Memorial Weekend notes: Martin, recruiting, scheduling and more

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Here’s hoping everybody has great plans for Memorial Day weekend. Consider this a guess (or hope) that it’ll be a less dramatic weekend than last year, when the Irish’s 2013 season was thrown into permanent disarray.

With the Irish assistant coaching staff out recruiting, and the unofficial start of summer kicking off on this long weekend, let’s share a few stories that I found interesting.

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For those looking for a stadium update, check this out:

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Over at Irish Illustrated, Tim Prister sat down for a long chat with former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin, now the head coach at Miami (Ohio). One of the more honest, candid and entertaining guys in college football, Martin didn’t disappoint.

Prister posted chunks of his interview in three parts, and while they’re protected by a paywall, they’re worth every bit of the $9.99 a month to read.

Here’s just a few snippets to give you a feel:

On Andrew Hendrix, now the unquestioned starting quarterback at Miami:

“The biggest thing with Andrew was he was close to being the guy at Notre Dame but never the guy. The confidence that comes with getting over the hump and becoming the guy…Not that he wasn’t confident, but he never got the confidence of really, truly being the guy at Notre Dame.

“Here, his game has really elevated. He’s having tons of success and he’s clearly the guy. There’s something to be said of when you have that comfort of being the guy, then you play better. When you’re always battling to get to the top of the depth chart, it’s hard with the stress of always falling a bit short. He is an unbelievable kid.”

And on Martin’s unequivocal love for Notre Dame:

“Brian Kelly could have gotten the Texas job and I wasn’t going to Texas. Brian Kelly could have gotten the Alabama job and I wasn’t going to Alabama. I wasn’t going to be an assistant coach, but any chance to coach at Notre Dame, I wasn’t going to pass it up.

“It’s Notre Dame. I’m Irish-Catholic from the south side of Chicago. It’s my school. It’s a place I believe in more than any place in the world. How they do their business. The quintessential student-athlete. To me, it wasn’t even a decision.

“When Brian asked, it was not a long conversation. We didn’t talk salary. I didn’t even know what position I was coaching. He said, ‘I’m bringing my coordinators from Cincinnati,’ and I said, ‘Okay, gotcha.'”

And on his desire to take over at Notre Dame when Kelly is finished:

“That would probably be the only goal I have in coaching. Other than that, I’ve never really chased jobs. I’m happy where I am today and during my previous stops in coaching. I always like where I’m at. I’ve never really had a bad job. I love where I’m at now. I don’t concern myself with jobs other than the one I have.

“But if you ask me if there’s one job I’d like to have, it would be Notre Dame.”

As someone who got to know Martin fairly well over the past four years, I can’t give a bigger recommendation to this interview. Part one, part two and part three all deliver the goods. There’s much better stuff from Martin in the articles, so head over and pony up.

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As college coaching staffs spend parts of May evaluating prospects, the heart of “recruiting season” begins to take off in June. Colleges will hold their camps, with Notre Dame’s “Irish Invasion” trying to establish itself on the prospect map, hoping to get on par with top-flight camps at schools like Florida and Ohio State.

In advance of other industry events like the Rivals Five-Star Challenge and Nike’s The Opening, Rivals updated their recruiting rankings, and quarterback Blake Barnett has moved up the most. Barnett’s now the No. 55 player in the country, and classified as a “dual-threat” quarterback, with the 6-foot-4, 193-pounder having the quicks to be a wide receiver if he wasn’t such a promising signal caller.

Joining Barnett in the Rivals250 are offensive linemen Jerry Tillery (#132) and Tristen Hoge (#159), and safety Prentice McKinney (#250), who came out of nowhere to make the list.

Right now Rivals has the Irish recruiting class ranked No. 15 in the country, though it’s the second-highest school with less than 10 commitments, trailing just USC.

Notre Dame is also after some of the top prospects on this list, still chasing blue-chippers DT Kahlil McKenzie, WR George Campbell, RB Soso Jamabo, LB Justin Hilliard, DE Jashon Cornell, WR Miles Boykin, WR Cordell Broadus, WR Equanimeous St. Brown, RB Malik Lovette, WR K.J. Hill and plenty more.

(Quick reminder: These rankings are as subjective as they come right now, especially before any of these players have a chance to get out to camps this summer. Deep breaths. Lot of time left.)

For another look at Irish recruiting, check out the conversation I had with Steve Wiltfong, 247’s director of recruiting about the evolution of Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts.

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Interestingly enough, the podcast Brian Kelly did with Bruce Feldman is picking up traction. While we pointed out some other segments that were interesting to us, Kelly’s talk of the difficulties getting traditional opponents like Michigan and Michigan State back on the schedule has some college football pundits accusing Kelly of complaining.

Here’s the section that’s got so many people up in arms:

“All I can do is voice my … you know, as a football coach, especially one that’s been in the Midwest, I love the ability to play Michigan and Michigan State and the tradition of it. But the reality of it is, you know, for our athletic department to enter into the agreement with the ACC, we have to give up a little bit from a football perspective relative to scheduling. To make our athletic department whole relative to soccer and lacrosse and basketball, that ACC agreement was absolutely crucial for our athletic teams.

“Football had to give up a little bit relative to flexibility and scheduling by taking on a commitment with the ACC. Therefore it’s put us in a very difficult situation scheduling and unfortunately, it’s taken some of those schools like a Michigan or Michigan State off our schedule. Because we’re gonna keep Navy. We’re gonna keep Stanford, and we’re gonna keep USC. Those three schools are not coming off and those are etched in stone. So now, add your ACC schools with those three schools and you’re really limited to where you can go.”

Talk about a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation for Kelly. If he downplays the rivalry with Michigan, he takes a week of crap for not calling the game with the Wolverines a rivalry. If he says that the team isn’t trying to get Michigan back on the schedule, he’s ducking Michigan, especially with Wolverines AD Dave Brandon still milking the cancellation letter he received from Jack Swarbrick.

From the perspective of Notre Dame’s football coach, Kelly has a point, but as the USA Today’s Dan Wolken points out, he also has an advantage.

But from the perspective of Notre Dame athletics as a whole, the move to the ACC is such an unqualified upgrade from the conference that used to be the Big East that Swarbrick’s decisive move is looking better and better each day.

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Lastly, because so many people have sent me this article, I thought it was important to comment on it. The Big Ten Network’s Tom Dienhart thinks the Big Ten should stop scheduling football games with Notre Dame.

Yep. That’s what he actually thinks.

It doesn’t take much googling to figure out Dienhart’s opinion of Notre Dame football, but for a conference that openly brags about its revenue stream while the quality of play — and attendance at football games — continues to decay, removing an opponent that actually fills seats isn’t the wisest move in the world.

Dienhart suggests the Big Ten play a 10-game conference schedule and remove Notre Dame from every schedule. The move to nine games was painful enough for schools that routinely feast on non-conference opponents from the MAC or I-AA, but 10 games? (How would Northwestern get to eight wins every year?)

What next, adding a team from New Jersey because they’ll get cable TV subscriptions in New York City? 

Anyway, read the article and judge it for yourself. I grew up a Big Ten fan and still enjoy watching the conference, but this feels more than a little off base.

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Hope everyone has a great weekend with friends and family. (And that no big news breaks out of South Bend, I’ll be without my computer.)

 

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