Mailbag: All about the defense

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If we spent a little bit too much time discussing the quarterback position last mailbag, let’s take aim at one of the other massively important questions heading into the summer.

As always, thanks for the questions. (And for the improvements in the comments section.)

Now, to perhaps the defining question of the offseason:

 

kiopta1: We all talk about the O and the QBs but what are your thoughts on the D? Where do you see them improving and what more is needed if health isn’t an issue this season?

While Zaire and Golson took over our brains, the performance of Brian VanGorder’s defense is likely the difference between Notre Dame going to the College Football Playoff and having an underwhelming season.

Year One of Brian VanGorder was perhaps the wildest variance we’ve seen in Kelly’s tenure in South Bend. When the going was good, it was melt-the-internet-with-a-meme good. When it was bad? It was a horror show of Tenutian proportions, with overwhelmed and underprepared kids running around like John Ryan and Paddy Mullen.

What do we make of the defense? What was a fair evaluation of last season’s meltdown? The same coach that had a young, inexperienced defense looking like world beaters against Stanford and Michigan was also the guy who let Northwestern turn from beyond mediocre to high powered.

Because this answer could take months to fully dig in, let’s focus on four keys:

1)  Be dominant stopping the run. 

This shouldn’t be all that hard. The Irish have an experienced, veteran and talented front seven. With Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones back at defensive tackle, that’s two seniors who are NFL caliber talents, who also showed the ability to dominate at times. That’s a great start.

The linebackers will only help the cause. Joe Schmidt may not be perfectly sized, but he was mighty productive. Add in Nyles Morgan ascension, Jarrett Grace’s steely resolve and some field-ready depth behind them, and we’re talking about the linebackers being good before  we get to perhaps the most talented athlete on the team in Jaylon Smith.

Smith should turn into an eraser this season. While it’s still being determined where on the field he’ll be doing said erasing, it’s with confidence that we can just about guarantee a statistically unique season for a linebacker who managed to crack 100 tackles last season even as he was learning on the go.

2) Find some consistency in the secondary. 

While there were some nice individual efforts last season, advanced statistics give you an idea of just how horrific the Irish were stopping the pass, especially on downs where everybody in the stadium knew the ball was going in the air.

The S&P+ Ratings are the creation of Bill Connelly, using opponent-adjusted components that take four key factors into play: efficiency, explosiveness, field position and finishing drives. While trying any harder to explain it would make my brain explode, in Connelly’s early preview of the 2015 Irish, this little bit stuck out to me like a sore thumb:

When you look at the individual stats of the players listed above — Cole Luke with his 15 passes defensed, Matthias Farley with his 6.5 tackles for loss, etc. — you get the impression of an aggressive Notre Dame secondary. It had potential, but it ranked an inexcusable 96th in Passing S&P+, 88th on passing downs. The complete lack of an effective blitz played a role, but … 96th!

For perspective, here are the defenses that ranked 91st through 95th: Kentucky, UL-Lafayette, UConn, Kent State, Ohio. Notre Dame, with its four- and five-stars and play-makers, ranked below them. The Irish allowed a 60.3 percent completion rate (86th in the country) and allowed 43 completions of at least 20 yards (85th). Awful.

Now, it bears mentioning that there was quite a bit of turnover. Russell was lost pretty close to the season, and safeties Austin Collinsworth and Eliar Hardy missed eight games each. With a nonexistent pass rush and understudies playing a larger role than expected, Notre Dame wasn’t going to post a top-20 or top-30 pass defense. But top-60 shouldn’t have been too much to ask.

Sometimes an outsider’s perspective can lay things out far clearer than anything done by someone covering and writing about the team on a daily basis. And in this case, Connelly’s 30,000-foot view of the secondary and pass defense lays things out pretty succinctly.

“Inexcusably bad.”

3) Rush the passer and get off the field. 

It’s not fair to blame the secondary for everything in the passing game, especially with the front-seven’s inability to get a pass rush. But somebody on the Irish roster needs to step forward and rush the passer, because reinforcements aren’t coming in 2015.

