Talking through the Blue-Gold game

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With the Blue-Gold game set for Saturday afternoon on NBCSN, spring practice comes to an end with a rare opportunity to see Notre Dame faceoff against itself in a live scrimmage.

As Everett Golson and Malik Zaire go live against Brian VanGorder’s defense, we’ll get to see what 15 practices working with Mike Sanford looks like, as the offensive triumvirate of Sanford, Mike Denbrock and Brian Kelly figures itself out.

There’s so much to talk about as spring comes to a close. So I tracked down JJ Stankevitz of CSN Chicago and we talked a little spring game.

KA: What was your initial reaction to QBs being live? I’m trying to think back to the last time that’s happened. Ever?

JJ: I can’t remember QBs being live in a spring game, though my knowledge is limited to my time at Mizzou and the last four years with ND. They’ve been having Golson/Zaire be live during scrimmages this spring, and since this is a glorified scrimmage, it makes sense.

KA: Still, it’s a looong way removed from the hope-and-pray, don’t get within 10 feet of a red-jersey’d Dayne Crist. To that point — going live, and being televised. How vanilla do you expect the offense to be?

JJ: They usually go vanilla in these — no need to showcase anything Texas could pick up on. That being said, definitely watching for Golson’s ball security when he does take off and Zaire’s accuracy. Mike Sanford said earlier this week he’s worked with Zaire on tightening up his base when throwing, which should make him more accurate.

KA: After seeing Zaire out-play Golson last year in the spring game, what’s realistic to expect out of this game? Do you think their performance will weigh heavily on ultimately determining who the starter is versus Texas?

JJ: It’s just one practice, so no, I don’t think it’ll carry extra weight. Kelly made mention of it today — Golson hasn’t had a good spring game since he’s been here, while Zaire has had two good ones. Obviously, that hasn’t really changed either player’s standing.

KA: I also think this will be the first time where you can actually go apples to apples with Zaire and Golson. To be fair to Everett, he was facing blitzes and defensive schemes last year. Zaire’s big numbers came when he likely would’ve been sacked (on one throw) and against a really vanilla defense.

Moving away from QB — any position groups or battles interest you? I’ll throw one at you: The pass rushing DE spot, with a group led by Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti.

JJ: I’m interested to see just how much blitzing BVG’s group does given it’s just the spring game. But on the pass rush — it’s going to be a collective effort, and there isn’t going to be a Stephon Tuitt type racking up sack after sack. Okwara’s a great answer to the trivia question: Who led Notre Dame in sacks last year?

Easy to forget he led the team with 4. How about the safeties? What are you looking for from Redfield and Shumate?

KA: And it’s the lowest grand total for a sack leader since Ethan Johnson in the long-hoped forgotten Tenuta years. As for the safety duo, I’d just like to see some general competence. I’m being honest with what we’re going to see — I just don’t think it’s going to be anything close to what we’ll (hopefully) see in the fall, and I don’t know why Redfield or Shumate should get more than a cameo. You absolutely don’t want those two getting hurt, as they’re plan A, B and C at the position.

JJ: Yep. They’ve been the subjects of awfully high praise from Brian Kelly & Brian VanGorder this spring. We’ll get an extended look on Saturday to see how worthy of it they are.
KA: What do you make of that praise? Is it closer to “Kona Schwenke has pulled even with Louis Nix this spring” or is it legit — a la Joe Schmidt last spring?

JJ: I’d wager it’s somewhere in the middle. On one hand, BK & Co. don’t want to risk ruining their confidence by publicly challenging them (like he has with Justin Brent), but on the other hand…Redfield was a five-star recruit and Shumate a four-star. They’re talented players who, if they can ever figure out the communication aspect of the position, can be a strong duo. And according to the coaches, they’re figuring out that communication.

KA: I think they’re both going to be very good players. I just think the light comes on a little later for safeties, and luckily for this duo that they haven’t been pushed by any young talent, as it’s literally not on campus yet.

What do you expect to see out of C.J. Prosise this Saturday? A dark horse RB candidate continue to emerge?

