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Five things we learned: Notre Dame 50, Syracuse 33

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After making the most decisive move of his tenure in South Bend, Brian Kelly’s team responded. And while the 50-33 win over Syracuse wasn’t pretty, there’s no need for a 2-3 team to display style points.

The Irish won with an offense that marched up and down the field and with a defense that did a good job—after a very rough start—of limiting the damage the Orange offense could do. They won by scoring on special teams, by making explosive plays and by getting some critical red zone stops.

With a month that may have been one of the worst of his coaching career, Kelly challenged his team and they responded, beginning October on the right track, earning an absolutely critical win that gets the Irish out of a funk.

“I just liked the way the kids played and prepared all week. It was a tough week. They came out here with a purpose and that’s a tough team to prepare for, when you make a change as we did on defense,” Kelly told ESPN after the game. “I’m proud of the way our guys played today, in particular, the basics of football were held up. We’ve got to do some things better in special teams and finish off some drives, but all in all it’s good to get a win.”

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

The defense found its footing. 

It didn’t start out pretty. Syracuse marched down the field on its first series, scoring a touchdown on just eight plays in just over two minutes, covering 75 yards in big chunks. Making things worse, star receiver Amba Etta-Tawo made Julian Love his latest victim, the Orange matching Notre Dame score for score as the 72-yard touchdown catch had fans bracing for the worst.

But the defense recovered. And even after Devin Studstill was ejected on a questionable targeting call, the young Irish defense rallied. They forced punts on five of the next six possessions. They got after quarterback Eric Dungey. And they made Syracuse earn their yards and points, holding up in the run game.

Greg Hudson provided a needed spark and the Irish came out in the second half looking like a different unit. They held the Orange to just seven second-half points, a shocking performance that helped make the victory feel downright comfortable. After battling back from the fast start, the mental toughness displayed by the defense was absolutely impressive.

 

Equanimeous St. Brown broke the game open. Notre Dame’s sophomore receiver made the game’s first five minutes feel like a track meet. Taking his first two catches to the house, St. Brown’s afternoon was one of the most explosive in school history—and he didn’t catch a ball in the second half.

The lanky sophomore continues to emerge as the team’s go-to receiver, with Kizer targeting St. Brown in one-on-one coverage and making Syracuse pay. With good enough deep speed to get behind the Orange defense, St. Brown continues to develop his skills, all while building some much-needed chemistry with his starting quarterback.

St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson supplied three touchdowns of 54 yards or longer, two underclassmen providing the deep-threat firepower to a passing attack that is finding its footing without Will Fuller in that role. The ability to score quickly—something St. Brown is showing he can do—will be key to the team’s success moving forward.

 

Dexter Williams provided the game’s big play on the ground, and avoided what could have been a big injury. 

A week after Kelly credited Williams for being the only player on his roster who was playing with passion, the sophomore back took another step forward when he made a game-breaking run midway through the third quarter. The 59-yard touchdown was the longest of his career, and showcased his ability to make something from nothing, not to mention some elite speed as he ran away from the Syracuse defense and into the end zone.

Williams earned the No. 2 job at running back, taking over for senior Tarean Folston. He also avoided what looked like a potential big leg injury, walking off the field under his own power and even returning to the game, avoiding anything major.

While Josh Adams did have a 100-yard afternoon, it was Williams that helped make the ground game more than just okay. And in doing that, he showed his teammates that the coaching staff was willing to award opportunities to the players who earn them.

 

Even putting up 50 points, the Irish offense left a lot on the field. 

Coaching hard after a win is much easier. So expect Brian Kelly to do just that this week, knowing that his team managed to gain 654 yards of total offense and still didn’t look all that efficient.

Notre Dame failed to punch in a touchdown inside Syracuse’s two-yard line. They settled for three Justin Yoon field goal attempts. And the Irish’s struggles on third down were masked by their four explosive touchdowns.

Even quarterback DeShone Kizer sounded like a guy unsatisfied, crazy considering he threw for 471 yards and three touchdowns.

“It’s the sloppiest 50 point performance I’ve ever been apart of,” Kizer said postgame.

Brian Kelly spent most of his time this week working with the defense, a rare appearance on the other side of the LaBar practice fields. With a true road game set for next weekend in Raleigh, expect Kelly to wander back to the offensive side of the ball, with Irish offense needing to be more efficient.

 

After a bold program-shaking weekend, Notre Dame’s head coach proved he can still pull the right strings.

Last weekend’s press conference outburst had many wondering how the Irish roster would react. Could a team already sporting a major confidence problem withstand a leadership shakeup on the defense and a head coach who took dead aim at his players?

The answer turns out to be yes.

Because any worry that Kelly could’ve lost his roster by speaking critically of their effort was eliminated when the Irish went out and played like a different team. The passion was there. The excitement was as well. And the team rallied around Greg Hudson, the new full-time assistant earning the game ball at his alma mater, an honor that reportedly had him so proud that he was near tears.

To think that Kelly, a man who built this program brick by brick, would misread his team’s response was kind of silly from the start. But after seeing the team get big plays from players young and old, from his offense, defense, and special teams, it’s clear that Kelly’s rare public outburst, one that likely was rooted more in frustration and candor than any motivational tactic, hit its mark.

Because his roster responded. And probably more importantly, his defensive tweaks paid off.

The Irish flashed their depth, with previously underutilized defenders like Jay Hayes, Asmar Bilal and Elijah Taylor seeing plenty of time. In the secondary, the Irish continued to get younger, yet came together after a rough start, holding the Syracuse offense to just 4.3 yards a play on the Orange’s last 52 snaps after giving up a harrowing 14 yards a play on the first 11.

One winning Saturday certainly doesn’t fix everything, and there’s more work to be done. But with a scheme that had already exposed the flaws in Brian VanGorder’s system and a must-win game on the line, Kelly rode his roster hard and they responded.

A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s defensive roster

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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.