That’s not to say that Bo Wallace’s departure is going to ruin Notre Dame’s defense. Nor is it to completely lay blame on the Irish staff’s inability to find themselves a “pure pass rusher.” The staff isn’t unicorn hunting. Besides, they’ve already proven the ability to land some elite defensive linemen.

But getting pressure on the quarterback and getting off the field will go a long way towards turning this defense into an elite unit. And whether it’s coming from seniors like Day and Romeo Okwara, or young players like Andrew Trumbetti, Jerry Tillery, Jhonny Williams or Kolin Hill, finding the pieces to do the job is vital, especially when it doesn’t look like there’s one guy who is going to produce.

4) Slow down the up-tempo offenses. 

No team is going to look at Notre Dame’s second-half and not see that North Carolina’s use of tempo served as a partial blueprint for the rest of the season. So until VanGorder and company figure out how to make plays and slow down the pace by getting stops, opponents are going to move as quickly as possible to attack the Irish defense.

Last season, Notre Dame didn’t have a base defense to hang its hat. And after applauding the multiplicity of the defense and the plethora of sub-packages the Irish used to confuse and confound Michigan and Stanford, all those moving parts felt a lot like smoke and mirrors after it became clear that the group may have been fairly adept at doing a ton of little things well, but ultimately mastered none.

Kelly spent the offseason analyzing the problem. While you’d expect him to say nothing differently this spring, he believes they’ve found some answers. But until the Irish make it out of September and find a way to slow down an offense like Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech attack, it’ll be up to VanGorder to prove it with game film or be prepared to face an up tempo attack all season.

Ultimately, Kelly is betting his legacy on one of his oldest coaching allies in VanGorder. But while Mike Sanford’s addition to the staff feels a little like Kelly acknowledging he needed to infuse some new ideas into the room, it’s worth noting that he also brought in Todd Lyght and Keith Gilmore this offseason.

While it necessitated moving Bob Elliot into an off-field role (likely heavy on R&D), it’s a fresh start for a defense that only has Mike Elston remaining from the original defensive staff, and he’s now coaching linebackers.  Perhaps it’s Elston that’ll remind everybody how Kelly rebuilt the Irish defense under Bob Diaco: by taking the emphasis off of scheme and putting it on individual responsibility.

With a season of game tape now in the hands of opponents, VanGorder would be well-served to find a way to get his guys to simply do it better. Because daring the opposition to go toe-to-toe when you believe you’ll win even if you take scheme away is the best way for the Irish to win.

Friday at 4: What a defensive difference two weeks makes

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The college football offseason is approximately 33 weeks long, from the national championship game to Labor Day Weekend. Obviously, for 127 teams each year, that stretch is at least one week longer.

It is vital to remember how interminably it lasts when overreacting to each and every personnel development. Consider just two weeks ago, the sky seemed to be falling in on Notre Dame’s defense. Coordinator Mike Elko had left for the same position at Texas A&M. The odds were, at least, 50/50 he would take linebackers coach Clark Lea with him. Junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery had not yet declared for the NFL draft, but the coaching change made both departures appear more likely.

The news cycle moved so quickly, this weekly spot published 12 hours early so as not to risk a development usurping the intended premise.

Now, that defense returns 10 starters and stability in coaching. Its reserves show such promise, those 10 will not all start against Michigan on Sept. 1. The only position group with depth concerns is also the one bringing in four highly-touted linebackers as freshmen.

What a difference two weeks makes.

That “Friday at 4 a.m.” included quick mention of the concern regarding Coney and Tillery.

“Like Tillery, [Coney] is considering heading to the NFL. If he does so specifically because of Elko’s exit, that may be the costliest result of this coaching carousel for the Irish.”

Just a week ago, it was possible, even likely, only defensive end Jay Hayes (93) would return from this trio, but defensive tackles Jonathan Bonner (left) and Jerry Tillery (99) burgeoned the Irish interior depth by returning for one more season at Notre Dame. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

It is unlikely Coney and Tillery both returned only because head coach Brian Kelly promoted Lea to defensive coordinator and retained Mike Elston as defensive line coach. What matters is they did. It is also unlikely any of those factors were the deciding aspect for senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner opting to reverse course and enjoy a fifth year at Notre Dame. What matters is Bonner did.

