Setting the bar: Expectations for the 2014 Irish

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When Brian Kelly leads Notre Dame out of the tunnel to open the 2014 season on Saturday afternoon, he’ll be leading his youngest and most inexperienced team into battle on the new artificial surface of Notre Dame Stadium. He’ll also be short three key starters, still left in limbo as an academic investigation and Honor Code ruling continues.

While the academic probe has throw the past few weeks out of sorts, the only constant at Notre Dame seems to be distractions. In addition to the unknowns that surround DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell, Ishaq Williams and Kendall Moore, the Irish coaching staff also had to work through the cancer diagnosis of offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock and graduate assistant Kyle McCarthy. Weighty issues that play both on and off the field.

But even with a defense that’s filled with question marks and youth, the Irish are expected to be one of the better teams in college football. Facing a schedule that Kelly called the toughest in the country last week, entering his fifth season with the Irish, Kelly didn’t hesitate to talk up the lofty expectations that he and his team hold.

“Expectations haven’t changed. They can’t change,” Kelly said. “We don’t have a conference championship to play for, so we only have one goal in mind, and that is to get in the playoffs. That’s our only focus, to be one of those four teams to get in the playoffs.”

As the Irish continue final preparations for Rice (not to mention a must-win game against Michigan on the horizon), let’s take a look at where we should set the bar for the 2014 season.

 

OFFENSE

For Everett Golson, the suspension of four teammates has somehow taken the spotlight off the returning quarterback, finally back on the football field after his own highly publicized academic indiscretion cost him the 2013 season. But Golson did all that was asked of him, returned to campus in the winter and reclaimed the starting quarterback job.

Golson will be piloting an offense that’s far more complex than the one he capably steered in 2012. Likely asked to move quickly and to score points by the bushel, even without Daniels as his No. 1 receiver, the Irish have weapons, though they won’t be optimized without Golson leading the charge.

 

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The maturity Golson talks about in his interview with Doug Flutie has been echoed by Kelly, Denbrock and new quarterback coach Matt LaFleur. And his role as a leader on this offense will be accentuated as he leads a young group of talented skill players into action.

Junior Chris Brown is the closest thing the receiving corps has to a veteran. Senior tight end Ben Koyack is a starter because Troy Niklas decided to head to the NFL. Sophomores Corey Robinson and Will Fuller will be asked to step up. Senior running back Cam McDaniel will lead a position group that’s likely going to be powered by sophomores Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant.

Up front, the offensive line has come into focus, with Harry Hiestand and Kelly deciding on veteran Matt Hegarty to move into the starting lineup in front of sophomore and first-year contributor Mike McGlinchey. Hegarty taking over at left guard solidifies the tackles, with Ronnie Stanley and Steve Elmer starting. A veteran interior with senior Nick Martin surrounded by Hegarty and fifth-year grad student Christian Lombard should help power the ground game.

The offense Notre Dame fans expected to see once they brought in Kelly has not existed. The Irish have had a Top 50 offense only once in Kelly’s four seasons, ranking No. 49 in scoring offense in 2011, a year where turnovers decimated their productivity. Scoring 30 points a game needs to be the baseline goal — a number Kelly’s offense hasn’t reached yet in South Bend.

They can do that by being more productive in the red zone. They can do that by moving quicker and running more plays. With Golson behind center and talents like Bryant, Folston, Fuller and Brown, the Irish have home run hitters. But they need to see those results on the scoreboard for the Irish to reach even their most modest goals.

 

DEFENSE

With nobody knowing quite what to expect from Brian VanGorder’s defense, Notre Dame will have mystery in their corner. But taking a closer look at the personnel the Irish need to utilize and that mystery cuts both ways. The Irish can be a productive defense, but they’ll need to do it in a way completely different than Bob Diaco did.

Bending won’t be an option, with the Irish completely lacking the personnel — or philosophy — to slug it out. Dictating terms may be the only way to survive, especially with speed and athleticism one of the true assets on this side of the ball.

The Irish staff believe they have two stars on their defense: Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day. Add a third if KeiVarae Russell is allowed to return.

Behind that trio, a dependable core needs to emerge. At safety, Max Redfield needs to grow up quickly while Austin Collinsworth needs to play error-free football. Middle linebacker Joe Schmidt might be an unlikely starter, but he’s capable of being productive and needs to anchor the defense, keeping a young group from making costly mental mistakes.

Up front, the biggest challenge falls to defensive line coach Mike Elston. After working with sure-fire NFL prospects Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, Elston now needs to find productive snaps from a defensive end position that’s filled with youth. On one side, true freshman Andrew Trumbetti gets an opportunity to start while sharing snaps with first-time defensive end Romeo Okwara. On the other, it’s Isaac Rochell sliding into Ishaq Williams’ spot, backed up by true freshman Grant Blankenship.

