Last looks: Secondary

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The pieces are in place for Notre Dame’s secondary to be great. Led by returning cornerback KeiVarae Russell and armed with depth at every starting position, first-year position coach Todd Lyght has considerable talent to work with.

But the Irish secondary remains a question mark, especially at the safety position where returning veterans Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate are still doing their best to play up to expectations. In a system where there’s nowhere to hide and aggression can expose sometimes critical mistakes, the secondary is better equipped to handle the flames, even if we aren’t exactly sure how they’ll do until we put their feet to the fire.

In our final section of last looks, Notre Dame’s secondary is under the microscope.

 

SECONDARY
Position Coach: Todd Lyght

 

DEPTH CHART

CB: KeiVarae Russell, Sr.*
S: Max Redfield, Jr.
S: Elijah Shumate, Sr.
CB: Cole Luke

CB: Devin Butler, Jr.
S: Matthias Farley, GS
S: Drue Tranquill, Soph.
CB: Nick Coleman, Fr.

Additional Depth:
Avery Sebastian, GS
Nick Watkins, Soph.
Mykelti Williams, Fr.
Nicco Fertitta, Fr.
Shaun Crawford, Fr.*

*Additional year of eligibility available. 

 

LEADING MAN

KeiVarae Russell. Russell will lead this group, dragging along every member of the secondary to compete at his level. That’s a good thing, especially after late last season when a confidence boost was needed in November and nobody was there to provide it.

Yet Russell needs to bring more than just pompoms to work. He needs to prove he’s worth all the headlines he’s garnered—not just for the mistakes that led to him missing the 2014 season, but the lofty projections people have made for him after a solid-but-not-quite-spectacular sophomore season.

Russell is playing in a new system, a challenge he craves. He’ll be bouncing inside and out, allowing him to make an impact in both the run and pass game. But in an aggressive scheme that’ll challenge the Irish secondary on a play-to-play basis, Russell not only needs to make sure he’s getting the best out of his teammates, but that he’s delivering the All-American caliber production that we all expect.

 

NEED A BIG SEASON

Max Redfield & Elijah Shumate. Put simply, this defense will be as good as its safety play. And with little depth behind Redfield and Shumate, it’s on the shoulders of this duo to do the job and do it well.

Last year, both ended up in the dog house, and only a MASH unit allowed either to emerge. But after a year of learning and a commitment to communication, Redfield and Shumate appear poised to play up to their blue-chip expectations.

 

Of course, that’s what everybody says this time of year. And while Kelly, VanGorder and Lyght have all been saying the right things, this is a put-up or shut-up time for two critical pieces to the puzzle.

 

THREE BIGGEST FACTORS… 

Can this group eliminate the big play? Bob Diaco’s secondary wasn’t the most exciting group in America. But it understood that you can win a lot of football games and keep the points down by not giving up the big play. Late last year when things started going wrong, the secondary was getting beat and giving up yards—and points—by the bushel.

With the talent that Notre Dame has, a repeat of that would be immensely disappointing. But with some talented quarterbacks and receivers on this schedule, it’s a key factor, especially if VanGorder wants to continue to play aggressive.

 

Can Redfield turn into a playmaker? Notre Dame hasn’t had a playmaking safety since Harrison Smith roamed centerfield. But Redfield has all the attributes you want from a free safety, and he’s literally the only guy on this roster who can physically do what this defense needs.

Redfield has a fresh start with Todd Lyght. He’s been filled with confidence by Brian Kelly. And he appears committed to football. Asking Redfield to be Smith—a first-rounder with elite talent as well—might be too much. But can he be at least above average, making some plays on the football that he was a step or two slow to last season?

Before Smith was ball-hawking he was getting kicked around for two seasons. And that’s reason for hope that the light can turn on for Redfield, too.

 

How versatile can this group be? Notre Dame will face teams that’ll spread the Irish out and also triple-option teams that’ll want to bully them. And with the depth chart still a little bit thinner than you want, how VanGorder and Lyght decide to use some of the key complementary pieces to this unit will be very important.

