Crist vs. Rees: Breaking down Tommy’s throws

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Brian Kelly named Tommy Rees the starting quarterback for Saturday against Michigan. It was a decision that made plenty of sense from a production point of view — Rees went 24 of 34 for 296 yards in the second half, when everyone in the stadium knew Rees would be passing to catch up, in conditions hardly optimal.

After looking at every throw a few dozen times, not every decision Rees made was the right one, but the sophomore was able to turn the Irish offense into a high octane attack against a good defense, something the Irish haven’t seen in the Brian Kelly era.

“Our hopes are Tommy is productive and can play at a high level week in and week out,” Kelly said Tuesday. “He’s got a pretty good resume, 4-0 as a starter, and he’s come off the bench twice and has played well under those circumstance.”

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the throws Rees made to impress the coaching staff — all 34 of them:

TOMMY REES’ PASSING PLAYS

Throw 1: 1st and 10 at USF 49

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 7 yards.

A high percentage play. With the corners off and Floyd by himself on the short-side of the field, Rees throws a quick hitch for a nice gain. Nice play call to get Rees warmed up and an easy completion.

Throw 2: 1st and 10 at USF 34

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 4 yards.

Another high percentage throw, but potentially a missed opportunity for Rees, who had Theo Riddick flashing open from the slot on the field side. With five wide, the Irish might have caught USF in a missed coverage and Rees didn’t see Riddick. Again, a nice throw and modest completion to Floyd, but I’m sure in the film room the coaching staff will let Tommy know he missed an open read.

Throw 3: 2nd and 6 at USF 30

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 5 yards.

All three receivers on the field side ran slants, and Rees chose TJ Jones on the outside to go to. The ball sailed high on him a bit, but Jones went up and made a very nice catch. Nothing wrong with the read, but Rees’ accuracy wasn’t all that great. Still, three throws and three completions, all done at a pace faster than the Irish moved with Crist in the first half.

Throw 4: 1st and 10 at USF 20

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 15 yards.

With trips to Rees right, he hits Floyd, the inside receiver with a quick bubble screen. Sprung by a nice block by Theo Riddick, Floyd accelerates around the corner for a big gainer, taking the Irish to the USF five yard line.

Throw 5: 1st and Goal at USF 5

Rees pass intended for TJ Jones intercepted by Michael Lanaris, returned for no gain.

A tough play for a number of reasons. Obviously, Jones never gets his head around to look for the ball, a huge no-no. (As Brian Kelly’s reaction made evident.) With Floyd and Eifert split tight to the right and Riddick and Jones split tight to the left, Riddick pulled the defensive backs on the far side of the field to the corner of the end zone, while Eifert occupied the end zone on the right side.

In what was essentially a two man route, Rees jumped his first option, Jones, throwing to him on the crossing route before he was able to get his head around to the ball. Jones had a step on his defender, but was never looking for the ball, which caromed from Jones’ helmet into the arms of Lanaris, keeping the Irish out of the end zone.

If you watch the replay enough times, you’ll certainly see how well constructed the play is, with Floyd clearing behind Jones and breaking wide open just after the ball is out of Rees’ hands. Just a horrible outcome that probably won’t ever happen again, but did so at the absolute worst time for the Irish.

Throw 6: 1st and 10 at ND 34

Rees pass incomplete to Theo Riddick

A well-designed screen set up for Riddick, but Taylor Dever struggles to keep his man out of Rees’ face, and the defensive end knocks the pass down. Looked like there was some room to operate if the pass were completed.

Throw 7: 2nd and 10 at ND 34

Rees pass incomplete to Michael Floyd

Another throw where Rees might have locked on Floyd too early. He sailed the throw out of bounds, a miscommunication with Floyd, who pulled up with the defensive back in man coverage. Again, it’s hard to say without knowing the play call, but Riddick seemed to be open on a skinny post from the opposite slot.

