership.
Sophomore Alizé Jones' return from academic exile is the key to a revival in 2017, but don't overlook two newcomers to the group — incoming freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet. They are arguably the top two prospects at the position nationally in the 2017 class.
The 6-foot-5, 249-pound Wright arrives first. He'll enroll in January and go through spring practice, while Kmet gets started in June.
Wright's high rating — the No. 56 player in the class regardless of position — is due in part to being a complete tight end, a standout in catching and blocking. To make sure those blocking traits translate, adding strength before spring practice would help the Texan climb the depth chart in the spring and summer.
Daniel Cage, nose guard, junior
If Elko wants to have flexibility to play some three-man fronts, the Irish need a nose guard who can command double teams.
The 6-1, 315-pound Cage is the only player on the roster who has shown the capability to do that at all, but not in extended stretches.
Losing weight, and getting his sleep apnea diagnosed and treated with a CPAP helped Cage surge at the start of the 2016 season, but concussion symptoms sidelined him the last four games of the season and he finished with a modest 10 tackles — 35 fewer than 2016 time-share partner Jarron Jones.
With Jones headed for the NFL, ND will depend on more production and stamina from Cage, with his most capable backup perhaps incoming freshman Darnell Ewell.