Counting down the Irish: Final grades, 20-16

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As we continue our final rankings of the 2014 season, it’s an interesting look at the youth of the Irish roster. Remove fifth-year senior Christian Lombard from the group and our first five players had a collective zero starts heading into the season.

That helps explain some of the issues that came along with this team. As complementary parts, Malik Zaire, Romeo Okwara, Drue Tranquill and Nyles Morgan have the talent to be key contributors. But as starters asked to carry the load? That’s when we saw some of the ugly parts of this season.

That theme continues with our next five players. Outside of a key veteran, this group also had a steep learning curve. At times, that meant some difficulties — and those struggles weighed into a 7-5 season.

That’s not to say this group isn’t talented. You’d be hard pressed to find five better recruits. Two from this group were five-star prospects. Per Rivals’ evaluations, all five were Top 10 players at their position and all within the Top 120 players in the country.

The best part? All four return, with key roles on the 2015 roster pretty much assured.

Let’s get on to the rankings.

 

2014 IRISH TOP 25 FINAL GRADES

25. Christian Lombard (RT, GS)
24. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.)
23. Romeo Okwara (DE, Jr.)
22. Drue Tranquill (S, Fr.)
21. Nyles Morgan (LB, Fr.)

 

Michigan at Notre Dame
Michigan at Notre DameChicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

 

20. Max Redfield (S, Soph.): After sitting out most of his freshman season, Max Redfield was pushed into the starting lineup for the Pinstripe Bowl by head coach Brian Kelly. He stayed there after spring and fall camp, a key cog in the starting lineup for 2014.

But Redfield’s season seemed to go as the Irish’s went. When things were going well, Redfield was a featured part. When they weren’t, Redfield was in the spotlight. Success has a funny way of hiding weaknesses.

Redfield’s season had some unquestionable bright spots. A key interception during the shutout of Michigan. He also contributed 54 tackles, good enough for fourth on the team. But Redfield lost his starting job after a disappointing game against Arizona State, with color commentator Chris Spielman blasting Redfield for missing a key tackle on the sideline.

The Irish coaching staff made a change after the game in Tempe, bad timing for Redfield as the two unrelated moves seemed interconnected. And while he wasn’t overly explanatory about the move, Brian Kelly cited a lack of production from Redfield.

The demotion hurt the Irish, with Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder suffering through some mediocre safety play with Austin Collinsworth and Drue Tranquill in the starting lineup before injuries forced Redfield and Shumate back onto the field. Redfield then suffered a rib injury early against the Trojans, momentarily putting the position down to Shumate and recently returned Eilar Hardy.

At his best, Redfield has all the tools it takes to be an elite safety. But after being forced to learn two systems in two seasons, it still feels like Redfield is a beat slow diagnosing what he sees, neutralizing the physical gifts that he has.

After two years, Irish fans would’ve gladly returned Harrison Smith for an open scholarship. So it’s far too early to call Redfield a disappointment. But it’s an important offseason for Redfield, who needs to take a big step forward before his junior year.

Preseason: 12th. Final: 20th. 

 

Michigan v Notre Dame
Michigan v Notre DameJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

 

 

19. Steve Elmer (RG, Soph.): The question wasn’t whether Steve Elmer would start. It was where. But after spending spring at guard, Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s gamble to move Elmer to right tackle backfired, necessitating a four-position shuffle after three games that ended with Nick Martin at guard, Matt Hegarty at center and Christian Lombard outside at right tackle.

Pinning all of that on Elmer is unfair. The reality of the situation always had Elmer among the best five offensive linemen on the roster, with Matt Hegarty chosen to start over a first-timer in Mike McGlinchey. But while Elmer looks the part of a college tackle, he struggled moving outside to the edge before finding a rhythm at guard as the season wore on.

A few bad snaps likely color fans opinion of Elmer’s season. And after finding his footing, Elmer showed the physical skills that still make him a very impressive prospect as he enters the final two seasons of his college career.

The offseason allows Elmer the opportunity to settle into a position and develop there. With his time at tackle likely over, Elmer can work on becoming a steady and physical force on the inside.

Preseason: 11th. Final: 19th. 

 

Stanford v Notre Dame
Stanford v Notre DameJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

 

18. Ben Koyack (TE, Sr.): Koyack played more snaps than any skill player on the offensive depth chart. And after being thrust into an every-down role after Troy Niklas bolted for the NFL, Koyack performed admirably in his only season as a starter.

His 4th-and-long touchdown catch against Stanford was the play of the year. His 29 catches were fourth most on the team. But Koyack’s inconsistency was a microcosm of the offense’s play, and his struggles as a blocker hurt the Irish multiple times. On a depth chart with zero experience behind him, Koyack picked up the slack in 2014, with Durham Smythe, Mike Heuerman and Tyler Luatua brought on slowly.

But after enjoying an impressive run of tight ends with Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert and Troy Niklas, Koyack’s senior season checks in a notch below — hardly an indictment for a senior who should have a chance to play on Sundays as well.

Preseason: 10th. Final: 18th.

 

Purdue v Notre Dame
Purdue v Notre DameMichael Hickey/Getty Images

 

17. Elijah Shumate (S, Jr.): After injuries plagued Shumate during his sophomore season, a transition to a new defensive system took longer to take hold than many expected. Athletically superior to senior captain Austin Collinsworth, Shumate was the fan’s choice for a strong safety, even if he wasn’t the coaching staff’s. But injuries forced Shumate into the lineup from the opening game. And some struggles showcased why Collinsworth got the initial nod.

Again, Shumate’s season wasn’t all bad. He finished third on the team with 64 tackles, and his interception to end the Michigan game was one of the season’s best highlights. But Shumate found his way into the staff’s doghouse, missing a key snap against Northwestern that cost the Irish big time, a mistake that just can’t happen to a player that’s got more experience than just about anybody else on the field with him.

Entering his senior season, Shumate’s review could basically mirror the one written for Redfield. His physical talent can’t take off until his mental aptitude catches up. Another offseason learning VanGorder’s defense can only help.

Preseason: Unranked (27th). Final: 17th.

 

Greg Bryant, Taylor Richards
Greg Bryant, Taylor RichardsAP Photo/Michael Conroy, File

 

16. Greg Bryant (RB, Soph.): No, Bryant wasn’t the breakout star many expected. But upon final inspection, his numbers weren’t too shabby either. The sophomore (who took a medical redshirt last season) led the Irish in yards per carry at 5.5. He also provided a spark in the return game.

That’s about what people expected, though they didn’t see the midseason lull that plagued Bryant’s overall productivity. Yet that feels almost predictable looking back at things, with Bryant pressing to do too much, the propensity to chase the big play when making the ordinary one would’ve been just fine.

That’s a byproduct of sharing carries with Tarean Folston and Cam McDaniel. It’s also comes from the weight of great expectations, with Bryant’s high school ranking still framing early playing career. But against USC Bryant created the big plays that had long been expected of him by playing within the framework of the offense, merely letting his talent do the work.

With little depth behind him, Bryant will team with Tarean Folston in 2015 to create a two-deep that’s the envy of just about every program in college football. It may have taken a little bit longer than some expected, but Bryant is on track to be a prolific offensive player.

Preseason: 9th. Final: 16th.

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.)