Pregame Six Pack: A Music City Finale

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The 2014 season comes to a close on Tuesday afternoon, with Notre Dame playing the role of underdog against LSU in the Music City Bowl. After finishing the regular season on a four-game slide, a date with Les Miles’ young and talented Tigers isn’t the type of opponent that instills a lot of hope in the Irish faithful.

But Brian Kelly said he wanted a challenge for his team and they’ll have one on Tuesday afternoon.

First and foremost is LSU’s defense. With Malik Zaire getting his first start, he’ll meet John Chavis. The SEC’s top-rated unit, Zaire will face a worthy adversary as he hopes to start 2015 in the drivers seat for a quarterback job that should be wide open.

In our last Pregame Six Pack until next September, let’s get ready for the Music City Bowl.

 

Can Notre Dame stop the run?

That’s likely the difference in this football game. And while the Irish are still missing Joe Schmidt and Jarron Jones, the month off to restructure the front seven will likely make a difference.

If you’re reading between the lines, a few things seem fairly clear. First, Sheldon Day may be officially healthy, but he’s got a long way to go before he’s able to be the every-down player the Irish need. Kelly tabbed Day’s play count around 40 or 50 snaps, which is roughly the number of carries the Tigers will likely attempt.

Secondly, it appears Isaac Rochell will be asked to take on the bulk of the work inside. After Jacob Matuska struggled in his first significant action, Rochell will slide inside to try and combat the power advantage the Tigers have in the trenches. Matuska battled a shoulder/nerve injury that limited his strength and ability to hold his own against USC, but healthy or not, it’s a tough battle for a first-year player still finding his way.

But that’s what the Irish have to choose from. So Brian VanGorder’s unit will have to patch things together, not their best strong suit this season. LSU will help as well, with a passing game that’s one of the least efficient the Irish have faced. But none of that matters if Notre Dame can’t hold its own against a running game that’s intent on breaking the will of the Irish.

 

What will the Irish get out of Malik Zaire?

There are few better opportunities than the one Malik Zaire will get this afternoon. The sophomore quarterback who finally saw the field against USC gets the start against the Tigers. Welcome to the Big Leagues, kid.

What that means from a playing time perspective remains to be seen, with Kelly still committed to playing Everett Golson. But if Zaire wants a chance to prove he can be the man driving the Irish offense, there’s no better litmus test than against LSU.

The Tigers secondary is one of the toughest in college football. Their run defense has not lived up to that standard, with Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn all having big games on the ground. Zaire’s skills as a runner are often discussed. Now we’ll see if they’re more than just a talking point, with the zone read key to the Irish’s game plan with the young quarterback on the field.

(And no quarterback playing for Brian Kelly is going to get by as a bad passer.)

After a nice performance against USC, Zaire handled the media well, looking the part of a starting quarterback at a big-time program. If he can move the offense and lead the team against LSU, we’ll have ourselves a very interesting spring.

 

What type of performance can we expect from LSU?

For all the skepticism out there about Notre Dame’s chances right now, it’s worth noting that the Tigers aren’t coming in as world beaters. After ripping off three straight wins, including a victory over No. 3 Ole Miss, the Tigers seemed to have the wind ripped from their sails after Alabama snuck out of Tiger Stadium with an overtime victory.

The loss to the Crimson Tide was followed up by a 17-0 skunking by Arkansas. And while LSU rallied in their season finale to beat Texas A&M, the Tigers haven’t exactly been the best bowl performers the past few years, sleepwalking past Iowa last year 21-14 and losing to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A bowl the year before.

The Tigers’ passing offense is a mess, with quarterback Anthony Jennings completing less than 50 percent of his passes and throwing just 10 touchdowns against seven interceptions. (Three of those TD passes came against someone called Sam Houston.) And defensively, the architect of the LSU attack might have other things on his mind.

