The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. USC

157 Comments

Upon second review, Notre Dame’s 49-14 defeat against rival USC looks just as bad. Early missed opportunity. Another injury plague. And a game that looked decided by the end of the first quarter.

There’s little positive to draw from Saturday’s performance. Outside of sophomores Malik Zaire and Greg Bryant, finding exemplary play from anybody in white jerseys and gold helmets is a reach.

But let’s go through the good, bad and ugly from the regular-season finale before turning our gaze to the postseason options and a long, angst-filled offseason.

 

THE GOOD

(Or at least a shade on the dull side of the good spectrum.)

Malik Zaire. If there’s a positive in Saturday’s performance it was the energy and competitiveness that Malik Zaire brought to the field. On second and third viewing, Zaire’s numbers were better than the 9 for 20 for 170 yards he threw for.

(That’s not to say it was a perfect performance, either. We’ll spend some time later this week digging deeper.)

Amir Carlisle and Will Fuller both dropped first down passes. And Fuller got his hands on, but couldn’t reel in a certain touchdown that could’ve gone for another 50-plus yard bomb.

But if we’re awarding gold stars in a game where USC had all but called off the dogs, Zaire’s presence postgame was exactly what you want to see out of a starting quarterback, and his message — one Irish fans thought they were long past hearing — was one that needed to be said regardless.

“We cannot quit. And we need to play with a lot of heart even when the scoreboard says something different,” Zaire said.

Zaire received a bit of coaching before meeting with a group of reporters huddled in the busy tunnel outside of Notre Dame’s locker room. But he was spot on with every comment he made, showing confidence, and nothing but support for Everett Golson, in the moments after a difficult loss.

“It’s never a me versus him type of thing,” Zaire said. It’s the quarterback group. We are the red army and we do what we need to do. That’s support each other. Because it’s bigger than us. It’s about the team and getting victories.”

That’s the type of “alpha dog” you expect your quarterback to be. While it’s a long way from being good enough to be an elite quarterback, Zaire’s mindset and attitude seems like the perfect one.

 

Greg Bryant. If the Irish did get some nice plays moving forward in the ground game, they came from Bryant. Again, they came well after the game was decided, so reading too far into this is silly, but Bryant showed some decisiveness running, and it showed in the final stat line as he averaged 11.3 yards a carry.

The two-headed monster most wanted to see in 2014 will likely emerge a year later.

 

THE BAD

Everett Golson. Six drives, zero points.

Notre Dame’s quarterback just didn’t have it on Saturday. And against a team where the Irish needed to score points and get into a slugfest, that was a backbreaker.

From jumpstreet Golson seemed to be off his game. The Irish went backwards on their opening drive, a formation penalty on snap one (Amir Carlisle lined up off the line of scrimmage) followed by a delay of game. But Golson had the chance to hit Will Fuller on a broken coverage on 3rd and 14 that could’ve been an opening drive touchdown. He never even saw him.

From there it didn’t get much better.

Kelly seemed willing to live with Golson struggling. But after a hard luck interception that spiraled through Corey Robinson’s hands, Golson held onto the football too long and was strip-sacked, recovered all too cleanly by USC.

It wasn’t all on Golson. The offensive line didn’t do that good of a job protecting him against some exotic, heavy blitzing (Zaire didn’t face this type of attack. The game was out of hand by then).

But the quarterback we saw on the field Saturday didn’t resemble the kid we saw going into enemy territory against Oklahoma or USC in 2012, not to mention in Tallahassee in late October. And ultimately we’ll see if he can rally.

 

Injuries. Notre Dame is down to two scholarship safeties for bowl preparations, and that’s after getting Eilar Hardy back after his career seemed finished as a part of the academic probe. Seeing Austin Collinsworth’s shoulder give out again, just feet from where his father was watching his son play, added some gravity to the agony of injuries in football.

Max Redfield got the start against his Southern California brethren, only to go down with a serious rib injury. That’s brutal news for a player who needed to make his move during these next dozen practices. And Cody Riggs should shut it down, getting his foot healed in time for Pro Day, the next important rep he’ll take in his college career.

Jay Hayes’ redshirt? Might spend the next month in the cold tub with a high ankle sprain. Greer Martini and Jacob Matuska? Not sure what they’ll be able to get out of that young duo during December, either.

Notre Dame’s defense is in a bad, bad place. As we saw very clearly on Saturday.

 

The Defense. Cody Kessler probably didn’t complete 80 percent of his passes in 7-on-7 this week. But throwing against a beat-up Irish secondary and with the front seven not having much luck getting after him either, it was a day at the beach for the Trojan quarterback.

