Five things we learned: Notre Dame 38, Purdue 10

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It took roughly 30 seconds to realize that this Saturday might be slightly different for the Irish.

Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush locked onto a crossing route on the game’s first play from scrimmage. He failed to see Gary Gray (let alone Harrison Smith) who locked onto TerBush’s ill-fated throw. Gray stepped in front of the pass around midfield and returned it to the Purdue 35, and just like that the Irish defense was off to a start even Brian Kelly couldn’t have scripted.

From there, it was Tommy Rees‘ turn. Rees dropped back to pass on his second snap of the night, looking to both silence his doubters and find Michael Floyd, running deep on a post route, answering any question Purdue might have had about Ricardo Allen‘s chances to cover the Irish’s best offensive player one-on-one.

Three plays, two big ones. Seven points for the Irish.

The Fighting Irish many people expected in 2011 finally showed up to play, cruising to a convincing 38-10 victory over Purdue on Saturday night. In doing so, they crossed off a laundry list of items that coaches, players, and fans have been waiting to see.

“We got off to a good start obviously on the road against a Big Ten team, which was a key for us,” Kelly said after the game. “Getting Mike Floyd the ball early on really gave us a lot of confidence offensively. Defensively it’s been very similar week after week: making it difficult for teams to run the football.”

Powered by Cierre Wood‘s best game in an Irish uniform, Floyd’s dominating performance, and a defensive attack that held the nation’s No. 11 rushing attack to just 84 yards on 27 carries, the Irish improved to 3-2 on the season, heading into a tricky home date with Air Force before a much needed bye week.

Here’s what we learned:

The Irish threw for show, but ran for dough.

So maybe I’m misappropriating an old golfing axiom, but Rees’ best night of the season wasn’t the story of the game. It was the absolutely dominating performances by Wood and Jonas Gray, each of whom had their best games in an Irish uniform.

“Our running game set up everything that we did today,” Kelly said. “When you can run the game effectively you can be a good play-caller.”

Wood put on a show Saturday night, torching Purdue from the get go, and averaging about 10 yards a touch from scrimmage, an absolutely dominant stat line that was accentuated by a thrilling 55-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Wood looked electric in the open field, ran tough between the tackles, and continued his maturation into a complete running back — having the Irish’s biggest rushing game from scrimmage since Julius Jones ran for 218 yards against Stanford in 2003.

Wood has run for 584 yards on the season, averaging over 5.5 yards a carry. Many Irish fans suspected Wood was ready for a breakout season. What they didn’t see was his back-up statistically out-performing him.

Gray ran for 94 yards and a touchdown tonight, averaging over six yards a carry against Purdue. (If you saw this season coming after Gray coughed the ball up on the season’s opening drive against South Florida, you’re lying.) Gray has looked powerful on short yardage runs, confident in space, and continues to demand a bigger role in the offense. After getting only three carries against Pitt, Gray totted the ball 15 times against Purdue, averaging 6.3 yards per carry on the night. Gray’s season statistics are even gaudier than Wood’s, with Jonas running for 326 yards so far this year, and doing it at over 8.1 yards per carry.

If the Irish have aspirations to have a high-powered offense, they’ll need to continue to run the ball with impunity, opening up a play-action passing game and more vertical threats. If Kelly’s attack is known for its flashy aerial numbers, tonight reminded everyone that the engine that drives the Irish offense should be the ground attack.

2. Another vaunted running attack, another impressive outing by the Irish defense.

We mentioned the Irish’s ability to shut down opponent’s running attack on Friday. Well, it’s time to update the chart:

USF                                             Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               126.0                                                       262.7
Average Per Rush                      3.0                                                           6.1

Michigan                                    Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               114.0                                                       348.0
Average Per Rush                      4.4                                                           7.3

Michigan State                          Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               29.0                                                        181.3
Average Per Rush                      1.3                                                           4.1

Pittsburgh                                   Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               103.0                                                       192.6
Average Per Rush                      2.7                                                           4.4

Purdue                                        Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               84.0                                                       258.7
Average Per Rush                      3.1                                                           5.6

The Irish shut down Purdue’s running attack, limiting Ralph Bolden to just 17 yards and forcing TerBush and Robert Marve to throw the football, something they struggled to do successfully. In fact, Purdue’s 84 rushing yards actually look much better than the Boilermakers actually played, with 40 yards on six carries coming in Purdue’s final drive against Irish reserves. Count that series out and Purdue is looking at an even more anemic 2.09 yards per carry.

