Matt Cashore /

O’Malley’s Monday Musings

Defining a great season in South Bend and predictions abound in this, the final off-season edition of the Musings.

1 – Finke Schools Fools: Congratulations to Notre Dame’s newly minted scholarship player. Chris Finke’s scholarship doesn’t qualify as a surprise (he’s been famous for two Augusts among media members) but it’s worth noting that Finke earned a scholarship for cementing his depth chart ascent as a sophomore/redshirt freshman, no small feat considering Joe Schmidt – who along with Shane Walton represents the Holy Grail of walk-ons in South Bend as eventual Team MVPs – didn’t earn his free ride until his junior year.

Finke will backup C.J. Sanders in the slot, and it appears he’ll play: “We could move other guys into (Z/slot) because Corey Holmes has had a really good camp,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “I could move Corey into his Z, and that bumps Finke out, but Finke held him off.”

And he’ll have a chance to play through 2018 and perhaps ‘19 as well.

2 – Three is the New Two: For Notre Dame, a 14-game season equates to a playoff berth, so assuming 13 games is the norm would you agree that 10 wins is probably the minimum expectation for the rest of the Brian Kelly Era?

Most fans will concur, yet the program has enjoyed just four 10-win seasons since 1993, the conclusion of the program’s halcyon era with five campaigns ending in 10 or more wins during a six-season span. (And in the lone year that just nine wins presented, Notre Dame played for a chance at a split national title on the season’s last day.)

Why do these numbers matter? Because the program’s four most recent 10-win seasons since are scattered: 2002, 2006, 2012, and 2015. And the Irish haven’t gone back-to-back in that regard since 1992-93 (10-1-1 and 11-1).

They have a chance to do so this fall, which brings us back to Musing No. 3’s title, “Three is the New Two” and how to properly measure a Notre Dame Football season:

-- Suffering one loss should qualify as “outstanding” – to be remembered as one of the best seasons in program history. (And would likely include a playoff berth or championship in today’s game).

-- A two-loss season is likewise great. 11-2 invariably would indicate a Major Six Bowl win or a playoff loss.

-- A three-loss season should be the barometer. It’s enjoyable, worthy of mention, and a campaign that likely included an extended winning streak or at least temporary playoff contention, both of which buoy the fan base.

-- Four losses? Well how did you feel about the only four-loss team at the program over the last quarter century – Tommy Rees’ 9-4 Irish of 2013?

Exactly. It’s three (or fewer) losses or bust…

3 – The Inaugural Casey Kasem Prediction: Advanced metrics aren’t the most enjoyable of conversation for most football fans, but if you’re looking to judge a pass defense throw out “Passing Yards Allowed” and focus instead on Pass Efficiency Defense. (Measures not only passing yards allowed but completion percentage, touchdown percentage, interceptions and INT percentage, and yards per pass attempt by opponents.)

Not surprisingly, the best pass efficiency defense of the Kelly era was produced by the 2012 crew (they ranked #16 after the BCS Championship defeat).

The worst? Also not a surprise: 2014 (#84). Last year’s defense was improved but still ranked as the second worst of the Kelly Era (#57) giving Brian VanGorder an average of #70 nationally in two seasons (Bob Diaco’s four-season average was #34).

If Notre Dame can muster a modicum of timely pressure on passing downs (2nd and 8 or more; 3rd and 5 or more), the Irish pass efficiency defense will no longer be a weakness, because the corners that Kelly, VanGorder, and position coach Todd Lyght have on hand will make plays on the football.

--Which Elicits Prediction #18 in our summer series: A Pass Efficiency Defense that ranks among America’s Top 40 at season’s end – something Diaco’s defenses accomplished in three of four seasons (25, 58, 16, 38).

4 – Penultimate Prediction: Looks like I better get closer to #20 as game day approaches. Assuming good health, freshman Devin Studstill will record more interceptions this fall than dismissed free safety Max Redfield did in 23 starts wearing an Irish uniform (2).

Don’t be surprised when he breaks up more passes this season than did Redfield during his career (4) as well.

5 – Ignorance Is Anything But Bliss: Approximately 75 percent of the world is covered by water. I now realize the rest is now filled by the misinformed, the under informed, and the ignorant.

6 – Hunter to Party Like It’s 2013: 125 targets, 75 receptions, 1,108 yards, and 11 TD (including 2 rushing). Those are the numbers for senior captain T.J. Jones circa 2013.