Throw 8: 3rd and 10 at ND 34

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 37 yards

A really impressive throw into a tight window. With Eifert detached on the right side of the line, Rees has a narrow window to fit the throw in, and he does it. Eifert splits two linebackers and breaks into the secondary for a really big gain. If you’re looking for a throw that Brian Kelly would term “decisive,” this is one of them.

Throw 9: 1st and 10 at USF 29

Rees pass complete to Cierre Wood for 5 yards.

Tommy does a good job buying time in the pocket, and with nobody open downfield, Rees dumps the ball off to a crossing Cierre Wood, who needs to break just one tackle before he’s into the secondary for a potentially big play. A good example of Rees’ subtle mobility, and nice work to make something out of nothing, putting the Irish in a second and short instead of a 2nd and long.

Throw 10: 2nd and 5 at USF 24

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 24 yards for a TOUCHDOWN.

Perfect throw. With Rees seeing Floyd in one-on-one coverage, he hits No. 3 in stride with a perfect strike and let’s Floyd do the rest. Presnap, USF made the decision easy for Rees, with the corner up in man coverage on Floyd and the safety creeping up before the play. NBC announcer Mike Mayock makes a nice observation about Floyd’s spot on the field, staying on the short side and forcing USF to decide whether they want to play him one-on-one or roll a safety to the shorter side of the field, leaving the rest of the field unprotected.

The Bulls coaching staff left Floyd alone, and Notre Dame made them pay.

Throw 11: 1st and 10 at ND 33

Rees pass complete to Theo Riddick for 27 yards.

Another perfect throw. Great route by Riddick, who puts a stutter move on the linebacker before getting over the top of him vertically, and Rees puts the ball in the hole before the safeties converge. This throw was open multiple times for Riddick, and he had a few big drops on it. Don’t be surprised if the Irish continue to try and take advantage of this pattern against the Wolverines. Again, another decisive decision and a big league throw by Rees.

Throw 12: 2nd and 4 at USF 34

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 15 yards.

The same play that went for five yards to Jones early goes to Floyd, who makes a defender miss and turns it into a big gainer. As the outside receiver in the three wide to the left formation, Floyd makes a good play on a ball delivered accurately by Rees, another difference between the shorter completion to Jones.

Throw 13: 2nd and 5 at USF 14

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 1 yard.

A slip screen that didn’t quite work, Rees gets the ball quickly to Jones, but both Chris Watt and Braxston Cave miss their blocks on the screen pass. Jones is tackled for a short gain instead of breaking free for a potentially big gainer.

Throw 14: 3rd and 4 at USF 13

Rees pass incomplete to Cierre Wood.

Well defended by the Bulls. Neither Floyd nor Eifert came open after their shallow crossing routes and Theo Riddick was well covered on the deep cross. Rees essentially throws the ball away over Cierre Wood’s head, settling for what looked like an automatic chip shot for kicked David Ruffer.

Getting nothing out of this drive was a huge blow for the Irish.

Throw 15: 1st and 10 at ND 24

Rees pass incomplete to Theo Riddick

A critical drop by Riddick, who could’ve easily had a 20 yard gain if he’d have held on to the perfectly thrown ball by Rees on the deep crossing pattern. It was a tough evening for Riddick, who came up looking for someone to blame, but ultimately knew that drop was on him.

Throw 16: 2nd and 10 at ND 24

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 6 yards.

A quick hitch to Floyd that Rees hit on time. An important throw to get out of 3rd and long. The cornerback started off, then crept up on Floyd only to push back off presnap. An easy completion against a defensive back that’s protecting against the deep ball as well.

Throw 17: 3rd and 4 at ND 30

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 5 yards.

With Robby Toma in the slot for Riddick, TJ Jones runs a slant on the top side of the field that was open, but Rees takes Floyd on the short hitch, who spins for the first down. A five yard play when you need four. Can’t fault him for that decision, to a receiver who was probably his primary option.

Throw 18: 1st and 10 at ND 35

Rees pass incomplete to TJ Jones

If you’re looking for the difference between Rees and Dayne Crist, you might have your answer here. On a designed roll out, Rees doesn’t get enough on the deep smash route to Jones and the ball skips short. A long throw, but one Rees should have hit. Also — the same throw that Crist waited on and then went to Eifert on the square out, who was covered by then.

