Mailbag: About Schmidt, CJ, the QB (and that open job at USC)

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Thanks for the good questions, everybody. I did my best to pick ones that matched up with a slew of similar ones… and pick ones that I thought I’d enjoy answers.

(Why? Why not, I thought.)

Here goes nothing:

 

IrishDodger: Keith, please offer your opinion on the play of Joe Schmidt. We all love Joe’s story but he seemed to lose a step after his injury and even let Navy neutralize him. I’m afraid he’ll be further exposed this weekend and against Stanford. Why is it the less talented players seem to pick up the defense better than the 4-star phenoms?

I’ve gotten a half-dozen questions about Joe Schmidt’s play and this one from IrishDodger seemed to cover most of the angles. My opinion on his play? It’s been… a mix of very good, okay, and once or twice slightly disappointing.

As I look at Joe’s PFF grade—a website that knows a ton about football and literally grades and charts every play—I kind of see what they see. A disappointing performance against Virginia (I believe I tweeted that Joe overran a few tackles) and subpar play against Clemson, when Schmidt only had one tackle. (A quick plug for PFF. If you are a college football junky you should absolutely pony up the $$ to see their premium stats. It’s an incredible service, and it’ll help your fantasy team, too.)

Some have asked why Joe is playing. That answer is simple: He’s Notre Dame’s best middle linebacker. Brian Kelly said it point-blank in a press conference a few weeks ago and he’d likely say it again.

Dodger, you should know me well enough by now that I’m going to chuckle at your 4-star recruiting mention. Those rankings mean about as much as the gold star I gave myself for an excellent column last week. Just look at Greer Martini. He was a guy that Irish fans wondered why he was even being recruited. Now he’s my odds-on-favorite to be the starter next season.

Is Joe a perfect player? No. Is he a step slower than last year? I’m not sure, but we sure are ignoring the fact that he’s been playing with a cast on his thumb since Game One. Schmidt’s been asked to handle some of the toughest jobs on the field. And if he struggles at times doing that, you can bet that Nyles Morgan will, too.

There’s a lot of good football left in Notre Dame’s captain and leader. And I expect to see it during the second half of the season.

 

wisner74: Keith – C.J.Prosise’s spectacular development at RB is one of the big stories this year, and freshman RB Josh Adams appears to be coming along very nicely. At the same time, ND’s talented D-backfield seems not to be meeting fans’ expectations. What, if anything, do you think that says about the relative performance of two of the new Irish position coaches, Autry Denson and Todd Lyght?

Notre Dame’s secondary is still a work in progress. But Kelly commended Elijah Shumate’s solid play of late on Thursday and expect to see Cole Luke and KeiVarae Russell begin to find a rhythm now that the option football is behind them.

Again, fan expectations aren’t necessarily reality. And saying Autry Denson is doing better than Todd Lyght because C.J. Prosise is a freak of nature isn’t necessarily a sound logic jump. But the Irish are still struggling at the safety position, and amidst all the box jumps and Instagram training videos we might have forgotten that Russell didn’t play football or even practice for a full calendar year, so expecting him to go from the shelf to lockdown status was a stretch.

 

ndlv: Keith, you have just been hired as a head coach. Whom do you hire as your defensive coordinator – Diaco or Van Gorder?

I think you do exactly what Brian Kelly did. Hire Bob Diaco.

Diaco is a builder. He took a group that was literally laughed at and made them believe they could be the best defense in America. When Irish fans heard the defense chanting “B.I.A.” you couldn’t miss the snarkiness. Two seasons later, Diaco had the Irish defense leading Notre Dame to the BCS title game. No they weren’t the best defense in America. But I think they were second or third.

All that being said, I think VanGorder gets a bum rap. You could have brought Bill Parcells, Buddy Ryan, or any other defensive guru in football history in last November and I’m not sure they’d have been able to make chicken salad with that group. Notre Dame’s front seven was decimated, and you just can’t defend if you’re getting blown off the ball and playing kids who have no clue what they’re doing.

That’s not to say that VanGorder has been perfect. I do think sometimes his group gets too scheme reliant. This group also has some maddening lapses—big plays that go for quick scores and a softness in the red zone that still scares me. But Notre Dame has played some good defense this year, save a handful of series. And they’re doing it without their starting nose tackle, and primary nickel and dime backs.

 

blushirts88: How comfortable are you with Kizer at QB? Do you feel he can handle this game at home?

I’ve been really impressed, haven’t you? And if you haven’t, maybe you didn’t see Kizer in the Blue-Gold game this spring. He was—and he admitted as much to Jac Collinsworth for our Stay Gold podcast—horrific, and basically hit rock bottom as he wondered if football was even the sport for him.

But his poise has been excellent. He throws a pretty ball and has no problem getting it down field. He has yet to have that “lost freshman” look, and that includes in a pouring rain storm in Death Valley.

He’s missed some throws. He’s forced some others. But his leadership and demeanor is contagious, he’s a really conscientious kid. I think he’s doing more than just keep Malik’s seat warm, he’s creating competition in the ranks and also helping the Irish stay on track to achieve their goals.

 

blackirish23:

KA – 2 Questions:

1. If you could have ONE of our injured players back for the bowl game (hopefully the playoffs), who would it be and why?

I’d want Jarron Jones back and healthy. That’s kind of an easy one for me, though I’d love to see what Tarean Folston would do behind this offensive line.

2. In the process of writing an article, does it ever cross your mind which way the comments thread will go? If so, does it ever affect your writing/wording for the article in any way?

Ha. I can safely say that I’ve never worried about what you guys were going to say. Maybe my mom has, but I know that behind every faceless commenter on the internet who writes mean things, there’s really just somebody who wants to be loved.

(I tell myself.)

 

andy44teg: Hey, Keith, saw on ESPN the other day that BK’s name was possibly out there for replacing Sark. Is that just some blow-hard trying to get interweb clicks or is there any juice to that at all?

I’ve got no clue. But here’s how I view it: There wasn’t a writer in town who wasn’t shocked when Sark no-showed for Sunday practice and created this mess. So if you’re telling me that in the 24 hours between his indefinite suspension and his firing that all these reporters went and hit the phones and started talking to anonymous sources, I’d be really surprised.

That said, Brian Kelly is going to be on every list for job openings until he eventually leaves Notre Dame or decides to retire in South Bend. He’s a successful coach who runs a program the right way, is a professional and has a reputation for building programs—and he’s currently doing it at a really difficult place like Notre Dame.

When BK went and visited with the Philadelphia Eagles, he gave certain people, some Notre Dame fans among them, a lifetime pass to believe he’ll be gone at the first chance he gets. But watching him on Showtime and seeing how he’s grown comfortable in his job, I don’t get the feeling he’s a guy looking to uproot his family. Rather, I think he’s a confident coach committed to winning a title at Notre Dame, knowing that alone will allow him to do whatever he wants.

 

 

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