With those luxuries, Lea will have eight players who started all 13 games this season to steer his way as a first-time coordinator. He will also have current senior cornerback Nick Watkins and sophomore Troy Pride, who combined for 13 starts as Pride filled in for an injured Watkins in the final month, and Coney, who technically started only seven games, though he split time with graduating senior Greer Martini all season.

That makes 10 veritable returning starters. If nothing else, sophomore safety Alohi Gilman will force his way into that mix now that he’s eligible following his transfer from Navy.

Compare those 10 to the recent past. Heading into 2017, the Irish returned two 12-game starters, Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill. Seven total returning defenders had started at least seven games in the dismal 2016 season.

Speaking of that 4-8 debacle, Notre Dame started that year with even less experience. Cornerback Cole Luke had started 13 games in the Fiesta Bowl-concluding 2015 campaign; defensive end Isaac Rochell claimed 12. After them, linebacker James Onwualu had started nine games and defensive tackle Daniel Cage had notched seven. That was it for playing time worth acknowledging.

Starts are somewhat arbitrary, though, as perhaps best illustrated by Coney technically having only seven to his name despite finishing as the defense’s leading tackler this season.

How vital were his, Tillery’s and Bonner’s return to Lea’s future? With the three of them, 10 of the leading 12 tacklers will be back in 2018. Looking backward once more, the Irish returned four of their eight leading tacklers entering the season opener against Temple. Want the quickest summary of the 2016 failure? Realize Notre Dame had only one of its top-five tacklers from the College Football Playoff contender the year before, and two of the top 10. NFL dreams, suspensions and injuries left that defense with neither experience nor production.

To anyone wondering if these statistics diminish a secondary’s impact — considering most defensive backs do not rack up tackle totals — the trends all apply there, as well. The Irish return six defensive backs who saw genuine playing time this season, plus Gilman. The safety play was inarguably disappointing, but that position will presumably not get worse. For thoroughness’ sake: Only two defensive backs had seen notable playing time heading into 2017, and only Cole Luke could claim such entering 2016.

Barring a rash of injuries or suspensions, this defense will be better in 2018. It returns too many pieces to propose otherwise, and experience this broad benefits all involved.

The easily-tracked indicators for coming success hardly even factor in the likes of freshman defensive tackle Kurt Hinish and his development. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

That can be said before even expecting increased contributions from current freshmen defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish, without pinning hopes to the quartet of incoming linebackers, including three who enrolled early, and without projecting further development from sophomore defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara.

Two weeks ago, this defense faced the prospect of learning a new scheme with only two of its top-six tacklers returning. It may have needed to claim the secondary as its most-experienced position group, the only position group ever lampooned in 2017. Resetting despite a strong defensive season highlighted by back-to-back weeks of stymying top-flight offenses in mid-October was a disappointing prospect, to put it mildly.

Now, this defense has a chance to enjoy growth in consistency and excel at every level. Performances like those seen against USC and North Carolina State could conceivably become the norm.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: USC and Stanford lost the most in early departures to NFL

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Notre Dame’s roster fared better than was anticipated when it came to players entering the NFL draft with remaining collegiate eligibility. Left guard Quenton Nelson was always expected to take the leap, as any possible top-five pick should. Running back Josh Adams may have considered returning to the Irish, but logic sent him to the pros, as well. Receiver Equanimeous St. Brown long seemed to be leaning that way.

Those were not surprises.

Getting both linebacker Te’von Coney and Jerry Tillery to return was a bit of a shock, and a welcome one for head coach Brian Kelly and his staff.

Of Notre Dame’s 2018 opponents, a few saw top-flight talent depart. Their coaches had assuredly hoped, with varying degrees of reasonability, such players would stay. These losses lower a team’s ceiling, but it does not necessarily spell trouble. USC will not altogether mind quarterback Sam Darnold hearing his name called early in the first round if incoming freshman — and reclassified recruit, at that, having actually been only a junior in high school this fall — J.T. Daniels proves to be the better coming of Matt Barkley.

