Carroll understands the challenge ahead

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While you’ll get me thoughts on Charlie Weis’ press conference a little bit later, I thought it’d be worth taking a look at Pete Carroll’s press conference from yesterday and hear what he had to say about the Fighting Irish.

Living in the heart of Trojan country, I have a chance to hear from Carroll on a regular basis, and he truly is a guy that only knows one way. Whether he’s talking about football, stopping gang violence in Los Angeles, the weather, or rush-hour traffic, Carroll is all about positivity and taking on challenges. And after hearing his comments about the Irish, it’s clear that Carroll knows he’s in for a challenge this weekend.

It’s no secret that both Weis and Carroll know that everything they say in these sessions will be analyzed and scrutinized and studied for hints by the opposition. I’m sure much of what is said is said for a reason (like mentioning that a certain wide receiver was practicing in full pads yesterday for the Irish).

Here are some statements Carroll made during his presser yesterday. Allow me to read between the lines and speculate for a bit.

On Notre Dame’s passing attack:

You can’t be much better than they are. The efficiency he’s throwing at
right now, Clausen’s on it. He’s finding receivers. They’re protecting
him well. He’s keeping the negative plays down. Only two picks in all
the plays he’s made so far. These guys are loaded.

I haven’t seen
the rest of the schedule, but up until now, this is the best passing
team by far that we’ve seen. They pose the biggest challenge, and
they’ve got big play guys either coming out of the back field or the
tight end spot. Of course, Golden Tate is just having a ridiculous
start to the season. So this is a very, very good attack, and they’re
challenging the heck out of us.

Slowing the Irish down in the air is going to be a critical area for the Trojans and Carroll doesn’t mince words on the challenges it presents his defensive unit. Much has been said about the revamped and reloaded Southern Cal defense, yet a closer look at the numbers doesn’t necessarily support the thesis that this USC defense is as stout as the ones before it. While the glamor stat of zero touchdown passes allowed certainly strikes fear into the hearts of opponents, a closer look shows that opposing offenses have thrown for just about the same amount of yards against the Trojans as they’re averaging against their other opponents. With nickel back Brian Baucham questionable as he returns from a motorcycle accident, Shareece Wright academically ineligible, and Marshall Jones out for the season with a cracked vertebra, there are opportunities for the Irish to attack.

On the Notre Dame running attack:

Armando Allen is a good football player. When they put Golden Tate back
there, they run like crazy. They have a good running back, an
experienced offensive line. They have all the schemes. If
anything, they’re riding the strength of what Jimmy Clausen brings to
them. They’re such a high-efficiency throwing game, why not? They’re
putting up big time yards and all that, so.
 
But the running game is definitely there. One that has enough
variations to it, it taxes you scheme-wise. They do enough that they’re
not just a zone team. They do a lot of things. So, they’re fairly,
deeply committed to the whole wildcat system and all of that. With
Allen and with Tate back there, they’ve got a lot of different things
that they can do. They give you a very difficult spectrum of things to
prepare for.

It’s clear that Carroll has noticed the difference running game coordinator Frank Verducci has done with the offensive line, as well as the commitment to the Wildcat offense. It’s no longer just a gimmick, but something that opposing coaches need to game-plan for. That said, former Trojan defensive coordinator Nick Holt had success against the Wildcat with Washington’s defense this year, so it’ll be interesting to see if Carroll finds a similar solution. Interestingly, Carroll gets sidetracked again on the Notre Dame passing attack, which makes me wonder if he hopes the Irish make themselves one-dimensional, so they can just go out and cover the pass, or if he’s hoping the Irish throw the ball around the field, and USC will try to impose their will through a time-consuming ground game.

On preparing for Golden Tate:

It’s really a challenge. Really a challenge because they move them in
all their receiver spots, and then he winds up behind the center
getting the football. He is like a running back at receiver. He’s a
bigger, stronger, more physical guy when the ball’s in his hands. So
they have realized that. They’ve used him all over.
So we just
have to keep track of him and know the tendencies when he moves. There
are so many things you can do it’s very difficult. They’ve done a
really good job of utilizing their special guys, and he’s the
beneficiary of that.

