Pregame Six Pack: Going up to Air Force

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As we prepared for Notre Dame to take on a 1-6 Air Force team that is winless in five Mountain West games, the storylines on the field between the Irish and Falcons seemed few and far between. For better or worse, the Irish coaching staff had seemingly “figured out” the option attack after their ugly opening attempt against Navy four seasons ago. And Troy Calhoun’s squad has been decimated by injuries, a handicap that too often is mortal at a place like the service academies.

But all of that changed yesterday with the news that Louis Nix won’t be traveling to Colorado Springs with his teammates, left home to rest a balky knee and heal a wounded shoulder. Add to that the loss of Christian Lombard and the insertion of true freshman Steve Elmer into the starting lineup, and all of a sudden there is some intrigue in a game that still hovers around a 20-point spread.

The series has been closer than you’d expect over the past six games. The Irish are 4-2 against the Falcons dating back to 1996, with two of those victories (’96 and ’00) needing overtime. Let’s open up this week’s pregame six pack. As usual, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame and Air Force play for the 30th time.

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Don’t wait until tomorrow morning, make sure you have CBS Sports Network on your cable package. 

Let’s get the public service announcement out of the way first. Not everybody gets the CBS Sports Network. Available in 99 million homes, CBS’s “growing” cable sports channel, with programming consisting of basically Jim Rome and a few other studio shows, is usually a pay add on to your package.

(I added it before the season kicked off, to catch the USC-Hawaii game.)

So before you come to the live-blog frantically searching for a channel update or website link, spend a few minutes this afternoon — and maybe a few dollars — to add the channel, or find a friend that’s got the game and be social.

Former Irish great Aaron Taylor will be in the both with CBS Sports’ Andrew Catalon and Lauren Gardner. For many the game won’t be broadcast in HD (though DirecTV and Dish Network provide it), so it’ll be a retro game watch for a large group of us.

But take care of it now or you’re stuck with me in the live blog.

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Without Louis Nix anchoring the defensive front, expect to see a lot more Kona Schwenke. 

During his final season in South Bend, Kona Schwenke has emerged as an almost super-sub, sliding into Sheldon Day’s role when the sophomore defensive end was nursing an ankle injury back to health. Now Schwenke will shift back into the nose guard position, subbing for Nix at the position he’s played the past few seasons.

Schwenke won’t likely be asked to play the traditional “two-gap” defensive tackle that Nix does so well. Rather he’ll join a rotation that’ll feature a steady dose of four down linemen, with Prince Shembo, Ishaq Williams and a host of others helping out up front.

Also moving inside will be Stephon Tuitt, who enters Saturdays game on a straight-up hot streak, trouble for Air Force, considering Tuitt has been so good against option teams.

“My job is to be in the middle, to be a Louis Nix,” Tuitt said this week.

Still, Schwenke’s rise has been plenty impressive, with his final season in South Bend showing the Hawaiian to be a productive performer and a great developmental project. Depth issues forced Schwenke onto the field earlier than the staff would have liked. But for a kid that arrived as a 230-pound outside linebacker and was an afterthought to most in recruiting,  seeing an impressive 303-pounder who has been really productive this season has been a fun process to watch.

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Heading back home to Colorado, Danny Spond takes comfort in finding what’s next.

There have to be a lot of emotions going through senior linebacker Danny Spond today as the Colorado native heads home for a game that’s likely been circled for a long time. Of course, Spond won’t be playing on Saturday, but rather helping coach the outside linebackers.

It’s that unique role that Spond talked about Wednesday. And one that he’s handled with the type of courage and grace that you come to expect from Spond, who embodies what Notre Dame hopes for in student-athletes.

“I know they can’t see me out there as a player, but they know what I’ve accomplished here and how hard I’ve worked to establish my role,” Spond said of the large group of family, friends and former coaches that’ll be watching the Irish take on Air Force. “Just for them to be out there supporting our team is enough for me.”

Perhaps one of the hardest parts to hear from Spond was that the football bug hasn’t gone anywhere. In fact, it’s gotten worse.

“Each game gets a little bit harder,” Spond told Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson. “It’ll probably be in my mind another five years, but I’m at peace with it and I understand that this is my role now.”

Spond does his best to fill that void by doing what he did as a player: Grind. He hasn’t missed a practice or a meeting with his position group. He still logs a lot of hours in the Gug. And he’s taken a philosophical approach that’s supported by his strong faith that will surely get him through life after football.

“Knowing that everything happens for a reason, and whatever that reason might be, I know it’s what’s best for me,” Spond said. “To really just understand that this wasn’t what’s in my plan and I’m excited for what’s next.”

