Mailbag: So many questions, so little time

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I’ve got to hand it to you guys for this batch of questions. Some really good ones. I don’t think I got to all of them, though this took me a few hours to blow through. (Feel free to ask again next time if I missed it.)

Happy weekend.

 

mtflsmitty: What’s your assessment of the parity (or lack thereof) among the Power 5 conferences heading into 2015?

There’s nothing that’s a bigger offseason story than the great reshuffling. Ohio State’s victory, paired with some high-profile struggles by SEC West teams — not to mention the Big Ten’s bowl season — really turns the tables of perception.

I wrote about it a bit already, but there’s no more assumption of greatness for the SEC. All that talk of two teams in the playoff? It’s tough to give anybody  the benefit of the doubt now, especially after seeing the eggs laid by teams we thought elite — like Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

That all bodes very well for Notre Dame. Because with the schedule the Irish are playing, there’s little doubt that if they win, they’ll get respect for those victories.

 

indyirish91: Any talk about BK’s coaching staff? Are we gaining or losing anyone? I still would like to see Jeff Quinn added to the staff.

I find it hard to think there’s going to be any changes, especially with all the assistants out recruiting and working hard. And while many have focused on Jeff Quinn and his connection with Kelly, do you get rid of Harry Hiestand or Mike Denbrock for him? That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

In many ways the bowl victory was just as important for the continuity of the coaching staff as it was for the team’s momentum into the offseason. Those guys badly needed a win — and doing so against a top SEC program certainly helped everybody sleep a little better at night.

Would I be shocked if something happened after Signing Day? No. But anything I’d write here would be unsubstantiated speculation, and that doesn’t do anybody any good.

 

andy44teg: Is ND in the mix for any 5th Year Seniors looking to transfer like a Cody Riggs??

Tom Loy over at Irish 247 said the staff was kicking the tires on a fifth-year transfer, but he didn’t speculate as to who it was. Some smoke began circling Cal’s Brennan Scarlett, but the defensive end has struggled with injuries after being a promising recruit.

With roster numbers being what they are, I think Kelly and his staff will make moves after they see who they finish the recruiting class with and how they handle their own fifth-years.

 

bernhtp: Notre Dame appears to be on a trajectory to have well over 85 scholarships this spring allocated to returning players, LOI/EE recruits, and fifth-year invites. If the numbers don’t come down to 85 by fall camp via normal attrition (transfers, medical hardships, academic fallout), Notre Dame would need to essentially cut players (likely from the fifth-year pool, e.g., Jarrett Grace if doesn’t progress sufficiently). While not SEC-type oversigning, it is still not traditional ND. What is your perspective?

This seems to be a topic we just start to discuss… and then massive attrition hits. As Bern alludes to, there’s a numbers crunch and some difficult decisions yet to be made. Last year, we saw those solved by mass exodus to the NFL Draft. This year, it looks like the Irish got lucky, with everybody coming back.

That said, I don’t think there’s any reason to be concerned about going over the 85-man limit, because there are so many things that still need to play out. Medical hardships are a big one — guys like Nicky Baratti, Jarrett Grace, Conor Hanratty (the last two also count as fifth-year questions).

Nobody is getting their scholarship ripped out of their hands and put out to pasture. But would I be surprised if there are a few transfers that take place between now and next summer? Not at all. Until then, let’s hold off on the alarm bells. This type of problem is one that comes with building proper depth on your roster.

 

c4evr: If safety is one of the thinnest positions on the roster, as I look at incoming recruits, why is it so hard to bring in studs at that position? There are currently 3 kids all ranked as 3 star players for the safety position – that seems a little out if balance and underwhelming. Why is that?

I’m pretty slow to classify these guys as underwhelming, if only because I don’t put a lot of stock in the star-rankings. Drue Tranquill was a guy nobody wanted. He played more snaps than anybody. I tend to think we’ll start liking Nicco Fertitta and Mykelti Williams, and a sleeper like Ashton While. And while some wonder about Prentice McKinney making it to campus, he’s a guy the staff really likes, and has for a long time.

Take a look at Urban Meyer’s Ohio State defense. While a few of those guys are high-profile recruits, more than a few were three-star recruits, too. The Irish staff knows they need to recruit the position and add some depth there. New offers are going out, relationships are being built. At this time last year we didn’t know who Daniel Cage or Pete Mokwuah were.

