Mailbag: Season kickoff edition

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Welcome to the Mailbag.

Consider this a new weekly forum where I try to get to the questions you all inevitably ask me (or each other) in the comments or on Twitter, but have a hard time getting to in the weekly flow of things.

With the season set to kickoff, you could also consider this a column to hold over my head in the future, as I’ll inevitably show how very terrible I am at making predictions, guessing breakout stars, etc.

All caveats aside, I think this will end up being a place where we can have some good interaction and maybe (hopefully?) clean up the comments a bit and turn it into a community resource.

Ready, set go!

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@JMset3: Why am I getting up at 3 am worried about Temple, but totally relaxed that my wife is a very 9 months pregnant?

It just means you’re a Notre Dame fan. Two nights ago I woke up from a dream that had TJ Jones fumbling the very first punt return of the season, a mirror image of the USF game from ’11 that set back Notre Dame special teams for two seasons.

So you’re definitely not alone.

@IrishPhog: Will Rees’ arm be able to take advantage of Brown’s speed

That’s definitely a good question. Listening to Chuck Martin talk about Rees, he was really candid about opposing defenses challenging Rees to beat them over the top, which is either Chuck telling the truth or being very smart about daring team’s to put eight in the box.

What’s different with this team than the ’11 team that Rees piloted is the personnel at wide receiver is a lot better. Sure, there isn’t a Michael Floyd, but the entire two-deep at wide receiver is probably better than anything Notre Dame was running out there minus Mr. Floyd.

Being a good downfield thrower and having a rocket arm aren’t the same thing. Rees definitely needs to improve his downfield accuracy, but getting one-on-one matchups with talented speedsters like Chris Brown or human mismatches like Corey Robinson will make the QB look a lot better.

Old Miami QB Ken Dorsey had a noodle arm and it didn’t stop him from throwing down the field.

@ndfanwabashman: At what point does Hendrix see the field this season? How short is the Rees leash?

This is Tommy’s job. I think the leash is fairly long, though he’s not going to be able to have those ugly three interception games that would turn the stomachs of ND Nation. That said, what leads Irish fans to believe that Hendrix will be any safer with the football?

For better or worse, this offense goes the way Rees goes, when it comes to turnovers. The only difference is that there’s a talented group of runners and receivers there to support him that have big play potential.

@irishfanjames: Which FR has bigger impact this year Robinson or Bryant? Which has better overall career?

I think we’re probably over-valuing Corey Robinson at this point of his career, or at least the hardcore ND fans are. Sure, he could become a true weapon at wide receiver, but to think he’s going to be better than Greg Bryant — a five-star running back that could start making an impact from day one — is a little bit of a reach.

I’ve written about it a few times, but Bryant’s recruiting cohorts are scary. Guys like him come in and make an early impact. Even elite WRs, take Dorial Green-Beckham, take a while to get started. Irish fans have every right to be excited about Robinson. But let’s not put too much on his back so early. It’s unhealthy.

@jpeter14nd: Will tarean folston redshirt? You talked earlier about using him on special teams, but will they use a year for that?

My Magic Eight-Ball seems to be cloudy right now. Kelly said all five running backs are going to contribute, but it’s hard to tell if he was talking about Will Mahone, who is out with a high ankle sprain, or Folston.

Saving a year of eligibility wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but if Folston is able to contribute on kick or punt returns (he isn’t listed in the two deep at either spot as of now), then he’s worth using this season.

@kevroe67: Which underclassman will step up this year to be a big contributor going forward unexpectedly?

Good question. Can I tell you in week six? The obvious suspects are Bryant and Jaylon Smith, with Smith being my pick. Though that’s hardly unexpected. Perhaps the biggest surprise could be Steve Elmer already taking rotational reps at right tackle.

@cboudin: How on Earth was Tommy Rees not named a captain? Senior QB with multiple years of starting experience… what gives?

Sometimes a C isn’t needed to be a team leader, but I get where you’re coming from. Let’s just say that Zack Martin was a given at captain. Then TJ Jones makes a ton of sense, especially with the adversity he’s overcome. Do you name three offensive players captains to one defender? Why not Louis Nix then?

Having great leadership doesn’t necessarily mean you need every guy to have a title. Rees is the leader of the offense almost by default. It’s his group and the team and staff know that.

Justin Farrell asks: As an ND grad student, and committed irish believer, I want to ask you if you’ve placed your trust in Reesus as the savior to lead us into eternal BCS championship life?

