And in that corner… The USC Trojans

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The greatest intersectional rivalry in college football might not have the shine of previous years, but it doesn’t make it any less important. Both Notre Dame and USC will enter the Coliseum desperate for a victory.

The Trojans are coming off an ugly loss to crosstown rivals UCLA, with the boys in Westwood taking up residency as the Kings of LA, their third-straight victory in a series that used to be a Trojan strangehold.

For Brian Kelly, a victory would be a much needed eighth win, a number that seemed like a formality a month ago, but has since turned elusive. That eighth win would make Kelly the first Notre Dame head coach to win eight games in his first five seasons. Not that it’d salvage a season, but winning four of five against USC is a nice step in the right direction after losing the plot in November this season.

To get us ready for the season finale, Shotgun Spratling joins us. Covering all things USC at Conquest Chronicles and TrojanSports.com, Shotgun’s byline is everywhere around Southern California, including collegebaseballdaily.com

Hope you enjoy.

 

We just watched USC get trounced by UCLA. How much did that one game define this season?

It was emblematic of the Trojans’ woes in many ways. There were errors in the secondary Saturday, which has been an issue on and off this season. They have started off several games strong only to fade in the second half. In this game, that fading began in the third quarter, but the only reason USC didn’t fade in the fourth quarter of this game was because the game was already out of hand by the fourth quarter.

 

What was the most surprising part of last Saturday? Offensive line play? The secondary? Help Irish fans feel better about what they’ve been watching this past month and their chances on Saturday.

The most surprising part was actually some of the coaching decisions. Why 25-year old senior safety Gerald Bowman wasn’t on the field in a regular safety position rather than using a three-safety rotation with Bowman near the line in a quasi-spy position for Brett Hundley and having Leon McQuay III end up playing 69 plays when he’s had issues all season seems strange, especially considering Josh Shaw was fresh and back on the field.

It has also been baffling to watch the offensive line struggle with no adjustments. Toa Lobendahn has struggled at times at left tackle since moving there with Chad Wheeler’s season-ending injury at Utah and was pretty much terrible against UCLA, grading out at a whopping -8.2, according to Pro Football Focus.

What in the world senior Aundrey Walker did to never be allowed on the field must have involved some coach’s wife or daughter. It makes no sense why an experienced senior that has actually looked pretty good when allowed to play this year can’t get in the game when a true freshman that is expected to be a guard or senior going forward is having so many issues.

 

Steve Sarkisian is in the middle of his first season as USC’s head coach. He’s lost four games — two in rather dramatic fashion, and a shocking upset at Boston College. How do Trojan fans feel about their native son after 11 games?

It’s definitely a split bag. People realize that the sanctions do have an impact and that’s part of the reason why the Trojans have had issues down the stretch in some games, but there are some decisions and gamelans that have been confounding, which have some Trojan fans worrying that the “Seven-Win Sark” nomenclature is here to stay.

 

Cody Kessler’s numbers look mighty impressive, especially his 30:4 TD:INT ratio. Notre Dame fans have seen a lot of very good Trojan quarterbacks, all but supplying Heisman votes for Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. Where does Kessler slot in among the recent starters we’ve seen since the Trojans returned to the elite of college football?

The problem with Kessler’s numbers and the reason why he isn’t viewed in the same light as Palmer, Leinart, Sanchez or Barkley is that his stats have been terribly inflated against poor competition. In six games against unranked opponents this season, he has 26 touchdowns to only one interception, but in five games against ranked opponents, Kessler’s TD:INT numbers dwindle to 4:3. Being 0-3 in rivalry games isn’t helping his case either. A big game this weekend and in the bowl game could propel him toward Heisman contender for next season, though.

 

Every year we see a few stars on USC’s roster. Walk us through the key playmakers — and the future NFL stars — current wearing cardinal and gold.

Recently, it starts with the single-digit jerseys, but this year there is no player like No. 94 Leonard Williams — BEAST! Potential No. 1 overall pick. Amazingly, the Trojans have a future NFL star at each level on defense. Su’a Cravens is a guy that is always making big plays around the ball. He’s playing a hybrid outside linebacker role, so he can be nearer the action and get his hands on ball carriers. Then there’s the freshmen sensation at cornerback Adoree’ Jackson. You might see him on offense and he’ll return kicks. He’s an explosive playmaker, but the true freshman is already the Trojans’ lockdown corner that gets a ton of one-on-one matchups.

On the offensive side of the ball, Cody Kessler might have NFL potential, but it’s the weapons around him that are really special. Nelson Agholor is a really good route runner that has burst. He’ll likely follow the Robert Woods/Marquise Lee second round draft pick mini-pipeline. Another fabulous freshman is JuJu Smith, who has great athletic ability and only just turned 18. As he matures, he’s going to continue to get better and better. There’s also the tough running of Buck Allen in the backfield. Allen also has versatility. He catches the ball really well and he’s the only player in the country that has had 100+ yards from scrimmage in every game this year.

 

The Trojans passing defense is ranked 111th in the country. The run defense gave up 452 on the ground to B.C. On paper, this group is giving up only 24 points a game, not all that bad. But when Notre Dame looks at the tape, how will they decide to attack USC?

The Boston College game was a mirage as far as running the ball against USC. The Trojans were outschemed in that game and couldn’t make tackles in the fourth quarter. Besides that game, USC is allowing only 103.4 yards per game on the ground. Teams have found much more success through the air where defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox plays a bend-but-don’t-break defense that uses blitzes sparingly. In fact, as of two weeks ago, USC was blitzing the least of any Power Five team in the country.

Since that fact has been harped on, USC has come out of its shell a little bit blitzing both Jared Goff and Brett Hundley more. With Notre Dame’s struggles against Arizona State’s blitzing, Trojan fans are really hoping Wilcox tries to put pressure in Everett Golson’s face, but I’d be surprised if it happens a lot. The coaching staff plays scared too often (see Bowman playing at the line of scrimmage against UCLA) and will likely be too frightened by Golson’s running ability to constantly attack.

 

We’re done with the scholarship sanctions at USC (right?). What’s the state of this roster? Notre Dame is decimated by injuries (especially in the front seven). But how healthy are the Trojans? And what should we expect on the recruiting front when Sark and company can get their roster back to 85 scholarships?

While the limitations are gone with the upcoming signing class, the sanctions won’t fully be over for another couple of years. The Trojans still have to add players to get back to the full 85 scholarship players allotted each school. But they are going to be bringing a lot of talent in with those 25 scholarships this year. Expect a lot of stars with this coaching staff. Pretty much everyone on the staff is a good recruiter.

Fortunately, USC hasn’t suffered any truly debilitating injuries this season. The loss of Chad Wheeler has seen the biggest impact while injuries like DT Kenny Bigelow, LB Jabari Ruffin, LB Lamar Dawson and RB Tre Madden are forgotten now, but each of those players likely would have seen significant playing time.

 

The Trojans are seven-point favorites. After getting trounced by their crosstown rivals, do you see USC rallying to beat Notre Dame in the Coliseum for the first time since the Carroll era?

My cousin is flying in from Georgia to get his first taste of the rivalry (and to avoid family Thanksgiving functions), so I’m hoping he gets to see a great game with the Trojans making a play at the end, unlike Notre Dame’s last two trips that have been more defined by close games that USC failed to win whether it was Ronald Johnson’s drop in the rain in 2010 or the Trojans’ inability to get a yard on four plays in 2012. USC has the stars to win…it’s just up to the coaches to put them in the best position to succeed — something that hasn’t always been the case this year.

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.)