During his Tuesday press conference, Kelly acknowledged that this may be his most inexperienced defense ever. That’s saying quite a bit. But it’s also one of his most athletic, so while we might see some growing pains, finding a way to be productive under the current constraints is key, and VanGorder’s skills as a schemer and game manager will be put on display almost immediately.

 

THE SCHEDULE

In the first year of the College Football Playoff, playing a difficult schedule will be a key factor in the selection committee’s process. Notre Dame certainly fulfills that part of the criteria just fine, with a daunting slate that forces a week to week approach that demands the Irish play good football every Saturday.

First goal? Get out of September alive. That means beating Michigan, a team that’s seemed to own the Irish even if Brady Hoke is barely holding onto his job. The Irish won’t need to get on a plane until the end of September, when a date against Syracuse at the Meadowlands brings Notre Dame back to the New York metropolitan area, all but a home game even against the Orange.

From there, October gives Notre Dame perhaps the toughest three-week stretch of the Kelly era, with Stanford and North Carolina visiting South Bend before the Irish head to Tallahassee to take on the defending champions Florida State. The Irish will get a much deserved week off before starting November, a five game month that starts with Navy and ends with a visit to USC.

The Irish could conceivably lose all five games — Navy, a visit to Tempe to play Arizona State, visits from Northwestern and Louisville before playing the Trojans, the fifth game in as many weeks. That’s a pessimists view, but a possibility, especially when taking a closer look at Notre Dame’s opponents.

With a defense in desperate need to stay healthy,  the Irish can’t afford to have anything happen to key players Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day. Even with all hands on deck, November looks like a month that that’ll define this team.

 

FINDING THE WINNING FORMULA

In 2012, Kelly devised a formula that depended on the Irish defense and allowed the offense to complement the game plan. In 2014, those roles will be reversed, with the offense serving as the team’s engine and the defense likely devised to fill a role as well.

What will the formula look like?

First, let’s look at special teams. The Irish have taken a lot of flack for their lack of excellence in the third phase of the game. They spent the offseason digging deeper into their problems, and the results are a mix of personnel changes, new schemes and superior depth helping out.

While some will still claim that special teams are a third of the game, the reality isn’t quite that simple. The smart guys over at Football Outsiders basically concluded that the DNA of a quality NFL team is four parts offense, three parts defense and one part special teams. So while that helps quantify how serious (or unserious) the Irish’s struggles have been, Kelly is still determined to get more from this unit, especially in a season where big plays will be needed.

Putting Greg Bryant or Cody Riggs back as punt return shows that emphasis. Both guys are critical position players, especially Riggs with KeiVarae Russell sidelined. With Amir Carlisle returning kicks, another starter is being given an opportunity to make plays. One look at the starting kickoff team and you see former four-star recruits just about everywhere. Apologies to the Walk-on Players Union, but those playing opportunities likely evaporated for good.

With Kyle Brindza capable of kicking plenty of touchbacks, while holding down both the field goal and punt duties, solidifying Scott Booker’s unit looks under control. But getting a few game-breaking opportunities in the return game shows a willingness to push the envelope.

Of course, if you’re looking for envelope pushing, Brian VanGorder is your man. This won’t resemble Bob Diaco’s defense. VanGorder is closer to a mad scientist, with sub groupings and personnel packages that could make the Irish look like a hockey team changing on the fly.

The key to all of this is not losing control of the core basics. Forgetting Jon Tenuta took four long seasons. But the Irish’s reliance on youth could put some of VanGorder’s schemes in Tenuta territory, especially if the young guys are struggling to mentally process what’s happening.

But as a head coach, Kelly has learned that scheme doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Just as he did in 2012, fitting his offensive and defensive game plans together is crucial.

VanGorder coaches defense the way Kelly wants to play it. That’s a fairly amazing statement considering the Irish just got done playing four years under Diaco. Expect Kelly and the Irish staff to add an aggressiveness to game planning this year. It’ll give the Irish a chance to fight their way to victories, even if it’s in a style that looks much different than in years past.

 

HOW TO MEASURE SUCCESS

The fact that Notre Dame’s nine-win season in 2013 was mostly viewed as coming up short of expectations is a sign of the progress that’s being made in South Bend. But 2014 could be anyone’s guess. With so many variables still being defined, this is an algebra equation that isn’t capable of being solved quite yet.

The Irish charging their way into the first ever College Football Playoff with one loss isn’t crazier than what happened in 2012. But the combination of a young team, new systems, distracting suspensions and a really difficult schedule also turns 2014 into the type of year that could be a huge setback.

