The good, bad and ugly: Notre Dame vs. Rice

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Upon second viewing, quarterback Everett Golson’s 2014 debut is just as impressive. The senior quarterback, playing his first game in 600 days, didn’t seem to miss a beat, leading Notre Dame with five total touchdowns on the way to a 48-17 victory over Rice.

With Golson behind center, the offense did everything a little bit better. The run game blossomed. The passing game became explosive. Those red zone woes? The Irish converted six of six, with four touchdowns.

Golson’s five total touchdowns capped off one of the week’s best performances. Let’s take a look at the rest of the team before turning the page to Michigan in this week’s good, bad and ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Golson. We already said it. It just needed to be said again.

Looking at his 14 of 22 throwing performance, he probably deserved to have at least 55 more yards and a touchdown if C.J. Prosise didn’t do his best Featherstone impression from Necessary Roughness. Then again, Will Fuller didn’t help out when Golson put a perfect deep ball off his hands that Fuller didn’t squeeze right before.

My favorite throw of the afternoon: Golson rolling left with the pocket moving with him, and hitting Amir Carlisle on a deep flag, in stride over underneath coverage.

That was an NFL throw.

The run game. That’s the way Notre Dame should run the ball this season against an undermanned defensive front. Outside of Christian Covington (who managed just two tackles against Christian Lombard and the interior of the line), Rice wasn’t able to hang with the big boys up front, nor the backs who looked decisive and quick.

Cam McDaniel looked good in his eight carries. Tarean Folston looked as smooth as ever with 12 carries, leading the backs. But Greg Bryant showed the type of explosive burst that makes him tough to keep on the sideline (though mishaps on the goal line is the best way I can think of to keep him off the field).

Obviously, rolling through Rice for big yardage isn’t the same as doing it against Michigan and Greg Mattison. But it’s a great start for the ground game, with Golson also playing very effectively as a runner.

Field Position: Notre Dame dominated the field position battle, averaging over plus-10 in starting field position in each quarter. The Irish’s third quarter was pretty impressive, starting at the 47 and converting 4 of 5 third downs.

Joe Schmidt. Making his first start, Schmidt led the Irish with eight tackles, playing physical and looking active in both the run and pass game. Kelly said Schmidt graded out as the team’s best performer, though thought this was only the beginning for him.

“He was pretty good yesterday. He probably was our best player defensively,” Kelly said. “He’s got some things that he’s got to get better at. But I thought as a true first‑time starter, he was the best player for us.”

Sheldon Day. The defensive tackle finished second on the team with six tackles, a pretty productive day for the junior anchor of the defensive line. He had one TFL and came close to making a few more.

Brian VanGorder’s Run Defense. Credit to the front seven for holding up pretty well against Rice’s run game.

If you had told Notre Dame fans that a front playing Day, Jarron Jones, Justin Utupo, Isaac Rochell, Grant Blankenship, Andrew Trumbetti, Daniel Cage and Romeo Okwara would’ve given up 3.5 yards a carry and only one explosive play, they’d have taken it every day of the year.

The Return Game. Cody Riggs, Greg Bryant and Amir Carlisle did a great job being decisive. And credit to the punt return team for —what a concept– holding their blocks and letting their playmakers make plays.

(Don’t worry Cam, I’m going to forget that I noticed you blocking nobody on the return where Carlisle got stuffed short.)

The Red Zone Offense. Maybe Brian Kelly wasn’t kidding around about a mobile quarterback in tight quarters helping out. Six of six is nice, and four touchdowns is even better. (But another look at the tape will have the Irish feeling like they left one or two TDs out there.)

Matthias Farley. I may have already used it here, but Farley is the Tommy Rees of the Irish defense. Perfect? No. Makes mistakes? Oh, you’ve noticed?

But in one series, Farley basically turned the momentum of the football game completely around, making a tackle, collecting half a sack, and making a really athletic interception with next to no time left in the first half.

Then Golson and C.J. Prosise put the dagger in the Owls’ chest, turning a manageable game into a 28-10 halftime lead. The Irish scored 14 points in the final 153 seconds of the first half. Coffee is for closers, and there was Folgers waiting in the locker room.)

Playing a nickel back role that he’s only playing because of KeiVarae Russell’s suspension and Austin Collinsworth’s injury, Farley had the game’s biggest defensive series.

Quick Hits: 

* He wasn’t overly noticed out there, but for a first game at outside linebacker James Onwualu did a nice job in space. And on the fake punt.

