Coffee is for closers: The perfect finish to 2015 recruiting class

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With less than a month to go before National Signing Day, Notre Dame’s coaching staff has its entire focus on improving the team’s roster between now and the first Wednesday in February. After two-years of work on the current class — the roots of this group were seeded long, long ago — the next month turns into a high stakes, pressure game where college coaches build the foundation of their programs around the whims of (sometimes) coddled teenagers.

For all the relationship building and work each staff puts into a player, those efforts could go up in smoke in moments. We saw that a few years ago when Notre Dame’s coaching staff hung up the phone on Tuesday night being told Deontay Greenberry was sending his fax in the next morning, only to see the blue-chipper decide to go to Houston. That is the game.

With the Irish still chasing some critical final pieces to their recruiting efforts, let’s walk through some keys to finishing the 2015 recruiting class strong.

 

Get Your Early Enrollees Onto Campus. 

Notre Dame learned this one the hard way when the Irish lost linebacker Alex Anzalone to Florida after he arrived at the Under Armour All-American Game as an Irish pledge only to enroll in Gainesville for the second semester.

Anzalone was always a fragile commitment, he had bounced between Notre Dame, Ohio State and Florida through much of his recruitment. He also pinned Brian Kelly’s brief dalliance with the Philadelphia Eagles on the change, though those in the know still believed it was a 50-50 proposition from the start. (Anzalone has made 16 total tackles over two seasons with the Gators.)

Right now, the Irish expect Jerry TilleryTevon Coney, Tristen Hoge and Micah Dew-Treadway to begin class this January. Until then, they’ll likely be keeping close tabs on both Tillery and Coney.

LSU and Les Miles have had eyes for the 6-foot-6, 315-pounder since the beginning, and Tillery visited campus multiple times. In perhaps a concession that came from Miles’ pursuit, Tillery will now begin his career at defensive line.

Originally projected as an elite tackle, Tillery’s size and athleticism make him an intriguing prospect regardless. That Kelly and his staff recruit “power” types makes this an easy transition, also considering the road to the field on the defensive side of the ball is infinitely easier than along the offensive line right now.

For Coney, rumors of his move to Florida or Miami have been evergreen, even if the linebacker continues to refute them. Pulling a top prospect out of Florida is always a challenge, so don’t expect the Irish coaching staff to take their eyes of this recruitment until Coney’s in a dorm room.

 

Find Another Running Back and Defensive Back. 

Notre Dame’s search for more running back depth is well documented. With only Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant on scholarship, the Irish coaching staff is looking to add another back to Josh Adams, the Irish’s lone running back commit in the 2015 class.

They’ve searched far and wide. The Irish finished No. 2 for UA All-American Ronald Jones II, who chose USC from Orlando. They’re also in the mix for five-star recruit Soso Jamabo, with most pointing to UCLA as the leader. (That could change if Jim Mora heads to the NFL.)

That hasn’t stopped the Irish from identifying and chasing more backs. Florida’s Jordan Cronkrite took an official visit for the year-end awards banquet and is an option. Nashville’s Ke’Shawn Vaughn will likely see campus this January. Former Miami commit Dexter Williams is now considering the Irish as well, likely one of the reasons why a mini-Twitter war started when a Miami assistant took to social media to compare local climates.  Expect the Irish staff to kick the tires on a few other backs in the coming days as well.

In the secondary, the Irish are still holding out hope for another defensive back. While the grand slam is cornerback Iman “Biggie” Marshall from Long Beach Poly, finding another safety to add to the back line seems critical, especially with the uncertain fate of Nicky Baratti and the all but certain departure of Eilar Hardy.

Even with the trio of Prentice McKinneyMykelti Williams and Nicco Fertitta, the Irish staff is looking to add one more safety. Frontrunner Ben Edwards pledged to Stanford last week. That seems like a done deal, but Edwards has wobbled a few times already during his recruitment.

Frank Buncom of San Diego had more interest nationally than from Notre Dame until the Irish offered this fall, and a knee injury adds another element to his recruitment. But most believe he’ll stay on the West Coast.

The Irish offered Justin Reid, whose brother played at LSU. Beating the Tigers couldn’t have hurt. They’re also chasing Gary Jennings, who seems to prefer the chance to play offense in college. Irish Illustrated reports  ($) that the Irish staff has warmed to the idea.

 

Pull a Rabbit Out of the Hat. (And Keep the Other Ones In.)

Expect a name nobody is expecting to come out of the blue. That could be a below-the-radar prospect (at this time last year, nobody knew who Daniel Cage was). Or it could be a commitment to another program. Kelly and his staff are unafraid to battle for a big prospect or to make a move at a lesser-ranked guy. They’ve had success with both.

While it seems like a long shot, one of these days the Irish are going to have some success in Southern California with an elite prospect. Is Biggie Marshall that guy? Who knows, but it’d be a game-changer.

Also in the mix could be a fifth-year graduate transfer. Cody Riggs‘ success in South Bend didn’t go unnoticed. Tom Loy of Irish 247 reports ($) that a transfer could be in the mix, though didn’t name the target nor the position. Riggs didn’t hit campus until June. The transfer news wasn’t official until after Signing Day, though Amir Carlisle‘s move was listed as part of the recruiting class.

Finding a one-and-done player is a good way to maximize the roster’s 85 scholarships while also not making a long-term commitment. That allows a readymade player to come onto campus and have success, and a position like defensive end, safety, or even tight end could be an option. Kelly has also talked about being open to any transfer with three seasons of competition remaining.

 

Everything Erases After Signing Day. 

It’s worth a final note: Those star-ratings we all get so excited about? They disappear once a prospect is on campus. So while it’s certainly important to land elite talent, sometimes the guys who don’t look like much to a recruiting service end up turning out okay.

Sophomores Max Redfield and Greg Bryant were five-star recruits. They’re still finding their way to becoming that type of player on the field. Meanwhile, Will Fuller — a three-star by some measurements — just shattered every sophomore record in the Notre Dame books with a 15-touchdown season.

But with less than a month to go before one of the best days on the college football calendar, it’ll be worth keeping an eye on the coffee pot and the commitment list as the Irish staff looks to finish strong.

 

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.)