Matthias Farley won’t be asked to be a man-cover corner in the slot, but he’ll play a big role in other packages. Drue Tranquill might not be capable of being a half-field safety, but he certainly can attack off the edge, or hold-up against the pitch man versus an option attack. Beyond that, Notre Dame getting something out of Nick Watkins can only help, and if one of the freshmen safety can play it’d be a bonus, too. (Then again, so would keeping a redshirt on both.)

The loss of Shaun Crawford robbed the Irish of a little versatility, but seeing how this group mixes and matches will be fun.

 

THREE RANDOM THOUGHTS

Can Russell and Luke take their place among the dynamic cornerbacking duos? We’ve undersold Cole Luke’s 2014 season. He was really, really solid against a slate of wide receivers that looked like a murderer’s row. On the other hand, we’ve all bought in to KeiVarae Russell’s return to greatness, and the confident senior is deadset on making up for lost time.

There’s enough talent here for this duo to make the outside a no-fly zone. Just as important, this staff could have enough confidence in Luke and Russell to stay outside on islands against the option, allowing the Irish to put eight and nine men in the box as they aggressively attack the option, relying on their two corners to not get lost in the shuffle and get beat over the top.

It’s been since Vontez Duff and Shane Walton since the Irish had a duo that the college football world viewed as elite. If Russell and Luke can play up to that level, this defense will be in great shape.

 

Is Devin Butler really ready to be an outside cornerback? Want proof that Todd Lyght gave everybody a blank slate? Check out Butler’s ascent into the starting nickel corner role.

Last November, Butler had a two-way miss—giving up the underneath throws and still getting beat over the top. That’s a fatal flaw for a cornerback that some thought was a mismatch for this scheme to begin with, especially since he was recruited for Bob Diaco’s Cover 2.

But give credit to Butler for a big summer and preseason camp, earning his way into the lineup over a talented young cornerback like Nick Watkins. But also hold your breath, because you’ve got to expect offensive coordinators to throw at Butler early and often, especially after the game tape he put together last November.

 

Can Todd Lyght bring consistency to this group? Kerry Cooks is gone, off to Oklahoma after Signing Day, a calendar year after being passed up for the defensive coordinator job. So Kelly decided to bring Todd Lyght back to his alma mater, a decision that looks great on paper, with the former Irish All-American able to also point to a Super Bowl championship and a Pro Bowl NFL career as well.

But the move isn’t without risks. Lyght has barely begun his coaching career, serving as an intern at Oregon for two seasons under Chip Kelly before joining him in Philadelphia for parts of two seasons as an assistant defensive backs coach. And after just agreeing to join Vanderbilt’s staff to coach cornerbacks, Lyght took some convincing to turn around and head back to South Bend to coach the Irish secondary, a decision not without risk for either side.

The early returns say the decision was a good one, with Lyght quick to find his footing running the secondary while also hitting his stride on the recruiting trail. But in the past, Kelly has used two coaches to deal with the secondary, splitting jobs between cornerbacks and safeties. Lyght is handling it all, in his first full-fledged assistant job.

 

 

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.)

Monday’s Leftovers: Coney & Tillery once enrolled early at Notre Dame, now to the NFL or not?

Associated Press
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Today marks two occasions. It is the day before Notre Dame begins its spring semester. In other words, it is the day before this year’s seven early enrollees begin classes. It is also the deadline for early entrants to file for the NFL draft.

There are two common threads to the separate events. Junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery both enrolled early in 2015, and they have both delayed their stay-or-go decisions to today.

With the early signing period’s implementation, the former date holds less import. These players have already signed with the Irish. Gone are the days of putting down a drink and racing to a computer after finding a source to confirm a consensus five-star quarterback’s early arrival. With an early signing period, Gunner Kiel likely would have been bound to at least begin his career at LSU in the spring of 2012, rather than show up on Notre Dame’s campus at the 11th hour.