Speaking of the Trojans, they lead a listing ordered by obvious impact lost:

USC: Not much more really needs to be said about Darnold. His 2017 was filled with stellar comebacks necessitated by poor decisions.
— Receiver Deontay Burnett: With 86 catches for 1,114 yards and nine touchdowns in 2017, it made sense for Burnett to test the next level. Eight of those catches went for 113 yards and a touchdown against the Irish. He had 56 catches for 622 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago.

Ronald Jones (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

— Running back Ronald Jones: Finishing his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and 39 career rushing touchdowns, Jones proved plenty at the college level. Notre Dame bottled him up this October, but he gashed the defense for 134 yards and a score on only 16 carries in 2016.
— Defensive end Rasheem Green: His final season with the Trojans featured 12.5 tackles for loss, including 10 sacks, amid 43 tackles.

Stanford: The Cardinal lost the core of its defense, but the early departure cost could have been much worse. Junior running back Bryce Love returned for another season, waiting until after the declaration deadline to make his decision public.

— Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips: Rarely does a defensive tackle lead his team in tackles, and rarely does a defensive tackle total more than 100 tackles. Phillips led the Cardinal with 103 tackles including 17 tackles for loss with 7.5 sacks. Stanford genuinely loses a force with his exit.
— Safety Justin Reid: Only Phillips made more tackles for the Cardinal than Reid’s 99. He added five interceptions and six more pass breakups. Against the Irish in November, Reid managed nine tackles, one sack and one pass breakup.
— Cornerback Quenton Meeks: Stanford lost its fifth-leading tackler, as well, with Meeks taking his 65 tackles away, along with two interceptions and eight pass breakups.
— Tight end Dalton Schultz: He could be a physical presence in the NFL, although he also displayed strong hands throughout his career, finishing 2017 with 22 catches for 212 yards and three touchdowns.

Florida State: The Seminoles may have had a disappointing season, but there was still plenty of talent on the roster. The defense, especially, held up its end of the bargain. Some of that left, but keep the talent pool in mind when Florida State is undoubtedly hyped in August.
— Safety Derwin James: The Seminoles’ No. 2 tackler with 84, including 5.5 for loss, James also tallied two interceptions with 11 pass breakups.
— Defensive end Josh Sweat: Trailing James, Sweat made 56 tackles, highlighted by 12.5 for loss with 5.5 sacks, adding 3 pass breakups to the slate.

Auden Tate. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

— Defensive end Jalen Wilkerson: Only 19 tackles may not jump off the page, but six of them were for loss.
— Cornerback Tarvarus McFadden: Providing strong coverage no matter whom Florida State faced, McFadden complemented 30 tackles with 10 pass breakups.
— Receiver Auden Tate: At 6-foot-5, Tate turned a quarter of his 40 catches into touchdowns. His 548 receiving yards were second on the team.
— Tight end Ryan Izzo: His 20 catches were not necessarily that many, but Izzo’s 317 receiving yards and three touchdowns were each third on the team.

Virginia Tech: If noticing an imbalance tilted toward defensive players heading to the NFL throughout this list, that reflects football as a whole. The League is willing to invest in defenders. Most offensive playmakers are seen as a bit more replaceable. On the college level, the best defenses carry teams to the College Football Playoff (see: Clemson), thus getting those individual stars more attention and raising their draft prospects.
— Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds: The Hokies’ leading tackler with 109, Edmunds also managed 14 for loss while notching 5.5 sacks.
— Safety Terrell Edmunds: Virginia Tech’s No. 5 tackler with 59, Edmunds added two interceptions and four pass breakups.
— Defensive tackle Tim Settle: 36 tackles with 12.5 for loss and four sacks this year.

