Offseason Q&A: USC

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Brian Kelly’s run of success against rival USC came to a screeching halt last year in the Coliseum, with Notre Dame getting run out of South Los Angeles in lopsided fashion. After watching Kelly even things up after Pete Carroll built an ocean between the two programs, Steve Sarkisian’s win over the Irish rebooted the rivalry.

Regardless of injuries, depth issues and quarterback problems, Notre Dame looked like the less talented squad in the Coliseum, with the Trojan offense doing what it wanted while the Irish pulled the plug on Everett Golson and moved to Malik Zaire for a spark in the second quarter. The change literally redirected the programs trajectory, essentially the beginning of the end for Golson in a Notre Dame uniform.

It’s the Trojans’ turn to travel in 2015, and a flock of USC faithful will post up in Chicago while the men of Troy head into Notre Dame Stadium with ambitious goals. A game that very well could have College Football Playoff implications has the chance to be a special one—especially if both teams handle their business beforehand.

To get us up to speed on the state of the Trojans’ USCFootball.com’s Ryan Abraham was nice enough to answer a few questions.

Hope you enjoy:

 

Last year was one of the most lopsided ND-USC games in a long time, bringing back memories to the Pete Carroll thumpings of Charlie Weis. What do you make of it? Just an injury-ravaged Notre Dame team? The ascent of USC and Sark? Brian Kelly has done well against the Trojans. Does last year reboot this rivalry for you?

Last year’s USC-ND game was interesting to say the least. I expected Notre Dame to play a lot better and I did not expect USC to play as well as it did. The Trojans got thumped the week before against UCLA, and I believe that if the Fighting Irish were playing USC one week earlier, the result would have been significantly different. USC came out flat and not ready to play against the Bruins, so that forced them to focus and play more loose and aggressive the following week against Notre Dame.

It was a key victory for USC and especially Steve Sarkisian. He had high expectations, even for his first year on the job, and losing to both arch rivals in one season doesn’t sit well with the USC fan base. I think that win by Sark does in a way reset the rivalry. Both schools should be poised to make runs at one of the four college football playoff spots over the next few years so this game could be somewhat of an elimination game, adding to the importance.

 

 

Both these teams have the on-paper makings of a playoff contender. What needs to go right for the Trojans to fulfill the lofty expectations they bring into 2015?

Talent wise, USC shouldn’t be at a disadvantage against anyone on its schedule. They bring in the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, adding much needed depth, so that shouldn’t be much of an excuse going forward.

This team has the makings and the potential to make the college football playoffs, but I think the Trojans goals have to be something smaller, specifically winning the Pac-12 South. That division is deep and tough, so the first step to making the playoff is winning the South and then of course winning the conference title game.

The Pac-12 is strong enough that if USC wins the championship game they should be one of the four teams selected for the college football playoff. The key will be how much Sarkisian and his staff have grown from year one to year two and how they utilize the tremendous talent currently on the roster.

 

It’s not an offseason without the Trojans losing some elite talent to the NFL. But there are some really talented young kids on this roster. We caught glimpses of JuJu Smith (who ND felt really good about landing as a recruit) and Adoree Jackson. While Nelson Agholor and Leonard Williams are gone, who seem primed to emerge as the next future stars from Troy? 

You mentioned two players, Juju Smith and Adoree Jackson, who are really poised to be the next great stars at USC. Both were five-star recruits who chose the Trojans on signing day. If you don’t think recruiting matters, think about how many more games USC would have lost last season if those two players didn’t put on USC hats on signing day.

Linebacker Su’a Cravens, heading into his junior (and likely final) year, should be a very high selection in the NFL Draft and very well could be the best and most important player on the roster right now.

 

QB Cody Kessler had a ridiculous season, and Notre Dame fans saw firsthand his accuracy and abilities in the Coliseum. It seems like he’s been under-appreciated, with headlines going to the lofty 5-star prospects, but Kessler holding down the job and working his way into some rarified air. How good is Kessler? And is it safe to group him in with some of the recent greats? 

Cody Kessler’s numbers were certainly impressive with 39 touchdown passes against only five interceptions. The knock on him last season was that he accumulated the majority of his touchdowns against the weaker opposition.

But after setting records against Notre Dame at the end of the season, it will be interesting to see if he is able to have that kind of success against teams like Oregon, Arizona State and UCLA in 2015. He is a talented kid and a good leader, so we shall see if he can take a step forward during his third season as the starting quarterback.

 

Let’s talk about Sark. He lost four games last season, laying some eggs but having some nice victories as well. What are expectations entering his second season? Do you feel more or less confident that he’s the right guy to return USC to the land of the elite? 

The expectations on Sark in his first year were extremely high. USC was able to win 10 games despite having three different head coaches in 2013. So only winning nine games and losing a couple of last second heartbreakers was a letdown for many Trojan fans.

In February Sark signed the top-ranked recruiting class, which is certainly a positive development in his tenure, but it also puts even more pressure on him to win and win now. The sanctions are over, the depth should be much better, the overall talent is there, so there are no reasons why this team shouldn’t at least win the division. Anything short of that will be a disappointment and I would expect if that happens, the boosters and alumni will start putting pressure on the administration to make a change. Is that fair? Probably not, but Sark had big shoes to fill taking over for the extremely popular Ed Orgeron so the pressure was on from day one.

 

 

We’re a long ways away. But what do you expect come October when these two teams face off?

I expect a much more competitive USC-Notre Dame game come October. I have no idea what the outcome will be, but I don’t expect one team to run away with it like last season. Both teams have the potential to be undefeated and highly ranked, so it could be one of the classic matchups in this long and storied rivalry.

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.)