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The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

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The Megaphone returns to East Lansing. And Notre Dame goes back to work.

On a weekend that served as a separation Saturday of sorts, contenders and pretenders emerged. Unfortunately for the Irish, they’re on the outside looking in, a familiar formula costing Notre Dame in a game that played out with all too much familiarity.

A porous defense, an inconsistent offense and bad special teams. Let’s get through the good, bad and ugly from Notre Dame’s disappointing 36-28 loss.

 

THE GOOD

Fourteen minutes (roughly): That’s the amount of time the Irish were playing at full octane. From the moment they took the football over with 3:45 remaining in the third quarter and went all-in to storm back.

You saw DeShone Kizer cut loose. You saw the offense stress the Spartans vertically. Defensively, the Irish managed to get stops. No, they still couldn’t get off the field quickly time—though they forced three-straight punts.

On a Saturday when everybody should be looking for building blocks, this is the best place to start.

 

Quick Hits: 

* Lost amidst the loss in the trenches was a nice game by Quenton Nelson. The junior was rock-solid in his assignments on the inside, grading out as the best player for the Irish, per PFF College.

* Brian Kelly said postgame that this wasn’t just going to be DeShone Kizer bailing the team out. But he sure tried. Kizer wasn’t perfect and his discomfort in the pocket led to some accuracy issues. But with the game on his shoulders, he roared the team back.

Notre Dame has now scored 15 touchdowns. All but two of them have come from either Kizer’s arm or legs. While some are ready to throw in the towel for the season, Notre Dame’s coaching staff just needs to find some sense of competence from the defense, or risk wasting a historic season by Kizer.

* For the first time in his career, the elite athleticism and tantalizing promise of Jerry Tillery finally showed through. The sophomore flashed those dominant traits, making two TFLs and proving to be disruptive at times in the trenches, a much-needed development if the Irish defense is going to stop that flaming tire from burning down the defense.

* Nice to meet you, Chase Claypool. That’s one athletic dude streaking down the field. Can we find a few more opportunities for the young man?

* Most of his catches came after the Irish had to play catchup, but nice to see Torii Hunter Jr. come back and look healthy, too.

* Durham Smythe helped the Irish tight ends out of witness protection. After nearly entering the doghouse with a critical penalty that took a touchdown off the board.

* It’s hard to say how well Nyles Morgan is playing, especially when the Will linebacker position continues to struggle. But Morgan is a tackling machine, adding 10 more and eight solo stops.

 

THE BAD

Cole Luke. Upon further review, Luke’s evening was just as bad as it was in real-time. The senior cornerback’s struggles make no sense, though his confidence is likely bruised and he’s certainly pressing. That makes a smart football player do some less-than-intelligent things—Luke’s mental mistakes just as head-scratching as the physical, one-on-one losses.

There’s no need to harp or pile on, though it’s a game Luke will need to quickly forget. Especially with the Irish in need of getting on an upswing before Stanford comes to town in three weeks.

 

The special teams. The bar has been raised for Scott Booker’s special teams unit. And they didn’t come close to clearing it on Saturday night. A game-changing start by CJ Sanders was erased by Jalen Elliott’s holding. Miles Boykin’s mistake was a Pop Warner error if there ever was one. That’s as much on Boykin as it is on Sanders, Booker and everybody else that should be looking for the football.

Tyler Newsome was pumped up after he drilled a 71-yarder. And while his 50.3 yard average and three punts inside the 20 will look like a successful game, Newsome once again botched his first kick, failing to flip the field when the Irish needed him to do so.

Throw in Nicco Fertitta’s bone-headed unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after making a nice block and it was amateur hour in a phase of the game that Kelly talked about this week as being critical.

 

Drue Tranquill. Notre Dame expected Drue Tranquill to play a key role in this defense. Instead, he’s been a huge part of the problem.

Tranquill was a liability again Saturday night, a key defender that was counted on to be a sure-tackling strong safety. And as intelligent, hard-working, and well-respected as Tranquill is, he’s killing the Irish defense with his inconsistencies.