Carroll saw first hand what UW’s passive coverage on Tate did to destroy the Husky defense. Expect him to have everyone on the defense well-versed in Tate’s tendencies, and be ready for every possible outcome when Tate’s playing the X, roaming the slot, lined up in the Wildcat, or motioning from the fullback position.

On Notre Dame’s attacking defense:

They’re the most aggressive they’ve been. Last year they started really
coming after people, and this year they’ve picked up on that. They’re
pressuring well over half of the time which is a tremendous percentage
of pressure from the defense. In certain games they’ll get it up higher
than that.
 
So what that causes is they’re taking chances to come
after you. It’s very aggressive, and they cause bad plays. You can
protect really well, then there are some are opportunities, because the
coverage is more limited.
 
It’s just whether or not we’re able to handle the heat that they bring.
If we can, we can have a chance at moving the football. If they can’t,
they can control the game and cause some bad things and create some
negative plays and give you issues that you don’t want. They’re doing a
nice job now. It’s difficult.

There’s risk and reward here. That’s part of it. When you’re committing
people to the line of scrimmage, there is more space in the secondary.
That’s why protection is so important and the rhythm of the quarterback
is so important to get the ball out so you don’t get hit and disrupted.
 
The whole point of pressuring is to disrupt the offense. If you
can minimize that there are opportunities to make plays, and we have to
create some space and see if we can do that
.

Carroll has to believe he can take some shots down the field. Expect to see Damian Williams involved in this game plan early and often, as well as the play-action passing game utilized early, especially if the Irish have early problems stopping USC’s ground game. Carroll also realizes how essential it’ll be to protect his quarterback, so I’d think max protection, two-man routes with the potential for big plays is a sound strategy against a defense that has proven susceptible to big plays. 

On Notre Dame’s run/pass tendencies:

They’re a team that’s interesting. They’re willing to throw the ball a
bunch if they think that’s what’s necessary in the game plan. Sometimes
they’ll go the other way. They’re not a set style that you can tell
what they’re going to do in a game plan.
 
The Michigan State game
they came out and played empty the whole first quarter, you know, ran
the ball like twice or something. Were moving the ball up-and-down the
field. They adjusted from there and did some other things.
 
This is a team that you have to see what they think of you. It’s going
to take a while. We have to be flexible early in the game and adapt.
See if we can get situated once they declare how they want to play it
from that side of the ball.
 
That’s how they’ve always been. It is kind of a wait and see what they think they need to do to win every time we play them.

This is one of the more interesting evaluations of Charlie Weis’ offense I’ve ever read. Carroll admits that scheming and game-planning for Weis’ attack is useless. Instead of guessing, he lets Weis dictate what he’ll do and counter-attacks. This has to be one of the more underrated aspects of Pete Carroll the coach. His ability to think on his feet, make in-game adjustments, and adapt his defense to match what the opposing coach is trying to do. When you think about USC defense, you rarely think of a team that let’s the opponent dictate terms. Yet here’s Carroll admitting that he does as much when facing a Charlie Weis run offense, even using Weis’ perception of Carroll’s own defense to guide his decision making. This is a fascinating revelation.

It’s apparent that while there is a rivalry between Carroll and Weis, it’s one based in admiration. While neither may like each other especially much, it’s clear that both need the other to succeed at their job. Weis needs to beat Carroll, and Carroll greatly enjoys the satisfaction that comes with out-smarting Charlie Weis at his own game.

Expect a chess match on Saturday. 

Stepherson may get the headlines, but loss of two RBs will cost Notre Dame most

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Notre Dame split with four players Tuesday night, two of them having a more noticeable ripple effect than the others.

Kevin Stepherson’s Irish career coming to a premature conclusion became an inevitability in December. The sophomore receiver forced the issue with back-to-back legal missteps underscoring a disregard for what must have already been a zero-tolerance situation. Though unproven, Notre Dame has a litany of options to replace Stepherson’s big-play potential.

To be blunt, the Irish will hardly notice Brandon Tiassum’s absence on the field in 2018. The junior defensive tackle was passed on the depth chart by two freshmen this past fall, and a few more newcomers may have pushed him further from playing time between now and Sept. 1.