Almost a perfect example of the two quarterbacks on Saturday. With Rees, if he misses it’s because of a physical problem. With Crist, it was because he took too long to identify the read, and the defense had time to get back into position.

Throw 19: 1st and 10 at ND 39

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 22 yards.

A nice throw over the corner and in front of the safety and an even better catch by Floyd. A big-league deep ball by Rees, who sees Floyd beat the corner and then get wide enough to find a hole in the two-deep zone. Another throw that if not made early is a really dangerous decision.

Throw 20: 1st and 10 at USF 39

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 7 yards.

With Riddick running off the safety, TJ Jones wide running a curl, Eifert is open at seven yards, and Rees delivers the ball for an easy completion.

Throw 21: 2nd and 3 at USF 32

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 11 yards.

On the wide side of the field, Floyd’s got a linebacker trying to bump him. He gets inside of him anyway, and runs a slant into the middle of the field for 11 more yards.

Throw 22: 1st and 10 at USF 21

Rees pass incomplete to Michael Floyd.

Looked like a max protect route, with the tight end staying in. Rees was going to take his shot to Floyd and when it looked like he was covered, he may or may not have thrown that ball semi-away. A play that felt a lot like a Jimmy Clausen-Charlie Weis play call, a “go out and get it” throw to Floyd.

Throw 23: 1st and 10 at USF 21

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 15 yards.

A similar route combination to some others we’ve seen, only this time Rees wasn’t on the roll out. Jones was open early and open late, and Rees worked his way to Jones, who turned a small gain into a nice one.

Throw 24: 1st and Goal at USF 6.

Rees pass complete to Theo Riddick for 5 yards.

A nice route, a nice throw and a really nice tackle by the USF safety, with LeJiste really laying the wood. Sets up second and goal from inside the one yard line, where Cierre Wood eventually jams it home.

Throw 24a: Two-point conversion attempt

Rees pass incomplete to Michael Floyd.

With Floyd matched up one-on-one on the short side of the field, Rees went to Floyd on the jump ball – fade route, but threw the ball too wide, forcing Floyd out of bounds on a throw he couldn’t hold onto either. It’s a zero-margin for error route, and probably a play-call that’s a little risky after they had moved the ball half the distance to the goal line. Any chance of the Irish winning was cut in half with Notre Dame not converting there, and I’m sure Kelly would want that play call over again, especially after he had to burn a timeout when Rees didn’t get the play off in time before the penalty.

Throw 25: 2nd and 6 at ND 13

Rees pass intercepted by Jerrell Young at ND 30. (Intended for Michael Floyd)

A bad decision by Rees, who might have had a tough throw available with Tyler Eifert on the wheel route on the outside. With Rees flushed from the pocket, that probably eliminated that option, but Tommy would’ve been wise to take the check down to Cierre Wood, but instead tried to fit a ball into double coverage while on the run.

The decision reminds me of one of Charlie Weis’ old rules: never throw the ball on the run across your body. You can’t call this throw the nail in the coffin, but it was another one of those plays that made the comeback even harder to pull off, especially deflating that it came right after a long rain delay.

Throw 26: 2nd and 13 at ND 2

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 23 yards.

With Floyd bracketed on the top side of the field, Rees fits another ball in-between the corner and the safety, with TJ Jones holding on with an amazing catch and taking another big hit. At this point, Rees needed to take any shot he could, and credit Jones for making a really nice catch and taking a big-time hit.

Throw 27: 1st and 10 at ND 25

Rees pass incomplete to Tyler Eifert

With not much there on any of his options, Rees tries to squeeze a throw in short to Eifert, but the ball is knocked away. A good incompletion, with the clock stopping instead of continuing to run on a five yard gain.

Throw 28: 2nd and 10 at ND 25

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 1 yard.

