BYU Mailbag: Questions answered

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Let’s get into this week’s mailbag, which featured quite a few good questions (and more than a few answers from you guys).

Let’s get to it:

@jfoneill22: On whose behalf am I cheering for an Irish blowout this weekend? Which unheralded senior has earned a few snaps on Sat?

I don’t know if BYU is the team where the bench is going to empty, as some wise guys see this one as a one-point line pointing the Cougars direction, making the Irish a rare homedog.

That said, if I were to guess a senior that might get a chance to make a few big plays, it’d be Kendall Moore. Against a running quarterback like Taysom Hill, Moore could have some chances to knock heads, and it’s only a matter of time before he knocks a football loose.

domer77blowsgoat: In 2012 with Golson out with a concussion Kelly relied on the run game and the defense to get past BYU, i.e. wasn’t going to put the game in Rees’ hands to lose – why the change in philosophy this year as it has cost us at least 2 games and a shot at the BCS?

I get the angle you’re taking here, but I’m not sure I agree with it. Notre Dame lost to Michigan because they gave up 41 points. Looking at the offense the Wolverines are trotting out there now, that’s just brutal.

Put simply, I don’t think Kelly trusts his defense like he did last year, or his running backs. There’s a reason why the Irish can’t settle on a running back rotation and I tend to think it’s a product of nobody giving the staff exactly what it wants.

That being said, I am very curious to see if the Irish lean on the ground game on Saturday, especially with the weather starting to look like a potential winter wonderland. It certainly makes more sense than having Rees throw 35 times.

@BruceND75: Could it be that much of the problem with playcalling is blowback for Rees’s prolific audibling? What % of plays are audibles?

I think anybody who is willing to tell you a percentage of Rees audibles is lying to you, Bruce. Nobody has any idea how often the Irish check the play at the line of scrimmage, but the offensive system is designed to get the team in and out of bad looks. It’s certainly not something that JUST Tommy Rees does, but Notre Dame will likely go back to a situation that’s more a “call it and haul it” scenario with Everett Golson, who has the ability to keep the football and run it.

Ted Wheeler: If the ACC bowl tie-ins were in effect for this season, where would ND likely end up? How much of an improvement would this be over what’s likely an appearance in the Pinstripe Bowl?

Good question. Next year the Irish will need to be within one win of an ACC team to leapfrog them in the bowl lineup. It’s kind of hard to guess where that’ll be without knowing if the Irish are going to beat BYU and Stanford, but here are the ACC tie-ins as of this year, per SI.com’s Stewart Mandel.

Orange Bowl: ACC Champ
Chick-fil-A Bowl: ACC No. 2
Russell Athletic Bowl: ACC No. 3
Sun Bowl: ACC No. 4
Belk Bowl: ACC No. 5
Music City Bowl: ACC No. 6
AdvoCare Bowl: ACC No. 7
Military Bowl: ACC No. 8

They’d slot in somewhere in the middle depending, so it isn’t as if the Irish are missing out on that much this year.

Nudeman: Just as a follow up/tag on here … no one is excited about playing a 2nd tier team in a 3rd tier bowl. Keith, is there any chance ND just passes altogether ND stays home? (And yes, I know all the prevailing BS about those 15 practices being so important)

In today’s era of college football, you’d be pretty stupid to turn down the opportunity to develop your team for an additional 10 practices or so. So while traditionalists like Uncle Nudie like the idea of turning down (or turning up the school’s collective nose at) a mediocre bowl, you don’t see coaches volunteer to give up spring practice, do you?

Also — the bowl trip is about more than just the football team, it’s often used to reward school officials and administrators with a few days away from home in a nice locale. That might not happen this year if it turns out being Shreveport or Detroit, but post Christmas in Manhattan doesn’t sound too bad.

irishaggie: Going into this BYU game what have you seen from this 2013 squad that has disappointed you the most in the first 10 games?

Probably the inconsistencies on both sides of the ball. This defense has given up way too many big plays. And offensively, there still isn’t much of an identity. This team hasn’t been able to hang its hat on anything, and that’s been tough.

Obviously, the Pitt loss is as disappointing as it gets. But collectively this team has struggled to get a ton out of its personnel, though I do think a lot of this is injury related (at least defensively).

mediocrebob: What do you know about guys like Hounshell and Springman? Are they healing on time? I know there was talk about Hounshell possibly returning this year. Are they guys the Irish can lean on next year upfront with the departure of Tuitt and Nix?

It sounds like both guys are on track to practice this spring, though BK hinted at an infection slowing down Springmann earlier this fall. There was talk about Hounshell practicing and taking snaps potentially, but that was mostly because of the internal skepticism that he’d be eligible for a sixth year of competition.

Don’t count out Nix or Tuitt just yet, though I do think this is it for Big Lou. But I don’t think it’s outrageous to think that Springmann can fill in capably at nose tackle like Sean Cwynar did and hopefully Jarron Jones does a good job developing.

ndfenian: Keith, I think the injuries to ND’s front seven have been very significant for the 2013 squad. Going into the Pitt game, I counted seven players out for the game, and two playing with significant injuries, and these are all front seven guys that were listed on the preseason two-deep. Are you aware of other programs in recent years that have suffered this amount of injuries to starting players and still had successful (BCS) seasons?

I can’t give you specifics, but I’m certain a rash of injuries happens to other teams, too. (Just not on the team that I follow on a daily basis.) But I don’t think teams just make it to the BCS after losing 11 contributors on defense, and that’s pretty much been what happened to this team.

Injuries stink. But it’s a good reminder of why teams need to build quality depth and why teams don’t give up on guys like Tyler Stockton, Justin Utupo or Eilar Hardy.

charlie617: What current player who will be a senior/5th year next year do you project as having the biggest (positive) impact next season?

I’m feeling good about Kendall Moore. I really think he’s going to have to play a lot of football next year and could step in and do a nice job. He reminds me a lot of a guy like Corey Mays.

Mays spent the majority of his first four seasons in South Bend playing special teams before stepping into the starting lineup and having an impressive fifth-year. He parlayed that into a nice run in the NFL. I could see that happening with Moore, too.

newmexicoirish: Keith, now that the season is winding down, do you expect BK to make some coaching changes for next year? If so, which coaches do you think will be updating their resume?

You aren’t the first person to ask this, but I just don’t see it happening. This is the same staff that carried the Irish to the BCS Championship game. While there’s been some disappointing play at positions like safety and maybe quarterback, I hardly think that’s something that needs addressing at the positional ranks.

Also, people have clamored for a special teams coach to be assigned. I don’t think Scott Booker has done a bad job, and if you want to look at one spot that’s really been crushed by injuries, it’s special teams.

 

 

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

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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