It was a season that featured one main pass catcher but hinted that the future of the Irish receiving corps was exceedingly bright (junior DaVaris Daniels, sophomore C.J. Prosise plus freshmen Will Fuller, Corey Robinson, James Onwualu, and an injured Torii Hunter, Jr.).

Fast-forward to 2016 when Hunter is the senior captain and his young pupils represent the future of the position in South Bend. You can expect similar numbers from Hunter this fall (with the exception of 125 targets, because the 2013 team couldn’t run the football) and likewise from the youngsters. To wit:

-- Notre Dame’s second best receiver in ’13 was DaVaris Daniels (49 rec. 745 yards, 7 TD) – totals to which current sophomore C.J. Sanders can aspire this autumn.

-- Thereafter? Tight ends Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack combined for 42 catches, 669 yards, and 8 touchdowns – totals that Nic Weishar and Durham Smythe at this point can only dream about, especially the eight combined touchdowns – a 35-year high water mark in South Bend. But the tight ends might be the quarterbacks’ “No. 3” pass-catcher in the aggregate.

-- The fourth-best receiver in ’13 was Chris Brown, who notched just 15 total catches with one score. Someone, be it Equanimeous St. Brown, or Miles Boykin, or both, will obliterate that total this fall. Even 2013 freshman Corey Robinson (9 catches, 1 TD, 157 yards, 4 pass interferences drawn) seems to have a point of relevant comparison in the form of current freshman Chase Claypool.

It’s the circle of pass-catching life in South Bend.

7 – Kelly’s Rookies: Josh Adams, Jerry Tillery, C.J. Sanders, and Justin Yoon (2015), Drue Tranquill, Nyles Morgan, and Andrew Trumbetti, (2014), Jaylon Smith, Tarean Folston, Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson (2013), KeiVarae Russell and Sheldon Day (2012), Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt (2011), Tommy Rees, T.J. Jones, and Prince Shembo (2010).

For better or worse, true freshmen have helped shape the seasons of the Kelly regime.

Our Tim Prister broke down this year’s candidates last week (click here) and it’s clear the top choices for 2016 impact are defenders Daelin Hayes and Devin Studstill, with pass-catchers Kevin Stepherson and Chase Claypool ensured of a least the opportunity to knock on the door.

Among Prister’s “Might Play” category lurks a sleeper candidate: Julian Okwara. Notre Dame needs a pass rush, and if the aforementioned Daelin Hayes or Andrew Trumbetti is nicked up or ineffective, Okwara will step into a “starting” sub package role. (Jay Hayes is a stout base defender that is scheduled to come out in obvious passing situations.)

8 – Season Previews: If you missed our staff surveys over the weekend (click the links below), they offer a comprehensive look at the Irish heading into the season. Particularly enjoyable to write (and tally) was the first edition focusing only on September. It’s the lone month that can be reasonably forecasted ahead.

Also intriguing was the final Irish Illustrated Top 10 – it included just three players from last August’s Top 10 list (Malik Zaire, Isaac Rochell, and Tarean Folston).

9 – Prediction #20: To be published Saturday as part of our Irish Illustrated Game-by-Game Predictions Preview. Until then, here are the 19 official predictions that appeared in Monday Musings over the summer.

#1 – Notre Dame’s longest win streak will (again) be six games
?#2 – The Irish won’t lose two straight
?#3 – The Irish will lose once in September
#4 – Notre Dame will play 7 games “Close and Late” in 2016?
#5 – Torii Hunter will lead the team in touchdowns scored
?#6 – Nyles Morgan will lead the defense in statistical big plays (aggregate Stuffs, turnovers forced/obtained, PD and third-down “wins”)?
#7 – A combined 34 TD are on tap for this quintet: Kizer, Zaire, Adams, Folston, and Hunter
?#8 – Rookie Shaun Crawford will lead the team in passes defended
#9 – ND will lose one game in October
#10 – Fewer TD scored by Irish then last season (58)
#11 – Three or more TD allowed in LESS than 8 games
#12 – There will be a different leading rusher every month
#13 – The Irish will be upset
#14 – Highest Scoring Game – USC
#15 – Lowest Scoring Game – Texas
#16 – More rushing TD than passing TD
#17 – Rushing total 2,490 by quintet
#18 – Pass Efficiency Defense to rank within Top 40
#19 – Studstill season INT to surpass Redfield career total (2)
#20 – To be released in Irish Illustrated Season Preview this weekend

Until next Monday, Irish fans… Top Stories