Pittsburgh: The Panthers have made a habit of tripping up a top-ranked team each fall. Losing three contributors will not help that cause, but head coach Pat Narduzzi will certainly have Pittsburgh ready to go Oct. 13.
— Offensive tackle Brian O’Neill: After starting 13 games at right tackle a year ago, O’Neill moved to left tackle with little trouble in making 12 starts this season.
— Safety Jordan Whitehead: The Panthers’ No. 3 tackler, Whitehead added four pass breakups and an interception to his 60 tackles.
— Receiver Quadree Henderson: Only 17 catches for 186 yards is hardly something to speak of, but Henderson did return two punts for touchdowns this season and averaged 20.96 yards per kick return.

Jessie Bates (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Wake Forest: Wherever safety Jessie Bates goes in the draft, Irish fans should take note. His development under former Demon Deacons and then Notre Dame and now Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko was exceptional. Elko may be gone, but his scheme remains. Any version of such development at safety could be the final piece to the Irish defense in the fall.

Healthy throughout 2016, Bates made 100 tackles with seven for loss and picked off five passes. Injuries slowed him toward the end of 2017.

Michigan: None of the other 2018 opponents had players head to the NFL before they had to, but it warrants mentioning the Wolverines didn’t in part because they had 11 drafted in 2017.

A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s defensive roster

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Following a week of moves to and from Notre Dame’s roster, most notably — certainly most positively — on the defensive side, a quick look at the numbers at each position can shine a light on the months to come. Just like last week’s brief glance at the offense, the order of this listing is not intended to stake a stance on positional competitions. (In other words, it doesn’t try to figure out the mess at safety.)

For the time being, the years listed remain those currently. There is no clean date to transition forward a grade in this space. Thus, when senior linebacker Drue Tranquill’s name shows up, it is because he will be around yet in 2018. This is intended to aid conversations and debates in-person and online as they pertain to the coming season. Looks further ahead with thoughts on eligibility concerns will be more focused at some point in the coming offseason.

One last note: In looking at the linebackers, do not be surprised if the experience gap is filled by Tranquill and rover becomes even more of a matchup-based concept. Spring practice should shed some light on that possibility.

As of this morning, the Irish roster has 84 names on it, expecting at least three more commitments by Feb. 7, if not a graduate transfer or two. As always, the NCAA allows a maximum of 85 come fall.

Defensive end (7):
So. Daelin Hayes
Sr. Jay Hayes
So. Khalid Kareem
So. Julian Okwara
So. Ade Ogundeji
Fr. Kofi Wardlow
Inc. fr. Justin Ademilola

Defensive tackle (8):
Jr. Jerry Tillery
Sr. Jonathan Bonner
Fr. Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa
Fr. Kurt Hinish
Fr. Darnell Ewell
Jr. Micah Dew-Treadway
Inc. fr. Ja’Mion Franklin
Inc. fr. Jayson Ademilola

Linebacker (8):
Jr. Te’von Coney
So. Jonathan Jones
So. Jamir Jones
Early-enrolled fr. Jack Lamb
Early-enrolled fr. Bo Bauer
Fr. Drew White
Fr. David Adams
Early-enrolled fr. Ovie Oghoufo

Rover (4):
Sr. Drue Tranquill
Jr. Asmar Bilal
Fr. Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah
Inc. fr. Shayne Simon

Cornerback (7):
So. Julian Love
Jr. Shaun Crawford
Sr. Nick Watkins
So. Troy Pride
So. Donte Vaughn
Inc. fr. Tariq Bracy
Inc. fr. Joe Wilkins, Jr.

Safety (11):
So. Alohi Gilman
Jr. Nick Coleman
Inc. fr. Derrik Allen
Early-enrolled fr. Houston Griffith
So. Jalen Elliott
So. Devin Studstill
Fr. Jordan Genmark-Heath
Fr. Isaiah Robertson
Jr. Nicco Fertitta
So. D.J. Morgan
Inc. fr. Paul Moala

Stepherson may get the headlines, but loss of two RBs will cost Notre Dame most

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Notre Dame split with four players Tuesday night, two of them having a more noticeable ripple effect than the others.

Kevin Stepherson’s Irish career coming to a premature conclusion became an inevitability in December. The sophomore receiver forced the issue with back-to-back legal missteps underscoring a disregard for what must have already been a zero-tolerance situation. Though unproven, Notre Dame has a litany of options to replace Stepherson’s big-play potential.

