And in that corner… The Pitt Panthers

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While it’s difficult to call Notre Dame’s rivalry with Pitt—well, a rivalry—there’s certainly a long history between the two football programs. The Irish and the Panthers started playing in 1909. They’ve rarely taken a break longer than two years. And over the past decade, Pitt has routinely been a thorn in the side of Notre Dame.

Notre Dame’s last visit to the Steel City ended the Irish’s BCS hopes, with the Irish losing a disappointing 28-21 game in early November. The Panthers most likely felt like they were getting even from the year before, when Notre Dame kept their undefeated season alive thanks to some late-game heroics by Everett Golson, a missed 33-yard field goal and a triple-OT escape.

In 2011, the Irish won ugly against Todd Graham. In 2010, Kelly beat Dave Wannstedt. It feels like an eternity since Wannstedt roamed the sidelines, and nearly a half-dozen head coaches later, the Irish will face former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi as he heads down the home stretch of his debut season atop the program.

Joining us to talk Pitt football is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Sam Werner. While we’ll let him get away with being a Taylor Swift apologist, he’s a Notre Dame grad and an Observer Sports alum who covered the Irish for the student newspaper.

Sam works the Panthers beat and runs the Post-Gazette’s Pitt football blog, The Redshirt Diaries.  So he has a better handle than most on the “rivalry” between Notre Dame and Pitt, and also had Narduzzi threaten to ban him from practice this week for his alma mater, which would’ve been kinda nice from a workload perspective, I’m guessing.

Hope you enjoy this Q&A, and special thanks to Sam for joining us on a busy week.
* The Panthers had been flying nicely below the radar, ranked until their loss to UNC last week. Taking a step back, can you give us an assessment of Pat Narduzzi as a head coach, considering it took longer than most expected for him to get a chance at leading a program?

I think it’s hard to be anything but optimistic about Narduzzi’s future potential as a head coach. I really do think he was sort of biding his time at Michigan State until the right job came along. That job happened to be Pitt, just about an hour away from where he grew up in Youngstown.

One of the benefits of that patience is that he really got a good look at what exactly it takes to build a program the way Mark Dantonio did in East Lansing. It was sort of clear for the last few years that he was going to get a head job eventually, and Dantonio did his best to prepare Narduzzi for when he got there.

Now, there are still some hiccups, as there would be with any first-time head coaches. Things like clock management, when to go for it on fourth down are parts of the job that you can never prepare for until you get there, so Narduzzi has had some growing pains in those areas.

From a big picture sense, though, he seems to have a very clear and detailed vision about what he expects this football team to be and what it takes to get there. He’s a stickler for every single little detail, and that’s usually a good quality in a head coach.

 

* Like Notre Dame, Pitt’s season got started with a terrible injury, losing the ACC player of the year just eight carries into his season when James Conner tore his ACL. But Qadree Ollison has filled in nicely, the freshman averaging 5.4 yards a carry and scoring eight touchdowns.

Has the power-running identity of the Panthers had to change because of the injury to Conner? Is Ollison the main weapon you expect Pitt to challenge the Irish with?

I wouldn’t say Pitt’s identity as a power-running team has changed without Conner, I would just say it’s not as good. Ollison has been effective in spots this year, but has also ceded time to sophomore Chris James and true freshman Darrin Hall at various points in the year, so he hasn’t exactly been the workhorse back that Conner would have (though, to be fair to Ollison, it’d be ridiculous to expect him to step in and replicate what James Conner did). I also get the sense that Ollison is a bit of a liability in pass protection, which has probably cost him playing time in certain situations, too.

Ollison will probably be the main back Pitt uses against Notre Dame, but I would expect to see James and Hall, too. Whichever one of them looks best early will probably be the guy in the second half. The way Pitt will get into trouble is if none look good early on and they have to play musical chairs at running back all the way through the game.

 

* Defensively, Narduzzi was well known as one of the best defensive coaches in the country. Statistically, it looks like a minor uptick is just about every category since taking over. But what’s the major difference you’ve seen in the Xs and Os this season?

I know it’s sort of a coaching change cliche, but everything really does seem to be much simpler than it was last year. Players have said that, last season, the Panthers would change up the gameplan just about every week to match up with their given opponent, whereas this year it’s just about executing their scheme to the best of their ability and daring opponents to beat them. Defensive lineman Mark Scarpinato, a grad transfer who played for Narduzzi at Michigan State, said that one of the trademarks of those defenses was that the offenses knew what was coming and still couldn’t stop them.