JJ: He’s the guy I’m most interested in watching. He ripped off a 75-yard run during the scrimmage we watched last Saturday and Mike Denbrock said Monday he’s “as good a player as we’ve got on the offensive football team right now.” I’m not sure he’s quite up to the Theo Riddick comparisons, because Riddick was as tough a runner as you’ll find, but he could be a sneaky good weapon that’s awfully tough to cover this fall.

After all, Prosise did lead Notre Dame in explosive plays last year. (More trivia!)

KA: ND’s leading rusher (YPC) and receiver (YPC)!

I tend to think he’s going to be a lot more explosive than Theo, who basically just got Reggie Bush tossed from Detroit — take that Bush Push! But think about what Prosise’s numbers would’ve been if he hadn’t dropped that 60-yard TD against Rice early in the game?
Is Prosise the Percy Harvin this offense — or ND fans — have been coveting from this offense? If I’m patting myself on the back for my Will Fuller is going to explode call (had him going for 1,000 yards) then Prosise is my guy this year, though I feel like I’m not alone.

JJ: I don’t think we can crown him Percy Harvin — the former No. 1 recruit in the country — but he’s a guy who has really good vision and quickness with the ball in his hands. Should Notre Dame have thrown to him three times with the game on the line at FSU? Prooooobably not. But he’s a guy who can really be a factor between the 20’s.

KA: Good point. I had forgotten that happened.

So let’s stay on Red Zone to wrap this up.

If we’re being honest with ourselves — or are reading between the lines, especially from Mike Denbrock’s comments this spring — I feel like we can kind of guess how this offense is coming together. Golson will be the guy asked to carry the passing game. Zaire will be the guy asked to punch it in or keep the running/power game moving, with the option to hit the home run throw over the top. Are you on the same page?

JJ: If both quarterbacks are still here on Sept. 5, yeah. So in this scenario, Golson is the starter and Zaire subs in for goal line spots where he can read-option opposing defenses to death.

JJ: I do wonder if going with Golson carries more risk than Zaire, though. There’s gotta be the allure of “if we can cut his TOs in half, we have a Heisman candidate” with Golson, but with Zaire, you operate a run-based offense that doesn’t turn the ball over much but maybe isn’t as dynamic as one led by Golson. It’s not an easy call.

KA: Doesn’t that depend on what type of defense ND is going to field?

JJ: Absolutely.

KA: For all the credit Zaire got for the LSU win — and he deserved it — it was Golson on the field driving the Irish for the win at the end and the D on the field turning Leonard Fournette into Techmo Bowl Bo Jackson

JJ: Yep. Going conservative on offense would put a lot of pressure on a defense that was awfully flawed last year. The defense will be better with so many guys returning and better depth, but how much better?

KA: I think the D is going to be closer to the first-half unit than the second-half one, though. Personnel is just too talented.

KA: The best I saw this defense play was the first half of the Florida State game. Bottle that up and figure out how to get that on the field for 12 regular season games and it’s a great unit (plus, adding KeiVarae Russell will be a nice luxury).

KA: Okay, some quick ones about Saturday:

Offensive MVP?

JJ: Tarean Folston.

KA: I’m going with Everett Golson.

Defensive MVP?

JJ: Is it a cop-out if I say Jaylon Smith?

KA: If you think he’s playing for more than one series, no cop-out.

JJ: valid point.

KA: I’m at the same position — but going with Greer Martini.

JJ: I’ll go with Isaac Rochell then.

KA: Victor: Offense or Defense?

JJ: /flips coin…

Offense.

(The spring game is brought to you by Whose Line Is It Anyway, where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.)

KA: I agree — Offense it is, based mostly on the strength of the 2nd string OL, who dominate the second half.

We’ll close with this: Spring football is over, and it was one of the most highly anticipated since the 4-way QB battle leading up to the 2012 season. Did it live up to your expectations?

JJ: My expectation was that there wouldn’t be much clarity on the QB situation emanating from the Gug by Saturday…so yeah, it lived up to that. If I had to bet, Golson starts Sept. 5 against Texas, but get back to me in August on that one.

KA: Feeling the same way. But credit Mike Brey for helping BK keep the QBs off the national radar.

JJ: Who would’ve thought basketball could ever take precedence over football at Notre Dame, even if only for a week or two?

KA: It sure was fun. They managed to get me to watch college basketball. The surprise of the spring.

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.)