Pregame Six Pack: Another tough goodbye

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Notre Dame will recognize the accomplishments of 27 seniors and graduate students on Saturday, the final home game for a group that has won a lot of games. Sitting at 37-11 since the recruiting class of 2012 arrived on campus, winning three more games this season will mean this group averaged 10 wins a season—no small feat.

When asked about this group’s legacy, Brian Kelly acknowledged the foundation they built, especially turning Notre Dame Stadium into a dominant home-field advantage.

“They can feel proud of a solid foundation and consistency of winning,” Kelly said Thursday evening.

That accomplishment is impressive, especially when you dig deeper into this group. Set aside the graduate students. The 2012 recruiting class still managed to pack a punch, especially considering the star-crossed group that emerged.

The Irish signed only 17 players on that first Wednesday in February of 2012, the biggest news the fax that never came, when four-star receiver Deontay Greenberry picked Houston over Notre Dame. So while the cornerstones of the No. 4 team in the country reside in this group, it’s also easily the most star-crossed recruiting class that Kelly signed.

Five of the 17 signees are gone. Transferred away are wide receivers Justin Ferguson and Davonte Neal. Running back Will Mahone exited Notre Dame after an off-field incident in his hometown. Crown jewels of the class, cornerback Tee Shepard and quarterback Gunner Kiel, never played a down for the Irish.

But 12 remain, and along with a handful of walk-ons and graduate students, they’ll be celebrated on Saturday. And rightfully so. In a game that should likely allow the benches to empty if Notre Dame handles their business, it could be a special day in South Bend.

So let’s get on to the Six Pack.

 

C.J. Prosise practiced Thursday. But if you’re playing hunches, expect to see Josh Adams in the starting lineup. 

Senior running back C.J. Prosise was back on the field today, taking part in football activities for the first time since leaving the Pitt game in the first half. And while he’s making progress in his return to the field, Kelly said Prosise’s status is still up in the air.

“We still haven’t made a decision,” Kelly said, while acknowledging that Prosise is still in the concussion protocol. “But he had a good day today…It’s not my decision to make really. It’s still in the hands of the doctors. But he looked good to me.”

For anybody that’s followed Kelly’s injury updates over the past few years, this seems like a dead giveaway that Prosise will only be available in an emergency situation, one that doesn’t necessarily exist this weekend.

So Josh Adams will likely carry the load this weekend, the freshman taking over for the senior who deserves a hug from mom and dad… and then a weekend off. We’ll also see fellow freshman Dexter Williams, who Kelly said had a nice week of practice.

 

Will Fuller may have declared his intention to return for his senior season. But that doesn’t mean Brian Kelly won’t go through the process with him. 

Wednesday’s big news that Will Fuller planned to return for his senior season sent shockwaves through the college football world. But Brian Kelly’s response was more measured.

Kelly has seen seniors return (Te’o, Eifert, Floyd and Martin) and seen them go (Rudolph, Tuitt and Niklas). But you can’t help but think the head coach learned from his offseason work last year with Ronnie Stanley and Sheldon Day, two seniors that evaluated the pros and cons and both ended up back in South Bend.

So while Fuller sounded emphatic that he’ll be terrorizing defensive backs in South Bend for another season, Kelly sounded like a coach who wasn’t taking any chances with any of his veterans with the option to head to the NFL after this year.

“I’ve told all the guys I’ll sit down with them. I’ve put together folders for each one of these guys and obviously each one of these kids have different circumstances and as to why they would come back or entertain looking at the draft,” Kelly explained. “I think Will’s got some factors we have to talk about relative to staying or going that I need to communicate with him. I’d love to see him come back, but we’ve got to see where it all shakes out at the end of the year.”

Not quite the reaction you were looking for? Me neither. But Kelly was quick to square things away after his initial comments.

“I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t want him back. Very pleased to have him back,” Kelly said with a large grin. “It’s just important that each one of these guys go through the process.”

Kelly’s message isn’t just for Fuller. But likely for Jaylon Smith, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise, three guys who could go either way.

 

Let’s tip a cap to one of the more impressive seniors in recent memory: Jarrett Grace. 

