Pregame Six Pack: Prepping for Pitt

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On an Irish schedule that’s seen its share of change these past two years, not many people on the Notre Dame side of the tracks view the game against Pitt as a rivalry. But that’s not to say it isn’t a unique game. Nor can you say that there’s a lack of familiarity between these two programs.

This will be meeting No. 70 between the two programs, a matchup that dates back to 1909. So before stainless steel, the Titanic, and even the Oreo cookie, there was Notre Dame and Pittsburgh doing battle on the football field.

Pitt understands the gravity of this matchup. And with a natural rivalry against Penn State nonexistent, the Panthers always circle the Irish on the schedule, relishing the fact that the feeling isn’t always reciprocated.

Saturday’s game has the opportunity for another maximum impact matchup. The Panthers are still alive in the Coastal division race of the ACC, a two-loss season already feeling like a success for first-year coach Pat Narduzzi. Notre Dame came in ranked No. 5 in the first installment of the College Football Playoff poll, their inclusion in the Big Dance in the crosshairs. With the Irish already in the Steel City readying for an early start, they can expect a Panthers team that isn’t just playing gate-crasher, they’re still looking to make their mark and play for a conference title.

Let’s get to the pregame six pack. On a weekend that always seems to fly below the radar, there’s a high likelihood we are in for another interesting Saturday.

 

Forget about what the point spread says—history tells us this will be close. 

The last time Notre Dame won easily against Pitt, we still weren’t really sure how to pronounce Jeff Samardzija’s name. It was the coming-out party for Charlie Weis’s 2005 football team, when the Irish offense blitzed Dave Wannstedt’s Panthers and cruised to a 42-21 victory.

But since then, this game has been a nail-biter. The next six games have all been close. It’s a series that’s split the past eight contests and stayed within one score in nine of the past ten matchups, including multiple overtime battles in 2008 (Pitt won) and 2012 (the Irish escaped).

So much has changed inside the Pitt program since that meeting in 2005. Wannstedt was replaced briefly by Mike Haywood, who never coached a game before being replaced by Todd Graham. Graham didn’t make it a calendar year before he bolted for Tempe and was replaced by Paul Chryst, who left to coach Wisconsin last offseason, clearing the way for Narduzzi.

But even amidst the coaching turmoil and changes on the roster, this game has been a close one. So even with the Irish favored by nearly double-digits and the Panthers coming off a disappointing loss to North Carolina, expect a tight football game.

One possible solution for the close-game blues? Call Ara Parseghian. The former Irish coach beat Pitt all 11 times he played them, winning on average by a score of 42-9.

 

 

Tyler Boyd needs 49 yards to become Pitt’s all-time receiving leader. Notre Dame needs to make sure he doesn’t get them all in one play.

Brian Kelly deemed Tyler Boyd the latest “game-wrecker” that the Irish will have to face this season. And the veteran Pittsburgh receiver has earned that title, one of the best receivers in college football, even as the Pitt passing game still sorts itself out.

Boyd’s consistency and game-breaking ability have him ready to pass Antonio Bryant as the Panthers’ all-time leader in receiving yards, needing just 49 yards to do it. And as the only big-play threat in the Pitt offense with James Connor’s season erased in week one, expect to see the achievement happen Saturday, even if he’s locked up in battle with KeiVarae Russell.

But Notre Dame needs to make sure it doesn’t happen on one play. We’re in for an interesting battle on Saturday—a Pitt offense that struggles to make an explosive play and a Notre Dame defense that can’t seem to stop allowing them.

So while Boyd’s yards per catch is down to just 9.3 per touch, he’s the Panthers’ clear No. 1 receiver, nearly quadrupling the next closest pass catcher with 63 receptions on the season. An explosive player in space and also on special teams, Notre Dame needs to tackle cleanly and make sure they limit the damage Boyd does after the ball gets in his hands.

 

On the road and starting early. How the Irish adjust will be critical to success. 

Notre Dame hasn’t had a game start this early in the regular season since the Irish traveled to Pitt in 2011, winning an ugly slugfest 15-12. So to help adjust for the early start time, Kelly and the Irish brass decided to get out of town early, flying out Thursday night to help acclimate for the new schedule by going through a dress rehearsal on Friday.

Kelly talked about the decision to leave Thursday, and the thought process behind it.

“This will be the first time that we’ve used this type of schedule. We want to be able to duplicate Saturday’s schedule,” Kelly explained. “We took out some of our periods from practice today and we’ll include those tomorrow… to again get them used to a duplicate schedule on Friday and Saturday.”

UND.com’s Curt Rallo wrote about the logistics behind the decision, and some of the challenges that came along with it. Finding the hotel rooms was the first big one—Notre Dame needed 100 rooms for Thursday night. Then came booking the plane.

Now comes playing a dominant, mistake-free football game away from Notre Dame Stadium. That’s easier said than done.

 

Narduzzi’s defense will want to stuff the run. Whether they can do it is another story. 

Pat Narduzzi built his reputation playing an aggressive brand of defense, dominating at the line of scrimmage and forcing opponents to become one-dimensional. The first-year head coach has done a nice job implementing that style at Pittsburgh, even as he builds the necessary personnel to do it.