To be blunt, the Irish will hardly notice Brandon Tiassum’s absence on the field in 2018. The junior defensive tackle was passed on the depth chart by two freshmen this past fall, and a few more newcomers may have pushed him further from playing time between now and Sept. 1.

But in losing two running backs — current sophomore Deon McIntosh and freshman C.J. Holmes — from the roster, Notre Dame will have to make some adjustments. If health were guaranteed the two remaining known commodities at the position, then the absences of McIntosh and Holmes could be written off with only a bit more consternation than Tiassum’s. At running back, though, health is not guaranteed. It is, in fact, rare.

Between junior Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones, the Irish have the makings of a top-flight backfield. Williams has an abundance of playmaking ability, if lacking as both a receiver and a blocker, while Jones excels in those latter two capacities and can pick up chunks of yardage simply by bowling over defenders. But, at some point in the next 11 months, at least one of the two will be hampered. Maybe yet another ankle will turn balky. Maybe Williams’ quad will seize up again. Perhaps something more severe will befall one of, if not both, Notre Dame’s lead backs.

At that point, as the roster is currently, only early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith will be available. That will not be enough.

A year ago, the Irish entered spring practice with known-stalwart Josh Adams, Williams and Jones ready to go. Holmes had enrolled early. Those four were expected to be the running back corps. Then Holmes injured his shoulder early in the spring. The idea of only three healthy running backs was such an uncomfortable thought, the coaching staff opted to move McIntosh to the backfield from receiver.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh finished 2017 with 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries, a 5.7 yards per rush average. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

As anyone who watched the latter half of the 2017 season will attest, it was a good thing they did.

How Notre Dame goes about finding a fourth back this year will sort itself out only with time. Some will bandy about the thought of moving rivals.com three-star cornerback Tariq Bracy to the offensive backfield. He excelled both as a running back and a cornerback in high school, and the Irish have depth at the latter position these days. Bracy is certainly a possibility.

The fringe will posit this is a prime opportunity to move junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush away from taking snaps. That concept will not and should not be considered for even the five seconds it took to read that sentence.

Most likely — perhaps in combination with turning to Bracy or another, less obvious suspect — Notre Dame is already urgently looking for a second running back in this recruiting class. Finding one will be easier suggested than executed, and doing so will likely take away from adding at another position.

The Irish currently have 22 commitments in this class, 21 signed and consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy; Little Rock, Ark.) ready to do so in February. They were likely planning to reel in another offensive lineman, another defensive back and a receiver with the remaining three spots in the class.

For example, rivals.com four-star/247sports.com five-star offensive tackle Nick Petit-Frere (Berkeley Prep; Tampa, Fla.), consensus four-star cornerback Noah Boykin (H.D. Woodson High School; Washington, D.C.) and consensus three-star receiver Lawrence Keys (McDonogh 35; New Orleans, La.). There are a litany of other permutations of that combination, but the point stands. Adding a running back to that limited capacity will take away from somewhere else.

RELATED READING: With four spots remaining, what recruits is Notre Dame still chasing? (Dec. 23)

Notre Dame does theoretically have the option to exceed 25 recruits in the class by counting some of the newly-arrived seven early enrollees toward last year’s recruit class numbers. It is essentially a known loophole within NCAA rules, but that theory is unlikely to become reality.

In the long view, it could create an exacerbated roster crunch in years to come. That algebra is constantly shifting. Exceeding 25 players in this class would also necessitate four recruiting successes in an abbreviated period with a shallow pool of prospects remaining after the early signing period.

Thus, the odds stand at slim of the Irish coaching staff exceeding 25 signees in this class, meaning Jones plus only three more Feb. 7. With Tuesday’s churn, a running back will likely be one of those three, and thus another position will not be.

Losing McIntosh and Holmes drains Notre Dame’s running back depth in 2018. It also shifts, ever so slightly-yet-noticeably, the roster in the years immediately afterward.