3. After some up and down performances, Tommy Rees took a step in the right direction.

We all know that a great running attack is a passing game’s best complement. But Rees also showed how important it was for the Irish to take shots down the field, with the Irish offense adding another vertical element to its attack as Rees threw for 254 yards, three touchdowns, and better yet — no interceptions.

From the game’s opening drive, you saw the Irish stretch Purdue’s defense vertically, with Floyd’s deep post pattern for a touchdown a sign of things to come. Rees didn’t have his most accurate game throwing down field — for the first time this year, he actually over-threw his wide receivers — but the deep throws opened up the underneath routes, where Rees did plenty of damage.

More importantly for the Irish, Rees also showed some progress in his decision making. Rees spread the ball around, throwing touchdown passes to Floyd, Tyler Eifert and TJ Jones, while looking more comfortable in his progressions.

“I saw some really good things. The last touchdown that he threw, where he started his progression with Mike Floyd on an individual route and worked his way back to his fourth receiver, I told him coming off, those are the signs that I’m looking for.”

As the offensive stats show, Rees seemed to do a good job putting the Irish in the right run/pass call, and for the first time this season, the Irish didn’t turn the football over. Rees still wasn’t perfect, and he got away with a few ball throws. While the Irish left some points on the field in the first half, the sophomore quarterback moved the Irish to 551 yards and 34 first downs, easily their best performance of the Kelly era.

Not cashing in on those opportunities in some of the games coming up on the schedule could spell disaster for the Irish. But credit Rees for taking a big step forward with this offense.

4. It’s time for the special teams to pick their game up.

With John Goodman returning punts, it appears Kelly and special teams coach Mike Elston are conceding a return game instead of risking another muffed return. But the Irish absolutely need to improve the other facets of their special teams play, which were once again shoddy.

David Ruffer missed two more field goals tonight, with one being blocked in the first half. While Ruffer’s struggling, his holder and snapper aren’t doing him any favors, with long-snapper Jordan Cowart again playing poorly. Cowart has struggled snapping on both punts and field goals, and was replaced by Braxston Cave late in the game on Ruffer’s lone make of the evening. Cowart also found himself deeper inside Kelly’s doghouse after drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

“He’s got to have his poise and composure,” Kelly said walking off the field at halftime to Holly Rowe. Then he got off one of his best zingers of the year. “He’s got to walk away. He’s a long snapper!”

One-liners aside, the Irish’s special teams has taken a step back this season, even taking into account George Atkinson‘s touchdown return two weeks ago. With Air Force, a bye week, then Southern Cal, expect the Irish to put a few wrinkles into their special teams game. More importantly, expect an added emphasis put on discipline and assignments, two things that go along way in the game’s third phase.

5. Keep a close eye on the Irish’s defensive ends this week.

The Irish quickly found themselves short-handed at defensive end this week. With freshman Stephon Tuitt kept home from Purdue for a class-attendance team policy violation, the Irish found themselves in a sticky spot when senior defensive end Ethan Johnson hobbled off the field in the first half. Down to Kapron Lewis-Moore and Aaron Lynch as regular contributors, Kelly called on Hafis Williams and Kona Schwenke to play some important minutes.

“They needed to come through. We were a little short-handed, so consequently we needed Kona to come in and play for us and he did a good job.”

Johnson’s ankle injury and Tuitt’s one-game suspension forced a plan B on Kelly, who had hinted previously that he was toying with the idea of saving a year of Schwenke’s eligibility by not playing him at all this year if things went well. But Schwenke was forced into the fold with Williams, with Hafis chipping in a tackle-for-loss and two tackles in limited time.