Jones was again slow to get his head around on this crossing route, but to Rees’ credit, he waits until Jones makes eye contact and dumps the ball off to him. From there, Jones was good to get out of bounds.

Throw 29: 3rd and 9 at ND 26

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 12 yards.

Great job by Rees buying time in the pocket, and nice job by Eifert, sinking into a hole in the zone defense. He’s able to make his way across the first down marker and pick up a first down likely conceded by the Bulls soft cover defense.

Throw 30: 1st and 10 at ND 38

Rees pass complete to Cierre Wood for 8 yards.

With coverage solid down the seams, Rees waits for Wood to come open from the backfield and hits him underneath for another small gain that stops the clock.

Throw 31: 2nd and 2 at USF 36

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 18 yards.

Another rifle shot by Rees, putting this ball in a perfect place — just about the linebacker and just beneath the over-the-top safety. With the Bulls in a deep zone, this is a tough throw, but Rees takes the chance and puts the ball on the mark.

Throw 32: 1st and 10 at USF 36

Rees pass incomplete to Theo Riddick.

A ball that Riddick absolutely needs to catch. Theo was bursting up the seam and Tommy puts it on him perfectly. The Irish hope they get those kind of shots this Saturday, as they’re confident that Riddick will make more of those plays than he misses.

Throw 33: 2nd and 5 at USF 31

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 15 yards. (Roughing the passer accepted.)

With the Bulls in deep cover, Rees takes advantage of the match-up Eifert has on the linebacker and waits for the deep in route to develop. Tommy takes a big hit late, adding another 15 yards to the gain. An impressive throw staying in the pocket showing patience as the linebacker vacates the middle of the field.

Throw 34: 1st and Goal at USF 8

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 8 yards for a TOUCHDOWN.

We’ve seen this play before. Three wide, two inside guys run slants clearing the middle and Rees puts a perfect throw on Floyd. A tough play to defend when you’ve got a 6-3, 225-pound All-American like Floyd on the edge.

ADDITIONAL ANALYSIS

Here’s Rees’ receiver by receiver numbers:

Michael Floyd: 10 of 13 for 117 yards 2 TDs, 1 INT
TJ Jones: 5 of 7 for 45 yards, 1 INT
Theo Riddick: 2 of 5 for 32 yards
Tyler Eifert: 5 of 6 for 89 yards
Cierre Wood: 2 of 3 for 13 yards

Here’s a breakdown of where Rees went with the ball, a distribution chart that I don’t think many Irish fans will have a problem with.

Floyd targets: 38%
Jones targets: 20%
Riddick targets: 15%
Eifert targets: 18%
Wood targets: 9%

Even if Rees forced the ball to Floyd, as you can tell by the numbers, there really isn’t anything wrong with that. With a guy like Floyd, even against a secondary that has good talent and depth, he made them pay in a variety of ways, part of what makes No. 3 such a diverse weapon.

Rees also averaged 8.7 yards a throw, 2.5 yards per throw better than Crist. Rees’ half of football has him 30th in yards-per-throw, while Crist’s half has him at 65th. Even more telling, Rees’ numbers, even including the two interceptions, has him 37th in the country in QB rating. Crist’s first half numbers have him ranked 100th.

With the Irish offense having to work almost exclusively through the air as they played catch-up, the Irish have a chance to use their robust rushing attack — Cierre Wood went for over 100 yards on five yards a carry — against a Michigan defense that was the fifth worst team against the run in the country, giving up a gaudy 7.3 yards a carry to Western Michigan.

Again, you can argue that Brian Kelly gave Crist the hook too early. But after seeing the way the Irish responded to the change at quarterback, Kelly knew he needed to get the offense playing at a level that’d help support a defense ready to face a stiffer challenge with Denard Robinson ready for Saturday.

With a season on the brink and no margin for error, Kelly had the confidence to make a bold change. We’ll see if that switch was a mistake this weekend. If you look at the tape and the numbers, it sure doesn’t look like one.

 

 

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. That count had already presumed Stepherson off the roster. Thus, this development drops that number to 84, including committed consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones. 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.

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