The tangible value of arriving early can still hold legitimacy, but that theoretical does not become much of a reality until spring practice commences, anyway.

Junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) will need to decide today if he will head to the NFL Draft or return for his senior year. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

So an early enrollee summary can wait until tomorrow’s first day of classes. In the meantime, breathes remain baited waiting for the decisions from Coney and Tillery. Will they return for a year under first-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea, or follow the lead of running back Josh Adams and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and head for the NFL?

As has been discussed and seems rather obvious, both Coney and Tillery would greatly boost the 2018 Irish defense. They would also both likely hear their names called in the NFL draft, so there is merit to whatever option each chooses.

— As it pertains to the early enrollees, the measureable benefit of the semester’s head start can be debated. In looking at the last three classes, it has appeared to have great effect with a few of the freshmen, but not for most.

2015: Tillery, Coney, defensive lineman Micah Dew-Treadway, offensive lineman Tristen Hoge.
2016: Safety Devin Studstill, receiver Kevin Stepherson, defensive end Daelin Hayes, defensive end Khalid Kareem, safety Spencer Perry.
2017: Offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, tight end Brock Wright, running back C.J. Holmes, safety Isaiah Robertson, offensive lineman Aaron Banks.

Of those 14, Tillery, Studstill, Stepherson and Hainsey offered genuine contributions in their debut seasons.

Tillery started three games in 2015, appearing in all 12, making 12 tackles with one sack. More than the counting statistics, the depth Tillery provided at defensive tackle was an absolute necessity.

As injuries and suspensions purged the Irish secondary just before the 2016 season’s start, Studstill was forced into a starting role. He finished the year with 38 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. He was not yet ready to be a collegiate starting safety, but he was needed to be, and the time spent going through the paces in the spring provided Studstill enough of a base to be somewhat serviceable from the outset.

Stepherson broke out as a deep threat right away — a likelihood with or without an early enrollment simply due to his speed. In his only complete season with the Irish, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Hainsey’s impact was far and away the most distinct. He went from the second most-heralded early-enrolled offensive lineman to a starter at right tackle. That surge puts Hainsey in pole position to start at left tackle in 2018. He may have ended up there, anyway, but the freshman first played a pivotal role on the best offensive line in the country.

— It would not be a site dedicated to football if it did not include some mention of the Minnesota Vikings’ victory Sunday evening. Some adjective should precede victory in the previous sentence, but no quick combination encapsulates just how absurd, dramatic and, per the quickly-adhered catchphrase, miraculous the conclusion was.

Stefon Diggs’ game-winning touchdown may not have been as excellent as Irish receiver Miles Boykin’s was in the Citrus Bowl if compared in a vacuum, but Diggs’ score came with no time remaining on the clock, while Boykin’s was merely an excellent play that if failed, other chances would have followed.

Of course, being the Vikings, the Notre Dame connection is thorough.

— A thought experiment sparked by that Minneapolis tangent … The Minnesota Timberwolves played their first game in franchise history Nov. 3, 1989, meaning it has endured a title drought the exact same length as the Irish have.

Which wins its respective championship first?

9-win, 30-TD quarterbacks like Wimbush are rare; Links to read

Associated Press
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It is not easy to win nine or 10 games in one season. It is not easy for Notre Dame, for any team, and it is not easy for a quarterback.

If granting the premise the Irish would have won at North Carolina if junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush had not sprained his foot the weekend beforehand, then Wimbush indeed notched nine wins this season. That does not credit him with the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, though it is certainly possible he would have found a way to win that game, too.

In doing so, Wimbush accounted for 30 touchdowns, 16 through the air and 14 through the ground.

Those two facts alone will guarantee Wimbush a chance to start at quarterback for Notre Dame on Sept. 1, as they should. After all, how many nine-win quarterbacks were there in 2017? How many players scored 30 combined touchdowns? Not many.

