Pregame Six Pack: Finishing spring practice strong

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With the quarterback battle taking center stage, Notre Dame’s spring practice focused on Everett Golson and Malik Zaire. Yet Brian Kelly spent this spring making sure his team was improving heading into this September, where the Irish’s high hopes will either live or die.

Saturday afternoon’s spring game is just one of 15 practices leading into next season. But the Blue-Gold game is a rare opportunity for a progress report not just of the high-profile quarterback battle, but for a look at the state of the Irish roster, with each team playing at full strength as the offense battles the defense.

You have viewing options. It’ll be live on NBCSN. It’ll also stream live on NBCSports.com.

With most of our attention this spring stuck on the battle between Golson and Zaire, let’s take a run through the Pregame Six Pack, and take a look at some roster battles that may factor into the equation come September 5.

 

For Jarrett Grace, the hard part is finished. 

Earlier this week, the latest entry of Onward Notre Dame aired on NBCSN, and it featured linebacker Jarrett Grace. We’ve talked about his long road back to the field after a devastating leg injury in 2013. But Grace talks about it himself in some of the finest moments of the half-hour documentary.

On the field, Grace gives the Irish great flexibility at the inside linebacker positions. In the locker room, his return gives Notre Dame another true leader.

See for yourself the battles Grace faced as he fought his way back to the field.

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Blink and you might miss them. But safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate’s progress this spring is critical. 

No, you shouldn’t expect to see a bunch of big plays from Notre Dame’s starting safeties. That’s because with little depth behind Redfield and Shumate, there’s zero reason you’ll see the starting battery at the back of the Irish defense for the whole game. But after a big spring, Brian Kelly is talking like Notre Dame’s safety problems are a thing of the past, and that’d be very good news for Brian VanGorder’s defense.

In Redfield and Shumate, the Irish have two elite athletes to play safety. The two former top recruits are starting in front of a bunch of… well—a lot of question marks.

While Avery Sebastian has been on campus a few times taking notice of the defense, the third safety currently on the roster is a huge step behind the starting duo of Redfield and Shumate. With Nicky Baratti recovering from shoulder surgery and Drue Tranquill being held back because of an ACL surgery he’s recovered quickly from, the Irish depth chart this spring is thin.

So even if we don’t necessarily see the progress on the field on Saturday, the Irish coaching staff thinks the safety position has taken a huge step forward this spring, something that’s crucial to Notre Dame’s success in 2015.

 

What impact has Todd Lyght had over the cornerback play?

While the safety position took the brunt of the criticism, the Irish’s cover game suffered during November’s collapse last year as well. While Cole Luke had a breakout sophomore season, the loss of KeiVarae Russell was badly felt after Cody Riggs began having foot problems.

The battle opposite Luke this spring is one to watch, with rising sophomore Nick Watkins taking on soon-to-be junior Devin Butler. Last November, Butler made some highlight reels for a talented group of opposing wide receivers, not exactly where you want to see your number displayed.

Barring anything crazy, Russell will be back on campus this summer and back in the starting lineup. But while former Pro Bowler and Notre Dame All-American Todd Lyght’s first job was fixing the communication problems at the safety position, infusing some of his knowledge at a cornerback position that needed a confidence booster after a rough November was also on the docket.

The message seems to have been received. Watkins has worked his way even with Butler, the battle for the third cornerback job getting a jumpstart before talented freshman Shaun Crawford hits campus this June. Against a tough opponent—Notre Dame’s wide receiving corps—let’s see if the cover men can hold up.

 

Will we see Mike Sanford’s impact on the offense during the Blue-Gold game? 

Brian Kelly didn’t pull Mike Sanford from Boise State to just run Kelly’s offense. He brought him to shake things up. So while a televised spring game might be heavy on vanilla, it’ll be interesting to see if any of Sanford’s influence shows itself during this afternoon’s contest.

Sanford’s primary work this spring was coaching the quarterbacks. But after the Boise State offense took a journeyman quarterback and scored nearly 40 points a game, hopefully we’ll see some of that rub off in South Bend.

Focus on the running game. Last year, Jay Ajayi was one of college football’s biggest and best work horses. With three backs being shuffled through this spring, it looks like it’ll be an ensemble cast, but the commitment that Sanford showed to the run last season would do the Irish some good.

 

Can C.J. Prosise take a big spring and turn it into a big Blue-Gold game?

Nobody expected C.J. Prosise’s breakout this spring to be at running back. But the Irish might have found a new home run-threat runner at slot receiver.

Of course, fellow slot receiver Amir Carlisle was the former running back, Notre Dame’s starter in the season opener at the position in 2013. But Prosise is looking less like a contingency plan and more like a guy that’s going to play a significant role in the offense.

Kelly talked about getting him 10 carries a game while praising his natural talents at running back. Mike Denbrock called him one of the team’s best offensive players, period. After breaking off a huge 70-plus yard touchdown run last Saturday in the team’s biggest full-contact scrimmage, will we see the same from Prosise this Saturday?

 

What will Jerry Tillery do next?

At this point, what could Jerry Tillery do next to surprise us? Goal line quarterback, beating out Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones in the Irish Chocolate package? The early-enrollee freshman has been the talk of spring, working with the first-unit defense and displaying dominant traits that have many believing the 6-foot-6 defensive tackle is a star in the making.

Brian Kelly spent the early part of spring praising Tillery. Brian VanGorder and new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore have gotten in on it, too. So while they’ve also tried their best to tamp down some of those expectations, it’s too late: At this point, some of us are expecting a hybrid of Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt.

Tillery was set for the offensive line, a spot he’d have likely redshirted at while Ronnie Stanley manned the left tackle position. But with Jarron Jones extremely limited this spring and Sheldon Day held back, Tillery’s move to defense has been critical.

One of Notre Dame’s quirkiest and most interesting freshman—he took an official visit to Dartmouth and participates in recreational triathlons— is also one of the best.

 

In a crowded wide receiving depth chart, will another star rise to match Will Fuller? 

Last year we saw a record-setting season from sophomore Will Fuller. This year, Mike Denbrock’s hoping to find someone else to join him in the bright lights.

Senior Chris Brown seems to be rising to that challenge. After making one of the 2012 season’s best highlights against Oklahoma, Brown’s had just average production since then.

Tools wise, he’s got the ability to be much better than average. The former prep track star has elite speed. He’s got good size at 6-foot-1.5. And if it’s not Brown stepping to the forefront, there are plenty of other candidates.

Corey Robinson has been slowed this spring by nagging injuries, but should advance his game in his third season. Torii Hunter Jr. may have made headlines for moonlighting with the baseball team this spring, but Hunter has made his move on the gridiron, cross-training between the slot and outside positions.

Young freshmen Justin Brent and Corey Holmes have had their chance to get into the depth chart. And if they don’t, freshmen Miles Boykin, Jaylon Guyton, CJ Sanders, and Equanimeous St. Brown plan on making their move come fall.

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.)