Pregame Six Pack: Streaking into the Spartans

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In an era where spread offenses and up-tempo attacks seem to have taken over college football, the 77th meeting between Notre Dame and Michigan State probably looks a lot like a game played a generation ago.

“You might as well just play it in the parking lot,” Kelly cracked earlier this week. “It’s a fight. Roll up your sleeves.”

With the stage set for another physical brawl between two teams that have plenty of history together, the Irish will face their stiffest defensive test yet with the Spartans putting up some very impressive numbers (even against some not-so-impressive competition). With four defensive touchdowns and opponents gaining only 177 yards a game against Michigan State, the Notre Dame offense will have its hands full a two weeks of very slow starts.

As the stage is set for the Megaphone Trophy, let’s dig into some details before the game airs this Saturday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC. Here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame and Michigan State do battle.

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1. After practicing for the first time on Thursday, Sheldon Day looks like a game time decision.

After playing one of his most complete games of the season, Sheldon Day rolled an ankle late in the victory against Purdue. The Irish medical staff kept the sophomore defensive end’s foot in a boot until Thursday, when he gave it a test at practice.

Brian Kelly updated us on Day’s progress Thursday evening, with Kelly optimistic but still uncertain about his status for Saturday.

“He can play Saturday. We’ll see. He obviously missed Tuesday and Wednesday, but he’s available to us,” Kelly said. “We’ll see how he responds. It’ll be a game time decision. He practiced today, looked pretty good.”

The drop off after Day is significant, with sophomore Jarron Jones and freshman Isaac Rochelle next in line. After that, it’s likely a mix and match of guys like Kona Schwenke, Ishaq Williams and little used seniors Justin Utupo and Tyler Stockton.

“A little bit of everybody,” Kelly said. “All hands on deck.”

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2. With his confidence in place and play improved, if Tommy Rees continues at this clip he’ll be having a great season… against an even more impressive schedule. 

After taking command of the offense against Purdue, Tommy Rees went out and played what was probably his best half of football in his Notre Dame career. Rees has started off the season quickly, throwing for 969 yards through three games, seventh in the FBS, and first among quarterbacks that haven’t played a FCS (formerly I-AA) opponent.

Just as impressive, Rees has created big plays down the field, completing seven passes of 32 yards or more, compared to just 11 plays of that distance all year. While his physical attributes still leave something for many to desire, Rees continuing at this clip — especially against the defenses he’ll face — is quite an impressive feat.

Let’s take a look at the gauntlet of highly rated defenses Rees will face, starting on Saturday.

No. 1 Michigan State
No. 4. USC
No. 14. Oklahoma
No. 15. Stanford
No. 21. Arizona State
No. 36. BYU

It’s the beginning of quite a stretch for Rees, who will face four Top 21 defenses in a row before facing off against Air Force and Navy. It’s also likely to be the defining stretch of the season for this team.

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3. Finding touches isn’t the only hard part for a committee of running backs. Keeping your mindset plays a part as well. 

Over at the South Bend Tribune, Eric Hansen tracked down Randy Kinder this week to talk about what it’s like to be a part of a running back by committee. Kinder, who played during the final four seasons of Lou Holtz’s tenure in South Bend, was part of multiple backfields that got the ball to a wide variety of players.

“When you’re a young guy coming in, it’s a lot easier than when you’re an older guy,” Kinder told Hansen. “We knew when we got an opportunity, we had to make the most of it.”

Kinder did talk about the mental battle you wage as you fight to keep your confidence high. While we continually wonder about what this is doing to freshmen Greg Bryant or Tarean Folston, it could be making things even tougher on junior George Atkinson, who has looked really tentative and struggled breaking tackles.

“The flip side of that for me is going into my senior year, we had a young guy behind me who kind of blew things away,” Kinder said of Autry Denson. “And I found myself struggling to get as much playing time as possible. It’s a difficult thing. It’s something where you have to be very strong of mind and look for your spots. We were lucky because we had a good group who were very supportive and tried to keep us all focused on the team winning more than anything else.”