The Irish stopped the running game only with moderate success, something Brian Kelly and Brian VanGorder stacked up with hopes of keeping things close. But that just let cornerbacks Cole Luke and Devin Butler — and everybody else in single coverage — get beat long by the Trojans’ swift receivers.

We saw George Farmer be the elite receiver he was recruited to be. After scoring just two touchdowns in his first 22 star-crossed games, he had two against the Irish. If that was Nelson Agholor’s finale in the Coliseum, 12 for 120 was a good way to go out.

And JuJu Smith will be a handful for the Irish secondary to deal with these next few years, the freshman already looks the part of a big-play machine.

Still, it’s hard to get too up in arms when you consider that outside of Luke, Elijah Shumate and Jaylon Smith (who made 14 tackles, including a sack), this should be the Irish’s scout team defense.

 

Small bits of bad: 

* In the history of five catch, 75-yard performances, Will Fuller‘s might be the least fulfilling. The afternoon pushed Fuller over 1,000 yards on the season. But that stat line could’ve easily been 8 or 9 catches for 175 or 200 yards, with Fuller being missed or dropping his way out of three big plays that could’ve put him in the Irish record books.

* For Irish fans wondering what has to happen to see Chase Hounshell and Michael Deeb in a game, we saw it. Deeb came in after Martini went down before halftime. Hounshell played much of the fourth quarter, his first significant action since his freshman season.

* We saw brief glimpses of good play by Devin Butler both last season and earlier this year. But a cornerback who gives up both the short throw and the one over his head isn’t going to be a cornerback for much longer. Especially not in this defensive system.

* Good for the coaching staff for finally giving Mike McGlinchey an extended look. After rewatching the offensive line play, it wasn’t that Christian Lombard was necessarily that bad or that McGlinchey was that good. But the status quo up front hasn’t been getting it done and McGlinchey is the offense’s sixth best lineman.

(No, Leonard Williams didn’t get a tackle for loss. But on consecutive snaps he had his way with McGlinchey, who drew quite the assignment in his first extended experience of the season.)

* This might be the world’s worst QB draw running team I’ve ever seen.

 

THE UGLY

Watching Brian Kelly’s postgame comments, he didn’t seem like a coach with one foot out the door. And with his two bosses just feet from him, sharing in the misery of the moment, he didn’t look like a coach who had a bone to pick with his superiors, either.

Put simply, there wasn’t a moment of fun this season. Not in the early winning streak days. Nor in the injury-ravaged, identity-deficient end of days.

The first months of the season were stolen by an academic probe that simply wouldn’t end. And this is a November collapse that’ll follow Brian Kelly for a long time.

But that’s not to say this program is broken.

It’s worth pointing out that great coaches have months like this. Even the coaches Irish fans hold above their current head man.

If 7-5 is indeed rock bottom, then give Kelly credit for at least raising the floor significantly. For those adamant that a dreadful season puts the Irish right back to the starting blocks, there’s plenty of ammo for that argument right now.

But before you decide that, maybe take a look back at the end of 2011, when Notre Dame seemed to be in the very same place. Or maybe go back a little more than a decade, when some guy named Nick Saban was taking a roster filled with plenty of talent and losing four of his last six, sliding to 8-5, including a 31-0 loss to an Alabama program not exactly at its highest moment. (Saban won the Sugar Bowl and finished 13-1 the next season.)

Good coaches have bad seasons. Gary Patterson’s TCU program might be on the verge of the CFB Playoff, but it took a 4-8 season last year to get there. TCU was 11-14 in 2012 and 2013 after four-straight double-digit win seasons.

For those wondering if Kelly can sustain at a program, it’s true that the head coach hasn’t stuck around at one place longer than three years since he was in Grand Valley. But guess what? Notre Dame hasn’t stuck with one coach for longer than Kelly since Lou Holtz roamed the sidelines. So it’s a two-way street.

Losing stinks. A run like this is a step in the wrong direction. And there are very large, big-picture questions that Brian Kelly needs to be asking himself, both on the offensive and defensive sides of the football. (Hell, the special teams need a swift kick, too.)

But the future hasn’t been cast. And that’s why it’s important to use this next month to practice for next season, even if half the guys are in walking boots or slings.

This season’s cooked, with last Saturday’s performance laying around like Thanksgiving leftovers. But while that may color the future for many, it’s hardly set in stone.

So before we turn to the wonder (and dread) of the offseason and uncertain future, there’s one very important month left to this season. Even if it includes a bowl game that’s mostly being played for pride.

 

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Associated Press
40 Comments

Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

rivals.com
28 Comments

When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

Getty Images
35 Comments

Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

Associated Press
43 Comments

A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills