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And in that corner… The Michigan State Spartans

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After a brief hiatus, the rivalry with Michigan State resumes. For the first time since 2013, the Irish and Spartans will do battle for the Megaphone Trophy, the return to Midwestern smash mouth football—and a three-game Notre Dame winning streak—a perfect early-season test for both teams.

There’s still much to be learned about the Spartans. Ranked 8th in the Coaches Poll and 12th by the AP, we’ve only seen an ugly win against Furman from Mark Dantonio’s squad, though there’s plenty of talent left from the Spartans’ Big Ten championship squad and College Football Playoff participant.

To get us up to speed on the Spartans, Chris Vannini joins us. A graduate from Michigan State, Vannini is the Managing Editor of CoachingSearch.com, as well as the host and producer of “The Only Podcast,” covering Michigan State sports and the Spartan football team.

One of my go-to experts on all things Sparty, Chris drops plenty of knowledge on a Michigan State team that’ll be answering many questions this weekend as well.

 

Coming off a playoff appearance, Michigan State has lost a ton of talent. How different is this team than the one that won 12 games, The Big Ten and earned a spot in the College Football Playoff?

It’s a lot different in terms of the star power. Connor Cook, Aaron Burbridge, Jack Conklin, Jack Allen and Shilique Calhoun are gone. Those were guys who carried the load for a few years. The faces replacing them have been around, but not in the spotlight, like QB Tyler O’Connor, LB Riley Bullough and RB L.J. Scott. So there were a lot of questions coming into this season — questions that are still unanswered. How will this team handle a big moment? A big game? A tough road environment? A bad call going against them? We still don’t really know. All we know is that it’s a different group at the top.

 

What do you make of that performance against Furman? Ironing out the kinks? A young team developing? A smoke screen to confuse Notre Dame?

Definitely not a smokescreen. That’s something MSU fans like to say a lot, explaining bad non-conference performances by saying MSU was holding everything back. I’m not going to say they didn’t hold anything, but when you’re still battling a bad FCS team in the second half, the problem is the execution, not the playbook. There were certainly kinks being ironed out with a young team. Again, it’s a lot of guys in situations they haven’t been in before. It’s essentially an entirely new receiving corps and big OL changes. MSU teams do improve as the season goes on. There’s a lot of room for growth after one game.

 

It’s another season, which means it’s another good Spartan defense, right? Malik McDowell is back. But walk me through the rest of the crew that’ll make things difficult for Notre Dame on Saturday night.

McDowell is certainly a star and made his presence felt against Furman, but the rest of the defensive line struggled. This group lost several players in the offseason to dismissals, transfers and the like. If not for adding some transfers, there could be even more issues. Furman was consistently getting to the linebackers in the run game. The good news for MSU is that the linebacker group is stacked — and they finally got Ed Davis approved for a sixth season. The All-Big Ten linebacker tore his ACL in 2015 fall camp. It sounds like he’s expected to play some against ND, though it’s been more than a year since the public saw him play, so I’m not sure what to expect yet. This is a front 7 that will have a strong rush defense, but I question if they’ll be able to rack up TFLs and sacks like in years past. The defensive backs are a veteran group, but a group that has questions at every spot. CB Vayante Copeland has been hyped up by coaches, but he only played in 1.5 games last year before a neck injury ended his freshman season. The other three starters (CB Darian Hicks, S Montae Nicholson and S Demetrious Cox) all got burned several times last year. Hicks was hit with two pass interference penalties on deep balls against Furman because he didn’t turn his head around. We know how often ND threw deep when these teams met in 2013, and this secondary isn’t near that level.

 

Conversely, the offense didn’t look all that impressive against Furman. LJ Scott is back, putting up a relatively easy 100-yard game. But what did you see from Tyler O’Connor and the rebuilt offensive line?

Something like 75 of Scott’s 100-ish yards came after contact, so his numbers were because of him, not the offensive line, which was OK, but not great. Madre London didn’t do much in the running game. O’Connor was mostly accurate in his first start as The Guy, but he had a big problem not looking off his intended receiver. If that guy got open, O’Connor was able to hit him, but if he wasn’t, O’Connor struggled to move to other reads and threw a bad interception after staring a guy down. The fifth-year senior knows everything in the playbook, but he’s going to need to work on his reads. A big question was going to be big plays. This team barely got any big plays in the run game last year, and now they have a new passing game. They had only 5 plays of at least 20 yards, including just 3 such passing plays, and one was a bubble screen. Can this team make plays down the field? Texas did against Notre Dame. I don’t know if this MSU team can.

 

For a long time, Michigan State’s identity included a large chip on their collective shoulder for being overlooked. Does it still exist, considering the Spartans ascent nationally, and the fact that they’ve essentially dominated the Big Ten — winning two of their last three against the Buckeyes and seven of eight against Michigan?

This is a program that is respected much more nationally than it is locally. You just have to look at the polls to see that. But locally and regionally, they’re always dealing with Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame coverage, so that chip can be easier to find. When Jim Harbaugh dominates a summer of media coverage, Michigan gets (deserved) preseason hype and Dantonio’s name gets misspelled in a magazine or two, MSU doesn’t have to look far. BTN’s “Green & White Days” camp series showed some players talking about Michigan’s hype, so they’ve got a chip. When it comes to Michigan, they’ll always have it.

 

The Notre Dame – Michigan State rivalry is one of the underrated battles in college football. It’s been a couple years since the two teams have played, and after a dominant run by the Spartans, Brian Kelly and the Irish have had Michigan State’s number. Are Spartan fans happy to be resuming the battle for the Megaphone?

Yes. This is a series that has so much history, and was a big part of MSU even getting into the Big Ten in the 1950s. It’s more of a friendly respect rivalry than the hatred you get with Michigan-Notre Dame. MSU fans love having non-conference series like Oregon, Boise State and others on the schedule (and being friendly with those fans). Since they only get 3 non-conference games now, I’m not sure if MSU-ND has to be every year, but it’s something that shouldn’t have long droughts.

 

Notre Dame fans have their keys to the game — none bigger than Brian VanGorder’s suspect defense. What are the keys for a Michigan State victory? What do the Irish do that worry you?

MSU needs more big plays on offense, both on the ground and in the air. That’s what Texas was able to do against a suspect ND defensive backfield. Can MSU make those plays? I don’t know. On the other side, it’s similar. Is Brian Kelly just going to throw deep ball after deep ball? Against this MSU defensive backfield, it may just work again.

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Give Chris a follow @ChrisVannini on Twitter and check out the podcast at The Only Colors

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

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.