Aaron Lynch got another sack for the Irish, but seemed to tire with the added reps on the field. With Johnson in a walking boot on the sidelines and day-to-day this week, getting stout defensive line play on the edges of this defense will be more important than ever with Air Force’s option attack stressing the fundamentals of the Irish defense.

The Irish were lucky that Lewis-Moore and Johnson survived last season, when there was little depth behind the two starters. Johnson’s injury and Tuitt’s suspension thinned out a position that had just finally developed consistent depth, and Williams, Schwenke, Lynch and Lewis-Moore picked up the slack. But if the Irish want to continue dominating at the point of attack, they’ll need their full allotment of assets.

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

Associated Press
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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

Notre Dame’s 2018 defense bolstered with Coney & Tillery returns

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Notre Dame’s defense found some stability last week with the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston to associate head coach following Mike Elko’s abrupt departure, but only some stability.

That foundation is much more solid now after the Irish announced the returns of both junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery on Monday.

Both Coney and Tillery enjoyed noticeable developmental progress in one year under Elko.  Coney totaled a whopping 116 tackles to lead Notre Dame, far and away his best season. Among those takedowns, he managed 13 for loss, including three sacks. Tillery, meanwhile, led the Irish with 4.5 sacks this season, adding another 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Notre Dame’s defensive tackle situation may have bordered on dire if not for the return of junior Jerry Tillery. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With Lea and Elston sticking around, Coney and Tillery are well-positioned for even further growth. If nothing else, they will step into starring roles in a rather complete front seven.

Notre Dame loses senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, as well as senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner and senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. If Coney and Tillery had joined that group, the front seven would have been rife with unproven commodities and little depth. Instead, Coney will fill in at linebacker, meaning only one youngster will need to step forward, and Tillery will headline a defensive line surging under Elston.

After amassing 17 tackles in the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, Coney insisted he had not yet put much consideration into his future.

“I’m just right now still focused on the win,” he said. “We just got this 10th win. I’m just trying to soak up the moment. This is a great moment. … Focusing on that and the win and enjoying it with my brothers.”

Those words combined with Elko’s sudden departure for Texas A&M made Coney’s return seem unlikely. His breakout season at least placed him into NFL draft conversations and capitalizing on that chance would have made a good amount of logical sense.

With Lea in his ear for another season, Coney will have a chance to become more than a physical player excelling in run defense and develop his coverage skills. Coney and senior Drue Tranquill will lead an otherwise lacking linebacker corps.

Sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) made 10 and four tackles, respectively, this year. Jonathan saw more playing time on defense, occasionally spelling senior Nyles Morgan, but has not yet looked the part of an every-down contributor. Irish coach Brian Kelly has previously admitted to considering a move to defensive line for Jamir, but that unit’s progression made that position shift less of a necessity.

If any of the incoming four linebackers or the two current freshmen, David Adams or Drew White, were to emerge, however, such a move may become an available luxury. Only Tillery’s return makes it a genuine luxury, though.

Tillery’s 56 tackles this year showed a level of consistency not seen in his first two seasons. His length alone makes Tillery an intriguing draft prospect. Logically speaking, a second season of such production, if not even increased output, should further his professional hopes. By returning along with Elston, the player/coach combination will provide experience to a position group otherwise devoid of it. With Bonner having said he will not return, Tillery and current freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are the only returning defensive tackles of contributory note.

Freshman Darnell Ewell will also certainly enter the rotation after spending 2017 preserving a year of eligibility. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will be in the mix, as well. Incoming freshmen consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademiloloa (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) and consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin (North Caroline High School; Ridgely, Md.) will complete the fray.

Reports on Monday indicate junior Elijah Taylor will leave Notre Dame after missing 2017 with a LisFranc fracture suffered in spring practice. He appeared in four games in 2016, making four tackles including one for loss. More than anything else, his departure is a step toward reaching the NCAA maximum of 85 rostered players. With Coney and Tillery returning but Taylor departing, the Irish roster currently stands at 86 players, though a few more recruits may be added. (This does not count sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, indefinitely suspended and presumed not likely to play for Notre Dame in 2018.)

