The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Wake Forest

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Notre Dame is 9-1. That’s the main bullet point that follows up a fairly unmemorable performance that saw the Irish win with ease, even if they were statistically held at bay by Wake Forest.

But in a month critical for the Irish’s postseason fate, Notre Dame keeps chugging along. Winning games and playing better defense after a late-game lapse against Pittsburgh killed some forward momentum.

With a special weekend in Fenway Park up next, the Irish can spend the week preparing to face one of the best statistical defenses in the country. But before we turn the page, let’s recap Notre Dame’s 28-7 Senior Day victory as we go over the good, bad and ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Josh Adams‘ explosiveness. Throw away the stat sheet. It wasn’t an easy day at the office for freshman Josh Adams. He took some big hits. He ran tentatively at times. And the Irish missed C.J. Prosise in the short passing game.

But nobody will remember the ten touches that Adams had that resulted in gains of one yard or less. Not when Adams broke loose for a 98-yard touchdown run, all but icing the game when he extending Notre Dame’s lead to 21-points just two plays after Wake Forest nearly cut the lead to seven.

“Obviously, the run was one for the highlight reel,” Kelly said postgame.  “But he is a young man that runs tough, physical, between the tackles, and has size, strength and speed. He’s got all those things, and he’s only going to get better. It’s nice to see a true freshman out there competing at that level.”

 

Getting Healthy. Nobody wants to say it this bluntly, but Notre Dame didn’t seem too worried about losing to Wake Forest. They held back C.J. Prosise, who could’ve played. They rested defensive tackle Daniel Cage and tight end Nic Weishar, both unknown injuries who were also in the concussion protocol.

If there was a big worry for this week, it was James Onwualu’s knee. On Sunday, Brian Kelly gave good news, saying no knee surgery would be needed, though Onwualu won’t be available against Boston College and his return for Stanford is in question.

While Equanimeous St. Brown‘s shoulder injury will require surgery, Kelly expects Prosise, Cage and Weishar to be back next week.

“I’d say probable on all of the concussion guys. Onwualu will be out. He’s got a second-degree MCL. That’s really it,” Kelly said. “We don’t have anybody else that showed any injuries that would put them in any other kind of position from the game.”

Boston College is another flawed football team, though one with a great defense. It’s also yet another opponent with an extended week to prepare for Notre Dame. So having everybody back before heading to Stanford is a good thing.

 

The “high-leverage” defense. Notre Dame’s defense played really well on Saturday, holding Wake Forest to just seven points, only earned after a dubious roughing the snapper call. And even if the Demon Deacons outgained Notre Dame by putting up 340 total yards, it was refreshing to see the Irish defense stiffen when the going got tough—not necessarily how it’s gone this season.

Jaylon Smith made 14 tackles, and was in excellent coverage on a fourth down stop. Joe Schmidt was active, notching 10 tackles after staying mostly off the stat sheet the past few weeks.

The Irish were able to be productive because they were making big plays. Romeo Okwara’s three sacks were all important, including a highlight reel acrobatic play. Sheldon Day added two more TFLs. Schmidt came through unblocked on multiple blitzes, never getting home but always putting a hit on the quarterback. Smith blitzed a few times as well, getting to the quarterback, and then screaming off the edge on the game’s critical fourth down stop.

It wasn’t all perfect, but the mistakes didn’t lead to points. That was likely because Wake Forest’s offense is one of the least productive units in the country. But it’s a step forward nonetheless, holding an opponent below their average and ending a 20-points allowed streak that had gone on since week two.

 

Quick Hits: 

His passing numbers probably take him out of the most ridiculous “Heisman conversation inclusion” I can remember, but DeShone Kizer didn’t throw any interceptions, stayed away from the big mistake, and scored two more rushing touchdowns. (Bonus points for Kizer running over a Wake Forest DB.)

Good job, Chase Hounshell. You got your first career catch. (But miss any more blocks and nobody will remember it.)

You’ve got to think Andrew Trumbetti will remember that gift-wrapped touchdown for a long time.

It was very great to see Jarrett Grace out there running around and making plays. His two tackles came on an emotional day for Grace’s family and the entire senior class.

I liked the physicality of both Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield. Both were active in run support and seemed to play clean in coverage as well.

 

THE BAD

Every other run but the 98-yarder. Notre Dame’s offensive line lost way too many one-on-one matchups for my liking. Wake Forest has talented linebackers and Dave Clawson and defensive coordinator Mike Elko added their share of tricks up front, but too often Notre Dame’s offensive line just lost battles up front.

We saw it from Steve Elmer (again). We saw Quenton Nelson get beat. And we also saw DeShone Kizer struggle to get the Irish in the right protections, spending too much time counterpunching at the line of scrimmage.

There’s no question the Irish offensive line is battling their share of injuries, with Nick Martin and Nelson still playing through ankle injuries and other issues likely kept off the radar. But Wake Forest was able to dominate the time of possession battle because the Irish couldn’t stay on the field. And that’s because Wake challenged the Irish to a run-game matchup with even numbers and, minus one very important play, won the battle.

 

Winning in “uncomfortably comfortable” fashion. Nobody’s opinion but the Playoff Committee matters. But you wouldn’t have been alone if you got frustrated listening to the talking heads and television analysts last night arguing about the horse race for the four playoff spots.

Yesterday was far from an impressive Saturday for most playoff contenders. Throw away Alabama’s decisive victory over a really terrible (offensively, at least) Mississippi State team and it was a survive and advance weekend.

No. 1 Clemson was in a dogfight with Syracuse before pulling away and winning by 10. Ohio State looked just okay with J.T. Barrett at quarterback, too, beating Illinois 28-3. Iowa is proving to be just a little bit better than every average team it plays, still undefeated by surviving Minnesota. And Oklahoma State needed help from the replay booth and a huge late-game rally to beat a three-win Iowa State team.

 

Oklahoma won a big game, beating Baylor in the rain. And some thought that was enough for the Sooners to ascend into the driver’s seat for the No. 4 hole. But can the committee forget that Oklahoma lost to a Texas team that hasn’t beaten anybody else and lost to Notre Dame by five touchdowns?

Who knows. And quite seriously, who cares.

None of it matters until early December. But with two of the easiest games on the schedule both this week and next, it would help if the Irish did more than put up a season-low for yardage and won both games with style.

This wasn’t a tough victory, a three-score lead for just about 40 minutes. But next weekend against a Boston College team who will be looking at Notre Dame’s home game inside Fenway Park as their Super Bowl and bowl game all wrapped into one? It’d be great to win another not-close one.

 

THE UGLY

What’s ugly about a victory on Senior Day? (Nothing.) This senior class won 21 home games, tied for the best four-year total in Notre Dame history. The critics will scour the record books, trying to punch holes in the personnel, opponents or competition, and still find a way to say that Lou or Ara wouldn’t have lost to Louisville or Northwestern.

But it’s not 1988 anymore. There’s cell phones, the internet, and college football played at a different level all across the country.

So even if they haven’t won a national championship or a major bowl game, this class has done something very special. Add to that the fact that Notre Dame’s seniors haven’t allowed this football team to blink even as they’ve lost key cog after key cog.

That means something. And a final home win—even if the play on the field wasn’t memorable—will last for a lifetime, the only important part being an easy victory and a great celebration.

Notre Dame returns entire defensive line with DT Bonner’s fifth-year decision

Associated Press
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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?

rivals.com
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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which wins its respective championship first?