The volatility that comes with this team is a big reason why coaches go grey early. And even with Golson back at the helm, the defense needs to build quickly, taking advantage of every trick shoved up VanGorder’s sleeve possible.

Just about anybody that looks at this team sees a bright future and a playoff run that looks primed for 2015. But you don’t throw away football seasons and play for next year at Notre Dame.

So with the first chapter of the 2014 season ready to be written this Saturday, an unknown journey will begin to reveal itself.

Let the games begin.

Kevin Stepherson, three others no longer on Notre Dame roster

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Irish head coach Brian Kelly and Notre Dame parted ways with four underclassmen Tuesday, in a move only partially-expected. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, sophomore running back Deon McIntosh, freshman running back C.J. Holmes and junior defensive tackle Brandon Tiassum are no longer part of the team, a University spokesperson confirmed.

Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated first reported the dismissals. The spring semester began Tuesday.

Stepherson’s departure, at least, was widely-expected after a December weekend of bad decisions brought his count of mishaps to four during his brief Irish career and induced an indefinite suspension. The lesser of those transgressions came with Holmes at his side, as the duo was charged with shoplifting from a nearby mall. Stepherson was also charged with possession of marijuana, speeding and driving without a valid license. Back in August of 2016, he was one of five players charged with marijuana possession, though no suspension came from that issue.

Following the shoplifting incident but before the additional Stepherson charges had come to light, Kelly expressed distinct disappointment in the choice made on a Friday night.

“You can’t steal, and they did,” he said. “I can tolerate a lot of things, but I can’t tolerate stealing. That’s why they’re suspended indefinitely and they put themselves in jeopardy.”

Kelly said he did hope to keep the players, specifically Stepherson, eligible so if they were removed from the team a transfer may be in their futures.

“If I wasn’t to have him back in the football program we want him to maintain his eligibility here so he can transfer to another program,” Kelly said.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh provided crucial depth for Notre Dame as ankle sprains limited juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

McIntosh was sent home from Orlando during Citrus Bowl preparations due to a violation of team rules. Tiassum’s exit will be a question for the time being, with no public knowledge of any issues.

While long-presumed, the loss of Stepherson still bears the most notice. When engaged, he was Notre Dame’s most explosive receiver, finishing 2017 with 359 yards and five touchdowns on 19 catches in only eight games, with genuine offensive involvement in only six. He caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five scores in his freshman season.

Cutting ties with both McIntosh and Holmes comes as a bit more of a surprise and will cut deep into the Irish running back depth. As ankle injuries limited the running game mainstays, McIntosh provided a reserve option, finishing the year with 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries, a 5.7 yards per rush average. Holmes was activated to further counteract the injury concerns. If McIntosh were banged up, Notre Dame theoretically had one more option. He finished with eight carries for 32 yards.

Without the two backups, the Irish have only three running backs currently on the roster in junior Dexter Williams, sophomore Tony Jones and early-enrolled Jahmir Smith. Williams and Jones were likely to remain the top two on the depth chart, mitigating McIntosh and Holmes again, but the depth is always crucial at running back, as 2017 certainly proved.

Tiassum was unlikely to see much playing time in the future thanks to the returns of junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner announced Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Tiassum made two tackles in 2017.

Bonner’s decision to return brought the Irish roster up to 87 players with three spots open in the current recruiting cycle. Obviously, this development drops that number to 83. The NCAA maximum allowed come fall is 85.

Notre Dame returns entire defensive line with DT Bonner’s fifth-year decision

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Notre Dame’s defensive line will return intact in 2018. Irish head coach Brian Kelly confirmed senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner has changed his mind and will return for a fifth season Tuesday.

ND Insider’s Eric Hansen first reported Bonner’s shift.

In November, Bonner told Notre Dame’s independent student newspaper, The Observer, he did not intend to take a fifth year. Bonner later announced his mother had been diagnosed with cancer, lending some context to his decision to cut short his football career.

Apparently some combination of the decisions to return from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, the 2018 defense’s potential and whatever other factors led Bonner to make a last-minute return to school. First-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea is certainly grateful.

Bonner provided consistent production in the defensive interior in 2017, finishing the season with 30 tackles, 3.5 for loss with two sacks. In his first three years with the Irish, Bonner hardly broke into the rotation. Suddenly, he was a force at the point of attack and held his own no matter the opponent.

Building upon that moving forward seems likely considering Bonner will not need to shoulder as much of the load. Freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa will have a greater role with another year under his belt, not to mention freshmen Kurt Hinish and Darnell Ewell. An increased rotation will benefit all involved.

At this point, the only contributing defensive lineman lost from 2017 will be end Andrew Trumbetti, out of eligibility. He split time with classmate Jay Hayes, so it can be argued the entire starting defensive line returns. A year ago, that unit was seen as a weakness, but it established itself as a strength as the season went on.

