Pregame Six Pack: On to November (almost)

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Trick or Treat. As Notre Dame prepares to take on undefeated Temple in a game that might be the biggest in the home team’s history, Halloween night could be good old fashioned fun… or a house of horrors.

Coming back from a much-needed weekend off, the Irish now need to show they’re capable of being the program that turned November into a month of dominance, not the team that burst at the seams in 2015.

While the calendar doesn’t turn until postgame, head coach Brian Kelly expressed the sentiment correctly.

“I think for us, it will be October is for pretenders and November will be for contenders,” Kelly said on Tuesday. “And we’ll show ourselves in that regard because of our schedule in November.”

That begins with Temple. The American Conference leader, the Owls are unexpectedly among the nation’s undefeated team—courtesy of Matt Rhule and a tremendous defense.

With the Irish unexpectedly playing in the week’s highest-profile matchup on the college football slate, let’s get on to the Pregame Six Pack.

 

After growing comfortable in the starting job, DeShone Kizer has set the bar high. Very high.

It didn’t take long to understand that DeShone Kizer wasn’t your average backup quarterback. Nor did it take long for the sophomore to find the same comfort level and maturity he displays off the field between the lines.

Back to campus rested and ready for the final five-game stretch, Kizer talked about the elevated goals he has for the season—making it clear he wants to play like the best quarterback in the country.

“I think that my biggest adjustment that I’ve evaluated for myself is having a mindset, of not only being a good quarterback, but to take it to greatness,” Kizer explained Wednesday. “I need to be able to prepare to be the best quarterback in the nation every week.

“I was in the position the first half of the year where I was a replacement. I was a guy who was able to manage a game and accomplish a mission in that sense. Now I want to take it into the second half of the year and be the best quarterback in the nation every time I step on the field. Because I know that after evaluating the first half, that I have the ability to.”

That type of confidence shouldn’t come as a surprise. And while Kelly joked after being told about Kizer’s comments on Thursday evening that he half-expected Kizer to go third-person with comments like that, he also said the quarterback is backing up those words with his focus and play in practice.

“I thought his communication and his presence today with our offense was like a fifth-year senior,” Kelly said Thursday. “He is a very confident player right now.”

 

With Alex Bars lost for the season, the offensive line has needed to mix and match. 

When you look back at all the injuries Notre Dame suffered this season, the broken ankle Alex Bars suffered against USC wasn’t necessarily the most impactful. But it has certainly forced the Irish to make some significant moves along the offensive line.

Bars may have been playing behind Quenton Nelson at guard, but he was likely Notre Dame’s third tackle, even if he wasn’t listed on the depth chart. And while Nelson’s through the woods after missing a full game with a high ankle sprain and gutting out the majority of the USC battle after Bars went down, there are still dominoes falling as Harry Hiestand reshuffles the Irish depth behind the starting five.

Junior Colin McGovern appears to be the next man in. He’ll cross-train not just at guard, but work outside as Mike McGlinchey’s backup. (Hunter Bivin is Ronnie Stanley’s backup.) And while John Montelus is listed as the backup to Steve Elmer, backup center Sam Mustipher also took reps at guard during practice this week, giving some flexibility if McGovern’s number is called on the outside.

Kelly explained the entire adjusted operation on Thursday.

“McGovern has to play inside and out. Bivin will be at tackle. McGovern will play a little bit of guard and a little bit of tackle if we need him to go in on the right side. Sam Mustipher is playing a little bit of guard as well. We have cross-trained him at the backup center position and the guard position. We are really working with three guys and two guys at the guard position with McGovern and Mustipher.”

With Mustipher working away from center, true freshman Tristen Hoge worked as the No. 2 behind Nick Martin. While it wouldn’t make any sense to burn a redshirt this late in the game, Hoge is traveling with Notre Dame to Temple, a nice perk after a good week of practice. (Even better? Working with the two-deep before the battle to replace Nick Martin begins this spring.)

All spring, Notre Dame’s coaches talked up the Irish depth along the offensive line. We might have to see it go into action, no easy task against a veteran and disruptive front seven for Temple.

 

The Showtime experiment? An early success, according to Jack Swarbrick. 

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick sat down and talked with Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister about “A Season With Notre Dame,” Showtime’s much-discussed docuseries chronicling the Irish’s 2015 season. And while the entire interview is very much worth the read, it’s fairly easy to say that the university views it as a huge success.

Namely, because Swarbrick feels like the open-door policy to Notre Dame’s football program can serve to take on the skeptics who feel like college athletics’ amateurism model is broken and beyond repair.

Here’s Swarbrick, when asked about the early response to the show:

“It’s been really positive. Very, very positive, and it goes to the reservations I had. The decision to do it for me was about principally one thing, and that was in the national debate that’s going on about college athletics, the level of cynicism that has emerged in this debate and the one-sidedness of it from my perspective, I thought it was really important to have a voice in that discussion through this show. To be able to say, ‘You can be as much of a cynic as you want, but these are real students having this experience at our university.’