Expect Narduzzi to sellout to stuff the run, unwilling to let C.J. Prosise beat the Panthers from the backfield. But unlike the job Clemson and Temple did, whether or not Pitt is able to do so remains to be seen.

Pitt is a respectable 36th in the country against the run. But the past two weeks have shown cracks in the foundation, with Syracuse and North Carolina both able to be productive on the ground.

In Pitt’s 23-20 comeback win over the Orange, two big runs allowed Syracuse to average 5.9 yards per carry. North Carolina averaged 5.0 yards per carry in their 26-19 win, jumping out to a 20-3 halftime lead before riding former Notre Dame commitment Elijah Hood in the second half.

Notre Dame’s ability to run the football comes down to the play of the offensive line. Last week, the Irish struggled with missed assignments—and a stacked box—and couldn’t get the ground game off the runway. This week, it’ll be a challenge, but Kelly believes that the offensive line can find success against Narduzzi’s defense, but only if they play more consistent football.

“What we need to do is really be, as a unit, consistent,” Kelly said Thursday. “Eliminating penalties. And that one missed assignment seems to always come at the most inopportune time. If those two things, if we can eradicate those on Saturday, I think we can look to our offensive line to having a big day.”

Pitt’s pass rush has struggled to get to the quarterback the past few weeks, leaving the secondary susceptible as Narduzzi sends blitzers. That’s a chance to make big plays on both the ground and through the air if the offensive line can hold up.

 

Jaylon Smith has played great football. But Notre Dame’s coaching staff is challenging him to elevate everybody else’s play, too. 

One of the more fascinating exchanges on this week’s “A Season with Notre Dame” on Showtime was the interactions between defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and Jaylon Smith. Notre Dame’s leading tackler and junior captain was challenged by his coach to elevate his teammates’ play—something VanGorder hasn’t necessarily seen out of the star linebacker.

That’s an interesting piece of Smith’s development. Not just as a leader, where Smith acknowledged he wasn’t necessarily comfortable acting like someone he wasn’t, but as a football player, making sure all boats rise with him, to borrow (or butcher) a metaphor Kelly has used in the past.

Smith might be playing his final four regular season games as a college football player, a decision you couldn’t fault if he’ll be a first-round draft pick and one of the first linebackers selected in the NFL Draft. But Kelly talked about the challenge to Smith and how he expects him to respond to it, regardless of the future.

“Leadership for Jaylon has been one where he has led by example and we don’t think that’s enough to be a great leader,” Kelly explained. “We think that you have to be somebody that is interactive if you will. He has to be teaching and communicating. It has to be more than just actions. We know about his actions, they’re phenomenal. You just watch him play, that speaks volumes. We want him to be more of a communicator with the guys and I think that’s the point that we wanted to make with him. And he took it to heart.”

Smith’s “communication” doesn’t necessarily have to be in the former of mentorship, like we saw with freshman linebacker Te’von Coney on Showtime. It needs to be demanding more accountability from his teammates on the field, whether that be the situational contributors or fellow captain Joe Schmidt.

Smith’s quiet leadership style isn’t too far off from what Sheldon Day was last year, and we’ve seen the senior evolve into a more vocal leader as his play also took a huge leap forward this season. If this November is the one the Irish expect to have, Smith needs to demand better from a defense that can’t seem to shake their inconsistency.

 

Red Zone efficiency is key. 

If you’re looking for one thing to improve this week it’s Notre Dame’s red zone play on offense. The Irish have a unit averaging 495 yards a game, the best of the Kelly era. And while the 36.5 points a game is also the best of Kelly’s time in South Bend, that number could be so much better if Notre Dame did a better job finishing drives.

Notre Dame is 100th in the country converting red zone opportunities, scoring on just 79 precent of their chances. They’re only slightly better getting touchdowns, 85th in the country with a 58 percent rate.

The good news? Pitt’s red zone defense is the worst in the country statistically. The Panthers have yet to stop an opponent once they get inside the 20-yard-line, No. 128 out of 128.

But that stat is incredibly misleading. The Panthers have been much better at not giving up touchdowns—they jump to No. 22 in the country when you look at their ability to hold teams to a field goal, basically the inverse of an Irish defense that’s 27th in red zone scoring but 93rd in giving up touchdowns.

Kelly talked earlier this week about the importance of the red zone, not just from quarterback DeShone Kizer eliminating the mistakes that plagued the offense against Pittsburgh, but the need for everybody to do their jobs when they get in the scoring areas.

“Our offense is what it is. We just have to be more efficient down there and spend extra time in practice in making sure that when we get into those areas, we convert them into touchdowns,” Kelly said.

“We’ll take some extra time this week. We’ve done some more self-scouting in terms of play calling, what we’re doing down there. But I think at the end of the day execution from everybody, a heightened awareness of where we are, then a little bit more extra practice time.”

That extra time came on Thursday, with the Irish working short yardage running and their playcalling inside the 10- and 20-yard lines. Now they need to take a step forward, cashing in when they have the chance to beat a team, opportunities they missed against Virginia, USC and Temple.

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