Five things we learned: Notre Dame 41, USC 31

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In a football game that felt an awful lot like a heavyweight brawl, Notre Dame came out victorious on Saturday night, landing a late-game knockout with 17 fourth-quarter points to put USC away 41-31. With nearly 1,100 yards of offense, big special teams plays and dynamic game-changing moments by some of college football’s most talented players, the Irish won in the type of game that leaves you wanting more.

The offense was led by C.J. Prosise and Will Fuller. The defense’s second-half revival was triggered by cornerback KeiVarae Russell, Jaylon Smith’s 14 tackles and Sheldon Day’s relentless pressure. Even the special teams got in on the act, with Equanimeous St. Brown blocking a USC punt and Amir Carlisle scooping it up for a score.

While it wasn’t pretty, it was a 10-point victory over Notre Dame’s bitter rivals. And in a game that swung back and forth and back again, the Irish came out on top thanks to contributions from players big (Corey Robinson) and small (Justin Yoon and CJ Sanders).

Let’s find out what else we learned.

In a game filled with major momentum shifts, Notre Dame took back the game with a dominant final surge. 

With the ball inside USC’s 10-yard line and the Irish marching for what looked like their fourth touchdown of the opening quarter, Torii Hunter Jr. was stripped of the ball by Adoree Jackson and the Trojans recovered and had new life. From that moment, the middle rounds of this slugfest were won by USC, the turnover breathing life into the men of Troy, effort they sustained until the game’s final quarter.

After starting so quickly, the offense got stuck in neutral. And Notre Dame’s defense continued to be boom and bust—too often following up a big defensive stop with a mind-numbing amount of missed tackles or blown assignments.

Yet the criticism can wait until morning. Because the character of Brian Kelly’s football team was displayed in the game’s most important moments, and when game-changing plays needed to be made it was Notre Dame that stepped up and made them.

Offensively, Will Fuller wouldn’t be stopped. And if he was, it was because of pass interference. C.J. Prosise was relentless on the ground, scoring two more touchdowns as he rumbled for 143 more yards. And while DeShone Kizer struggled to find open receivers at times as his throwing windows shrunk against the Trojans’ solid secondary, the redshirt freshman continued to play like a seasoned veteran.

Defensively, the turnaround was even more remarkable. The Trojans were taking huge chunks of yardage on just about every drive, but after halftime scored only seven points. The Irish tightened when they needed to, and it was the Irish defense that made two huge plays picking off Cody Kessler.

Brian Kelly spent all week talking about the effort USC would give. Notre Dame not only matched it, they were the ones to make the big plays when the game was on the line.

“In the end, I’m really proud of the way our football team preserved and found a way to make a couple of plays in the second half,” Kelly said. “I really liked our temperament as a football team. They didn’t show any kind of crack at all. They were confident, they believed that they were going to win.”

You can’t stop Will Fuller. Even Adoree Jackson. 

After all but disappearing against Clemson cornerback Mackenzie Alexander, Will Fuller went out Saturday night and dominated USC’s secondary. That included All-Everything three-way threat Adoree Jackson.

Fuller beat Jackson for a touchdown on Notre Dame’s first offensive play, sprinting past the Trojans speedster on a 75-yard bomb. He had him beat again until Jackson dragged Fuller down for a pass interference, a drive that included two 15-yarders trying to stop Fuller. And that was before Fuller all but put the game on ice with another long catch on a perfectly thrown ball by Kizer.

Fuller’s stat line was a ridiculous one: three catches for 131 yards, nearly half a football field on every touch.

“In my estimation, there’s nobody in the country that can cover him one-on-one,” Kelly said.

As the Irish ground game continues to thrive with C.J. Prosise running hard, defenses are forced to make choices on how they want to slow down Notre Dame. And the Trojans tried to do that by utilizing man coverage on Fuller, and the Irish speedster made them pay.

Big plays on defense are a big problem.

USC nearly put up 600 yards of offense, scoring long-distance touchdowns from 75 and 83 yards, along with Ronald Jones’ 65-yard run that set up another score. Missed tackles killed the Irish, so did another trick play—the Trojans utilizing a double pass that caught Cole Luke looking in the backfield.

So while the second half turnaround is a great rally, the eye-opening yardage totals and big plays very nearly doomed the Irish.

“We want to be better each and every week. When you look at it, we are who we are,” Kelly said, when asked about the secondary and their play thus far. “We’ve just got to keep working with them. They’re our kids, our players and we’re going to keep working.”

USC’s skill talent is second to none. But too often the Irish defense finds a way to cancel out a good play by a bad one, perhaps the function of diminished margin for error in Brian VanGorder’s scheme. And while you can’t blame Xs and Os for missed tackles, the Irish made USC struggle when they challenged Kessler and the Trojans to move the ball down the field five and ten yards at a time, especually during a two-minute drill that played right into Notre Dame’s hands.

Joe Schmidt missed a few tackles early. But he wasn’t alone. And while Matthias Farley earned his reputation as the ultimate plug-in and thrive defensive back, Max Redfield relieved him and enhanced the Irish’s speed on the back side, making a huge interception late in the game after KeiVarae Russell got a hand on a pass intended for JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Notre Dame’s offense managed 41 points in the win. But it was the yards and points the Irish gave up that will get most of the attention after the week off.

