Five things we learned: Defense 54, Offense 43

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What a difference a year makes.

Just think: Twelve months ago, the Irish were in the middle of a four-man open race for the starting quarterback job. The coaching staff was rebuilt and reshuffled, all with the hopes of fixing an offense that needed to replace its best player. Coming off two 8-5 seasons, the sky felt like it just might actually be falling, with star freshman Aaron Lynch’s departure in the middle of spring feeling like an early sign that the Brian Kelly era was doomed to end just like those of Davie, Willingham and Weis.

Nothing an undefeated regular season and a date in the BCS National Championship game couldn’t fix.

On a frigid Saturday afternoon in South Bend, it really didn’t matter that the defense defeated the offense 54-43. It was just another day at the office for the Irish, with the glorified scrimmage a celebration of the hard work that’s gone into creating the foundation for the 2013 squad.

Let’s take a look at the five things we learned during the Blue’s 54-43 victory over the White.

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1. They are who we thought they were.

For the most part, the Blue-Gold game was absent of any real subplot. The Irish know who their quarterback is. They’ve got an idea of their depth chart at running back, wide receiver, tight end, and on the offensive line.

On the defensive side of the ball, this game provided another look at the growing depth in the front seven. It showed the work that still needs to be done in the secondary. But to credit Denny Green, the Irish are who we thought they were.

That might be a very good team, though it’s a squad with some work to be done.

The Irish offensive line struggled to get a push against the starting defense, no doubt hampered by the absence of Chris Watt, who was held out of action for precautionary reasons after a minor neck injury flared up during pregame. Everett Golson wasn’t as sharp as many hoped, with the red jersey almost an open invite to revert back to the sandlot quarterback Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin have been eliminating.

But nothing done today — and likely on purpose — showed opponents anything the Irish coaching staff didn’t want to show. And just as important, it didn’t give anybody any reason to think this upcoming season will be one with anything but sky-high expectations.

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2. While he might not have shown it today, Everett Golson took a great step forward this spring.

Everett Golson’s fairly average numbers didn’t tell the story of the rising junior’s spring. A year after surviving during a surprising 12-1 season, Golson spent the winter and spring moving into a leadership position, a role we saw him play not just today, but throughout the spring’s fourteen other official practices.

While Golson put up only modest numbers, 6 of 13 for 98 yards with an interception in the red zone, he talked after the game with NBC’s Alex Flanagan about something far more important — his improved confidence.

“It’s different,” Golson admitted to Flanagan on the field after the game. “But along with that comes responsibility. One of the things I’m trying to do this year is lead this team.”

That’s a quarterback that’s come a long way from last season. Golson was a young kid that openly admitted to being embarrassed after getting yanked against Michigan after a horrendous start. He’s also far from the kid who got benched for the first series against Miami for showing up late for a pregame meeting in Chicago.

After graduating stars like Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert, the best player on the offense is now its starting quarterback. This spring showed that Golson understands the responsibility on his shoulders.

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3. If there’s an area of concern heading into the fall, it’s that the special teams are still very much a work-in-progress.

Brian Kelly said a large emphasis was put on improving the special teams this spring. It didn’t show on Saturday afternoon. While none of the coverage units were live during the scrimmage, a few of the major questions Irish fans had about the special teams were only magnified after watching the Blue-Gold game.

Kyle Brindza struggled as the team’s starting punter. (Walk-on Jude Rhodes was even worse.) Fifth-year senior Nick Tausch missed his first field goal attempt, before making three chip shots. And the open audition for punt returner looked more like a game of Hot Potato, with a slew of other candidates not looking like they wanted anything to do with catching the ball.

“I’d like to leave the spring feeling a little bit better about it, but we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Kelly admitted after the game.

Taking too much from the performance of the special teams units in 39 degree weather during non-contact situations isn’t wise. But Brindza’s inability to average more than 30 yards a punt is worrisome.

Kelly has pledged to use his best players on special teams come the fall, after seeing how Alabama dominated the third segment of the game with starters on all units. We’ll see if that happens come fall camp, when the Irish will have a full allotment of players on hand.

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4. We certainly didn’t learn this today, but Louis Nix is wonderful.

In a game that lacked any true breakthrough performances, Louis Nix provided the highlight of the afternoon, with a quarterback draw executed to perfection for a two-point conversion.

Nix, who looks every bit the 347-pounds he’s listed at, calmly looked both left and right before tucking the football and charging for the end zone. You could hardly blame Kendall Moore for stepping out of the big fella’s way, even though Nix was looking for a collision.

“My intentions were just to truck somebody,” Nix said after the game. “I didn’t care about the touchdown too much. I just wanted to run somebody over.”

That Kelly would give Nix the opportunity to take a snap at quarterback shows you how beloved the All-American nose guard is to his teammates. But perhaps a better illustration of that was shown during the Strong and True documentary, where Nix’s teammates rallied around him as he struggled to finish a particularly hellish conditioning session in the middle of Camp Kelly, a rugged winter workout that featured pushing a wood board along the snow-covered artificial surface.

That kind of thing isn’t easy for anybody, let alone a 350-pound nose guard. But then again neither is playing quarterback, as Nix admitted after the game.

“We haven’t actually conditioned me to read defenses yet,” Nix joked. “So I just ran it.”

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5. Brian Kelly is a different man.

The red-faced screamer of yesteryear would not recognize this head coach. Kelly, who didn’t see a ton of good from his offense, seemed to let it all roll off his shoulders, as much of a sign as you’d ever want from a head coach evaluating his football team.

It’s startling to see how different Kelly is heading into his fourth season at Notre Dame. While we heard that the head coach would evolve as his team learned what he expected from him, we’re now actually seeing it before our eyes.

When George Atkinson got creamed for running with his pads too high, Kelly joked about it with him, before reinforcing his coaching point. When his starting quarterback scrambled too much and threw a bad interception, Kelly called it valuable tape for a long offseason. The only time Kelly got really animated on the sideline was when new long-snapper Scott Daly jumped on a muffed punt — nearly taking out wide receiver TJ Jones’ legs.

It’s crazy to think that Kelly’s fourth season at Notre Dame is the first time he’s had a fourth season since Grand Valley way back in 1994, when half this roster wasn’t born. But Kelly’s stress-free attitude is a sign that all is well for the flagship athletic program under the Golden Dome.

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