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

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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.

 

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.)

Monday’s Leftovers: Coney & Tillery once enrolled early at Notre Dame, now to the NFL or not?

Associated Press
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Today marks two occasions. It is the day before Notre Dame begins its spring semester. In other words, it is the day before this year’s seven early enrollees begin classes. It is also the deadline for early entrants to file for the NFL draft.

There are two common threads to the separate events. Junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery both enrolled early in 2015, and they have both delayed their stay-or-go decisions to today.

With the early signing period’s implementation, the former date holds less import. These players have already signed with the Irish. Gone are the days of putting down a drink and racing to a computer after finding a source to confirm a consensus five-star quarterback’s early arrival. With an early signing period, Gunner Kiel likely would have been bound to at least begin his career at LSU in the spring of 2012, rather than show up on Notre Dame’s campus at the 11th hour.

The tangible value of arriving early can still hold legitimacy, but that theoretical does not become much of a reality until spring practice commences, anyway.

Junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) will need to decide today if he will head to the NFL Draft or return for his senior year. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

So an early enrollee summary can wait until tomorrow’s first day of classes. In the meantime, breathes remain baited waiting for the decisions from Coney and Tillery. Will they return for a year under first-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea, or follow the lead of running back Josh Adams and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and head for the NFL?

As has been discussed and seems rather obvious, both Coney and Tillery would greatly boost the 2018 Irish defense. They would also both likely hear their names called in the NFL draft, so there is merit to whatever option each chooses.

— As it pertains to the early enrollees, the measureable benefit of the semester’s head start can be debated. In looking at the last three classes, it has appeared to have great effect with a few of the freshmen, but not for most.

2015: Tillery, Coney, defensive lineman Micah Dew-Treadway, offensive lineman Tristen Hoge.
2016: Safety Devin Studstill, receiver Kevin Stepherson, defensive end Daelin Hayes, defensive end Khalid Kareem, safety Spencer Perry.
2017: Offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, tight end Brock Wright, running back C.J. Holmes, safety Isaiah Robertson, offensive lineman Aaron Banks.

Of those 14, Tillery, Studstill, Stepherson and Hainsey offered genuine contributions in their debut seasons.

Tillery started three games in 2015, appearing in all 12, making 12 tackles with one sack. More than the counting statistics, the depth Tillery provided at defensive tackle was an absolute necessity.

As injuries and suspensions purged the Irish secondary just before the 2016 season’s start, Studstill was forced into a starting role. He finished the year with 38 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. He was not yet ready to be a collegiate starting safety, but he was needed to be, and the time spent going through the paces in the spring provided Studstill enough of a base to be somewhat serviceable from the outset.

Stepherson broke out as a deep threat right away — a likelihood with or without an early enrollment simply due to his speed. In his only complete season with the Irish, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Hainsey’s impact was far and away the most distinct. He went from the second most-heralded early-enrolled offensive lineman to a starter at right tackle. That surge puts Hainsey in pole position to start at left tackle in 2018. He may have ended up there, anyway, but the freshman first played a pivotal role on the best offensive line in the country.

— It would not be a site dedicated to football if it did not include some mention of the Minnesota Vikings’ victory Sunday evening. Some adjective should precede victory in the previous sentence, but no quick combination encapsulates just how absurd, dramatic and, per the quickly-adhered catchphrase, miraculous the conclusion was.

Stefon Diggs’ game-winning touchdown may not have been as excellent as Irish receiver Miles Boykin’s was in the Citrus Bowl if compared in a vacuum, but Diggs’ score came with no time remaining on the clock, while Boykin’s was merely an excellent play that if failed, other chances would have followed.

Of course, being the Vikings, the Notre Dame connection is thorough.

— A thought experiment sparked by that Minneapolis tangent … The Minnesota Timberwolves played their first game in franchise history Nov. 3, 1989, meaning it has endured a title drought the exact same length as the Irish have.

Which wins its respective championship first?

9-win, 30-TD quarterbacks like Wimbush are rare; Links to read

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It is not easy to win nine or 10 games in one season. It is not easy for Notre Dame, for any team, and it is not easy for a quarterback.

If granting the premise the Irish would have won at North Carolina if junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush had not sprained his foot the weekend beforehand, then Wimbush indeed notched nine wins this season. That does not credit him with the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, though it is certainly possible he would have found a way to win that game, too.

In doing so, Wimbush accounted for 30 touchdowns, 16 through the air and 14 through the ground.

Those two facts alone will guarantee Wimbush a chance to start at quarterback for Notre Dame on Sept. 1, as they should. After all, how many nine-win quarterbacks were there in 2017? How many players scored 30 combined touchdowns? Not many.

Obviously there will always be a Baker Mayfield or a Lamar Jackson, but consistent and frequent production is not as easy as the two Heisman winners make it seem. If narrowing the focus to Power Five teams, only 21 quarterbacks won nine games this season. That should probably bump to 22 out of deference to McKenzie Milton leading Central Florida to an undefeated season.

It bears noting the Irish faced six of those quarterbacks: Georgia’s Jake Fromm (13 wins) USC’s Sam Darnold (11), Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke (10), Miami’s Malik Rosier (10), North Carolina State and Ryan Finley (9), and LSU with Danny Etling (9).

Again keeping the field to the Power Five conferences with an exemption for the 13-0 Knights, only 14 players managed 30 total touchdowns, including Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford (29 passing, 10 rushing).

