Four wild cards, four different perspectives as Notre Dame-Michigan approaches

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — He touched the ball 14 times as a college baseball player-turned-walk-on fullback.

The wins for the now 36-year-old Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea were even fewer in his three years as a football player at Vanderbilt University. Six to be exact, over three years, to go along with a cumulative 29 losses (2002-04).

And then there was the weight room incident, around Christmas time after one of the three two-win seasons.

Lea ventured into the Vanderbilt’s own workout facility as both a symbolic and real step toward altering the rut he had walked into after transferring in from Belmont and switching sports, only to discover the school had lent the premises and its equipment to a team preparing for the Music City Bowl, set in Nashville.

“Just the burn that that created,” Lea said recently. “All those things that drive you forward. It was a great starting point for me.”

This is when and where the coaching fire ignited. In a heart that refused to be broken or disillusioned.

The journey that ensued takes him to the Notre Dame Stadium coaching box Saturday night, seven levels above the field, for the first clash in four seasons between reuniting rivals ND and Michigan (7:30 EST; NBC-TV).

“There was a nucleus of players that never flinched,” Lea said of his Vanderbilt experience. “Even though we didn’t have the success we wanted, we never stopped, we never relented. The seed was kind of planted in me of how special it is to be part of a brotherhood that fights.

“Truthfully, the string of not accomplishing really kind of thrust me into coaching, because that sting is what kind of drove me into saying, ‘I want to be able to do this at a high level. I want to win a national championship. I want to be able to compete for big games.’ ”

The first-year coordinator’s first game in his career in which Lea will call defensive plays without a safety net certainly qualifies. It also makes him one of four intriguing wild cards on the ND side of things in the season-opening matchup between the 12th-ranked Irish and No. 14 Wolverines.

The following is a glimpse of the impending confrontation through his eyes and through three others’:

Daelin Hayes, defensive end

He didn’t grow up in the shadow of Michigan Stadium, but the only remaining former five-star prospect on the Notre Dame roster finished a star-crossed high school career at Ann Arbor Skyline High, located just over four miles from the Big House.

Proximity didn’t make the heart grow fonder.

“Not really, man,” the 6-foot-4, 265-pound responded when asked if he ever had been a Michigan fan.

“I love football,” he continued. “The first game I ever watched was Notre Dame and Pittsburgh. I love the (Michigan) rivalry. That was always exciting. So I’m honored and extremely excited to be part of that legacy as they brought these two games back (2018-19). It’s cool.

“But I never really was ‘Go Blue.’ Never really MSU (either).”

Michigan did offer Hayes a scholarship, though, early in his high school career, before the injuries and a one-year move from Michigan to California with transfer entanglements unfolded, two circumstances that limited him to fewer than 10 career games at the high school level.

Interest waned on both sides before Hayes eventually committed to USC, then flipped to Notre Dame and enrolled early, in January of 2016.

On Saturday night, he’ll be a key figure in a pass rush expected to be perhaps the best of the Kelly Era or at least since 2012, when the Irish ranked 22nd nationally in that statistical category. They haven’t risen higher than 74th at season’s end since.

Three of the four edge players that rotate at the two defensive end spots for the Irish, and who will be counted on heavily to boost the sack numbers, hail from Michigan. Hayes and Khalid Kareem have known each other since they were 15 and worked out together at DI Sports Training in suburban Detroit.

“He’s taken his game to another level,” Hayes said of Kareem. “I’m so proud of my dog, “He’s been my roommate (since freshman year), so I’ve seen every level of progression. To see the work he’s put in, he’s earned it.”

The other Michigander is in the group is Ade Ogundeji, who rotates with Kareem at the big end position. Hayes splits time with North Carolina product Julian Okwara at the rush end.

Continuing to learn techniques at a position the former linebacker didn’t play until 2017 is a big part of Hayes’ push for more production. So was putting on 15 pounds this offseason and increasing strength significantly.

Hayes said when he arrived at ND, he could do 11 reps at 225 pounds on the bench press. This summer, he had pushed that number to 31. For perspective sake, that matches the top performance among the 17 edge players at the NFL Scouting Combine last March (by Utah’s Kylie Fitts).

“Sometimes I’d’ get engaged with a tackle and couldn’t rip off, things of that nature,” Hayes said of his 2017 season. “So I knew I had to have better strength and explosion to be able to get off blocks and get involved in tackles and stuff.

“It’s a man’s position. You have to have man strength to take on that role. That was the point of emphasis this summer, and I feel like I accomplished it. I’m excited to see how it paid off.”

Jafar Armstrong, running back

There were moments, many moments this past month, where the converted wide receiver admitted that he and converted QB Avery Davis looked at each other for answers about how a play should be run, while lined up together as running backs …

And got a blank stare in return.

