Pregame Six Pack: Air Force

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With the Irish in an early 0-2 hole this season, most Notre Dame fans assumed the Irish would right the ship. But history didn’t necessarily share that rosy outlook.  Seven Irish teams have stumbled out of the gates in their opening two games. Only two of the teams have come back to have winning seasons, with one coming in 1896 when the Irish rallied to a 4-3 record.

Yet Notre Dame’s Saturday date with 3-1 Air Force, set to kickoff at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, gives the Irish a chance to get back “on schedule” heading into the bye week. Sure, 4-2 wasn’t the start optimistic Irish fans were looking for in the six-game gauntlet the Irish had to face to open the season, but four-straight wins gives the Irish momentum heading into a much needed bye week before a certain team from Southern California comes to visit. But before any attention is turned to that October 22nd showdown, Brian Kelly‘s squad needs to take care of business for the fourth week in a row.

The match-ups looks ugly on paper. Notre Dame dominates the line of scrimmage, with its starting five of Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Braxston Cave, Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever out-weighing the Air Force defensive front by an average of sixty pounds a man. Almost just as incredibly, the Irish starting defensive line outweighs the Air Force offensive line by 35 pounds.

Of course, Air Force will never be a paper champion and the Irish have shown that being a prohibitive favorite doesn’t mean anything if you’re prone to making big mistakes. And the multiplicity of Air Force’s offense, a unit that stretches the Irish defense more than any other team on the schedule, makes Saturday afternoon’s game a riveting chess match.

But before we get to the game, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to take on Air Force at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC. (Live blogs to follow!)

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1. Air Force’s running game vs. Notre Dame’s rush defense: Something’s got to give.

Pop quiz: Of the top twenty defenses in the country against the run, there’s only one team that’s yet to play a Non-AQ or FCS opponent: Notre Dame.

That’s what makes the Irish rush defense all the more impressive. It’s also what makes the showdown between Air Force’s run game, putting up 364 yards a game and ranked 3rd in the country, so absolutely intriguing.

The catalyst for it all is senior running back Asher Clark. The All-Mountain West running back has averaged 5.7 yards a carry the last two seasons, but has taken his game to the next level this year, averaging 9.3 yards per carry this year on 41 carries.

We’ve already charted it out, but the guys at One Foot Down did some nice work off of my breakdown. Irish opponents are running for just 36.5% of their average rushing yards. If Air Force only runs for 132 yards on Saturday, expect the Irish to win pretty convincingly.

2. “Brothers don’t shake hands. Brothers gotta hug.”

Saturday afternoon will be a special one for Don and Kim Niklas. They’ll watch their son Austin, a junior linebacker for Air Force battle their son Troy, a freshman linebacker for Notre Dame. With the brothers competing against each other for one of the first times in their lives, it’s not surprising that Austin is getting tactical.

“I’ve been trying to call him, but he hasn’t been calling me back,” Troy said.

The two brothers certainly are contrasts in styles. Lightly recruited out of Orange Country powerhouse Servite High, Austin took a late recruiting visit to Air Force and committed just before signing day. Troy was the Los Angeles Times’ defensive lineman of the year, and the 6-foot-6, 250-pound athlete had his choice of schools around the country before pulling the trigger for the Irish.

While Troy certainly traveled the more heralded path to college, it’s pretty clear that he’s continued to look up to his brother, even if that’s physically impossible for a guy now four inches taller.

“Every time I see him, I remember how proud I am to be his little brother,” Niklas said. “I know he busts his butt every day. I’m really proud of him for choosing to go to the Air Force and for choosing to serve our country. Just his work ethic, how he attacks every day – it is the Air Force Academy and it’s not easy to play football and have a large course-load.”

(If you don’t know the quote, shame on you.)

3. Expect to see a change of pace quarterback get into the football game.

Brian Kelly gave a good scoop to his radio show listeners on Thursday night when answering a now weekly question about his still unused quarterbacks sophomore Andrew Hendrix and freshman Everett Golson.

“We’re going to employ a special package with somebody, but I’m not going to tell you who,” Kelly said. “It could be Everett Golson, it could be Andrew Hendrix. We’re going to let you come to the game Saturday and see for yourself.”