Bonner’s addition brings the running count on Notre Dame’s roster to 87 players, not counting three more possible commits in the incoming freshman class. The NCAA maximum is 85.

Seven early enrollees set a new Notre Dame high, but will they make an impact?

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Notre Dame does not lean on high school seniors to enroll a semester early, yet seven did so this year, a program high. By no means does the head-start guarantee an immediate impact. As discussed in Monday’s Leftovers, only four of the 14 early enrollees in the last three years made notable contributions their freshmen seasons.

Such a return indicates at least one of these seven will make an impact in 2018, and quite possibly two of them. In an attempt to predict that, the seven are listed below in order of likelihood of altering a game this year, dictated by positional need creating opportunities more than anything else.

As will be the case all offseason, when speaking of depth chart holes, one position stands out as the most needing rapid improvement, safety.

Consensus four-star defensive back Houston Griffith
Griffith may end up a cornerback, but the Irish are well-stocked there at the moment. His first chance to contribute will come at safety, something Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly did not rule out when Griffith (and the rest of these) signed in December.

For that matter, coverage duties can lead to a freshman missing a step. Playing the catch-all role of boundary safety may better suit an athlete like Griffith.

And, again, the Irish need safeties.

Consensus four-star linebacker Jack Lamb
Notre Dame also needs linebacker depth, even with junior Te’von Coney opting to return for his senior year. The reserves on the roster in 2017 did not inspire much faith moving forward. That could change, but Lamb seems just as likely to jump into the second-string of the depth chart.

Lamb may not yet be ready for much in the way of coverage duties, but he already has the physique to hold up in a physical matchup, and the early arrival will only further that cause. With a deep recruiting class at the position — including three early enrollees — defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea will have options to test out. Lamb simply seems the most likely to emerge as the leader of the inexperienced majority at linebacker.

Bo Bauer (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star linebacker Matthew “Bo” Bauer
If it is not Lamb who earns playing time spelling Coney, it could be Bauer. Like Lamb, Bauer fits best against the run.

This early emphasis on linebackers is a reflection of the distinct need for depth. Current sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) have not claimed a primary role for themselves, and the recruiting emphasis at the position this cycle points to a general letdown with freshmen David Adams and Drew White.

Someone in the mix will need to step forward. By enrolling early, Lamb and Bauer have given themselves a bit more time to make that impression.

 

Micah Jones (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones
The need at receiver is much less; though unproven, there are options. Nonetheless, that uncertainty creates an opportunity for Jones’ big frame. Offensive coordinator Chip Long has already shown a preference for big bodies at receiver, so that alone should play in the 6-foot-5 Jones’ favor.

This past spring, Long toyed with the idea of Equanimeous St. Brown, Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin as his starting receivers. Those latter two are still around. Even if Jones does not create another towering trio, he could backup either Claypool or, more likely, Boykin without creating much of a change for a quarterback’s reads.

This spring will give Jones time to learn the playbook and develop the needed consistency for that possibility. In a receiving corps proven to be inconsistent this past season, any version of reliability may be enough for Jones to break through.

Consensus three-star running back Jahmir Smith
Irish recruiting director and special teams coordinator Brian Polian raved about Smith in December. Every word Polian said may have been warranted, but it will still be difficult to crack the presumed trio of sophomore Tony Jones, junior Dexter Williams and freshman C.J. Holmes. They will take up the carries, no matter how aggressively Long splits the duties.

Kelly did note he would not hold back a running back simply because he is a freshman. If the back is ready, cut him loose. It is unlikely a productive back would stay for a fifth year, anyway. (See: Adams, Josh.) However, Jones preserved a year of eligibility in 2016 despite generous praise consistently offered his direction, so Kelly’s sentiment may deserve some healthy skepticism.

Consensus three-star linebacker Ovie Oghoufo
Oghoufo does not arrive as heralded as either Lamb or Bauer, or summer enrollee consensus four-star Shayne Simon, but he will have his chance this spring all the same. That is what happens when a spot needs a playmaker. One freshman will almost assuredly be needed for depth.

More likely, Oghoufo will use the added time to get some heft onto his frame. Albeit speedy, his slightness stands out when compared to the other linebacker recruits.

Rivals.com four-star tight end George Takacs
Notre Dame simply does not have a pressing need for a tight end. Recruiting Takacs was a forward-looking decision. He will be the fourth tight end this spring, with freshman Brock Wright presumably limited as he recovers from a shoulder injury. None of the three ahead, or Wright, are anything akin to slouches.

Unless injuries and/or suspensions run rampant, Takacs is a prime candidate for a season spent preserving eligibility.

RELATED READING: Kelly on the offensive signees
Kelly on the defensive signees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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