In ’93, Kinder, Ray Zellars and Lee Becton all got at least 89 touches, with Becton leading the team with 164 carries. In ’94, it was Kinder that led the team in carries with 119, while Becton got 100 and Zellars got 79. Kinder led the team again in ’95, with 143 carries to Marc Edwards 140 and Autry Denson’s 137. But in ’96, Kinder only had 53 carries and a career worst 4.7 yards-per-carry, a full yard below his previous season.

Talent is a champagne problem. But sometimes too much of it makes it even harder to utilize the personnel on your roster.

***

4. Another year, another injury plagued Michigan State offensive line. Let’s see if the Irish defensive front can take advantage of it again. 

After three home games against underwhelming opponents, the Spartans will play in an opposing team’s stadium for the first time this year. That could be a very big test for another offensive line that Mark Dantonio has had to patch together.

“We’re going to find out a little bit more about who is who in our football team as we move forward,” Dantonio said this week. “It’s going to be exciting to see that.”

Up front is where the biggest challenge lies for the Spartan offense, with three starters only underclassmen, as well as half of the two-deep. This year, one of Michigan State’s best offensive lineman, right tackle Fou Fonoti, has been hobbled by injury. Center Travis Jackson missed last week with an injury and is listed as a co-starter. Neither will be at 100 percent on Saturday.

Sophomore left tackle Donovan Clark, a 6-foot-3, 300-pounder has himself quite a match-up with Stephon Tuitt this weekend. Redshirt freshman Jack Conkin has slid over to right tackle to make room for Clark. The Spartans had already lost likely starting right tackle Skyler Burkland after he retired this summer after multiple injuries.

Like in years past, it might not be an optimal group, but the edict is firm from the Spartans head coach.

“The best guys are gonna play, that’s all I can say,” Dantonio said this week. “The best guys are gonna play, and you’ve got to be able — especially as we move into our schedule — you’ve got to play firm at the tackles. You’ve got to pass protect and do the things you’ve got to do, but you’ve got to play with power as well.”

This looks like it could be the match-up of Saturday, with Tuitt and Prince Shembo likely liking their chops.

***

5. Let’s not get too worried about Notre Dame’s ability to self scout just yet. 

After many people (me included) worried about the Irish’s predictability when playing in certain formations and personnel groupings, Kelly was asked about the halftime comments from Darrell Hazell last week about formational giveaways.

He didn’t sound overly concerned.

“We lined up in the same formation twelve times, eleven times on the last drive,” Kelly said Thursday. “They knew exactly what we were doing, and we had the ball for 7:22. It’s still about execution.”

Still, he didn’t dismiss the need for the Irish to be diligent self-scouting.

“I’ve been doing it a long time. We’ve been self-scouting a long time,” Kelly said. “We know what our tendencies are. We have that self-scouting information at our fingertips first thing Sunday when we get in from our graduate assistants.”

Expect to see a new set of wrinkles this Saturday against a Spartan defense that’s going to challenge the Irish aggressively, especially quarterback Tommy Rees.

“(Michigan State defensive coordinator) Pat Narduzzi does a great job with the scheme. They are a team that’s done a great job of forcing turnovers,” Kelly said earlier this week to SiriusXM’s Jack Arute. “They force you to protect and if you don’t the quarterbacks are throwing under duress and you know what happens.”

A more thorough self-scouting evaluation will happen over the bye week, just in time for the Irish to face off with USC.

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6. Maybe Notre Dame Stadium is turning into a home field advantage after all. 

Don’t look now, but Notre Dame Stadium isn’t quite the visitors’ paradise that it once was. The Irish are close to matching their longest home winning streak in 15 years, with a victory on Saturday potentially making it ten straight games.

After watching both Charlie Weis and Tyrone Willingham struggle at home, Kelly’s Irish have seen things turn around, maybe not coincidentally after they started piping music into the stadium. The Irish haven’t lost at home since that fateful night against USC, when Crazy Train became a prelude to impending doom.

Kelly hasn’t been shy tweaking the home game weekend schedule, moving things like the team mass or the players walk to the stadium. It’s all been in a quest to focus his team properly for the task at hand.