Monday’s Leftovers: Coney & Tillery once enrolled early at Notre Dame, now to the NFL or not?

Associated Press
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Today marks two occasions. It is the day before Notre Dame begins its spring semester. In other words, it is the day before this year’s seven early enrollees begin classes. It is also the deadline for early entrants to file for the NFL draft.

There are two common threads to the separate events. Junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery both enrolled early in 2015, and they have both delayed their stay-or-go decisions to today.

With the early signing period’s implementation, the former date holds less import. These players have already signed with the Irish. Gone are the days of putting down a drink and racing to a computer after finding a source to confirm a consensus five-star quarterback’s early arrival. With an early signing period, Gunner Kiel likely would have been bound to at least begin his career at LSU in the spring of 2012, rather than show up on Notre Dame’s campus at the 11th hour.

The tangible value of arriving early can still hold legitimacy, but that theoretical does not become much of a reality until spring practice commences, anyway.

Junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) will need to decide today if he will head to the NFL Draft or return for his senior year. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

So an early enrollee summary can wait until tomorrow’s first day of classes. In the meantime, breathes remain baited waiting for the decisions from Coney and Tillery. Will they return for a year under first-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea, or follow the lead of running back Josh Adams and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and head for the NFL?

As has been discussed and seems rather obvious, both Coney and Tillery would greatly boost the 2018 Irish defense. They would also both likely hear their names called in the NFL draft, so there is merit to whatever option each chooses.

— As it pertains to the early enrollees, the measureable benefit of the semester’s head start can be debated. In looking at the last three classes, it has appeared to have great effect with a few of the freshmen, but not for most.

2015: Tillery, Coney, defensive lineman Micah Dew-Treadway, offensive lineman Tristen Hoge.
2016: Safety Devin Studstill, receiver Kevin Stepherson, defensive end Daelin Hayes, defensive end Khalid Kareem, safety Spencer Perry.
2017: Offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, tight end Brock Wright, running back C.J. Holmes, safety Isaiah Robertson, offensive lineman Aaron Banks.

Of those 14, Tillery, Studstill, Stepherson and Hainsey offered genuine contributions in their debut seasons.

Tillery started three games in 2015, appearing in all 12, making 12 tackles with one sack. More than the counting statistics, the depth Tillery provided at defensive tackle was an absolute necessity.

As injuries and suspensions purged the Irish secondary just before the 2016 season’s start, Studstill was forced into a starting role. He finished the year with 38 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. He was not yet ready to be a collegiate starting safety, but he was needed to be, and the time spent going through the paces in the spring provided Studstill enough of a base to be somewhat serviceable from the outset.

Stepherson broke out as a deep threat right away — a likelihood with or without an early enrollment simply due to his speed. In his only complete season with the Irish, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Hainsey’s impact was far and away the most distinct. He went from the second most-heralded early-enrolled offensive lineman to a starter at right tackle. That surge puts Hainsey in pole position to start at left tackle in 2018. He may have ended up there, anyway, but the freshman first played a pivotal role on the best offensive line in the country.

— It would not be a site dedicated to football if it did not include some mention of the Minnesota Vikings’ victory Sunday evening. Some adjective should precede victory in the previous sentence, but no quick combination encapsulates just how absurd, dramatic and, per the quickly-adhered catchphrase, miraculous the conclusion was.

Stefon Diggs’ game-winning touchdown may not have been as excellent as Irish receiver Miles Boykin’s was in the Citrus Bowl if compared in a vacuum, but Diggs’ score came with no time remaining on the clock, while Boykin’s was merely an excellent play that if failed, other chances would have followed.

Of course, being the Vikings, the Notre Dame connection is thorough.

— A thought experiment sparked by that Minneapolis tangent … The Minnesota Timberwolves played their first game in franchise history Nov. 3, 1989, meaning it has endured a title drought the exact same length as the Irish have.

Which wins its respective championship first?