It’ll be an emotional day at Notre Dame Stadium for Jarrett Grace and his family. The senior linebacker is in all likelihood playing his final college football game (a petition for a sixth year is still up in the air). And while these five seasons haven’t gone the way he planned them, the one-time heir to Manti Te’o’s inside linebacker job has much to be proud of, especially making it all the way back from a devastating leg injury that required multiple surgeries.

“To even be able to make it back was really my goal,” Grace said. “I didn’t know if I could play at all. I didn’t know how my body was going hold up and if I would be able to play in every single game.

“I have been able to contribute and I am more than happy with that. I am preparing each and every week…. I have embraced it and enjoyed every second of it.”

Grace joined the Jack Swarbrick radio show, and Swarbrick and his co-host, linebacker Joe Schmidt, had a tremendous conversation. Schmidt and Grace, two very close friends, talk about basically everything—and what you can’t help but take away is how much they love Notre Dame, and how great they are as shining examples of the university’s student-athletes.

 

The difficult task of slowing down Notre Dame’s offense just got tougher for the Demon Deacons. 

Already a 27-point underdog, Wake Forest didn’t need any additional handicaps. Yet Josh Banks, the Demon Deacon’s top defensive tackle, was suspended for the final three games of the season this week, taking one of the defense’s most important players off the field this weekend.

Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson wasn’t clear about the issue, only stating that Banks violated team rules.

“I am disappointed this has occured,” Clawson said in a statement. “Hopefully this becomes a teachable moment for Josh and the other players in our program who will  benefit  in the long run.

That turns his job over to a redshirt freshman, with Willie Yarbary stepping into the lineup. And while the strength of Dave Clawson’s roster is a front seven that features some of the best linebackers in the ACC, losing a guy who was supposed to eat up blockers and had started 21-straight games isn’t what this defense needs.

 

With the hype train at full steam, DeShone Kizer continues to be the calming presence this offense needs. 

DeShone Kizer… Heisman Trophy candidate?

Sounds silly, but ESPN’s Mike Wilbon went out and said it on Sportscenter Thursday, bunching Kizer with LSU’s Leonard Fournette in the front pack of the Heisman race. It may be an unofficial ballot, and isn’t anything more than a talking point, but Kizer is picking up fans everywhere he goes. College Football Playoff committee chair Jeff Long pointed out the stellar play of the young quarterback as well.

Don’t expect it to impact Kizer, though. Wonder if Kizer’s busy comparing stats as he awaits his invite to New York? Think again.

“I couldn’t tell you how many touchdowns I even have on the season. I have no idea where I’m at,” Kizer said Wednesday.

Kizer’s ability to stay in the moment will likely be tested in a different way this weekend. With the Irish understanding the benefit of a beauty pageant win, the need to be flashy could bring some unforced errors to an offense that did a nice job eradicating them against Pitt.

The young quarterback credited his position coach and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford. He also talked about the evolution of the offense. But most impressively, any wonder how he’s staying grounded can be answered by his response to the same question.

“Just watch my film. There’s way too many opportunities that I don’t come up successful that keep me down there,” Kizer said. “There are way too many mistakes that I’ve made from week to week. Last week was a pretty successful game for the offense, but there’s still a couple balls that need to be caught. There are a couple passes that were caught that were spectacular catches that should have been pitch and catches.

“I believe that as a quarterback, the only way to ground yourself is to evaluate your performance. I’m not even near where I should be, and there is still so much room to develop and so much room to get better and mature.”

 

Take the time and tip your cap not just to the senior class, but to the wonderful profiles written by The Observer. 

You know Sheldon Day, Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin and Joe Schmidt. But how about Travis Allen, Josh Anderson, Eamon McOsker and Nick Ossello?

Every senior class member got a profile in The Observer, with Notre Dame’s excellent student newspaper putting together a staggering amount of work in anticipation of the final home game. Do yourself a favor and read them all.

Youcan enjoy the great profile on the decision Ronnie Stanley made to return. But you can also take the time to read about Cam Bryan, a walk-on who dreamed of going to Notre Dame, got in after being wait-listed, then taught himself how to play football after beginning his life on the gridiron on Stanford’s interhall football team—and stuck around for a graduate semester because he knew this football team was going to be good.

(That’s dedication.)

It’ll be a special Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium. And even if it’s expected to be a lopsided Senior Day, it could be a wonderful salute to a group that’s battled through quite a journey to get here—and has an important mission still to be accomplished.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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