“I just think the way we’ve spaced out the day, Friday and Saturday, has really helped our kids a lot,” Kelly said. “It’s given them the opportunity to regroup a little bit, focus in on the game and not all the other things that are going on around the campus.”

As for the game environment, Kelly talked about the added benefit piped-in music has brought to Saturdays at Notre Dame, with the players and student body being the primary beneficiaries.

“Those are all little things that have been worked through the team, and they enjoy it and they like it,” Kelly said. “Those are all little pieces where they feel like they are part of that, and part of the tradition is great, and then having a little bit of say in that, they really take some ownership in it.”

Still, winning at home isn’t just about a few new songs and a change in the weekend schedule.

“I think there’s a lot of things. There’s a lot of levels,” Kelly said. “We’ve learned how to play the game. I’ve always wanted our teams to play hard for four quarters and just fight really hard and we’ll figure out a way to win the games.  We’ve managed to do that by and large in terms of the way we play.”

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

— Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
— So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
— Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
— So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
— Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands second cornerback commitment

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Hardly a week shy of the early signing period, Notre Dame doubled its cornerback haul in the class of 2018 with Tariq Bracy’s commitment Sunday night.

A rivals.com three-star recruit, Bracy (Milpitas High School, Calif.) had long said the Irish led in his recruitment, having visited campus for Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Oct. 21. Rivals rates Bracy as the No. 65 overall prospect in California.

“The coaches, they made me feel welcome,” Bracy said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They really wanted me to go down there. They like my skillset. The players, they were welcoming, too. It’s really the whole atmosphere about Notre Dame, and the academics, too.”

Bracy opted for the Irish over a number of schools on the west coast, including Utah, Cal and Washington State.

Notre Dame now has 18 commitments in the class, including consensus-three star cornerback Joseph Wilkins (North Fort Myers H.S., Fla.). All 18 are expected to sign National Letters of Intent during the inaugural early signing period Dec. 20-22. For that matter, it remains possible an additional commitment or two could join those ranks either before the three-day stretch or in the midst of it.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said he would evaluate any commitment not signing during the December dates as not being genuinely committed to Notre Dame, still needing further recruitment.

— Bracy’s, and Wilkins’, commitment holds more value for the Irish than many of the other 16 in the class thus far. In the last recruiting cycle, Notre Dame failed to sign so much as one cornerback.

Neither Bracy nor Wilkins may start in 2018. They, in fact, almost certainly will not, but they will provide both depth and a possibility of a future at the position.

— Just as another reminder — it is listed twice on the legal pad providing today’s outline, after all — the early signing period runs from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22. There will still be a nationwide focus on National Signing Day, Feb. 7, as any recruits not yet signed will have even more of a share of the spotlight.

— Bowl games have little long-term evaluatory value. They do, however, provide a delightful stretch of mid-day and/or mid-week December distractions. As an example, consider the game-a-day outlook on the horizon …

Sat., Dec. 16: Middle Tennessee St. v. Arkansas State; 8 p.m. ET; a high-scoring affair, if nothing else.
Tues., Dec. 19: Akron vs. FAU; 7 p.m. ET; Lane Kiffin with a nation’s lonely eyes turned to him.
Wed., Dec. 20: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist; 8 p.m. ET.
Thurs., Dec. 21: Temple vs. Florida International; 8 p.m. ET; Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent is favored by seven.
Fri., Dec. 22: Central Michigan vs. Wyoming; 4 p.m. ET; Josh Allen’s farewell to college football.
Sat., Dec. 23: Texas Tech vs. South Florida; 12 p.m. ET; This very well may end up being the most-dramatic bowl game.
Sun., Dec. 24: Houston vs. Fresno St.; 8:30 p.m. ET.
Tues., Dec. 26: Kansas State vs. UCLA; 9 p.m. ET.
Wed., Dec. 27: Boston College vs. Iowa; 5:15 p.m. ET; Of the 10 Irish foes in bowl games, six are like the Eagles, underdogs.
Thurs., Dec. 28: Stanford vs. TCU; 9 p.m. ET; A healthy Bryce Love could erase the 2.5-point spread in the Horned Frogs favor.
Fri., Dec. 29: USC vs. Ohio State; 8:30 p.m. ET; As strongly as the Trojans finished the season, they are still touchdown underdogs in the Cotton Bowl.
Sat., Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Miami, 8 p.m. ET; Despite playing at home, literally so, the Hurricanes are nearly touchdown underdogs.
Mon., Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Oklahoma; 5 p.m. ET; Frankly, Notre Dame vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl will be but an appetizer for an evening of outstanding college football.