If the Irish do finally turn to one of their dual-threat quarterbacks, expect to see a dose of running from either Hendrix or Golson. And after spending spring, summer and fall camp with the two quarterbacks, Kelly has tailored his game plan to finally allow one of them to see the field.

“They have some outstanding skill-sets but they don’t have the whole offense down,” Kelly said. “So what we’ve decided to do is not give them the whole thing. We’ve really tried to segment out some things that they can handle because when you put them in you’ve got to be prepared for everything.”

If you’re taking odds on who the quarterback’s going to be, Kelly may have already given that answer away.

At the radio show, Kelly declined to mention what quarterback was spending time playing Tim Jefferson this week, citing the fact that the quarterback who did that spent all his time with the scout team and didn’t work with the No. 1 offense, making him unlikely to see the field. But earlier in the week, Kelly mentioned that Everett Golson was turning heads playing Jefferson against the number one defense.

Unless Kelly’s really coy, expect to get your first dose of Andrew Hendrix on Saturday.

4. The special teams needle points strongly in Air Force’s direction.

If there’s a facet of the football game where the Irish are dangerously out-matched, it’s in special teams. The Falcons third-segment might be one of the strongest in the nation and should stretch the Irish in an area where they’ve struggled to do just about anything right.

Looking for reasons to worry? Notre Dame has struggled kicking field goals and Air Force has already blocked three kicks this year. Air Force is averaging 12.5 yards per punt return and the Irish are a woeful 117th defending them. Add to that wide receiver Jonathan Warzeka already has two 100-yard kickoff returns to his name, and Kelly needs his whole coaching staff to pick up the slack.

“I think we all know on the other end which players have to play better,” Kelly said. “But we have to coach better too. This is not just on Mike Elston. He can’t run that whole group by himself. He’s got six assistant coaches that are responsible for certain aspects of it and they have to coach better, and we have to get more out of our guys.”

From a personnel standpoint, both Elston and Kelly hinted that changes are coming. The Irish will be looking to add better speed and talent to help spring a punt return and also have been looking for alternatives in their anemic punt return game.

“We’ve got a couple other people lined up along with John Goodman,” Kelly said. “There’s a good chance you’ll see a couple of different guys out there for punt return.”

5. A week after Ricardo Allen took his shot, Anthony Wright is up to challenge Michael Floyd. 

Troy Calhoun’s too smart of a coach to announce it, but expect senior cornerback Anthony Wright to follow Michael Floyd around the field this Saturday. While it didn’t work for Purdue’s Ricardo Allen, Wright feels like he’s game.

“He’s a great player,” Wright told the Colorado Springs Gazette. “But I’m a great player, too.”

At 5-foot-10, 190-pounds, Wright doesn’t profile well in his quest to cover Floyd, who presents another match-up nightmare for Air Force. But it’s hard to find anybody that can physically match-up with the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Floyd, a guy that absolutely had his way in both the passing and running game last Saturday against one of Purdue’s most talented players.

“If I’m matched up against him, I’m going to try to be the best corner in the country on Saturday, against arguably the best receiver in the country,” Wright said.

How Air Force tries to take Floyd away could be the early story of the game. When tasked with getting Floyd involved in the game plan early, Brian Kelly had Tommy Rees look early and often for Floyd, using the senior receiver in different ways and finding him on the second play of the game for a long touchdown reception.

Floyd’s not the only guy capable of catching passes for the Irish, who also have mismatches in guys like Tyler Eifert, Theo Riddick and TJ Jones. It’s just up to them to keep pace with the Irish’s all-time leading receiver.

6. The Irish’s ability to play a two-gap defense is a thing of beauty.

With Louis Nix in the middle, and defensive ends like Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson (who is a game-time decision on Saturday after taking off his walking boot), the Irish are capable of playing a true two-gap defense, something that Troy Calhoun really admired.

