And in that corner… The USC Trojans

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There is no better intersectional rivalry in college football than the one between Notre Dame and Southern Cal. Started in 1926, and now meeting for the 85th time, the Irish lead the all-time series 44-35, with five ties between the two teams.

With quite a bit of turmoil and uncertainty surrounding the USC football program, I reached out to our old friend Shotgun Spratling to see what exactly is happening around Troy. In between writing at Conquest Chronicles, College Baseball Daily, SCPlaybook Magazine and Neon Tommy, Shotgun had some great insight into this Saturday night’s game.

I asked, he answered. Enjoy.

1) Pat Haden fired Lane Kiffin after just five games. Did he have much of a choice? What were the last two weeks like at USC? Was Thursday night’s win cathartic?

After the Arizona State game, the writing seemed to be on the wall. The same issues that were problematic over the tumultuous final 11 games (4-7) under Kiffin were present in Tempe. USChad trouble blocking up front, struggled to make second-half adjustments and saw breakdowns in the secondary.

Pat Haden likely believed he didn’t have a choice. He had seen what Kiffin could do and knew that a firing was inevitable, so instead of waiting until the end of the year, he went ahead and made the decision sooner rather than later, very similar to his midseason firing of hoops coach Kevin O’Neill earlier this year.

Since the Kiffin firing, there has been a renewed energy and excitement surrounding the team. Interim head coach Ed Orgeron is known for his infectious gravely Cajun voice and for his ability to destroy energy drinks on a regular basis.

His exuberance has permeated the team and spread to the fans as well. He brought back desserts to the training table meals. There was a team movie viewing the night before the Arizona game. Marcus Allen, Keyshawn Johnson and Ray Lewis have spoke with the team. Orgeron allowed the media back into practice, giving fans more access to information. They are all small changes, but it is swinging things back to the Pete Carroll rah-rah, fun culture and people are excited about the rest of the season.

That was on display Thursday night. Though there may have only been 50,000 fans actually in attendance (over 62,000 officially), it was a very boisterous 50K. And Orgeron and offensive coordinator Clay Helton, who was calling plays for the first time with USC, gave the fans what they wanted — downfield passing, using the middle of the field and giving several players opportunities to make plays.

2) Help me understand what’s going on with the Trojan defense. Statistically, they do some very impressive things. Yet they’ve also turned in two really mediocre performances in a row, albeit against two solid offenses.

How has Clancy Pendergast done in his first season running the defense?

USC’s defense has indeed been enigmatic. After shutting down Boston College’s Andre Williams, one of the best backs in the country this season, and the dynamic Chuckie Keaton of Utah State, the Trojans showed huge flaws against the Arizona schools.The biggest issue has been the secondary, just as it was last season. Clancy Pendergast relies on an attacking defense and when he brings extra defenders, that leaves a porous secondary in one-on-one situations — the exact goal of the spread option attack.

The key is getting pressure on the quarterback, which has been hit and miss. Leonard Williams and George Uko have been beasts on the line. Outside linebackers Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard have made some big plays, but Breslin has missed two games already and is questionable this weekend.

Combine Breslin and a couple of defensive backs being banged up with USC’s scholarship limitations and there is a noticeable difference in the defense’s performance late in games. On the season, opponent’s offensive scoring increases each quarter from only 7 first quarter points to 46 in the fourth quarter.

While there are some technique issues with the Trojans struggling to contain the read option and the jet sweeps Arizona State ran successfully in the second half, depth issues are a legit concern. Give Pendergast a full roster of USC-caliber defenders that he is able to rotate in more freely and I think there is a noticeable difference from what we have seen the last two games.

3) It looks like injuries are once again killing the Trojans. Marqise Lee is questionable. A half-dozen other contributors could be limited. How bad is it? Will the luck of the Irish once again come in the form of a depleted USC roster.

Along with some of the defensive depth issues I touched on above, the Trojans have been absolutely decimated at the wide receiver position. After Lee went down in the Arizona game, Nelson Agholor and Victor Blackwell, who had previously missed time, were the only two scholarship receivers on the roster. Walk-ons George Katrib and Robby Kolanz had to be used in the regular rotation. USC also lost starting running back Tre Madden and future NFL tight end Xavier Grimble in the first half of that game.

The good news, however, is that the team is getting healthy. Senior running back Silas Redd returned from knee surgery last week. Receivers Darreus Rogers and De’Von Flournoy have returned to full practice this week. Lee has returned to practice in a limited role but expects to play Saturday. Grimble is probable and cornerback Anthony Brown should be back for the first time since the season opener.

Besides Lee, the biggest question mark is Breslin. It’s tough having your best offensive and defensive weapons out at the same time, but J.R. Tavai had a monster game in Breslin’s place last Thursday and Agholor proved he can fill Lee’s void if necessary.

4) Let’s get to the quarterback situation. It looks like Cody Kessler is playing better football after a pretty so-so start. What did the Trojans do differently against Arizona? After beating out Max Wittek, what’s Kessler’s ceiling? Is he a guy that can be a star, or is he keeping the position warm?

Kessler was hindered by very conservative playcalling early in the season, but even more so, by poor offensive line play. As I wrote after the Washington State loss, there were a number of “whiff” blocks that killed the Trojans. As the offensive line started to come together, the playbook opened up a bit. But against Arizona, Helton forced the issue, pushing the ball down the field to Agholor and using the middle of the field to take advantage of USC’s dynamic tight end duo and the pass-catching ability of the Trojans’ stable of running backs. Tight ends and running backs can be a quarterback’s best friend, so an increase in throws their way will only help Kessler’s development.

Kessler is a vocal leader — whether it’s in the huddle or in organizing offseason workouts this summer. His teammates respect him. While he doesn’t have the prototypical 6-foot-4 frame and rocket arm that Wittek possesses, Kessler can make every college throw and he is accurate on the run, allowing USC to utilize rollouts rather than relying solely on straight dropbacks. Last year’s Gatorade High School Player of the Year, Max Browne, could push Kessler for the starting role next season depending on the new head coach’s assessment of Kessler, but as of now, it’s his job to lose.

5) You’re Pat Haden. Who do you hire? Who on this staff do you keep? With UCLA back on track and the Pac-12 one of the deepest conferences in college football, how important is this decision?

I love being other people. If I’m Pat Haden, I shoot for the moon, the stars and maybe even another galaxy. This is USC — an undisputed top five job in college football. I make inquiries with Nick Saban and David Shaw. I call Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll. Do I expect any of these guys to say yes? Absolutely not, but it never hurts to ask and I want to hear Harbaugh’s reaction. Next I move to Baylor’s Art Briles (imagine the offensive excitement between Briles and basketball coach Andy Enfield), Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton and Louisville’s Charlie Strong.

The dark horse is Orgeron, who should be considered depending on the Trojans finish. Regardless, he has to be retained. There are very few people that are as revered around USC than Orgeron (and that was before being named interim coach). He is loved by everyone because of his energy and positivity. Plus, he’s a damn good recruiter and defensive line coach.

This is a huge decision because USC is known for its football. It’s even more imperative with UCLA trending upward. Traditionally the two schools are never strong at the same time. Why not? Who knows? But how much fun would it be if the Crosstown Showdown was determining the Pac-12 South at the end of the season every year?

***

You can read more from Shotgun at Conquest Chronicles and follow him on Twitter @ShotgunSpr

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