“I was very motivated to create for people – not just Notre Dame fans – but people across the country to see this. Every day is another story about something college sports is doing wrong, and I sort of viewed this as almost an obligation we had to tell the other side of the story.”

While Kelly has had his share of fun during press conferences or media appearances talking about the additional layer of scrutiny that comes with a video crew following his every move, it’s interesting to point out that the Showtime opportunity came via the head coach himself, approached through talent agency CAA, where Kelly is a client.

That’s another datapoint that leads you to believe that Kelly is a guy who is fast finding his comfort at Notre Dame, not secretly maneuvering for one of the man open jobs that round him up among the usual suspects of candidates.

 

Notre Dame’s defense has been “boom or bust.” But Brian Kelly still believes the Irish have a solid four quarters ahead of them. 

As we try to decode just what type of defense Notre Dame has, it’s easy to point to the maddening lapses… as well as the dominant spurts of play. The good? Notre Dame ranks 15th in the country in forcing three-and-outs. The bad? Well, they’re usually either getting off the field immediately or giving up a touchdown.

Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders has come up with a intriguing new stat by looking at Boom or Bust rates for offensive and defensive performances. Specifically, what percentage of drives end up in touchdowns or three-and-outs. Notre Dame is in Fremeau’s Top 15 “Boom or Bust” defenses—not exactly a badge of honor. The Irish are one of just two programs with a winning record against FBS opponents (NC State is the other) among those 15.

When asked about the defensive performance of the team and what he expects to see in the coming weeks, Kelly sounded like Brian VanGorder’s group was trending up.

“I just think they have not put the four quarters together they are capable of,” Kelly said. “I think that’s going to happen. I really do. I’m not just wishing. When we’re playing together and not making some of the correctable mistakes, we can play really good football.”

 

This might be the biggest game in Temple history. But Matt Rhule and his players are doing their best to treat it like any other Saturday. 

Buses will leave campus at 4:45 a.m. Saturday morning, shipping Temple students to ESPN’s set at Independence Hall. And an NFL town has taken a decided turn this week, subbing Owls in for Eagles (especially with Chip Kelly’s struggles).

Most of Temple’s veteran roster experienced the 2013 visit to Notre Dame. And while they certainly expect something far rowdier on Saturday night, they’re trying their best to treat this like any other game.

“We don’t pretend it’s not here,” Rhule told reporters earlier this week. “We don’t pretend GameDay’s not coming. We don’t pretend that we’re not playing Notre Dame. All those things are great, but they don’t help us play better. All we can do is control how we play. That’s the message.”

That message has been heard by a veteran roster that features 10 returning starters on defense, and only one underclassman in either the offensive or defensive starting lineup. And while the Irish have been the biggest game on every opponent’s schedule thus far in 2015, Rhule feels like his team won’t let the moment impact the way the Owls play.

“I’m not concerned that the moment will be too big,” Rhule said. “Are we good enough to hang with Notre Dame? That’s the concern.”

 

Max Redfield or Matthias Farley? Kelly’s not saying. But both need to play better football. 

Notre Dame’s safety play has been less than satisfactory this season. Derailed early by a thumb injury to Max Redfield and season-ending losses of Shaun Crawford and Drue Tranquill, Elijah Shumate has provided some stability at strong safety, but Kelly has all but acknowledged that the defensive staff is trying its best to get an elevated level of play from Matthias Farley and Redfield.

“Honestly, what I want and what we have are two different things,” Kelly said Tuesday, when asked about the position. “Both those kids are committed to being the best players that they can be and we are coaching them every single day… We’re working hard with them every day.”

Redfield earned the start against Navy and was replaced early by Farley. Farley earned the start against USC and was replaced by Redfield. So going against Temple, Kelly was open that both would play and contribute. But he wasn’t ready to say you was starting.

“We just feel like I think both of those guys are going to give us what we need at the position and it’s going to be one where both of them are going to have to help us win.”

 

 

Notre Dame’s 2018 defense bolstered with Coney & Tillery returns

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Notre Dame’s defense found some stability last week with the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston to associate head coach following Mike Elko’s abrupt departure, but only some stability.

That foundation is much more solid now after the Irish announced the returns of both junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery on Monday.

Both Coney and Tillery enjoyed noticeable developmental progress in one year under Elko.  Coney totaled a whopping 116 tackles to lead Notre Dame, far and away his best season. Among those takedowns, he managed 13 for loss, including three sacks. Tillery, meanwhile, led the Irish with 4.5 sacks this season, adding another 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Notre Dame’s defensive tackle situation may have bordered on dire if not for the return of junior Jerry Tillery. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With Lea and Elston sticking around, Coney and Tillery are well-positioned for even further growth. If nothing else, they will step into starring roles in a rather complete front seven.

Notre Dame loses senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, as well as senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner and senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. If Coney and Tillery had joined that group, the front seven would have been rife with unproven commodities and little depth. Instead, Coney will fill in at linebacker, meaning only one youngster will need to step forward, and Tillery will headline a defensive line surging under Elston.

