Counting down the Irish: 20-16

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For those getting caught up, start here. Then, check out the players who just missed the cut. Our rankings start with No. 25-21

 

We kicked off our list with five candidates for a breakout season. Our next installment seems to be doing one better: All five players have already started football games (or in one case, a game), now the goal is to become dominant performers.

For some, it’s still a learning process. We saw that with Nyles Morgan in 2014, a young linebacker prone to mistakes but still capable of making the big play. For others like Chris Brown and Elijah Shumate, 2015 constitutes a final season to perform, with the hope that three seasons of experience will result in a breakthrough.

We saw game-breaking moments from a player like Corey Robinson. We also saw Mike McGlinchey step into the starting lineup and thrive, surviving a mid-game relief appearance against USC’s Leonard Williams before performing more-than-admirably against LSU.

The depth on Notre Dame’s roster begins to show itself in this installment, with all five players capable of putting together very big seasons.

 

2015 IRISH TOP 25 RANKINGS

25. Jerry Tillery, DL
24. Greg Bryant, RB
23. Durham Smythe, TE
22. Matthias Farley, DB
21. Quenton Nelson, LG

 

Notre Dame v Arizona State
Notre Dame v Arizona StateChristian Petersen/Getty Images

20. Nyles Morgan (LB, Sophomore): No, it wasn’t always pretty. But Morgan’s baptism by fire should help as he moves into his sophomore season. In limited playing time subbing in for an injured Joe Schmidt, Morgan managed to make 47 tackles, the eighth most of any freshman at Notre Dame in the program’s history.

Morgan’s big play potential is obvious. He managed 3.5 TFLs in his four starts, three more than Joe Schmidt managed during his MVP (as voted by peers and coaches) campaign.

A big, fast and mean linebacker, Morgan will compete with Schmidt and Jarrett Grace for time in the middle of the defense. And if he’s able to take the next step from a mental prospective, there’s a chance that Morgan can see the field at the same time as Schmidt and Jaylon Smith, giving the Irish a linebacking corps that should be incredibly productive.

Highest Ranking: 17th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (three ballots).

 

Chris Brown, Adoree Jackson
Chris Brown, Adoree JacksonAP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

19. Chris Brown (WR, Senior): For two seasons, Brown’s 50-yard catch against Oklahoma served as the singular highlight on the receiver’s resume. But in 2014, he showed shades of becoming a complete player, serving as a capable No. 2, even if it still only happened in spurts .

But as a senior, inconsistency won’t cut it. And playing across from Will Fuller, that type of productive should be a given. So if you’re looking for a candidate to step forward in a receiving group that doesn’t lose a body, Brown is an odds-on-favorite.

He’s big (nearly 6-foot-2) and fast (a high-school sprinter and national record-setter in the triple jump). He’s also finally understanding what it takes to be a consistent performer in Brian Kelly’s offense, though 39 catches and 548 yards is just a start. Somebody has to help take the attention off of Fuller. And Brown is the type of veteran leader who should get one of the first chances to do it.

Highest Ranking: 16th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (three ballots).

 

Purdue v Notre Dame
Purdue v Notre DameMichael Hickey/Getty Images

18. Elijah Shumate (S, Senior): After an impressive freshman season where Shumate helped the 2012 defense as a slot cornerback, the veteran safety battled injuries during a mostly lost sophomore season and then struggled with the transition into Brian VanGorder’s defense in 2014. Still, he started 11 games and played in all 13, finishing third on the team in tackles with 66, chipping in a game-ending interception against Michigan to score a touchdown that counted everywhere but the scoreboard.

But that’s not the type of productivity that’ll get things done at the back end, and Shumate spent too much of last season not fully grasping his role in the Irish defense. But Shumate had a strong spring and is expected to put together a much more impressive final season in South Bend.

Capable of playing near the line of scrimmage and one of the team’s toughest hitters, the 213-pounder will be armed with another season of knowledge in VanGorder’s system.  Hopefully that unlocks a smashmouth playmaker who’ll cause trouble for quarterbacks and strike fear into receivers.

Highest Ranking: 11th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (two ballots).

 

Ronald Darby,Corey Robinson
Ronald Darby,Corey RobinsonAP Photo/Mark Wallheiser

17. Corey Robinson (WR, Junior): Robinson played the game of his career against Florida State, nearly completing the touchdown hat trick and pulling out a historic win if it weren’t for a dubious offensive pass interference call. And while he had a few other clutch moments in 2014, there’s a consistency that still needs to be added to Robinson’s game if he’s going to take the next step as a receiver.

There’s reason to believe that he can. Robinson put together an impressive sophomore season even after playing most of the year with a fractured thumb. That neutralized one of Robinson’s best traits, a pair of velcro hands, as he continued to evolve as a route runner and grow comfortable with a body that seems to have sprouted well past his listed 6-foot-4.5 height.

A year after being named a first-team Academic All-American and Notre Dame’s Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year, it’s time for Robinson to emerge as a true red zone weapon—not to mention a complete receiver—as he looks to round out his game.

Highest Ranking: 17th. Lowest Ranking: 22nd.

 

16. Mike McGlinchey (RT, Junior): The jump Notre Dame’s starting right tackle made in the rankings from 2014 gives you an idea of his upside. And for all the talk about Ronnie Stanley and his chances to be the potential top pick in 2016, some think McGlinchey could offer much of the same thing at offensive tackle, a scary proposition if true.

At a shade under 6-foot-8, McGlinchey has the mass and length needed to be a prototype tackle. And we’ve heard more than enough from Brian Kelly to understand that McGlinchey’s best asset might be his athleticism.

While Christian Lombard did his best to gut out a tough final season in South Bend as he battled back injuries, McGlinchey sat on the bench. He was the odd-man out after spending last spring as Notre Dame’s projected right tackle, only to see Steve Elmer slide outside during fall camp. Even after that experiment failed, Harry Hiestand and Kelly decided to stick with a veteran like Lombard, though after seeing McGlinchey play when Lombard’s back finally gave out, he seemed more than ready for action.

Entering his third season in the program, McGlinchey is getting his chance. And the physical roadgrader should have a very good season.

Highest Ranking: 10th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (one ballot).

 

***

Our 2015 Irish Top 25 panel
Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish
Bryan DriskellBlue & Gold
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Nick Ironside, Irish 247
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Michael Bryan, One Foot Down
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
Jude Seymour, Her Loyal Sons
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago
John Vannie, NDNation
John Walters, Newsweek 

A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s defensive roster

Associated Press
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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.

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. That count had already presumed Stepherson off the roster. Thus, this development drops that number to 84, including committed consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones. The NCAA maximum allowed come fall is 85.

Notre Dame returns entire defensive line with DT Bonner’s fifth-year decision

Associated Press
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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.