Notre Dame’s special teams were a huge piece of the winning formula. 

A group that’s served as a piñata over the last few years keyed Notre Dame’s victory on Saturday night. Scott Booker’s special teams made an impact in every phase, the biggest coming from the outstretched hands of Equanimeous St. Brown and Amir Carlisle’s scoop and score.

Notre Dame attacked the three-man secondary wall in front of USC’s punter and very nearly had four guys get their hands on the football, the Irish scheming up a perfect punt block.

“We feel like we’ve got some guys who are really skilled,” Kelly said. “We felt like this week was a week that we wanted to be aggressive when we got the opportunity.

That aggressiveness wasn’t just on the block. CJ Sanders had a strong day returning kicks, keyed by some fake reverse action that helped open up running lanes. Tyler Newsome also had a good day, keeping the ball away from Adoree Jackson and pinning the Trojans at their 1-yard line late in the game, forcing USC to march the length of the field, something they couldn’t do.

Sometimes criticized for a lack of creativity, Kelly even used DeShone Kizer as a punter, forcing the USC defense to stay on the field and not allow them to set up a return for Jackson. It was a heady move by the Irish staff, showing a ton of respect for the Trojan return man, unwilling to let USC’s special teams turn the game on a big play.

After an anonymous first half of the season, KeiVarae Russell made him biggest play in the game’s largest moment.

In one-on-one coverage with one of the nation’s most dynamic playmakers, KeiVarae Russell pulled off the best play of his career. The senior cornerback made an acrobatic interception late in the game, attacking the football in the air as he ran stride for stride with JuJu Smith-Schuster, one of two late-game turnovers that came from Russell in tight coverage.

Notre Dame’s senior cornerback played like the star many expected him to be this year. He had 10 tackles, nine solo stops. And after getting beat early by Smith-Schuster when he was in tight man coverage, Russell kept his patience and seized the day when the lights were the brightest.

It took half a season for Russell to play like this. Part of that is rust from being forced away from football for a calendar year. Another is the type of offenses that Notre Dame has faced, not easy for a cornerback to build momentum.

But earlier in the week, Kelly talked about Russell as a player who was emerging. And Saturday night, the Irish’s most loquacious player talked a big game on the field, pulling out one of the game’s biggest plays in a matchup that Russell had looked forward to for over a year.

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

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A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills

Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

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Notre Dame used the first early signing period to its advantage, but in many respects, succeeding in that initial foray was by default. The Irish already had strong relationships with the recruiting class of 2018 when the NCAA finally agreed upon setting a 72-hour window for December. No other recruiting changes went into effect in the cycle, so the only shift was getting the paperwork ready and the grades verified six weeks earlier than usual.

“When you are presented with a new rule that gives you — go ahead, sign them early — and you’ve done all that work, that’s kind of a lay-up,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said on National Signing Day, Feb. 7. “The real work now begins with the early visits.”

A bit before finally nailing down the December early signing period, the NCAA also approved official visits for high school juniors in April, May and June. Previously, a recruit could not take an official visit until September of his senior year in high school.

For a program with a national reach in recruiting — pulling in multiple prospects from both coasts in the cycle of 2018, for example — it can be difficult to get a player to visit for a home game amidst his own football season. When it is possible, it is often a rushed trip. The recruit plays a high school game Friday night, flies to South Bend, possibly via Chicago, early Saturday morning and then departs mid-day Sunday to get back home in time for the school week.

Notre Dame can now instead slate that official visit for the summer, perhaps around a camp environment or the Blue-Gold Game (April 21).

In years to come, this expedited timing could have a greater effect on recruiting than the early signing period does.

“How we handle the back end of it, the back end being when are those visits going to start, when do you start them, when do you end them,” Kelly said, “That’s really what we’re trying to figure out at this point relative to tweaking and how that’s going to work.”

Theoretically, earlier visits could lead to earlier commitments, increasing the likelihood of more signings in December than in February, further de-emphasizing the traditional National Signing Day.

Amid all those changes, though, recruits are still allowed only five official visits and only one to each school. Of course, a recruit can make multiple unofficial visits, paying for those out of his and his family’s own pocket, but Notre Dame can pay for only one. As much as getting a recruit on campus earlier in the process should bode well for any program, it becomes a double-edged sword: Is it better to get a player on campus early and make that impression before other schools have the opportunity, or is it better to showcase a primetime game against a rival?

Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian suggested allowing two official visits per school, although remaining at only five total, on National Signing Day.

“Why not let a young man make two official visits to one institution? Because if somebody says to us, from far distance, I want to come make a visit to your place in the spring, well, ideally you want them to see a game atmosphere, as well,” Polian said. “There’s nothing like Notre Dame Stadium and this campus on a game weekend.

“Now we’re going to have to get into some strategic decisions about when do we want young men to take visits.”

Perhaps in time the NCAA will consider that adjustment, but it will not be for the cycle of 2019.

While when a player visits may impact the recruitment, Polian does not much care about when they commit, as long as they do. Notre Dame signed five prospects on National Signing Day who had not previously committed publicly, making it appear to be a strong finish to the class. Then again, the Irish also signed 21 players in the early signing period and received a 22nd commitment less than a week afterward.

“If you’ve got a really good class and they’ve been committed for a while, who cares when they said yes?” Polian said. “It’s as though the answers that you get at the end dictate your class.”