It’s easy to take some of the bad that comes with Tranquill in coverage if he’s a sledgehammer against the run. But the junior who has heroically returned from two major knee injuries has been really suspect, when the team needs him to be a rock as they break in Devin Studstill. He led the Irish in missed tackles on Saturday night, the only defender who graded out (per PFF College) worse than Luke.

Tranquill is still a young player, injuries essentially robbing him of a full season—and two key springs—of development. But the junior needs to find his rhythm quickly, or Notre Dame needs to push Avery Sebastian into a much larger role.

 

The pass rush. That’s three weeks and no sacks. And while the Irish did manage to make things slightly uncomfortable for Tyler O’Connor, the Irish are the only Power Five team not to have tackled the opposing team’s quarterback behind the line of scrimmage.

Spin it any way you want, and that’s a big problem. Especially when you’re trying to help a young secondary.

 

The defensive personnel. Perhaps some of the comfort that comes with calling for Brian VanGorder’s head is that it ignores the other possibility. Namely, that Notre Dame’s defensive personnel just isn’t that good.

Yes, it’s becoming more and more obvious that VanGorder isn’t a good fit. (Yes, I know that’s an understatement.) But it’s also becoming more and more obvious that the Irish just aren’t that good on defense.

It’s pretty clear that Notre Dame’s staff has swung and missed on the defensive side of the football, all those high-profile recruits struggling to live up to their ranking. It’s also clear that you can have a handful of talented players on the field, but they’re quickly erased if one or two aren’t doing their job.

The Irish can’t rush the passer. That’s less on VanGorder’s exotic schemes or Keith Gilmore’s teaching techniques than it is on Andrew Trumbetti or the rest of the personnel that can’t win their one on one battle, especially a few seasons of recruiting misses at defensive end.

 

 

Freshmen are freshmen. They’re seeing and doing things for the first time. And right now, Notre Dame is relying on too many of them, young kids and inexperienced talent trying to hold up their end of the bargain while Morgan, Isaac Rochell and James Onwualu play better-than-average football. That the Irish don’t have any other veterans capable of beating out the kids shows you how difficult it is to transition systems and do so while upgrading talent.

Running a high-priced and unsuccessful coach out of town is always an option—and it looks like that’s the way this will end up. But when you think about Kelly’s fiery comments from postgame, through the subpar personnel lens, this comment feels a little bit different.

“Those are the guys we have. We can’t trade em. They’re not getting cut. We recruited them. I told our staff, ‘Those are our guys, so we’ve got to get ’em better. We’ve got to put them in better position to make plays,’” Kelly said.

 

THE UGLY

Another loss against a quality team. If Notre Dame wants to measure itself against the best, they won’t like what they see. The Irish have lost four of their last five, Nevada the only win. That type of slide during the seventh season of a head coach’s tenure isn’t a datapoint you want to see.

Of course, there’s context for everything. The Irish lost 10 players to the NFL. They’re breaking in an unprecedented amount of new starters—three more than the worst team in Notre Dame history. And that was before preseason and injury attrition hit.

It might be our fault for believing this team could reload and compete for a playoff berth. Because only Ohio State and Alabama have proven they’re up to that task. But adjusting expectations in mid-September is an ugly place to be. And yet that’s where we stand, with Notre Dame finding another way to shoot themselves in the foot when taking on a team that’s capable of matching up with them athletically.

So the focus shifts. And while some Irish fans might check out for the fall, it’d be a surprise if Kelly’s team did. Especially a young roster that’ll now get younger and younger, the goals more incremental now than ever.

“The focus just becomes on what I just talked about: each individual getting better, each individual improving from week and week,” Kelly said on Sunday. “The focus being really much more smaller in a sense. All we’re looking for is to find a way to win and beat Duke. That’s really the goal that’s in front of us.”

It’s been a few years since Irish fans saw their postseason dreams ruined in September. But for the players and coaches who put in a year-round commitment, there’s been too much work put in to abandon things now.

“This is work. We’ve got some work to do. But we got a group that will fight and compete. I’m proud of the way they go out and represent Notre Dame on the field,” Kelly said. “We got to clean up a lot of things. We’ll continue to work with a lot of young players. I’m confident that we’ll be a better football team in November than we are in September.”

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.