Now, Pitt isn’t quite there yet. There was a lot of optimism early on as the Panthers raced out to lead the ACC in sacks after four games, but that has sort of tempered over the last three games (one total sack). If this defense isn’t getting to the quarterback, that puts a lot of pressure on the corners (generally in single coverage) to stay with their man for a long time, and that can have some bad results for a defense.

 

* Notre Dame’s ground game has been prolific this season, but the two best defenses Notre Dame has faced — Clemson and Temple — have done a good job shutting down C.J. Prosise. How do you expect the Panthers to fair in the trenches?

That’s the question that will, I think, ultimately decide whether Pitt stays in this game or not. While the Panthers was very stout against the run early on in the season, they seem to have taken a step back in recent weeks against Syracuse and North Carolina (they also REALLY struggled stopping the run against Georgia Tech, but I’ll throw that one out).

The interior of the defensive line is pretty solid, with a defensive tackle rotation that goes four deep. The ends have been a bit more of a concern, though, and that seems to be where teams have had success running against Pitt, either on the edge or off tackle. If there’s a good sign for Pitt, though, it’s that the rushing numbers in recent weeks have been slightly skewed by a few big plays. Obviously that’s not good that they’re giving up long runs, but it’s not like they’re getting gashed consistently for eight yards a carry.

I think Pitt will try and do whatever it can to stop the run. I’ve had multiple conversations with Narduzzi about his defense, and that is always his No. 1 priority with everything else a distant second. Even after last year’s Cotton Bowl, when his defense gave up 41 points and 583 yards to Baylor, Narduzzi was quick to point out that the Bears had -20 rushing yards, and that’s a success in his book. At his press conference this morning, he said, “We should be able to stop the run better than we have. That’s the frustrating thing. They throw a 71-yard pass, I’m okay with that. But you better stop the run. That’ll be a major focus this week.”

 

* Pitt is starting Tennessee transfer Nathan Peterman for the majority of the season. Early in the year he was sharing time with Chad Voytik, but it appears he’s emerged as the man for the Panthers offense. For Notre Dame fans, can you give us a scouting report? the Irish have struggled getting to the quarterback, and also had some problems in the secondary. Can Peterman exploit those issues? And does he have a true weapon other than Tyler Boyd?

Peterman has been really solid for Pitt after beating out Chad Voytik a few games into the season. He’s been really accurate and hasn’t thrown an interception since Sept. 19 against Iowa. I think Peterman’s biggest strength would be that he really doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses, if that makes any sense. He has a solid arm, doesn’t make mistakes, and can run well enough to take advantage if a defense gives him room. The one ding would be that he has a tendency to take too many sacks, but that can sometimes be just as much on the offensive line and receivers as the quarterback.

One dimension Pitt’s offense hasn’t shown yet, though, is the ability to beat teams down the field. Peterman’s longest pass this year is a 41-yarder against Georgia Tech, and the Panthers have generally kept things super, super conservative on offense. I guess there’s a chance things could open up against Notre Dame, but if it didn’t happen against lesser teams, I don’t have a whole lot of faith in the Panthers’ downfield passing game suddenly coming to life this week.

As for Peterman’s weapons, Dontez Ford and the tight ends (J.P. Holtz and Scott Orndoff) have emerged as viable options, but Boyd is still the Panthers’ only real threat to make an explosive play on offense. The problem with that is that most of his touches have come on short screens and quick passes short to the line of scrimmage. The coaching staff obviously wants to get the ball in his hands as much as possible, but in doing so they seem to have taken the deep ball out of the equation.

 

* Notre Dame has struggled coming to Pitt for a long time. The noon start was a surprise, and could make for a more tame atmosphere. What do you expect, not just from the Panthers, but from the crowd that’s supporting them?

Yeah, I think it’ll definitely be less raucous than if it was a primetime kickoff. I remember that 2011 game at Heinz Field was a noon kickoff that ended 15-12 and should never be spoken of again. I also expect (as usual) that there will be a healthy Notre Dame presence at Heinz Field. The crowds have gotten a bit better this year as the athletic department has made creating a better atmosphere part of its focus, but Heinz Field still just isn’t a very intimidating college football venue.

If anything, the noon start should help Pitt just because the Panthers are much, much more used to playing at that hour than the Irish are. Pitt has had five of its eight games start at noon, 12:30 or 1, while Notre Dame hasn’t played a noon game (I believe) since the 2013 Pinstripe Bowl. Pitt has been prone to slow starts the last few weeks, but if they can catch Notre Dame sleepwalking a little bit, that’s a good way to hang around in this game.

 

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