Pregame Six pack: Onward to Oklahoma

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One-third of the way into the season and the Fighting Irish still haven’t played a complete football game. After sliding by Temple, Purdue and Michigan State without their best efforts, there’s no room for mediocrity to creep into either side of the football’s efforts. To beat the 14th ranked Oklahoma Sooners, Notre Dame will need to play four quarters of very good football.

“We have to do a better job of being consistent through four quarters. We haven’t really put together those four quarters of really good football,” head coach Brian Kelly said on Thursday. “We’re going to need to do that against Oklahoma.”

Coming to town is a Sooners team that just established its offensive rhythm with quarterback Blake Bell and then took a week off. The early bye week felt a little bit like a scheduling snafu, but it did allow standout cornerback Aaron Colvin to get healthy.

What type of team the Sooners actually are is still to be determined. After beating up Louisiana-Monroe, a disappointing West Virginia team and Tulsa, Oklahoma heads to Notre Dame looking to find out if it’s got the type of team that can get Bob Stoops back to the BCS.

After downplaying the importance of this game for the past two weeks, Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jay Norvell let the cat out of the bag. “This is a special game,” Norvell told the Oklahoman. “We’d be lying if we say it’s just another game. It’s not. You don’t get to play in South Bend very often.”

Let’s walk through this week’s Pregame Six Pack. Here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before No. 22 Notre Dame and No. 14 Oklahoma take the field.

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Getting the Sooners offense “off schedule” could be key on Saturday. 

With an impressive depth chart at both running back and receiver, and a quarterback that’s capable of doing damage both on the ground or through the air, the Sooners will be Notre Dame’s most difficult challenge of the season from a personnel perspective.

But if Bob Diaco’s defense wants to follow a script that already led them to victory once, they’ll try their best to keep Oklahoma’s offense “off schedule,” tripping up the Sooners on first down and forcing them into difficult down and distances.

As we talked about already this week, first down is a key play for just about every team. Last year, the Irish defense made some big plays, limiting the Sooners offense and also getting them off the field by only allowing 4-of-14 third down conversions.

But with a balanced Sooner attack and the No. 4 ranked offense in terms of efficiency (according to the Fremeau Efficiency Index), the Sooners know they need to do a better job of keeping themselves in favorable down and distances.

“We’ve got to do a good job of making efficient plays on first down, whether it’s running or throwing,” Norvell said. “And in this game, it’s important that you catch and you get upfield north and south and it’s not fancy. It’s just get upfield, get the yards you need, bang off pads and move on to the next play.”

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Sheldon Day might not be the only one battling an injury.

The good news for the Irish is that defensive end Sheldon Day is back and healthy, having a solid week of practice and pronounced ready to go by Kelly on Thursday, an impressive turn time by an important cog in the Irish’s front seven.

But in a rare look behind the curtain this week, courtesy of UND.com’s Strong and True video series, we saw some of the work that went into getting Cam McDaniel ready to play after fracturing his hand midweek in practice, and linebacker Dan Fox and offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley battle through injuries.

Kelly talked about the job Stanley did to get back into the game after a painful hip injury. But news that Fox has been battling nagging injuries since fall camp might shed new light on why the fifth-year senior has been off to a particularly slow start.

It’s difficult to tell what exactly is bothering Fox, but the senior linebacker will be counted on to play some important minutes against the Sooners. He’s got the athleticism to be an asset in pass coverage underneath, where the linebackers are still a work in progress. Last year, Fox chipped in five tackles against Oklahoma, and had one very key pass break-up, which Manti Te’o ended up intercepting on a huge momentum changer.

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Can Notre Dame contain the slot receiver? 

Last week, Irish fans watched Michigan State’s Macgarrett Kings backpedal into the end zone for an easy touchdown, beating safety Elijah Shumate so badly in man coverage that he could coast into the end zone.

Kings’s touchdown against the Irish was hardly the only damage done by a diminutive slot receiver. All season, the Irish have struggled to slow down the inside receiving threats, taking advantage of schematic changes and beating man coverage from the start of the season.

Taking a run through the four box scores the Irish have produced this year starts to show some trends emerging. And waterbug sized, lightning quick receivers have really hurt Notre Dame’s defense.