John Chavis was offered a three-year extension worth $4 million weeks ago. But while other defensive assistants have signed their contract extensions, the Times-Picayune reports that Chavis hasn’t. An offer to join Kevin Sumlin’s staff at Texas A&M seems to be a sticking point.

Does any of this matter? Maybe not. But it’s worth noting that after a disappointing four-loss season of its own, the Tigers aren’t exactly happy to be in Nashville, either.

 

Can Will Fuller make a statement — and set a record in the process?

Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller’s big sophomore season flew surprisingly under the radar on the national scene. With four 100-yard efforts and the best single-season totals for a sophomore in school history in catches, yards and touchdowns, Fuller has the chance to make an impact against a secondary that’s among the most talented in the country… not to mention catch Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate in the process.

Fuller’s season was the breakout of the year. But it still saw the wispy Philadelphia native go through some growing pains. For all the catches Fuller made, you can’t help but think about the ones he missed. A few drops took some large plays off the board, and likely a few scores off the stat sheet.

Cornerbacks Jalen Collins and Tre’Davious White are a talented duo, with safeties Jalen Mills and Ronald Martin excellent as well. LSU has built its defensive brand playing man coverage. If Fuller breaks loose this afternoon, he’ll set the stage for a monster 2015 after a record-setting 2014.

 

Stay or Go? A good performance in the Music City Bowl could be the decision maker. 

Junior left tackle Ronnie Stanley has been discussed as a potential first-round offensive tackle as way-too-early mock drafts begin to emerge. While opinions on where he’ll go seem to vary, Stanley’s talents will be tested early and often against an LSU front that’s combined for 69 tackles for loss.

While the pass rush hasn’t necessarily been the strong suit of the Tigers defense, Stanley will provide another piece of excellent game tape for NFL talent evaluators to pick through, if Stanley decides that three seasons in South Bend are enough.

Brian Kelly didn’t want to discuss the NFL evaluations that Stanley, Nick Martin, Sheldon Day and Everett Golson received. But multiple sources confirmed to me that Stanley didn’t receive a coveted first-round grade when he heard back from the league.

That’s usually enough to get a return for a senior season. But after losing three players with eligibility left after last season and none of them going in the first round, there’s still a tough decision to make. And while his return would be a huge recruiting victory for Kelly and the Irish staff, Stanley will likely weigh his performance in the Music City Bowl before making any decisions.

 

Can Brian Kelly — and the offensive line — control the game with the Irish offense?

If there was something more disappointing than the Irish’s total defensive collapse against USC it was the brutal start for the offense. While back-to-back turnovers eventually took Everett Golson off the field, starting the game with four straight punts should’ve been even more worrying.

Against the Trojans, the Irish leaned heavily on the possession passing game and struck out. Golson’s inaccuracy, along with a lack of running game, put the vulnerable defense in a tough spot and they certainly didn’t fight their way out of it. (It might have been Paper Bag 49, Irish 14 in the Coliseum that afternoon.)

Kelly has talked openly about the blame he places on the offense for this season’s second-half collapse. And he is the head of that unit. So with one more opportunity to make Kelly the first Irish coach to win eight-or-more games in his first five seasons, he needs to get back to calling the type of game that had the Irish nearly pull off the upset against Florida State.

With Malik Zaire starting, it appears Kelly understands that he needs a strong running game to perch up the defense and possess the football. And after a mediocre season, the starting five has one last shot to prove they’re an ascending position group, not a unit that needs rebooting this spring.

Running the ball won’t just be a necessity to beat the Tigers defense. It’ll keep the ball away from LSU, making it harder for the Tigers to break down the Irish defense with a ground and pound mentality.

But when Golson plays, he’ll also need to run the football, not just drop back and throw it. He’s shown the ability to control the chains with his feet, like he did against Florida State. (He did it even better against Oklahoma in 2012, the ultimate 3rd-and-short weapon.)

Kelly desperately wants to leave Nashville with a victory. He’s going to have to do his best coaching job of the year to do so.

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.)