And in that corner… The USC Trojans

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Every time Notre Dame plays USC, there’s intrigue. But while most thought the Trojans’ loss to Washington last Thursday night dampened the enthusiasm for a potential matchup of two Top-15 programs, the abrupt dismissal of Steve Sarkisian changed everything.

On a Saturday packed full of big-time matchups, Notre Dame’s game with the Trojans might not be the biggest when it comes to playoff implications. But all of college football will be watching as USC plays for interim head coach Clay Helton, in charge of steering the Trojans through some remarkably rough waters. Helton is the fourth different head coach to face Notre Dame in four years, shocking after Pete Carroll’s tenure building one of the finest programs of the modern era.

There to see it all has been Shotgun Spratling. One of the busiest guys on the SoCal beat, Shotgun covers the Trojans for Scout’s USCFootball.com among the half dozen other places you’ll find his byline.

In one of the craziest weeks I can remember, Shotgun brought his A-game. Enjoy.

 

Okay, let’s tackle the Steve Sarkisian suspension / firing from a football perspective first. How badly does this impact USC’s preparation for Notre Dame this weekend? What do you expect from this team now that Clay Helton is the man in charge? 

Strangely, the craziness swirling around Heritage Hall this week might actually be good for the Trojans. When any kind of big incident happens in life, “work” can be a welcomed distraction. You can lock in and focus on one thing rather than being bothered by everything else. The player that might hang out in the quad, go to a party or any other social activity might instead spend the extra hour or two watching film in their room. No one wants to answer a constant barrage of questions about someone else’s actions.

With Clay Helton’s experience taking over previously and having gone through the interim experience before, he has a great idea of what will work and what may not to get the team motivated and focused in this type of situation. If the leaders on the team step up and show the right maturity, the Trojans are likely to have an “us against the world” type of attitude.

 

Off the field, this is a horrendous story for a jillion reasons. What do you make of the 180 Pat Haden made in the time between Sunday’s meeting with the media and Monday’s decision to fire Sark? And what do you make of the man in charge of Trojan sports? He’s coming under pressure now, too, and understandably when you look at the direction football and basketball programs have gone, not to mention the gamble on Sark. 

I don’t think it was necessarily a 180 as much as Pat Haden needed some time to digest, research and decipher what exactly had just happened. He was at a basketball event at the Galen Center when he was informed Sarkisian wasn’t at practice. I actually saw him leaving as I was arriving for the event and he definitely did not have a smile on his face. Sarkisian was scheduled to speak to reporters after the Sunday afternoon practice, so when he was unavailable, someone had to take his place. That put the wheels in motion and somewhat forced Haden to make a comment.

After he had a day to determine exactly what was going on, rather than an hour, I’m sure he was able to take his findings to the legal team, those he trusts and those he reports to and eventually come to the decision of firing Sarkisian. More than a 180, I think this was ultimately a progression of events during the 24-hour span.

Haden is coming under a lot of fire for the Sarkisian hire and that pressure definitely should be on his shoulders. This was his guy and Haden has said that Sarkisian was vetted “extensively” prior to his hire. The biggest concern is that Sarkisian had been known in coaching circles to have a good time. Obviously, if done responsibly, there’s nothing wrong with that and by virtue of him having no previous incidents or run-ins with authorities, you likely assume that he had done so responsibly in the past. But with abuse of any substance, there is almost always an escalation. Sarkisian is currently in the midst of a divorce and potentially losing his three kids as well. What effect did that have on him?

After former basketball coach Kevin O’Neill had an incident that involved alcohol and led to a suspension, it seems Haden should have come down more stringent against Sarkisian after the Salute to Troy event before the season began. If he did, maybe we all wouldn’t be in the current situation.

 

All of this comes after USC laid an incredible egg against Washington in the Coliseum on Thursday. Did you see that coming? And how did the Trojan offense get stopped?

The last five years while I’ve been in Los Angeles, I’ve grown to expect the unexpected. Thursday night’s game was very similar to the Washington State game in Lane Kiffin’s final half season. Turnovers and offensive ineptitude allowed an inferior team to beat a USC squad with vastly superior talent.

The offense actually stopped itself more than it got stopped. During the Arizona State game, the Sun Devils blitzed constantly and completely shut down the rushing attack, but rather than constantly trying to run it (which UCLA tried and failed to do the next week), USC attacked with the pass. Washington was the exact opposite. With big running lanes and continued struggles in the passing game, partially due to losing All-American center Max Tuerk and two starting receivers, USC didn’t just take what the Husky defense was giving them.