Against Temple, 5-foot-9, 175-pound Ryan Alderman had his best game of the season, leading the Owls with five catches for 65 yards against the Irish. Who can forget what Jeremy Gallon did to the Irish? The 5-8, 187-pound Wolverine had eight catches for 184 yards and three touchdowns to torch the Irish secondary. Against Purdue, it was 5-foot-9 Akeem Hunt would did most of the receiving damage, making nine catches for 72 yards and a touchdown. And Kings supplied one of the lone bright spots for the Spartans offense last Saturday.

All of that leads us to the Sooners’ Jalen Saunders. Last year, Saunders racked up an astonishing 15 catches for 181 yards against Notre Dame. After wreaking havoc underneath the Irish defense, Saunders might do something far deadlier if he’s given the chance against man coverage on Saturday.

Kelly and Bob Diaco have experimented with the Irish’s secondary personnel, shifting Cole Luke, Elijah Shumate, Devin Butler and Lo Wood in and out, trying to find the right cover man. But the Irish might be better off not trying to run with Oklahoma’s skill players, instead just throwing an umbrella over everything, using zone responsibilities to keep the play in front of them.

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Can the Irish offense get out of the gate quickly?

Perhaps Irish fans were spoiled early. After starting the season opener with two picture perfect scoring drives, it’s been rough sledding for the Irish to start games. Against Michigan, it was two three-and-outs, two punts and two scores for the Wolverines. Against Purdue it was worse, the Boilermakers marched down the field for a touchdown on the game’s first drive before shutting down the Irish’s first four drives. It was no better against Michigan State, with the Spartans getting a punt block on the first series of the game before watching the Irish offense sputter twice more.

With a crowd ready to carry the Irish if needed, the offense and defense will need to do their jobs, putting an early Irish score on the board and getting a few defensive stops while trying to get into rhythm with the speed of the Sooners.

“We’ve always talked about starting fast. It really hasn’t been part of this group yet consistently,” Kelly said. “But what they do is they finish really well, so I’d stick around if I were you, because they know how to finish games.”

Finishing games isn’t possible if you dig yourself too big of a whole. We witnessed that in Ann Arbor. It won’t be possible against Oklahoma if the Irish aren’t ready out of the gates.

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Will the Irish finally do their best to establish the run? 

Four games into the season and the Irish running game is still a mess. It doesn’t appear to be the offensive line’s fault, with the unit blending nicely, though succeeding mostly in pass protection. But against an Oklahoma  3-3-5 defense, can the Irish simply decide to run the ball and dictate tempo, or will they try and throw their way around bad defensive looks?

While Irish fans have screamed about trying to establish some offensive balance, the Irish head coach understands its importance, now it’s just a matter of executing better.

“I think from an offensive standpoint, we’ve got enough balance,” Kelly said. “We haven’t run the ball effectively enough throughout four quarters. There are times where we’ve been effective — we won some football games late, Purdue in particular — where we’ve been able to run the ball to finish out a game. But we’re not where we want to be in terms of running the ball effectively throughout the game, which is going to allow us to have a run-pass balance.”

Notre Dame’s running back depth chart features five backs — George Atkinson, Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant all listed as co-starters. The Irish haven’t been able to establish more than one of them in a game yet this year. But it might make some sense to give it a try if it keeps the Sooners off the field.

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 For two of college football’s most storied programs, this rivalry is awfully one-sided. 

There is no more winning program in the modern era than Oklahoma. The Sooners have the most victories and best winning percentage of any program since World War II. But as two of college football’s winningest programs get set to do battle, it’s a good time to remind you that Notre Dame has just historically owned this match-up.

Notre Dame holds a 9-1 record in this series, beating the Sooners in 1952, 1953, 1957, 1961, 1962, 1966, 1968, 1999, and 2012. Outside of the Sooners’ lone victory over the Irish, a 40-0 thrashing in 1956, the Irish have won seven straight in a span of seven decades, with the Irish beating a Sooners team ranked in the top 10 seven times in the ten meetings.

Notre Dame has dashed more Sooner dreams than just about any program, including Bob Stoops last visit to South Bend, when Jarious Jackson threw for two touchdowns and ran for another as the Irish stormed back to score 20 unanswered points to win 34-30 over No. 23 Oklahoma.

That game became a defining moment in the Stoops era at Oklahoma, helping to set the tone for the Sooners return to the top of college football.

“More than anything, I remember us leading in the third quarter by 16 and looking around and seeing too many happy faces,” Stoops said on Monday. “I felt there were too many guys who thought that they had this won, really realizing that we had not really learned how to truly compete yet for four quarters.

