The road to 12-0: Navy

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The Irish have taken a long and winding road to Miami. The trail they’ve forged — crossing the Atlantic to open the season and playing their season finale just miles from the Pacific — gives you an idea of the literal distance this team had to travel to fight their way into college football’s finale.  Yet the emotional journey might have been far more harrowing, starting the season as a team that was left for dead, and only after nobody else was left standing, finally, almost begrudgingly, accepted as one of the nation’s elite teams.

With apologies to The Hobbit, this was an unexpected journey that every Irish fan found entrancing. As we enter a holiday week that gives each of us an opportunity to look back at 2012, we’re spending the week looking back at the games and players that made this memorable 12-0 season possible.

Let’s get started with Notre Dame’s trip to Dublin.

STATUS CHECK

For those in need of a trip down memory lane to remember August, it wasn’t exactly rainbows and lollipops for Notre Dame or its fans. Entering week one, the Irish were dealing with a number of off-the-field headaches, and quite a bit of white noise that came from the media.

Rick Reilly, the ESPN writer/personality paid like an NBA first round draft pick, had just put down the shovel after digging a grave for the Irish football program. Brian Kelly had his own minor misstep blown out of proportion, when his quote, “I’m not a big fan of playing football games in Ireland,” was turned into referendum on the Irish coach who many saw as a dictatorial kill joy. And then add in Allen Pinkett’s silly “a few bad citizens” radio interview, and you start to remember that this season started out like far too many recently.

On the field, Notre Dame was dealing with its own issues. Would the loss of Aaron Lynch doom a front-seven that was in desperate need of pass rushers? In the days leading up to the game, we broke the news that Cierre Wood wouldn’t be traveling to Dublin, leaving the Irish’s leading rusher home to watch the game with Tommy Rees, Carlo Calabrese, and Justin Utupo. If you were looking for a safety net for newly named starting quarterback Everett Golson, keep looking.

PRESSING QUESTIONS

Entering the season opener, here were a few key questions we were asking:

How ready was Everett Golson?

The debut of Golson was one of the few energizing offseason developments. The young quarterback showed flashes during the Blue-Gold game, but beating Navy was another thing.

“He’s going to make some mistakes and we know that we’re going to have to overcome those,” Kelly said of Golson back in August. “But if he’s not out of character on Saturday, I will safely say, he will do a very good job of taking care of the football. But that’s why they play the game.”

Will Bob Diaco’s untested secondary hold up?

Even with a full deck, Irish fans were concerned about the status of Notre Dame’s secondary. The loss of Austin Collinsworth to a season-ending shoulder surgery was a critical blow to the Irish’s ability to play nickel coverage. An Achilles tendon tear to Lo Wood cost the Irish their starting cornerback in preseason camp. While Irish fans felt comfortable about Bennett Jackson taking over the boundary cornerback position, freshman KeiVarae Russell, who started camp with a different number on his back and playing a different position, had a bunch of responsibility heaped on him as the team’s starting field cornerback.

Seniors Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter were two rocks that the Irish could depend on (not for long as it turned out), but this was a huge question mark heading into the Navy game, and all eyes were on Diaco, co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks and new safeties coach Bob Elliott.

What would the Irish offense look like with Chuck Martin running it?

The faith of Notre Dame fans in Chuck Martin was almost universal, a pretty bizarre occurrence for a group that’s known to be skeptical on just about everything. Yet Kelly’s unusual move of turning his safeties coach and recruiting coordinator into the offensive coordinator seemed solid from the start.

Yet Martin was given no small task. Transition to a redshirt freshman quarterback that had yet to see live game action. Replace Michael Floyd, the school’s record-setting wide receiver. Rebuild a running game with an offensive line that had a new position coach, solid talent, but little depth.

More importantly, Martin was tasked with finding a way to stop the Irish from getting in their own way, as the 2011 edition was plenty prolific, but often its own worse enemy. That objective on its own was tough enough. But doing that while breaking in a young quarterback, finding some dependable receivers, and starting the year without Cierre Wood? Well, maybe the faith in Martin was more a leap than anything.

WHAT DID WE LEARN?

Notre Dame 50, Navy 10.

The benefit of the early kickoff — a 9 a.m. EST start — meant most hard core college football fans were spending breakfast watching Notre Dame. And as the Irish went out and pummeled Navy, it sure seemed like Notre Dame was taking out a lot of their offseason frustrations on the outclassed Midshipmen.

Forget about Golson (for a minute), the Irish ground game was new and improved. Running early and often, Theo Riddick looked at home at tailback, pacing the Irish with 107 yards and two touchdowns. George Atkinson looked like the home run threat many had hoped he’d become, and his 56-yard sprint for the end zone was a dazzling display of speed. Harry Hiestand’s offensive line dominated the point of attack, and Martin and Kelly seemed happy putting Golson under center, running a throw-back offensive attack that took the pressure off a young quarterback getting his feet wet.

Golson played a solid game, completing 12 of 18 passes for 145 yards, finding Tyler Eifert for an easy red zone touchdown pass, but also forcing a ball into coverage for an interception. Yet the young quarterback looked calm, and while Andrew Hendrix saw the field, it was as a mop-up quarterback.

“We knew what we were going to get with Everett,” Kelly said after the game. “This wasn’t something where we didn’t know what was going to happen. There is always going to be some learning and he’s going to continue to learn all year. We would not have put him out there unless he had a good grasp of the offense. This was really just getting live snaps and experiencing the flow of the game. He’s going to be a much better player each and every week, today was just the start.”

Any concerns about the front seven seemed more than a little premature. Stephon Tuitt played relentlessly, and returned a fumble for 77 yards and a touchdown. Manti Te’o recovered a fumble and had an interception. And Prince Shembo played fast off the edge.

Still, no worries were allayed in the secondary. Navy quarterback Trey Miller completed 14 of 19 passes with freshman Russell getting beat over the top for a touchdown. Matthias Farley, at the time one of the true unknowns on the team, got a surprise start at outside linebacker, passing fifth-year senior Danny McCarthy with an excellent camp. While Irish fans expected the coaches to game plan a way into protecting their secondary as the season moved forward, Kelly seemed legitimately unconcerned about Navy’s ability to make plays through the air.

“I thought they did some great things,” Kelly said of his secondary. “I’m really excited about their ability to go out there and compete. The learning experience that we got today is something invaluable.”

Perhaps just as important, the easy 50-10 victory got Kelly and his staff the opportunity to get young players on the field. Seventeen players saw their first action of their Notre Dame career, many of whom would be important contributors this season.

“We all know this is going to be a long season,” Kelly said after the game. “We need all those players to play certain roles for us.”

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Stepherson, three others no longer on Notre Dame roster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, again, the Irish need safeties.

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

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

Bo Bauer (rivals.com)

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

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

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

 

Micah Jones (rivals.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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