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Five things we learned: Texas 50, Notre Dame 47

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Notre Dame’s 2016 season begins with a loss. And the explanation for it is both simple and confounding.

The Irish lost because Brian VanGorder’s defense was no match for a Texas offense trotting out a freshman starter and a new system. They lost because they gave up three opportunities for DeShone Kizer to drive the Irish for touchdowns—something he did six times.

They lost because another offseason installing a defensive system somehow once again forgot some universal truths that every armchair quarterback in America knows all too well.

There will be positive takeaways. Young players stepping forward, like Equanimeous St. Brown and Shaun Crawford. A resiliency that didn’t leave town with the senior class from 2015, a 17-point deficit erased as the Irish fought to get the game to overtime.

But ultimately, seven seasons into his tenure in South Bend, Brian Kelly knows the score.

“There’s no moral victories,” Kelly said postgame. “Losing is losing”

Let’s find out the five things we learned.

 

Three seasons into Brian VanGorder’s tenure as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, his unit is the same as it ever was. 

Notre Dame’s last three big games—Stanford, Ohio State and now Texas—are a stark reminder that the Irish defense isn’t fit for primetime. Not when Tyrone Swoopes and D'Onta Foreman are pinballing through would-be tacklers. Not when Shane Buechele is getting started writing his Texas-sized legend, beating Irish defensive backs over the top. And especially not when a group of intelligent student-athletes seem to always find the banana peel to slip on in the game’s critical moments.

VanGorder’s unit—young for certain, after having to replace its well-established nucleus—was learning on the job Saturday. But failing is failing, and Kelly’s warnings to anybody that would listen about the pace of Texas’s offense seemed to be ignored by the 11 guys caught flat-footed to open the football game.

The Irish gave up 517 yards and 50 points to the Texas offense. They let Buechele throw for 280 yards on just 16 completions. They gave up big plays over the top, chain-movers in the trenches and allowed seven scores on seven red zone appearances.

More maddening, they looked lost when everybody in the stadium seemed to know what was coming but them. They failed again and again in the red zone. And with the game on the line and the Irish needing to make a stand, it was hard enough to get the right personnel on the field, let alone make a big play.

Those days of the simple-yet-consistent unit that bent but didn’t break under Bob Diaco? Gone faster than Jon Tenuta dialing up another blitz call on 3rd-and-long.

Credit certainly goes to a Texas team with intriguing and emerging talent at skill positions, not to mention three bulldozers in Swoopes, Foreman and Chris Warren. But game one of 2016 reminds many that the highest paid assistant coach in Notre Dame history isn’t getting his job done.

 

Brian Kelly wouldn’t say it after the game. But DeShone Kizer needs to be Notre Dame’s starting quarterback. 

It’s hardly a bold statement.

Not after Kizer propped the Irish offense on his shoulders and carried them back into the football game. Completing 15 of 24 passes for 215 yards and five touchdowns, while running for 77 more yards and another score, Kizer’s six scores will find their way into the record books as one of the best losing performances in school history.

But you can’t help but wonder what he’d have done with three more series—especially when Charlie Strong admitted postgame that his game plan for Zaire was to crowd the box and dare the lefty to beat him with his arm.

Zaire didn’t—and couldn’t, only throwing five times while harassed by the swarming Longhorns defense on all three of his series. And while Kelly wouldn’t make any declaration about where the offense would go moving quickly towards the home opener against Nevada, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Kizer doesn’t lead the offense moving forward.

Pinning this loss on the quarterback shuffle isn’t fair. Not when it was the defense giving up six yards a play and seven scores in seven red zone appearances. And Zaire can still play a role in this offense–just one that looks much more like what Tyrone Swoopes was doing, not as a co-leading man.

The worst-case scenario at quarterback just hit the Irish like the punch to the jaw the Longhorns delivered—Kelly’s quarterback battle took a loss to find his starter.

 

Without Torii Hunter, Notre Dame’s wide receiving corps is lost. 

Notre Dame’s offense was irreparably harmed when senior receiver Torii Hunter took a vicious hit in the end zone, a shot to the head that by any definition of college football’s targeting rule should have resulted in a first down and ejection.

Brian Kelly was incredulous postgame, unable to understand how Texas safety DeShon Elliott’s hit to Hunter’s head didn’t draw a flag—or further review by the Big 12 officiating crew in charge of the replay booth. But perhaps more disappointing than the loss of Hunter for the rest of the game as he went to the locker room to be evaluated for a concussion was the state of Notre Dame’s receiving corps without their senior captain.

The Irish looked lost without Hunter on the field. Other than the perfect strike Kizer floated to Josh Adams in the corner of the end zone, the veteran quarterback completed just one other throw downfield for the rest of the game, connecting with CJ Sanders on a chain-moving third-down conversion for six yards.

Never was Kizer’s discomfort with his receivers more apparent than on his chance to win the game in regulation. With the game tied and the Irish offense given over three minutes to march down the field, Kizer took a sack when no receiver turned to look as an outside blitz came. Then, with communication difficult to the outside of the formation, Kelly chose to run on 3rd-and-12, keeping the ball on the ground and away from his inexperienced receivers in a crunch-time moment.