“I remember telling the coaches in meetings the next day, ‘Listen, they hadn’t been ahead of anybody like that on the road before. They don’t know how to handle it and we’ve got to teach them how to handle it – teach them how to finish games and to win a game like that.’

“Those guys hadn’t been in that situation.”

It didn’t take long for Stoops’ team to learn from the disappointing loss. The Sooners won the national championship the next year.

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For more on Notre Dame’s match-up with Oklahoma, check out these stories from IrishIllustrated.com

From IrishIllustrated.com

Irish look for Norman momentum
by Douglas Farmer

A year ago, a win over Oklahoma provided the Irish with much-needed momentum. They hope it can do it again Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium.

From IrishIllustrated.com

Grace could have captain potential
by Pete Sampson

Barely a week after his first start, linebacker Jarrett Grace has already been mentioned as a potential future captain. On a defense looking for leadership, that could be a major boost.

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

Notre Dame’s 2018 defense bolstered with Coney & Tillery returns

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Notre Dame’s defense found some stability last week with the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston to associate head coach following Mike Elko’s abrupt departure, but only some stability.

That foundation is much more solid now after the Irish announced the returns of both junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery on Monday.

Both Coney and Tillery enjoyed noticeable developmental progress in one year under Elko.  Coney totaled a whopping 116 tackles to lead Notre Dame, far and away his best season. Among those takedowns, he managed 13 for loss, including three sacks. Tillery, meanwhile, led the Irish with 4.5 sacks this season, adding another 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Notre Dame’s defensive tackle situation may have bordered on dire if not for the return of junior Jerry Tillery. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With Lea and Elston sticking around, Coney and Tillery are well-positioned for even further growth. If nothing else, they will step into starring roles in a rather complete front seven.

Notre Dame loses senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, as well as senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner and senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. If Coney and Tillery had joined that group, the front seven would have been rife with unproven commodities and little depth. Instead, Coney will fill in at linebacker, meaning only one youngster will need to step forward, and Tillery will headline a defensive line surging under Elston.

After amassing 17 tackles in the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, Coney insisted he had not yet put much consideration into his future.

“I’m just right now still focused on the win,” he said. “We just got this 10th win. I’m just trying to soak up the moment. This is a great moment. … Focusing on that and the win and enjoying it with my brothers.”

Those words combined with Elko’s sudden departure for Texas A&M made Coney’s return seem unlikely. His breakout season at least placed him into NFL draft conversations and capitalizing on that chance would have made a good amount of logical sense.

With Lea in his ear for another season, Coney will have a chance to become more than a physical player excelling in run defense and develop his coverage skills. Coney and senior Drue Tranquill will lead an otherwise lacking linebacker corps.

Sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) made 10 and four tackles, respectively, this year. Jonathan saw more playing time on defense, occasionally spelling senior Nyles Morgan, but has not yet looked the part of an every-down contributor. Irish coach Brian Kelly has previously admitted to considering a move to defensive line for Jamir, but that unit’s progression made that position shift less of a necessity.

If any of the incoming four linebackers or the two current freshmen, David Adams or Drew White, were to emerge, however, such a move may become an available luxury. Only Tillery’s return makes it a genuine luxury, though.

Tillery’s 56 tackles this year showed a level of consistency not seen in his first two seasons. His length alone makes Tillery an intriguing draft prospect. Logically speaking, a second season of such production, if not even increased output, should further his professional hopes. By returning along with Elston, the player/coach combination will provide experience to a position group otherwise devoid of it. With Bonner having said he will not return, Tillery and current freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are the only returning defensive tackles of contributory note.

Freshman Darnell Ewell will also certainly enter the rotation after spending 2017 preserving a year of eligibility. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will be in the mix, as well. Incoming freshmen consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademiloloa (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) and consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin (North Caroline High School; Ridgely, Md.) will complete the fray.

Reports on Monday indicate junior Elijah Taylor will leave Notre Dame after missing 2017 with a LisFranc fracture suffered in spring practice. He appeared in four games in 2016, making four tackles including one for loss. More than anything else, his departure is a step toward reaching the NCAA maximum of 85 rostered players. With Coney and Tillery returning but Taylor departing, the Irish roster currently stands at 86 players, though a few more recruits may be added. (This does not count sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, indefinitely suspended and presumed not likely to play for Notre Dame in 2018.)