Five things we learned: Notre Dame 42, Pitt 30

114 Comments

Notre Dame’s offense made it clear very quickly that it meant business on Saturday afternoon. With most wondering how playing early on the road would impact a team that hasn’t been the same outside of South Bend (and hasn’t had to set an alarm clock to play football in years), DeShone Kizer and company needed just three well-executed plays to announce their intentions.

Two nice gains by C.J. Prosise set the table for Will Fuller to get behind the Pitt secondary. From there, the offense was off and running, Kizer orchestrating the Irish attack like a savvy veteran as Notre Dame dominated Pitt and coasted to the finish for an easier-than-it-sounds 42-30 victory.

There were bumps along the way, most notably on defense. Brian VanGorder’s unit struggled after halftime and gave up big plays to an offense that usually can’t make them. But Kizer and Company bailed them out—continuing to score touchdowns against a Pitt defense that doesn’t usually give them up when opponents get in their red zone.

Garbage time once again hurt the Irish, with Max Redfield mentally checking out and freshman Brandon Wimbush gift-wrapping six points to the Panthers. But in a series where the favorite rarely plays like it, Notre Dame came out crisp and efficiency, looking very much like a dominant football team at a time of year where everybody—especially the College Football Playoff committee—is watching.

Let’s find out what else we learned.

 

Everybody else knew it, but Pat Narduzzi shouldn’t try to single-cover Will Fuller. 

Everybody in the stadium knew about Will Fuller’s big-play ability. But that didn’t stop Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi from playing aggressive, putting his cornerbacks on an island against Fuller early and often as he did his best to turn the Irish one-dimensional.

It didn’t work.

Fuller abused Pitt’s secondary early and often, catching three touchdowns among his seven receptions for 152 yards. He got behind Pitt’s covermen from the beginning, with sophomore Avonte Maddox and senior Lafayette Pitts unable to run with one of college football’s most difficult covers.

Fuller could’ve had an even bigger game. Kizer missed the junior receiver on two throws that also could’ve gone the distance, overthrowing a receiver that not many thought could be missed long. But with the Irish ground game ripping off yardage and Pitt searching for answers, Narduzzi’s gamble blew up, and even after making a few tweaks, he still wasn’t able to find the right formula.

After the game, Narduzzi all but threw up his arms.

“We changed it up a little bit,” Narduzzi said, when asked about his scheme to stop Notre Dame’s best receiver. “But he’s a good football player, what are you going to do?”

 

With C.J. Prosise down, Josh Adams stepped up. 

Notre Dame awaits word on an injury to running back C.J. Prosise, who left the game near the end of the first quarter with a shoulder injury. Kelly wasn’t quite sure how to classify it when speaking postgame, though he told ESPN’s Todd McShay that the senior is day-to-day.

“It’s one where he’s going to continue to be evaluated,” Kelly said in his postgame comments, according to Nick Ironside of Irish 247. “Shoulder, neck, upper body… He’s doing pretty good right now, but we’ll evaluate and he’ll be a day-to-day situation.”

Prosise is also undergoing concussion protocol. Knocked out of the game after hitting the turf hard, the baton was passed to freshman Josh Adams and he delivered. Adams ran tough, putting together 147 well-earned yards on the afternoon, averaging 7.4 yards per carry on his 20 attempts. He also cashed in a score on a jet sweep—statistically considered a pass—but blocked and run to perfection by Notre Dame.

That effort was enough to earn the rookie the game ball, stepping in for the Irish’s most valuable player and not missing a beat.

“Anytime anyone gets a game ball that means we did well as a team. That’s what’s most important,” Adams said after the game.

A week after Notre Dame’s ground game was stuck in neutral, the Irish took advantage of a Pittsburgh front that showed vulnerability the past few weeks. And Adams’ physical running style deserves a lot of the credit, the freshman getting up field and reading his blocks well. Just another example of “Next Man In” for Brian Kelly.

“We had to call on our depth again today, and he stepped up for us,” Kelly said.

 

Notre Dame’s red zone offense was wonderful. 