“It’s like, ‘What you got?’ ” Armstrong said with a big smile. “ ‘I don’t know. What you got?’ ”

Even ND head coach Brian Kelly may not be sure exactly what he’s got in the two sophomores who redshirted at other positions last season. But they’ve evolved far beyond gadget-play candidates in the past few months into very real pieces of the running back rotation.

Helping Armstrong make the transition is his supreme conditioning, which he credits his father for both the genetics and the desire to hone them.

“He used to tell me, ‘When you get your shot, never take a play off.’ ” said the prolific 6-1, 190-pound high school receiver and state sprint champ who’s morphed into a 218-pounder. “He was real tough on me growing up. It’s working out for me.”

Also working is a friendship Armstrong struck up with former Notre Dame wide receiver-turned-running back C.J. Prosise.

“I met him at the spring game,” Armstrong said of ND’s surprise 1,000-yard rusher in 2015. “He’s real cool, a good mentor. and I text him now and then. For sure, he’s been helpful.

“He tells me, ‘Just go out and don’t think about the (position) switch. Don’t think, just go out and play, because at running back when you think too much, that’s when you start kind of like slowing down. You need to see the hole, hit the hole.’”

Drue Tranquill, linebacker

Not only is the grad senior and newlywed one of the most indispensable starters on either side of Saturday’s matchup, he’s the only player on either roster who actually played in the last meeting between the two teams, a 31-0 Irish rout in the second game of the 2014 season.

Eight current Wolverines were on the 2014 Michigan roster. Fellow 2018 ND captains Sam Mustipher, Alex Bars and Tyler Newsome, along with tight end Nic Weishar and nose guard Jonathan Bonner were all redshirting freshmen during the game in which then-first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was given the game ball by Brian Kelly.

“I watched the film of that game (the other night), actually,” Tranquill said. “I remember Elijah Shumate picking it off and taking it to the house and it not counting. It was electric. As a freshman, it was just such an honor to be out on the field with guys like Jaylon (Smith) and Sheldon (Day).”

Tranquill, a backup safety at that point in his career, was credited with two tackles, including an assist on a tackle for loss. The latter stat was a gift from the official scorer, per Tranquill.

“I remember running, trying to look like I was in the pile and making the play,” he said, “but I wasn’t in there.”

Tranquill’s seemingly seamless transition to his third different position in the past three years is one of the most overlooked story lines of Irish preseason camp. This from a player whom Brian Kelly says is the one he had to pound the table for in recruiting and then went on to exceed even his expectations.

Over and over again. Including Tranquill’s decision to come back for a fifth year.

“It’s a huge game, one of the best rivalries in college football,” Tranquill said of the opening act of his fifth season. “To have it back for my last year, I’m pumped.”

He may have to wait awhile, though, to experience a Notre Dame-Michigan game again as a spectator. Though the cold war that led to a hiatus in the series has thawed out, logistics may make an encore beyond the Oct. 26, 2019 game in Ann Arbor difficult to squeeze in over the next decade.

The Irish play Big Ten power Wisconsin in 2020 and 2021, with a second Big Ten game against Purdue in 2021. There’s a home-and-home with Ohio State in 2022-23, followed by games with Purdue in 2024 through 2028.

Clark Lea, defensive coordinator

There are hints in the 2017 film, from Mike Elko’s one year as ND’s defensive coordinator, as to how Lea might call a game.

Elko, now at Texas A&M, and Lea share schematic philosophies from their years together, but Lea has his own nuances, and he now has players who can better express what Elko would have loved to employ last season.

“I don’t want to be a guy who’s creating defenses for the sake of creating defenses,” Lea said. “I want to have calls that allows the players to shine. That’s my responsibility, to put them in a positon to not be thinking, but be doing.

“Beyond that, you want to be a smart play-caller. You want situationally to be have bodies where you need bodies. and when pressure’s needed, you want to be able dial up pressure.”

And then there’s the pressure Lea is putting on himself, facing a Michigan offense seemingly revived by Ole Miss transfer quarterback Shea Patterson.

“I’m anxious to get through that part of it,” Lea said of the play-calling, “because obviously, it’s something I think about it every single day, and I have thought about it every single day since I’ve been elevated (from linebackers coach).

“For me it’s just a matter of having a chance to rip the Band-Aid off and knowing full well that I’m going to make mistakes. It’s going to happen.

“It’s how you adjust and how you move on from those mistakes. It’s being simple enough where you can let good players get you out of bad situations. I’m anxious to get on the horse and let it roll.”

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea signals to players during the Blue-Gold Game.
Irish defensive end Daelin Hayes, who played his high school senior season in Ann Arbor, Mich., says he was never enamored with the neighboring Michigan Wolverines.
Running back Jafar Armstrong has run his way into relevance during Notre Dame preseason camp. 
Linebacker Drue Tranquill (23) is the only player on the Irish roster who saw action in the 2014 Michigan-ND game.