And in that corner… The Clemson Tigers

59 Comments

The Irish are headed out of town this weekend, no ordinary road trip as they head to South Carolina and Clemson’s Death Valley. Notre Dame will put their undefeated 4-0 record on the line in one of the most difficult stadiums in college football to come out a victor.

With over two weeks to prepare, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney brings in an unbeaten team as well, surviving a Thursday night in Louisville their last time out. With both teams understanding that they’ll need to play their best to win one of the early-season’s premier showdowns, now is as good a time as any to get the other perspective on how Saturday night in primetime will shake out.

Joining us is Shakin the Southland‘s Brian Lewis. On a really busy week, Brian was kind enough to revisit our conversation from earlier this summer, and also to look ahead to this weekend as we get ready for Notre Dame’s first visit to Clemson in almost 40 years.

Hope you enjoy.

 

When we spoke this summer, you talked about this being one of the biggest games on the schedule this year. Then on Sunday, Dabo Swinney said the Tigers were going to prepare just like this was… Wofford (or App State or Louisville).

I get that from a coach, but can you actually believe him? And do you expect that Clemson maybe held a few things back from a scheme perspective for this game?

Dabo is a very big fan of coachspeak, but in this case I think he’s right. Back in 2013 we hosted 2 big games that saw GameDay come to town. Clemson-UGA and Clemson-FSU. Against UGA we were relaxed and ready to play, against FSU the team let the moment get to them and it culminated in a rather depressing beating. I think the coaching staff will be able to treat this as just another game.

The staff has definitely held a few things back, but I think that is also because of our opponents. The first two games were always going to see basic plays on both sides, and gien what Louisville does on offense and what they tried to do defensively, I don’t think we’ve seen the full Clemson playbook yet.

 

The preseason perception of this Clemson team was a strong offense and a young, rebuilding defense that would grow as the season went along. That hasn’t necessarily been the case. The offense (on paper) struggled moving the ball against Appalachian State, and against Louisville it was the defense that seemed to thrive.

Sticking on the offensive side of the ball, can you give us a progress report on how the Tigers have played after replacing Chad Morris?

This year the biggest surprise has been the running game. Morris always talked about having a power running game to complement the passing we see in a HUNH (Hurry-up, No-huddle), but it never materialized. This year we finally have a group of RBs that seem to negate the poor play of our OL. In the passing game, I think the issue is more of Watson just being off. The playcalling has been pretty comparable to Morris, and now it comes down to execution.

 

Defensively, the game against Louisville sticks out. Again, we’ve only seen three games with two against FCS (and now Sun Belt) competition, but that Thursday night in Kentucky had to feel really good, right?

Thursday night games are always tricky on the road, especially for Clemson. Getting the win felt great, but there was definitely a little bit of missed opportunity surrounding the team. The poor special teams play and Deshaun Watson‘s inconsistency made many fans think Clemson should have done better. That said, a win against one of our top competitors in the Atlantic Division is always a good thing.

 

Here’s a matchup I’m excited to see: Will Fuller against Mackenzie Alexander. Brent Venables called Fuller the best receiver in the country last week. Is this the key matchup for the Tigers defense or is it slowing down the Irish running game?

I’m honestly not that worried about Fuller. He’s definitely talented and plays a very physical game, but if he’s beating us then I suspect we have a lot bigger problems with stopping the run. Alexander will have some help from the safeties, even if it isn’t needed, and we will likely put 7-8 in the box to stop the run.

 

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is back after an ACL tear. How has he looked so far? Specifically from an athleticism POV? Notre Dame’s secondary is asked to play aggressively in Brian VanGorder’s scheme and can give up big plays. Is this where you expect the Tigers to attack?

Watson has seemed fine athletically, but we haven’t really seen any designed runs from him. Most of the time he’s taken off because of a breakdown in the play or very good coverage. Those runs he’s seemed fine, but he also wasn’t laying out against a team like Wofford or App State. The big worry has been his timing and accuracy. Some of his passes seem to be just a half step slow, but hopefully it is more about mechanics than anything physical.

I think the big guy to watch out for is Artavis Scott. The receiver has a silly amount of speed and is used on all sorts of sweeps and pitches. He could have a big game if Notre Dame gets a little too aggressive in defense.

 

Notre Dame brings DeShone Kizer into Death Valley, his first road start after taking over after Malik Zaire went down with a season-ending injury in week two. Just how daunting do you expect this atmosphere to be?

(It took me a while to find the last home losses for the Tigers, they fell to Florida State in 2013 and South Carolina in 2012—so two dropped games in going on four seasons..? That’s impressive.)

If Kizer can handle this atmosphere then Notre Dame fans should never worry about how he’s going to handle any other college stadium. A night game at Death Valley is always a treat, and this one is going to be even more special. The cheapest tickets are going on Stubhub for close to $200 and everyone I’ve talked to is planning to tailgate all day, even if they don’t have tickets.

The big thing for Kizer is not going to be avoiding mistakes, but rather making some plays. Just avoiding mistakes isn’t going to quiet the crowd. He’s going to need to knock back Clemson a bit with some excellent play. If he can do it or not is going to be the big question, especially if Clemson can score first or make a big defensive stand early.

 

Last question: Having only watched the Louisville game and highlights from the Wofford and Appy State games, I still am not sure what I know about this Clemson team. You’re much closer to the situation. Do you have an idea as to how good this team is? Is this as big of a litmus test for the Tigers as it is for the Irish?

The defense is definitely better than expected, but the offense still has a question mark. I’m fairly confident is saying we have a talented defense that may be a bit thin in some positions, but that depth problem only seems to come up when we have injured players.

On offense this game is absolutely a litmus test. We’ve been waiting to see Deshaun Watson at 100%, and hopefully we get that this weekend. After seeing it in a few games last year all Clemson fans know what he can do, and hopefully he’s just taken a few weeks to get acclimated.

I don’t do pure predictions, but I will say this, the score stays within seven points. It is hard for me to see either team coming out and absolutely dominating. There are too many question marks for both teams to see that happening.

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

Getty Images
42 Comments

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

Getty Images
13 Comments

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
6 Comments

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?

rivals.com
23 Comments

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