“What’s hard to find and see in college football in this day and age are bodies big enough against these offensive lines to stand up and play two-gap defensive football and yet they do it,” Calhoun said of the Irish defense. “I think by and large, when you look at the NFL and you look at college football, there are so few teams that truly try to play at least 30 snaps a game in two-gap defense. I think more people are inclined to line a guy up and say I have this gap, in between the guard and the tackle or the center and the guard,and I’m going to nest in there and I’m going to find a way to generate penetration, I’m not going to get cut off, I’m not going to get reach. It’s amazing what they do with the two gap scheme, not only with their defensive ends but their outside linebackers. It goes back to having talented players, and they’re briefed and they’re prepared.”

Of course, just because the Irish can play a two-gap front doesn’t mean they’ll do it against Air Force. The amount of responsibility that falls on young players like sophomores Nix and Prince Shembo and freshmen Troy Niklas, Ishaq WilliamsStephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch might make holding the point of attack while reading the offense difficult.

Kelly has already mentioned that Johnson is shifting inside on the defensive line, making you think a guy like Darius Fleming might line up opposite Lewis-Moore in a four man front. If the Irish do, they’ll need to make sure the Irish play sound option principles while keeping their defensive backs ready for the play-action passing game, something Jefferson has been incredibly efficient with.

Don’t think for one minute that the Air Force coaching staff hasn’t seen the tape of Gary Gray struggling to get his head around in single coverage. Expect a deep shot early on Gray, and it’ll be up to the senior corner who has been in good position throughout his struggles, to adapt his technique and look back for the football.

 

A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s defensive roster

Associated Press
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Following a week of moves to and from Notre Dame’s roster, most notably — certainly most positively — on the defensive side, a quick look at the numbers at each position can shine a light on the months to come. Just like last week’s brief glance at the offense, the order of this listing is not intended to stake a stance on positional competitions. (In other words, it doesn’t try to figure out the mess at safety.)

For the time being, the years listed remain those currently. There is no clean date to transition forward a grade in this space. Thus, when senior linebacker Drue Tranquill’s name shows up, it is because he will be around yet in 2018. This is intended to aid conversations and debates in-person and online as they pertain to the coming season. Looks further ahead with thoughts on eligibility concerns will be more focused at some point in the coming offseason.

One last note: In looking at the linebackers, do not be surprised if the experience gap is filled by Tranquill and rover becomes even more of a matchup-based concept. Spring practice should shed some light on that possibility.

As of this morning, the Irish roster has 84 names on it, expecting at least three more commitments by Feb. 7, if not a graduate transfer or two. As always, the NCAA allows a maximum of 85 come fall.

Defensive end (7):
So. Daelin Hayes
Sr. Jay Hayes
So. Khalid Kareem
So. Julian Okwara
So. Ade Ogundeji
Fr. Kofi Wardlow
Inc. fr. Justin Ademilola

Defensive tackle (8):
Jr. Jerry Tillery
Sr. Jonathan Bonner
Fr. Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa
Fr. Kurt Hinish
Fr. Darnell Ewell
Jr. Micah Dew-Treadway
Inc. fr. Ja’Mion Franklin
Inc. fr. Jayson Ademilola

Linebacker (8):
Jr. Te’von Coney
So. Jonathan Jones
So. Jamir Jones
Early-enrolled fr. Jack Lamb
Early-enrolled fr. Bo Bauer
Fr. Drew White
Fr. David Adams
Early-enrolled fr. Ovie Oghoufo

Rover (4):
Sr. Drue Tranquill
Jr. Asmar Bilal
Fr. Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah
Inc. fr. Shayne Simon

Cornerback (7):
So. Julian Love
Jr. Shaun Crawford
Sr. Nick Watkins
So. Troy Pride
So. Donte Vaughn
Inc. fr. Tariq Bracy
Inc. fr. Joe Wilkins, Jr.

Safety (11):
So. Alohi Gilman
Jr. Nick Coleman
Inc. fr. Derrik Allen
Early-enrolled fr. Houston Griffith
So. Jalen Elliott
So. Devin Studstill
Fr. Jordan Genmark-Heath
Fr. Isaiah Robertson
Jr. Nicco Fertitta
So. D.J. Morgan
Inc. fr. Paul Moala

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

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.