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A few years after the Niklas brothers shared the field, it’s time for the Rochell’s to go head-to-head. 

The last time Air Force visited South Bend, the Niklas family had a special moment that paired Troy (then an outside linebacker) on the same field as his brother Austin. That baton is being passed down to the Rochells, where Irish freshman defensive end Isaac will have a chance to play against his brother Matt, a sophomore offensive tackle for Air Force.

The Colorado Springs Gazette’s Brent Briggeman caught up with the matriarch of the Rochell family, who talked about how special it’ll be to potentially see one son matched up against the other at the line of scrimmage.

“I don’t know how they’ll even keep a straight face,” Gina Rochell told the Gazette.

With the need to keep bodies fresh along the defensive front, the Irish staff will likely lean on young players like Rochell and Jarron Jones more (Jones will be coming directly from Rochester, New York, where he attended a family funeral). And that’s very exciting for the freshman from Georgia.

“He’s pretty excited about playing the game. He may even be matched up against his brother,” Kelly said on Thursday. “I think more than anything else, he’s excited about playing. Regardless of whether he’s playing against his brother or not, he knows he’s going to get into the game. He’s really excited about that.”

Briggeman’s profile on the Rochell family is worth reading, if only for the quotes he got from Matt, who talked about the primary difference between the two brothers’ college football experience.

“The only big difference I see is that they get up at like 9 and we get up at 6,” Matt told the Gazette. “He’s still busy, but he’s not getting up at 6. The big thing is sleep that I see; and food, actually. They eat a lot more food.”

(Score some points for Training Table!)

Back to the more important subject matter, the Rochell family won’t have too hard of time feeling like winners regardless of who walks off the field victorious on Saturday.

“You see your two kids out there and one’s playing for Notre Dame and one’s playing for the Air Force Academy,” Mrs. Rochell said. “It doesn’t get any better than that, academically, as far as I’m concerned.”

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Tommy Rees may be healthy enough to be the starter, but for the health of the position Andrew Hendrix needs to get some snaps. 

While the Irish got good news that Tommy Rees would be healthy and capable of starting against Air Force, they absolutely need to make sure Andrew Hendrix is ready to play better football if called upon. And that opportunity might be easy to get against an Air Force defense that’s probably the worst group the Irish will play this season.

Hendrix isn’t as bad as we saw last weekend against USC. But Brian Kelly talked about how important it was to get him playing better, especially with the Irish staff trying desperately to hold onto Malik Zaire’s redshirt.

“I think what Andrew has to do is he’s got to take that practice now and he’s got to take that into games,” Kelly said earlier this week. “And hopefully he’ll use the experience that he had against USC and he’ll take that as a learning experience and translate what he does in practice now into games.”

During his weekly Thursday update, Kelly talked about the rep breakdown at practice, particularly the added snaps that both Hendrix and Zaire took this week. For those wondering why Kelly wasn’t quick to pull Hendrix last Saturday and insert Zaire into the game, it’s because the freshman quarterback had taken virtually zero reps with the first team offense this season. That changed this week.

“This week he got a handful of first team reps,” Kelly said.

Still, the priority was getting Hendrix up to speed, and the senior quarterback took more snaps Wednesday with the first team than he had all year, and if he does play, Hendrix will likely have access to more of the playbook, not just running packages.

In many ways, this could be a tryout for Hendrix and a potential fifth year. Next year, Everett Golson will be back and Zaire will be ready to compete. But will the Irish staff keep Hendrix around to battle for the No. 2 job over put themselves in a similar situation to this year, where they have a starter (an undersized one at that), an untested back-up, and a freshman that likely needs to redshirt?

Saturday might give us a clue.

While Cam McDaniel became a viral sensation this week, the running back job is still up for grabs. 

Cam McDaniel went from anonymous Notre Dame running back to viral internet sensation thanks to some faulty equipment. McDaniel’s helmet popped off (again) after a run against the Trojans, producing a bizarre (and handsome) photo that got plenty of people talking. It even got McDaniel booked for a segment on the TODAY show this morning, where Savannah Guthrie even asked for his digits. (Remember to dial 4 first for the dorms, Sav…)

Notoriety aside, Saturday will be an interesting status check for the crowded running back position. Will George Atkinson get the first chance to run against the undermanned Falcons rush defense? Can Tarean Folston get back on the field and earn himself more snaps? Will Amir Carlisle get more production out of his touches? Is Will Mahone healthy and ready to fight his way back onto the field?

The Falcons are giving up over 220 yards a game on nearly five yards a carry. And with the calendar about to turn to November, this is the time of year where the Irish ground game needs to work its way into dominance, especially with a favorable schedule the next few weeks.

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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.