They continually tried to fling it around the yard. After a fourth quarter touchdown drive that featured a pass to a running back and four runs for 46 yards, USC got the ball back and went three-and-out on three consecutive pass plays. Then on a critical third-and-6 from the 25-yard line — an area Sarkisian has often run on third down when he plans to go for it on fourth down — the Trojans tried to pass despite the four previous runs on the drive averaging 7.5 yards per attempt. Cody Kessler, who had an uncharacteristically poor performance, took a sack and then USC inexplicably attempted a field goal down five points and Washington needing just a first down to assure that it could run out the clock.

 

Notre Dame’s had its share of injury woes. Now it appears the bug has caught the Trojans. All Pac-12 center Max Tuerk is done for the year with a knee injury. Defensive lineman Claude Pelon looks doubtful. What’s the status of this team physically?

Unfortunately, all of college football has been subject to injuries. It’s terrible, but the sport is becoming a war of attrition. The team with the best top-end talent is rarely going to win any more, but the team with the most quality depth has a much better chance.

Any time you lose an All-American caliber player like Tuerk it’s a big blow. Not only is he strong at his position, but he made all the calls on the offensive line, so he made his offensive line mates stronger as well. But even more important is that he was the “heart and soul of the offensive line and probably the offense” as sophomore lineman Viane Talamaivao told me after the game. It was an emotional blow to the unit. But the good thing is that the Trojans had been rotating in seven offensive linemen most of the time. Now Talamaivao just moves into the starting lineup. Toa Lobendahn, who is the Swiss Army knife of the unit, takes over at center where some think he should have been playing to begin with (with Tuerk moving back to tackle where he began his career). If Lobendahn makes the right calls, there might not be much of a discernible drop off.

Other injuries the Trojans are currently dealing with include Claude Pelon, who is doubtful after a knee sprain that saw his leg go a different direction than the rest of his body, and a pair of receivers. One of the Trojans best blockers and most consistent route runners, Darreus Rogers, was injured on the first play from scrimmage against Arizona State and missed the Washington game while explosive slot receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. took a direct hit below the knee while being wrapped up by another defender right before halftime last week. Rogers should be back, barring a setback, but he’s dealing with a hamstring pull and those are easy to re-injure. Mitchell Jr. is questionable. Freshman starting cornerback Iman Marshall (abdominal) also left the Washington game after a vicious blindside hit, but he is expected to play this weekend.

 

Last year, the Trojans torched an injury-ravaged Notre Dame defense in the Coliseum. This year, the key matchup will be an Irish secondary that’s underperforming take on the SC skill talent. How confident do the Trojans feel about this matchup?

You can bet that USC will show some clips from last season’s game leading up to this weekend’s visit to South Bend and it will be repeated over and over to the offensive line that they have to give Kessler some time in order for there to be a repeat performance. Explosive plays have been the Trojans’ calling card all season and that’s definitely a matchup they’ll try to exploit. But the injuries to Rogers, Mitchell Jr. and Marshall (because all the cornerbacks need to be healthy in order for the always dangerous Adoree’ Jackson to have extensive side on the offensive side) could play a big role.

 

Can this team keep it together? Can Helton’s ascent be similar to what happened when Coach O took over?

If there is any team equipped with trial-by-fire leaders, it’s this squad. Fifth-year senior Cody Kessler may have the most controversy- and drama-filled tenure of any quarterback in college history. He’s pretty much seen it all with four different coaches, including Helton as the interim for the second time.

The Trojans need to circle the wagons and take on the “us against the world” philosophy as I said before. And if Helton is wise, he will draw from Ed Orgeron’s actions when he was took over as interim coach and focus on the family and make sure that everyone is playing for one another the rest of the season.

 

You’re Pat Haden. Who do you hire as the next USC head football coach? Do you think he’ll be given the chance?

All the tires will be kicked and all the rocks will be overturned. Similar to in 2013, the Trojans have a good amount of time before a hire has to be made, so there is no reason that they shouldn’t spend as much time finding the right candidate as possible.

If it was up to me, I’d really be going hard after power five conference coaches that have proven themselves already. In that regard, the first names on my list (in order) would be Gary Patterson, Dabo Swinney, Kevin Sumlin, Mark Dantonio, Kyle Whittingham and Mike Gundy. At least a passing chat with the college football bonafides (Meyer, Saban, Fisher, Miles, Stoops) would also have to take place just to gauge to see if there is any interest.

I don’t think Haden will get the chance to make the final decision, but he has a great relationship with the USC president, Max Nikias, so it’s still possible.

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

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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