Between the two lists, just nine quarterbacks can claim both:
McKenzie Milton, Central Florida: 13 wins; 37 passing touchdowns, eight rushing.
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma: 12 wins; 43 passing, five rushing.
J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: 12 wins; 35 passing, 12 rushing.
Trace McSorley, Penn State: 11 wins; 28 passing, 11 rushing.
Sam Darnold, USC: 11 wins; 26 passing, five rushing.
Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State: 10 wins; 37 passing, 10 rushing.
Malik Rosier, Miami (FL): 10 wins; 26 passing, five rushing.
Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame: 9 wins; 16 passing, 14 rushing.
Luke Falk, Washington State: 9 wins; 30 passing.

This is not to say Wimbush should have an easy path to the starting gig for 2018. Before a long offseason of quarterback headlines and interminable debates, this is to say Wimbush has produced enough he will and should get his chance, despite any late-season struggles and obviously-needed improvements. Underselling Wimbush’s 2017 serves no point but to offer an exceptionally-flawed argument.

A FUN BIT OF TRIVIA:
No NFL team has both hosted the Super Bowl and played a divisional playoff game at home in the same year. The Minnesota Vikings will do just that Sunday (4:40 p.m. ET; v. New Orleans; FOX), as the Super Bowl will be at U.S. Bank Stadium in a few weeks. Some might deem the Vikings as “Notre Dame North” thanks to their reliance on former Irish safety Harrison Smith, tight end Kyle Rudolph and — less of a reliance, to be accurate — receiver Michael Floyd.

That is not the piece of trivia, though.

Stanford Stadium hosted the 1985 Super Bowl, with the San Francisco 49ers beating the Miami Dolphins.

Anyone who has been to a Notre Dame game at Stanford can use that fact to realize in a tangible manner just how much the NFL has grown in the last three decades. The idea of the world’s largest entertainment event being held at The Farm is genuinely beyond fathoming for those of a certain generation, this scribe included.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Monday’s Leftovers: On Notre Dame’s dual needs at defensive coordinator and those effects
Notre Dame promoting Lea & Elston bodes well for at least the short term
Harry Hiestand leaves Notre Dame on good terms and in good shape
A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s offensive roster

OUTSIDE READING:
Jack Lamb on Clark Lea: “best possible choice” for Notre Dame
Clark Lea’s promotion was a win for continuity, and one Notre Dame sorely needed
Optimism for Notre Dame football in 2018 starts with the Irish defense
Irish ‘feel really good’ about O-line in ‘18
In Harry Hiestand, Matt Nagy hits a home run on his first swing at Bears’ coaching staff
Notre Dame’s Moore Award personal for Taylor
What happens if the Vikings reach Super Bowl LII? Expect plenty of logistical challenges

Editor’s Note: Yes, the above quarterback bit was originally intended to run a bit longer in the weekly “Friday at 4” slot, but the timing did not fit last week with the defensive coordinator shift and the time was not at hand this week to get the piece put together as “Friday at 4” dictates.

Then again, stalling for a day creates another day of halfway-worthwhile content in a time of year that is devoid of much substance, aside from coaching changes, transfers, NFL declarations, et al.

And in the spirit of “Friday at 4,” how great would it be to have Dr. Stephen Strange as a weekend partner in figurative crime?

A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s offensive roster

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While Notre Dame awaits stay-or-go decisions from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, its offensive side of the roster is set … for now. As was briefly discussed in the most-recent “Monday’s Leftovers,” the Irish roster is currently at 87 players. That could rise as high as 90 if the incoming recruiting class rounds up to 25 signees and both Coney and Tillery return for the 2018 season.

A quick, even terse, look at the offense can provide reference for conversations and debates at both the virtual and real-world bar as the roster sheds a handful of players.

A couple quick notes: The order of this listing is not intended to stake a stance on positional competitions (cough quarterback cough). This is simply presenting the options available moving forward.

The designations following each of the 10 receivers are inherently speculative. With junior Equanimeous St. Brown declaring for the NFL and sophomore Kevin Stepherson not expected to be around next season, Notre Dame will need to tinker and experiment with receiver alignments throughout the offseason.

To a degree, the same goes for the offensive linemen, particularly among the backups. Rarely is there a genuine second-unit. Rather, one or two utility options will serve as backups for the whole line.

Quarterback (4):
Jr. Brandon Wimbush
So. Ian Book
Fr. Avery Davis
Incoming fr. Phil Jurkovec

Running back (5):
Jr. Dexter Williams
So. Tony Jones
So. Deon McIntosh
Fr. C.J. Holmes
Inc. fr. Jahmir Smith

Receiver (10):
Jr. Miles Boykin (field)
So. Chase Claypool (boundary)
Fr. Michael Young (slot)
Sr. Freddy Canteen (slot)
So. Jafar Armstrong (field)
So. Javon McKinley (boundary)
Jr. Chris Finke (slot)
Inc. fr. Braden Lenzy (slot)
Inc. fr. Kevin Austin (boundary)
Inc. fr. Micah Jones (field)

Tight end (6):
Jr. Alizé Mack
Sr. Nic Weishar
Fr. Cole Kmet
Fr. Brock Wright
Inc. fr. George Takacs
Inc. fr. Tommy Tremble

Offensive line (12):
Fr. Robert Hainsey (LT)
Fr. Josh Lugg (LG)
Sr. Sam Mustipher (C)
Sr. Alex Bars (RG)
So. Tommy Kraemer (RT)
So. Liam Eichenberg (T)
Fr. Aaron Banks (G)
Jr. Trevor Ruhland (G, C)
Fr. Dillan Gibbons (G)
Inc. fr. Cole Mabry (G)
Inc. fr. John Dirksen (G)
Inc. fr. Luke Jones (T, committed, not signed)

Specialists (4):
Jr. Justin Yoon (PK)
Sr. Tyler Newsome (P)
So. John Shannon (LS)
Fr. Jonathan Doerer (KO)