During Notre Dame’s retrospective awards, Tranquill & Weishar set focus forward

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Notre Dame spent Friday night giving out awards to recognize 2017’s top players, but the night’s attention went to two pieces of news received regarding next season. Both linebacker Drue Tranquill and tight end Nic Weishar announced intentions to return for fifth seasons in 2018.

Tranquill especially seemed increasingly unlikely to return after a career season and a two-year stretch of health set him up for NFL consideration. The idea of what could have been, of what could be, proved too much for him to bypass his remaining season of collegiate eligibility.

“I think it started after the Miami game, just on the busses, realized that we probably weren’t going to make the College Playoff anymore and realized everything everyone had put into this thing,” Tranquill told Irish Illustrated. “I felt I owed it to this team in my heart to come back and finish what we started.”

Tranquill’s return will stymie what could have been a decimating linebacker exodus. Senior captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini are both out of eligibility. If Tranquill had joined them in pursuing an NFL future this spring, Notre Dame would have lost three of its top four tacklers, and perhaps all four. Leading tackler, junior linebacker Te’von Coney and his 99 takedowns including 13 for loss and three sacks, is still considering an early entry into the NFL Draft.

Weishar’s return will provide a baseline at tight end following the departure of current fifth-year Durham Smythe.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame is & was: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame is & was: Tight Ends

As for the Echoes awards, senior left guard Quenton Nelson received Most Valuable Player honors, only the third offensive lineman to be named MVP in Irish history.

Along the lines of Tranquill’s and Weishar’s returns, only a couple of Friday night’s awards portend future developments. Freshman offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons performed well enough behind the scenes to claim Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year. With Nelson presumably heading to the NFL, Gibbons could insert himself into the competition to fill the left guard spot.

Sophomore safety Alohi Gilman spent the season following his transfer from Navy leading the scout defense. His success there only furthers the likelihood he will be starting in the defensive backfield when Michigan arrives at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 1.

With few surprises — perhaps naming junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and senior defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner the offensive and defensive newcomers of the year, respectively, was too obvious to be widely-considered beforehand — the full listing of the awards …

— Most Valuable Player: Sr. left guard Quenton Nelson.
— Offensive Player of the Year: Jr. running back Josh Adams.
— Defensive Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Nyles Morgan.
— Impact Player: Jr. linebacker Te’von Coney.
— Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Jr. quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
— Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Sr. defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner.
— Offensive Lineman of the Year: Fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.
— Moose Krause Lineman of the Year: Jr. defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.
— Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Fr. lineman Dillan Gibbons.
— Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year: So. safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman.
— Special Teams Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Greer Martini (eight special teams tackles).
— Walk-On Players Union Player of the Year: Jr. linebacker Robert Regan.
— Next Man In: Sr. defensive end Andrew Trumbetti.
— Father Lange Iron Cross, for weight room presence: Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe.
— Pietrosante Award for leadership, teamwork, etc.: Sr. captain and former walk-on Austin Webster.
— Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year: Sr. linebacker Drue Tranquill.
— Irish Around the Bend, for community service: Sr. tight end Nic Weishar.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame to the Citrus Bowl to face LSU, with some numbers
Monday’s Leftovers: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl, facing LSU, and the early signing period
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Notre Dame releases 2018 home schedule, includes trip to Yankee Stadium
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Friday at 4: Projecting Notre Dame’s Echoes

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
SI’s 2017 All-America Teams
LSU RB Derrius Guice on NFL decision: ‘I will not know until after the bowl game’
RB Mark Walton leaving Miami early for the NFL