After amassing 17 tackles in the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, Coney insisted he had not yet put much consideration into his future.

“I’m just right now still focused on the win,” he said. “We just got this 10th win. I’m just trying to soak up the moment. This is a great moment. … Focusing on that and the win and enjoying it with my brothers.”

Those words combined with Elko’s sudden departure for Texas A&M made Coney’s return seem unlikely. His breakout season at least placed him into NFL draft conversations and capitalizing on that chance would have made a good amount of logical sense.

With Lea in his ear for another season, Coney will have a chance to become more than a physical player excelling in run defense and develop his coverage skills. Coney and senior Drue Tranquill will lead an otherwise lacking linebacker corps.

Sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) made 10 and four tackles, respectively, this year. Jonathan saw more playing time on defense, occasionally spelling senior Nyles Morgan, but has not yet looked the part of an every-down contributor. Irish coach Brian Kelly has previously admitted to considering a move to defensive line for Jamir, but that unit’s progression made that position shift less of a necessity.

If any of the incoming four linebackers or the two current freshmen, David Adams or Drew White, were to emerge, however, such a move may become an available luxury. Only Tillery’s return makes it a genuine luxury, though.

Tillery’s 56 tackles this year showed a level of consistency not seen in his first two seasons. His length alone makes Tillery an intriguing draft prospect. Logically speaking, a second season of such production, if not even increased output, should further his professional hopes. By returning along with Elston, the player/coach combination will provide experience to a position group otherwise devoid of it. With Bonner having said he will not return, Tillery and current freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are the only returning defensive tackles of contributory note.

Freshman Darnell Ewell will also certainly enter the rotation after spending 2017 preserving a year of eligibility. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will be in the mix, as well. Incoming freshmen consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademiloloa (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) and consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin (North Caroline High School; Ridgely, Md.) will complete the fray.

Reports on Monday indicate junior Elijah Taylor will leave Notre Dame after missing 2017 with a LisFranc fracture suffered in spring practice. He appeared in four games in 2016, making four tackles including one for loss. More than anything else, his departure is a step toward reaching the NCAA maximum of 85 rostered players. With Coney and Tillery returning but Taylor departing, the Irish roster currently stands at 86 players, though a few more recruits may be added. (This does not count sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, indefinitely suspended and presumed not likely to play for Notre Dame in 2018.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which wins its respective championship first?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is not the piece of trivia, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s offensive roster

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While Notre Dame awaits stay-or-go decisions from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, its offensive side of the roster is set … for now. As was briefly discussed in the most-recent “Monday’s Leftovers,” the Irish roster is currently at 87 players. That could rise as high as 90 if the incoming recruiting class rounds up to 25 signees and both Coney and Tillery return for the 2018 season.

A quick, even terse, look at the offense can provide reference for conversations and debates at both the virtual and real-world bar as the roster sheds a handful of players.

A couple quick notes: The order of this listing is not intended to stake a stance on positional competitions (cough quarterback cough). This is simply presenting the options available moving forward.

The designations following each of the 10 receivers are inherently speculative. With junior Equanimeous St. Brown declaring for the NFL and sophomore Kevin Stepherson not expected to be around next season, Notre Dame will need to tinker and experiment with receiver alignments throughout the offseason.

To a degree, the same goes for the offensive linemen, particularly among the backups. Rarely is there a genuine second-unit. Rather, one or two utility options will serve as backups for the whole line.

Quarterback (4):
Jr. Brandon Wimbush
So. Ian Book
Fr. Avery Davis
Incoming fr. Phil Jurkovec

Running back (5):
Jr. Dexter Williams
So. Tony Jones
So. Deon McIntosh
Fr. C.J. Holmes
Inc. fr. Jahmir Smith

Receiver (10):
Jr. Miles Boykin (field)
So. Chase Claypool (boundary)
Fr. Michael Young (slot)
Sr. Freddy Canteen (slot)
So. Jafar Armstrong (field)
So. Javon McKinley (boundary)
Jr. Chris Finke (slot)
Inc. fr. Braden Lenzy (slot)
Inc. fr. Kevin Austin (boundary)
Inc. fr. Micah Jones (field)

Tight end (6):
Jr. Alizé Mack
Sr. Nic Weishar
Fr. Cole Kmet
Fr. Brock Wright
Inc. fr. George Takacs
Inc. fr. Tommy Tremble

Offensive line (12):
Fr. Robert Hainsey (LT)
Fr. Josh Lugg (LG)
Sr. Sam Mustipher (C)
Sr. Alex Bars (RG)
So. Tommy Kraemer (RT)
So. Liam Eichenberg (T)
Fr. Aaron Banks (G)
Jr. Trevor Ruhland (G, C)
Fr. Dillan Gibbons (G)
Inc. fr. Cole Mabry (G)
Inc. fr. John Dirksen (G)
Inc. fr. Luke Jones (T, committed, not signed)

Specialists (4):
Jr. Justin Yoon (PK)
Sr. Tyler Newsome (P)
So. John Shannon (LS)
Fr. Jonathan Doerer (KO)