Opposition round-up: Week Nine

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Let’s take a stroll across college football and see how Notre Dame’s opponents did last week.

NAVY — If Notre Dame fans are feeling disappointed in their opponents, don’t look at Navy. After a rough start, the Midshipmen have rallied nicely, continuing that trend with a big victory over East Carolina. Navy put up a season-high 563 yards of offense, powered by Gee Gee Green and freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who had a pretty active passing stat-line, finishing 3 of 5 for 51 yards, managing to throw two touchdowns and one interception in that. The Navy defense held ECU to just 338 yards of total offense, controlling the clock for over 35 minutes.

Trending: Upwards. Navy is 5-3 and looking like a cinch for a bowl game, a proposition that looked shaky when the Midshipmen were sitting at 1-3.

PURDUE — Oh Purdue. The wheels are falling off the Boilermakers season with their fourth straight Big Ten loss. That dark-horse status can officially be taken outside and shot, with Purdue following up their heart-breaking loss to Ohio State by completing getting run out of Minneapolis on Saturday, trailing 34-7 at halftime. Caleb TerBush was absolutely awful, and by the time Robert Marve replaced him it was too late. Purdue’s supposedly stout defense let freshman quarterback Philip Nelson throw for three touchdowns and 246 yards in the 44-28 throttling.

Trending: A huge disappointment for Purdue, who needs to hand the reins of the offense over to Marve, a QB playing with a torn ACL.

MICHIGAN STATE — It may have set football back a half-century, but the Spartans “outlasted” No. 25 Wisconsin on Saturday 16-13 in overtime, thanks to some late game heroics from Andrew Maxwell and tight end Bennie Fowler. The Spartans’ defense was terrific against the Badgers, holding them to 190 total yards and holding Heisman finalist Montee Ball to just 46 yards on 22 carries. But the Spartans offense wasn’t much better, with Maxwell needing 39 throws to pass for 216 yards and Le’Veon Bell only ran for 3.7 yards a carry. The overtime victory threw the Big Ten’s title chase into chaos, and made the conference only look worse.

Trending: Ugly or not, a big victory of Mark Dantonio’s team, who already has four losses and needs to salvage the season.

MICHIGAN — Michigan fans got a glimpse of what life will be like without Denard Robinson. Needless to say, they weren’t pleased. The Wolverines lost to Nebraska 23-9, with their offense grinding to a halt after Robinson left with an injury late in the first half. Nebraska held the Wolverines offense at bay even with Robinson in the game, but feasted on Russell Bellomy, who went 3 of 16 passing for just 38 yards with three interceptions. It was a rude awakening and appropriately raised huge questions for the future of the Michigan offense in life after Denard.

Trending: Another step backwards for Michigan, though they are still in the thick of it in the Big Ten standings, and have a chance to end Ohio State’s ineligible dream season as well.

MIAMI — The Hurricanes were off on Saturday, taking a bye week after their showdown loss to Florida State before taking on Virginia Tech.

Trending: The week off hopefully settled a Hurricanes team that began its free fall after losing 41-3 to the Irish, dropping three in a row to get to 4-4.

No. 14 STANFORD — It wasn’t pretty for Stanford, but they escaped downtrodden Washington State with a 24-17 victory. The Cardinal defense did just about everything for Stanford, racking up 10 sacks and taking an interception back for a touchdown. Stephan Taylor couldn’t get going on the ground and Josh Nunes put up meager statistics, but it was a survive and advance game for the Cardinal, who get another cupcake match-up with Colorado before facing Oregon State, Oregon, and UCLA to end the regular season.

Trending: Notre Dame’s win against Stanford looks better and better with the Cardinal keeping their lofty ranking. They’ll need to earn it in the season’s final month.

BYU — A week after losing a tight one to the Irish, the Cougars roared past George Tech with an impressive 41-17 victory. Young running back Jamaal Williams scored four touchdowns and Riley Nelson ran and passed for two more as BYU dominated on offense while its stingy defense completely shut down the Yellow Jackets. Paul Johnson’s triple-option offense had only 12 first downs and 157 yards, managing just 40 through the air.

Trending: A nice rebound victory for Bronco Mendenhall’s team, who have Saturday off before facing Idaho, San Jose State, and New Mexico State, giving them a strong chance to salvage an eight-win regular season.

PITTSBURGH — The Panthers won their first Big East game of the season in style, dominating a surprising Temple team 47-17 thanks to Ray Graham’s three touchdowns. First-year head coach Paul Chryst is starting to see some consistency out of his team, who started the year with a loss to Youngstown State, but has rebounded to win four of their last six. Tino Sunseri completed 20 of 28 passes for three touchdowns and freshman running back Rushel Shell ran for 79 yards and a touchdown as well. It wasn’t all good news for the Panthers, who lost three players to season-ending injuries.

Trending: While the injuries could gut this team, the Panthers have two very good running backs. Quarterback Tino Sunseri is also playing the best football of his career with 13 touchdown passes and only two interceptions after an up-and-down career.

BOSTON COLLEGE — Chase Rettig’s 14-yard touchdown pass with less than a minute left beat Maryland and gave the Eagles just their second victory of the season. The Terps were down to their fourth-string quarterback on Saturday (who was also injured and lost for the season), but the Eagles were able to win with just 295 yards of offense, and only eight yards of rushing.

Trending: There was nowhere to go but up for Boston College, and the Eagles got a much needed victory against the injury-depleted Terps.

WAKE FOREST — The Demon Deacons got beaten badly by Clemson on Saturday 42-13, with Tajh Boyd throwing for five touchdowns and Sammy Watkins catching eight balls for 202 yards, as the Tigers racked up over 500 yards of offense. Tanner Price completed 27 of 44 passes for two touchdowns and Josh Harris ran for 76 yards on just ten carries but Wake Forest just couldn’t survive the Clemson onslaught, when the Tigers scored four touchdowns in the second quarter.

Trending: This doesn’t appear to be a very good Wake Forest defense, limiting just about any chance the Deacs have to be a good team. (Their offense isn’t too good either, ranking 92nd in passing and 112th in rushing yards.)

No. 17 USC — The Trojans were upset on Saturday by Rich Rodriguez’s Arizona squad, spoiling wide receiver Marqise Lee’s record-setting afternoon. USC had five turnovers and gave up 588 yards of offense, losing a 28-13 third quarter lead as the Wildcats scored 26 straight points before holding on for the victory. Matt Barkley threw for 493 yards in the losing effort as Lee has a ridiculous 16 catches for 345 yards. Lee had 12 catches for 255 yards in the first half alone.

Trending: We’re learning that the principles of football apply to the Trojans as well, with 13 penalties and five turnovers dooming USC and ending their dreams of a national title. They are set to face Oregon this Saturday in another huge test.

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.

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