But in losing two running backs — current sophomore Deon McIntosh and freshman C.J. Holmes — from the roster, Notre Dame will have to make some adjustments. If health were guaranteed the two remaining known commodities at the position, then the absences of McIntosh and Holmes could be written off with only a bit more consternation than Tiassum’s. At running back, though, health is not guaranteed. It is, in fact, rare.

Between junior Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones, the Irish have the makings of a top-flight backfield. Williams has an abundance of playmaking ability, if lacking as both a receiver and a blocker, while Jones excels in those latter two capacities and can pick up chunks of yardage simply by bowling over defenders. But, at some point in the next 11 months, at least one of the two will be hampered. Maybe yet another ankle will turn balky. Maybe Williams’ quad will seize up again. Perhaps something more severe will befall one of, if not both, Notre Dame’s lead backs.

At that point, as the roster is currently, only early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith will be available. That will not be enough.

A year ago, the Irish entered spring practice with known-stalwart Josh Adams, Williams and Jones ready to go. Holmes had enrolled early. Those four were expected to be the running back corps. Then Holmes injured his shoulder early in the spring. The idea of only three healthy running backs was such an uncomfortable thought, the coaching staff opted to move McIntosh to the backfield from receiver.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh finished 2017 with 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries, a 5.7 yards per rush average. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

As anyone who watched the latter half of the 2017 season will attest, it was a good thing they did.

How Notre Dame goes about finding a fourth back this year will sort itself out only with time. Some will bandy about the thought of moving rivals.com three-star cornerback Tariq Bracy to the offensive backfield. He excelled both as a running back and a cornerback in high school, and the Irish have depth at the latter position these days. Bracy is certainly a possibility.

The fringe will posit this is a prime opportunity to move junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush away from taking snaps. That concept will not and should not be considered for even the five seconds it took to read that sentence.

Most likely — perhaps in combination with turning to Bracy or another, less obvious suspect — Notre Dame is already urgently looking for a second running back in this recruiting class. Finding one will be easier suggested than executed, and doing so will likely take away from adding at another position.

The Irish currently have 22 commitments in this class, 21 signed and consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy; Little Rock, Ark.) ready to do so in February. They were likely planning to reel in another offensive lineman, another defensive back and a receiver with the remaining three spots in the class.

For example, rivals.com four-star/247sports.com five-star offensive tackle Nick Petit-Frere (Berkeley Prep; Tampa, Fla.), consensus four-star cornerback Noah Boykin (H.D. Woodson High School; Washington, D.C.) and consensus three-star receiver Lawrence Keys (McDonogh 35; New Orleans, La.). There are a litany of other permutations of that combination, but the point stands. Adding a running back to that limited capacity will take away from somewhere else.

RELATED READING: With four spots remaining, what recruits is Notre Dame still chasing? (Dec. 23)

Notre Dame does theoretically have the option to exceed 25 recruits in the class by counting some of the newly-arrived seven early enrollees toward last year’s recruit class numbers. It is essentially a known loophole within NCAA rules, but that theory is unlikely to become reality.

In the long view, it could create an exacerbated roster crunch in years to come. That algebra is constantly shifting. Exceeding 25 players in this class would also necessitate four recruiting successes in an abbreviated period with a shallow pool of prospects remaining after the early signing period.

Thus, the odds stand at slim of the Irish coaching staff exceeding 25 signees in this class, meaning Jones plus only three more Feb. 7. With Tuesday’s churn, a running back will likely be one of those three, and thus another position will not be.

Losing McIntosh and Holmes drains Notre Dame’s running back depth in 2018. It also shifts, ever so slightly-yet-noticeably, the roster in the years immediately afterward.

Kevin Stepherson, three others no longer on Notre Dame roster

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Irish head coach Brian Kelly and Notre Dame parted ways with four underclassmen Tuesday, in a move only partially-expected. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, sophomore running back Deon McIntosh, freshman running back C.J. Holmes and junior defensive tackle Brandon Tiassum are no longer part of the team, a University spokesperson confirmed.

Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated first reported the dismissals. The spring semester began Tuesday.

Stepherson’s departure, at least, was widely-expected after a December weekend of bad decisions brought his count of mishaps to four during his brief Irish career and induced an indefinite suspension. The lesser of those transgressions came with Holmes at his side, as the duo was charged with shoplifting from a nearby mall. Stepherson was also charged with possession of marijuana, speeding and driving without a valid license. Back in August of 2016, he was one of five players charged with marijuana possession, though no suspension came from that issue.