Brian Kelly answered a ton of questions about Notre Dame’s red zone struggles during this week’s media availability. But nothing he said in front of a podium spoke as loud as his team’s performance inside Pittsburgh’s 20-yard line.

The Irish were flawless in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on every opportunity they had against a Pitt defense among the stingiest in the country. After spending additional time in practice and taking a big picture approach to the consistency needed by all 11 players on the field, the Irish cashed in by executing perfectly when they needed to do so.

A perfect strike thrown by Kizer to Torii Hunter Jr. was helped by a great playaction fake, a new wrinkle in the playcalling that might as well have been borrowed from Kelly’s friend Bill Belichick. Another perfect strike from Kizer on 3rd-and-9 to Fuller answered Pitt’s score to open the second half.

The ground game had it going, too. It was credited as a touchdown pass, but great blocking allowed Adams to walk in around the right side on an outside sweep. And Kizer’s zone-keeper let him walk into the end zone for the Irish’s final score, the only impact the quarterback made in the ground game a week after carrying the load against Temple.

The Irish went cold for a time in the first half on offense, three straight three-and-outs bogging down the offensive attack. But Notre Dame scored 42 points even while being held to 437 yards, and they have their efficiency to thank.

 

With Torii Hunter entering the secondary, Brian VanGorder might have found a solution for his nickel defense. 

Notre Dame knows it can’t make it through the season without a nickel defense. So Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder called on receiver Torii Hunter to cross-train on defense, with the Irish’s two-sport athlete showing two-way skills on the gridiron as well.

Hunter came into the game in the first half, allowing the Irish to get another athlete on the field in the backend of the defense. He very nearly got involved on a sack as well, blitzing off the edge on a critical third-down stop.

Kelly revealed after the game that the decision to move Hunter had been three weeks in the making. Freshman Nick Coleman also saw some time. With some mental mistakes once again plaguing the Irish on the backend, this group is still in flux. But with three weeks to go, and the Irish needing Romeo Okwara rushing the passer, not dropping into coverage, Hunter looked like a possible solution, one brought on by necessity.

“We couldn’t trade for a nickel,” Kelly cracked after the game.

 

In control from the beginning, it was just another big Saturday for DeShone Kizer.

It’s not supposed to look this easy. Against one of college football’s best defensive schemers, DeShone Kizer seemed to have every answer.

Notre Dame’s sophomore quarterback continues to look like a savvy veteran, not a guy starting his seventh game. Kizer completed 19 of 26 passes, throwing for 262 yards and five touchdowns. That’s the most of any Irish quarterback outside the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium, and Kizer very likely could’ve gone for more had he not turned over the keys to freshman Brandon Wimbush with the Irish comfortably ahead 42-17.

It was far from a solo effort. The irish had the ground game rolling and perfect protection from the offensive line. Able to beat Pitt with both the run and the pass, Notre Dame didn’t need Kizer to go out and win the game for them—they need him to facilitate an attack with weapons at every position and up and down the depth chart.

“We needed to be very efficient on offense and we were,” Kelly said. “I think that was the difference today, big plays on offense. Will Fuller, DeShone Kizer and Josh Adams stepping in for us today. I think that was the best performance of our offensive line to date this year. Probably the most consistent performance for four quarters and I think that was the difference today.”

That consistency can only come when the quarterback is operating at a high level. And that’s where Kizer is, just two months of game experience into his college career.

Earlier in the week, Kelly was asked about Kizer’s ability to step in and lead. He said Kizer reminded him of his backup at Cincinnati, Zach Collaros. In 2009, Collaros was called into action after starter Tony Pike went down. The offense didn’t miss a beat, with the then sophomore throwing 10 touchdown passes and only two interceptions while Pike was on the mend as the Bearcats rolled to an undefeated regular season.

Notre Dame is three games away from doing something just as special, potentially taking a spot in the College Football Playoff, even after they lost starter Malik Zaire in week two and incumbent Everett Golson after spring practice.

And they’re able to be there thanks to the rapid success of Kizer.

Stepherson may get the headlines, but loss of two RBs will cost Notre Dame most

Getty Images
42 Comments

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

Getty Images
13 Comments

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

Associated Press
6 Comments

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?

rivals.com
23 Comments

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