Learning on the job was always expected. But without Hunter as a foundation, the Irish receivers looked lost.

 

Newcomers Equanimeous St. Brown and Shaun Crawford made big-time debuts. 

Sophomore Equanimous St. Brown isn’t going to be Will Fuller. But he did a pretty good impression on Sunday night, catching two touchdowns among his five grabs for 75 yards.

The lanky target, who flew under the radar this spring and preseason as other options emerged, quickly established himself as Notre Dame’s big play receiver. His nifty footwork converted a nicely thrown fade from Kizer on the game’s opening drive. His acrobatic hand plant made for another highlight-worthy touchdown grab. Two scores in his first start are a promising debut to a receiver who only managed one catch all last season.

Crawford’s debut was just as impactful. While he was on the wrong end of a deep pass in the first half, the sophomore’s first game after sitting out all of last season after an August ACL injury was everything you could’ve advertised.

Crawford’s first career interception turned the momentum of the game, setting up the Irish with a short field and easy touchdown. His two-point conversion return on a blocked extra point was the exact type of play we’d only heard of Crawford making—the right guy in the right place at the right time.

It’s tough to take too much comfort after a gutting loss like the one the Irish just experienced, but two young standouts expected to play big roles on this team seem poised for big seasons.

 

One loss does not make a season. But fixing what ails this team is Job No. 1 for Brian Kelly and his staff. 

Notre Dame’s goals for the season are still intact. Especially on a wild weekend that saw major shakeups in the Pac-12, Big 12 and SEC. So while no team should need a wake-up call after one week, perhaps it was necessary for Brian Kelly’s young team.

In case you needed a reminder, there’s going to be some heavy lifting this season. That’s what happens when you return just seven starters, replacing multiple All-Americans on both sides of the ball and are admittedly still searching for your offensive and defensive identity heading into the season.

There’s plenty of good to take away from Sunday night—though you might have to look harder at the defensive side of the ball to find it. But it’s going to take some hard coaching to make sure this group doesn’t lose control, as eight penalties, including a personal foul on middle linebacker Nyles Morgan, made quite evident.

There’s plenty of time to question tactics—the choice of playing a mostly three-down front still has me scratching my head. But coaching is done presnap. It’s up to the players to make tackles and cover receivers, or pick up blitzers and convert tough first downs.

On a Sunday night that’ll be remembered for a long time in Austin, the first sellout crowd since the 2013 season got what they paid for.

And unfortunately, Notre Dame leaves footing the bill.

 

 

A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s defensive roster

Associated Press
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Following a week of moves to and from Notre Dame’s roster, most notably — certainly most positively — on the defensive side, a quick look at the numbers at each position can shine a light on the months to come. Just like last week’s brief glance at the offense, the order of this listing is not intended to stake a stance on positional competitions. (In other words, it doesn’t try to figure out the mess at safety.)

For the time being, the years listed remain those currently. There is no clean date to transition forward a grade in this space. Thus, when senior linebacker Drue Tranquill’s name shows up, it is because he will be around yet in 2018. This is intended to aid conversations and debates in-person and online as they pertain to the coming season. Looks further ahead with thoughts on eligibility concerns will be more focused at some point in the coming offseason.

One last note: In looking at the linebackers, do not be surprised if the experience gap is filled by Tranquill and rover becomes even more of a matchup-based concept. Spring practice should shed some light on that possibility.

As of this morning, the Irish roster has 84 names on it, expecting at least three more commitments by Feb. 7, if not a graduate transfer or two. As always, the NCAA allows a maximum of 85 come fall.

Defensive end (7):
So. Daelin Hayes
Sr. Jay Hayes
So. Khalid Kareem
So. Julian Okwara
So. Ade Ogundeji
Fr. Kofi Wardlow
Inc. fr. Justin Ademilola

Defensive tackle (8):
Jr. Jerry Tillery
Sr. Jonathan Bonner
Fr. Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa
Fr. Kurt Hinish
Fr. Darnell Ewell
Jr. Micah Dew-Treadway
Inc. fr. Ja’Mion Franklin
Inc. fr. Jayson Ademilola

Linebacker (8):
Jr. Te’von Coney
So. Jonathan Jones
So. Jamir Jones
Early-enrolled fr. Jack Lamb
Early-enrolled fr. Bo Bauer
Fr. Drew White
Fr. David Adams
Early-enrolled fr. Ovie Oghoufo

Rover (4):
Sr. Drue Tranquill
Jr. Asmar Bilal
Fr. Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah
Inc. fr. Shayne Simon

Cornerback (7):
So. Julian Love
Jr. Shaun Crawford
Sr. Nick Watkins
So. Troy Pride
So. Donte Vaughn
Inc. fr. Tariq Bracy
Inc. fr. Joe Wilkins, Jr.

Safety (11):
So. Alohi Gilman
Jr. Nick Coleman
Inc. fr. Derrik Allen
Early-enrolled fr. Houston Griffith
So. Jalen Elliott
So. Devin Studstill
Fr. Jordan Genmark-Heath
Fr. Isaiah Robertson
Jr. Nicco Fertitta
So. D.J. Morgan
Inc. fr. Paul Moala

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.