* Nice job, slot receivers. Amir Carlisle looks pretty natural at wide receiver. Outside of his drop, C.J. Prosise is a pretty dangerous guy in space… especially at 220 pounds.

Jarron Jones showed up in a good way.

* That didn’t look like a freshman making the big hit when Andrew Trumbetti came off the edge.

* Welcome to college football Malik Zaire. I liked everything about that run except for that high step.

* All the kids played. (Except Jhonny Williams and Jon Bonner). But what a great way to get the young guys some experience.

* Before all of you guys start complaining about Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts, note that Drue Tranquill and Greer Martini both played major minutes on defense. Both were three-star guys with less than impressive offer lists. Maybe defer to the coaching staff on talent evaluation.

 

THE BAD

Communication in the secondary. Rice’s two touchdowns came on blown coverage on the back end, first by Elijah Shumate and the second by Nicky Baratti, a rude awakening for a guy coming back after some bad luck with his shoulders.

With Austin Collinsworth going down on Thursday afternoon, some mishaps were to be expected. But here’s how Kelly recapped the issues on his Sunday teleconference, putting the onus on Max Redfield and Shumate to do a better job working together.

“We got into a very unique situation where we had 24 hours really to get them communicating more effectively,” Kelly said. “We gave up five explosive plays — four passes — three of them directly related to poor communication.”

When asked if Farley was the answer at safety, Kelly feels that Shumate is still the guy best suited for strong safety.

“We can get that corrected. Both those guys are the kind of skill players we want back there. We have to address that issue, which we will this week.”

Slow Starts. It might be nit-picky, but Notre Dame went three-and-out on its first two possessions, something that can’t happen against Michigan next weekend. On second inspection, it looked like a combination of missed blocks in the run game and a bit of hesitancy by Golson on a few passes.

(I also think after seeing McDaniel get the start on the first series, it should be shifted around with Folston and Bryant getting early snaps.)

The Drops. Come on now, C.J. Prosise. Don’t drop gift-wrapped touchdowns. (But nice job working back into the play after Golson broke into a scramble.)

Will Fuller also needs to catch that deep ball if he wants to continue putting up monster yards-per-catch numbers. Not to mention the drop by Ben Koyack. That’s a habit I had hoped Koyack shed when turning into a senior leader.

Diagnosing Route concepts. Hang with me here. When Notre Dame’s defense got burnt on a few passes, it was a product of not seeing the passing concept in time.

The first crossing route that Rice hit the Irish on, Notre Dame had freshman defensive end Andrew Trumbetti standing up in coverage. In his first collegiate game, I can’t truly blame the kid for not seeing a receiver dragging back across to him.

The Irish got lucky when an illegal formation penalty robbed the Owls of another big gainer on a similar concept. But cornerback Cole Luke and Shumate didn’t do a great job communicating on the wheel route that Luke Turner and Driphus Jackson hit on.

As a wise man named GI Joe said, “Knowing is half the battle.” And against Doug Nussmeier and Michigan’s new offense, you can bet the Wolverines will try and bait the Irish secondary into making some mistakes.

Quick Hits: 

* No breakfast balls, Kyle Brindza. This isn’t No. 1 on the Warren Course. Brindza snap-hooked his first field goal attempt left and put his first kickoff out of bounds before righting the ship.

* I’m not putting Jaylon Smith in the bad category, but statistically his three tackles were well below the floor I had set for his box score impact on the game. He was close to turning at least one of those three tackles into another TFL, and his head coach’s comments Sunday afternoon were interesting.

“He played with great effort. Had some mental mistakes. I think he’s still learning the position. But he plays with great effort and great enthusiasm,” Kelly said. “When it comes to Jaylon, he takes his work very seriously. I would expect that you’re going to see significant improvement from Jaylon from week one to week two.”

* Hey Special Teamers: On pooch punts, look up for the football, don’t just go to the returner pretending to fair catch the ball. Kyle Brindza got robbed on two punts that could’ve been downed inside the five yard line.

Steve Elmer and Ronnie Stanley got beat with some speed moves — Elmer on the Owls’ sack of Golson and Stanley when defensive end Brian Nordstrom knifed inside of him. Nordstrom produced 1.5 TFLs.

 

THE UGLY

An easy opening victory after months without football? Especially after watching dynasty-in-the-making programs like Florida State and Alabama sweat wins out?

Enjoy the Rice victory and get ready for Michigan week.

 

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.