Obviously there will always be a Baker Mayfield or a Lamar Jackson, but consistent and frequent production is not as easy as the two Heisman winners make it seem. If narrowing the focus to Power Five teams, only 21 quarterbacks won nine games this season. That should probably bump to 22 out of deference to McKenzie Milton leading Central Florida to an undefeated season.

It bears noting the Irish faced six of those quarterbacks: Georgia’s Jake Fromm (13 wins) USC’s Sam Darnold (11), Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke (10), Miami’s Malik Rosier (10), North Carolina State and Ryan Finley (9), and LSU with Danny Etling (9).

Again keeping the field to the Power Five conferences with an exemption for the 13-0 Knights, only 14 players managed 30 total touchdowns, including Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford (29 passing, 10 rushing).

Between the two lists, just nine quarterbacks can claim both:
McKenzie Milton, Central Florida: 13 wins; 37 passing touchdowns, eight rushing.
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma: 12 wins; 43 passing, five rushing.
J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: 12 wins; 35 passing, 12 rushing.
Trace McSorley, Penn State: 11 wins; 28 passing, 11 rushing.
Sam Darnold, USC: 11 wins; 26 passing, five rushing.
Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State: 10 wins; 37 passing, 10 rushing.
Malik Rosier, Miami (FL): 10 wins; 26 passing, five rushing.
Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame: 9 wins; 16 passing, 14 rushing.
Luke Falk, Washington State: 9 wins; 30 passing.

This is not to say Wimbush should have an easy path to the starting gig for 2018. Before a long offseason of quarterback headlines and interminable debates, this is to say Wimbush has produced enough he will and should get his chance, despite any late-season struggles and obviously-needed improvements. Underselling Wimbush’s 2017 serves no point but to offer an exceptionally-flawed argument.

A FUN BIT OF TRIVIA:
No NFL team has both hosted the Super Bowl and played a divisional playoff game at home in the same year. The Minnesota Vikings will do just that Sunday (4:40 p.m. ET; v. New Orleans; FOX), as the Super Bowl will be at U.S. Bank Stadium in a few weeks. Some might deem the Vikings as “Notre Dame North” thanks to their reliance on former Irish safety Harrison Smith, tight end Kyle Rudolph and — less of a reliance, to be accurate — receiver Michael Floyd.

That is not the piece of trivia, though.

Stanford Stadium hosted the 1985 Super Bowl, with the San Francisco 49ers beating the Miami Dolphins.

Anyone who has been to a Notre Dame game at Stanford can use that fact to realize in a tangible manner just how much the NFL has grown in the last three decades. The idea of the world’s largest entertainment event being held at The Farm is genuinely beyond fathoming for those of a certain generation, this scribe included.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Monday’s Leftovers: On Notre Dame’s dual needs at defensive coordinator and those effects
Notre Dame promoting Lea & Elston bodes well for at least the short term
Harry Hiestand leaves Notre Dame on good terms and in good shape
A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s offensive roster

OUTSIDE READING:
Jack Lamb on Clark Lea: “best possible choice” for Notre Dame
Clark Lea’s promotion was a win for continuity, and one Notre Dame sorely needed
Optimism for Notre Dame football in 2018 starts with the Irish defense
Irish ‘feel really good’ about O-line in ‘18
In Harry Hiestand, Matt Nagy hits a home run on his first swing at Bears’ coaching staff
Notre Dame’s Moore Award personal for Taylor
What happens if the Vikings reach Super Bowl LII? Expect plenty of logistical challenges

Editor’s Note: Yes, the above quarterback bit was originally intended to run a bit longer in the weekly “Friday at 4” slot, but the timing did not fit last week with the defensive coordinator shift and the time was not at hand this week to get the piece put together as “Friday at 4” dictates.

Then again, stalling for a day creates another day of halfway-worthwhile content in a time of year that is devoid of much substance, aside from coaching changes, transfers, NFL declarations, et al.

And in the spirit of “Friday at 4,” how great would it be to have Dr. Stephen Strange as a weekend partner in figurative crime?