I’m paid to be a little bit more objective than that. But I’m all for people making funny Reesus logos and t-shirts, and as a guy that’s been a long time Rees supporter (while being picked on here), I’d love to look right and have him put together a really impressive senior campaign.

baldyscotsman: Are you buying the Devin Gardner Hype? 

If you’re looking for an X factor on the Irish schedule, Devin Gardner is it. Part of his skillset should scare the crap out of a Notre Dame fan, especially in the house of horrors that The Big house has become.

I’ve heard nothing but good things about Gardner, but then again — what are we supposed to hear? We’ll find out next Saturday, but if there’s a reason to DVR the Michigan game against a cupcake like Central Michigan, this is it.

andy44teg: What the heck happened with Elijah Hood?? He seemed like such an RKG….

Good question. But I’m guessing a lot of it is family pressure, hometown pressure, and the general challenges Notre Dame faces when they go into opponents’ back yards and try and pull away their prized recruits.

Trusting reports like this always come with a grain of salt, but I thought this was a particularly telling quote from a Rivals.com report last week when Hood decommitted:

“Sources have informed THI this week that Hood and his family were especially concerned about the distance from Charlotte to South Bend, along with the likelihood that his path to the field and early playing time would be significantly longer at Notre Dame compared to UNC.”

If Notre Dame’s depth chart played a role in Hood stepping away from his Notre Dame commitment, then the program has hit a next level, inching closer to the Pete Carroll/USC, “always compete” model than the “we need you to get to the next level” phase that the Irish seem to have been in for the past two decades.

Hood made this comment about his commitment that I think rang particularly crafted by someone much older and mature than a 18-year-old five-star prospect that once flushed a recruiting letter from Alabama down the toilet.

“This decision will allow not only my family but also my community to continue to be a part of me as I grow not only academically and physically but in faith and maturity as well,” Hood said. “This is entirely my decision based on what I view life and football to be about.”

You win some, you lose some. We’ll find out in a couple years if it’s a big loss or not.

italianirish: What’s the level of panic if Tommy Rees tears an ACL during the first series of the Temple game? Would an injury to him have the biggest negative impact to our final record of anyone on the team?

I think it would. Crazy to think that, but outside of a Zack Martin injury, Rees is probably the most irreplaceable player on the offensive depth chart right now.

shaunodame: Whats your gut feeling on this ‘BK to the NFL’ talk? Is he content here, do you think he seeks another, higher level, challenge? Do you REALLY read all the comments here on your articles?

Nudeman: Keith, can you please give us the straight scoop on BK and his contract?

It has been “imminent” for 5 months now. The season is 3 days away.

If I told you 5 months ago that we’d be 3 days away from kickoff and no new contract, there’d be a collective “WTF?”

Personally I’m starting to believe they are unable to come to terms and he’ll be gone sooner rather than later.

I’m still willing to take BK at his word, especially since he was so unequivocal in his preseason comments that the deal is finished, but the lawyering is not. But you’ve got to think things like Camp Shiloh and new assistant coach contracts are all proof that things are moving along.

There’s been quite a bit of behind the scenes change in the athletic department over the past year so Brian Kelly’s contract is far from the only thing that’s dragging along. But yeah — Notre Dame fans will feel a lot better when the press release hits UND.com.

All that being said, it’s another new era for Notre Dame. As Kelly said, don’t expect the NFL rumors to stop if the Irish keep winning.

NotreDan: Under what circumstances would we see MZ @ QB? Details please. I guess the other side of the question is… exactly HOW committed is the staff to preserving his redshirt?

They are as committed as they need to be. But an injury to Rees or Hendrix obviously ends that plan.

Hakuna Budi: What happened to CJ Prosise after his spring and why is Chris Brown listed as the starter on the depth chart after Kelly spoke of his lack of consistency in his presser?

Because Chris Brown has sprinter speed and the ability to outrun just about everyone in college football. I was a little bit surprised to see Prosise drop off the two-deep, but remember that Kelly uses spring practice for position switches, experimentation and motivation. It wasn’t too long ago that Kona Schwenke “out-played” Louis Nix in spring ball.

There are reps to go around for everyone, and I think we’ll see Prosise. But as a converted safety learning wide receiver on the fly, he’s a raw prospect. And with the freshman group of James Onwualu and Corey Robinson, perhaps Prosise just got caught in the shuffle.

ngoldandblue: Do you think we’ll get a Luke Massa sighting on Saturday (and I’m not talking about a camera shot of the red army)?

Massa is the team’s starting holder. I get the feeling you’ll probably see him seven times on Saturday.

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.