Following the shoplifting incident but before the additional Stepherson charges had come to light, Kelly expressed distinct disappointment in the choice made on a Friday night.

“You can’t steal, and they did,” he said. “I can tolerate a lot of things, but I can’t tolerate stealing. That’s why they’re suspended indefinitely and they put themselves in jeopardy.”

Kelly said he did hope to keep the players, specifically Stepherson, eligible so if they were removed from the team a transfer may be in their futures.

“If I wasn’t to have him back in the football program we want him to maintain his eligibility here so he can transfer to another program,” Kelly said.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh provided crucial depth for Notre Dame as ankle sprains limited juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

McIntosh was sent home from Orlando during Citrus Bowl preparations due to a violation of team rules. Tiassum’s exit will be a question for the time being, with no public knowledge of any issues.

While long-presumed, the loss of Stepherson still bears the most notice. When engaged, he was Notre Dame’s most explosive receiver, finishing 2017 with 359 yards and five touchdowns on 19 catches in only eight games, with genuine offensive involvement in only six. He caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five scores in his freshman season.

Cutting ties with both McIntosh and Holmes comes as a bit more of a surprise and will cut deep into the Irish running back depth. As ankle injuries limited the running game mainstays, McIntosh provided a reserve option, finishing the year with 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries, a 5.7 yards per rush average. Holmes was activated to further counteract the injury concerns. If McIntosh were banged up, Notre Dame theoretically had one more option. He finished with eight carries for 32 yards.

Without the two backups, the Irish have only three running backs currently on the roster in junior Dexter Williams, sophomore Tony Jones and early-enrolled Jahmir Smith. Williams and Jones were likely to remain the top two on the depth chart, mitigating McIntosh and Holmes again, but the depth is always crucial at running back, as 2017 certainly proved.

Tiassum was unlikely to see much playing time in the future thanks to the returns of junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner announced Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Tiassum made two tackles in 2017.

Bonner’s decision to return brought the Irish roster up to 87 players with three spots open in the current recruiting cycle. Obviously, this development drops that number to 83. The NCAA maximum allowed come fall is 85.

Notre Dame returns entire defensive line with DT Bonner’s fifth-year decision

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Notre Dame’s defensive line will return intact in 2018. Irish head coach Brian Kelly confirmed senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner has changed his mind and will return for a fifth season Tuesday.

ND Insider’s Eric Hansen first reported Bonner’s shift.

In November, Bonner told Notre Dame’s independent student newspaper, The Observer, he did not intend to take a fifth year. Bonner later announced his mother had been diagnosed with cancer, lending some context to his decision to cut short his football career.

Apparently some combination of the decisions to return from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, the 2018 defense’s potential and whatever other factors led Bonner to make a last-minute return to school. First-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea is certainly grateful.

Bonner provided consistent production in the defensive interior in 2017, finishing the season with 30 tackles, 3.5 for loss with two sacks. In his first three years with the Irish, Bonner hardly broke into the rotation. Suddenly, he was a force at the point of attack and held his own no matter the opponent.

Building upon that moving forward seems likely considering Bonner will not need to shoulder as much of the load. Freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa will have a greater role with another year under his belt, not to mention freshmen Kurt Hinish and Darnell Ewell. An increased rotation will benefit all involved.

At this point, the only contributing defensive lineman lost from 2017 will be end Andrew Trumbetti, out of eligibility. He split time with classmate Jay Hayes, so it can be argued the entire starting defensive line returns. A year ago, that unit was seen as a weakness, but it established itself as a strength as the season went on.

Bonner’s addition brings the running count on Notre Dame’s roster to 87 players, not counting three more possible commits in the incoming freshman class. The NCAA maximum is 85.

Seven early enrollees set a new Notre Dame high, but will they make an impact?

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Notre Dame does not lean on high school seniors to enroll a semester early, yet seven did so this year, a program high. By no means does the head-start guarantee an immediate impact. As discussed in Monday’s Leftovers, only four of the 14 early enrollees in the last three years made notable contributions their freshmen seasons.