It’s definitely a position of need. But it doesn’t matter how long you’ve had them committed as long as they send in the fax that first Wednesday in February.

 

Ted Wheeler: Any word or guesses on possible position changes? Devin Butler to FS? James Onwualu back to blocking WR? There always seem to be a few.

It’s something I’m definitely keeping an eye on. But I don’t see Onwualu moving back to offense. Especially after the progress he made at linebacker — not to mention the depth chart backlog at receiver.

Butler to free safety? Will that stop him from getting beat over the top? People have ID’d guys like Justin Brent as an option to move, just because of his physicality and size. I’m not buying the move of a guy like C.J. Prosise to running back, just because he was such a weapon in the slot.

If Brian Kelly deserves the benefit of the doubt anywhere, it’s on position switches. He’s been pretty impressive when it comes to that, and I’m sure there’ll be a few rabbits up his sleeve soon, with safety and running back looking like two areas where things are pretty thin.

 

finishthefight1986: The Irish always seem to have an eventful offseason. What are you looking forward to the most for 2015? Any untoward events facing our Irish you hope to avoid 2015?

All of them? I could go for a scandal-free offseason if that’s okay with everybody else.

 

joewyoming: Has the stance of the Irish athletic department been swayed by watching what happened to the Big 12 with regard to the playoff? Would a one-loss Irish team ever have a chance for inclusion in the playoff in the absence of a conference championship game?

Both Kelly and Jack Swarbrick have mentioned this, and it’s a really good question. For the record, I don’t think an 11-1 Notre Dame team would’ve been held out of the playoff. (Not that it matters, or that we could prove it.)

Here’s what Swarbrick told Chris Goff of the Journal Gazette:

“The bottom line for Notre Dame is that while tiebreaker criteria can be expected to work against us in some years, that is not a given,” Swarbrick said. “We have the opportunity to avoid the application of those criteria, and one or more upsets in championship games may create opportunities for other teams, including Notre Dame, who might not have otherwise been selected.”

 

subalum: Keith, northern football programs seem to be dominant in every division except FBS. Examples being: Wisconsin whitewater, North Dakota State, Montana , Patriots, Packers etc. Why do northern teams only win FBS championships once every 12 or so years (OSU)? Is the answer as simple as a lack of a true playoff that takes southern teams to northern climates creating more of a level playing field? Or is it more complex than that? What are your thoughts?

Throw out the NFL teams and I think you might be onto something, especially at the FCS and lower levels. But the biggest part of that in my opinion? A lack of D-I programs in Northern States.

There is no D-I football in North or South Dakota. There’s only the Gophers in Minnesota and the Badgers in Wisconsin. There are a lot of good football players in those states, and that’s what fills the rosters of the teams that continue to make noise at the lower levels.

While I think Montana has the Western states to pull from, they all have the ability to offer and target some kids that get missed, as opposed to the recruits that tend to get seen in more talent-rich states.

Outside of geographical hubs like California, Texas and Florida, I can’t say I’m a big believer in blanket statements that claim football players are better in State X, Y or Z because of the weather. How do you explain that the Big Ten is now a premier basketball conference?

Again, I’m no Malcolm Gladwell, I’m just a guy who watches too much Notre Dame football and too many movies and TV shows. But that’s my take.

 

nateprez4irish: Who are your early leaders for captains next year?

Great question. I’m going with Joe Schmidt, Sheldon Day, Ronnie Stanley and Everett Golson. But there is a lot of leadership on this team and obviously if Golson leaves that changes everything.

 

bowser75: I worry about the chemistry of the team. Guys coming back from suspension, qb’s competing for no. 1, players picking sides on the qb debate, player x thinking he should get more reps than player z, etc., etc… These are the things that keep me awake at night. Well, that and black holes, nuclear war, and circus clowns.

Can’t help you with the black holes and circus clowns, but the football stuff should subside. Welcome to life inside a competitive football program. As we learned in the victory over LSU, there’s the perception we (I’ll include media in this) as fans have and the thought process inside the building.

To me, all those worries are what makes this program healthy. And a big reason why I’m super excited about 2015.

 

cbhoov144: Not sure if it’s been discussed here already, but if you haven’t seen it yet, ESPN has a nice 30 for 30 short about Reggie Ho.

This was pretty awesome. Very nicely done:

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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.)