Such a return indicates at least one of these seven will make an impact in 2018, and quite possibly two of them. In an attempt to predict that, the seven are listed below in order of likelihood of altering a game this year, dictated by positional need creating opportunities more than anything else.

As will be the case all offseason, when speaking of depth chart holes, one position stands out as the most needing rapid improvement, safety.

Consensus four-star defensive back Houston Griffith
Griffith may end up a cornerback, but the Irish are well-stocked there at the moment. His first chance to contribute will come at safety, something Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly did not rule out when Griffith (and the rest of these) signed in December.

For that matter, coverage duties can lead to a freshman missing a step. Playing the catch-all role of boundary safety may better suit an athlete like Griffith.

And, again, the Irish need safeties.

Consensus four-star linebacker Jack Lamb
Notre Dame also needs linebacker depth, even with junior Te’von Coney opting to return for his senior year. The reserves on the roster in 2017 did not inspire much faith moving forward. That could change, but Lamb seems just as likely to jump into the second-string of the depth chart.

Lamb may not yet be ready for much in the way of coverage duties, but he already has the physique to hold up in a physical matchup, and the early arrival will only further that cause. With a deep recruiting class at the position — including three early enrollees — defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea will have options to test out. Lamb simply seems the most likely to emerge as the leader of the inexperienced majority at linebacker.

Bo Bauer (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star linebacker Matthew “Bo” Bauer
If it is not Lamb who earns playing time spelling Coney, it could be Bauer. Like Lamb, Bauer fits best against the run.

This early emphasis on linebackers is a reflection of the distinct need for depth. Current sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) have not claimed a primary role for themselves, and the recruiting emphasis at the position this cycle points to a general letdown with freshmen David Adams and Drew White.

Someone in the mix will need to step forward. By enrolling early, Lamb and Bauer have given themselves a bit more time to make that impression.

 

Micah Jones (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones
The need at receiver is much less; though unproven, there are options. Nonetheless, that uncertainty creates an opportunity for Jones’ big frame. Offensive coordinator Chip Long has already shown a preference for big bodies at receiver, so that alone should play in the 6-foot-5 Jones’ favor.

This past spring, Long toyed with the idea of Equanimeous St. Brown, Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin as his starting receivers. Those latter two are still around. Even if Jones does not create another towering trio, he could backup either Claypool or, more likely, Boykin without creating much of a change for a quarterback’s reads.

This spring will give Jones time to learn the playbook and develop the needed consistency for that possibility. In a receiving corps proven to be inconsistent this past season, any version of reliability may be enough for Jones to break through.

Consensus three-star running back Jahmir Smith
Irish recruiting director and special teams coordinator Brian Polian raved about Smith in December. Every word Polian said may have been warranted, but it will still be difficult to crack the presumed trio of sophomore Tony Jones, junior Dexter Williams and freshman C.J. Holmes. They will take up the carries, no matter how aggressively Long splits the duties.

Kelly did note he would not hold back a running back simply because he is a freshman. If the back is ready, cut him loose. It is unlikely a productive back would stay for a fifth year, anyway. (See: Adams, Josh.) However, Jones preserved a year of eligibility in 2016 despite generous praise consistently offered his direction, so Kelly’s sentiment may deserve some healthy skepticism.

Consensus three-star linebacker Ovie Oghoufo
Oghoufo does not arrive as heralded as either Lamb or Bauer, or summer enrollee consensus four-star Shayne Simon, but he will have his chance this spring all the same. That is what happens when a spot needs a playmaker. One freshman will almost assuredly be needed for depth.

More likely, Oghoufo will use the added time to get some heft onto his frame. Albeit speedy, his slightness stands out when compared to the other linebacker recruits.

Rivals.com four-star tight end George Takacs
Notre Dame simply does not have a pressing need for a tight end. Recruiting Takacs was a forward-looking decision. He will be the fourth tight end this spring, with freshman Brock Wright presumably limited as he recovers from a shoulder injury. None of the three ahead, or Wright, are anything akin to slouches.

Unless injuries and/or suspensions run rampant, Takacs is a prime candidate for a season spent preserving eligibility.

RELATED READING: Kelly on the offensive signees
Kelly on the defensive signees