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Five things we learned: USC 45, Notre Dame 27

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LOS ANGELES — The end is here. And it looked, for the most part, like the rest of it.

Notre Dame’s 45-27 loss shared all too many similarities with their other seven defeats.  Special teams blunders. A devastating stretch before halftime that altered the game’s outcome. And a mostly gutty effort that ended with the Irish losing because they gave away much more than they took.

The Irish showed plenty of fight on Saturday. Unfortunately, they showed just as much charity. Two special teams touchdowns for Adoree Jackson. A DeShone Kizer gift-wrapped pick six. Add them together and three scores were just too many to spot the hottest football team in the country.

The Irish end their season with four wins. They leave behind many more unanswered questions. Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Adoree Jackson against Notre Dame’s special teams was an unfair fight. 

Notre Dame knew Adoree Jackson was one of the country’s most dangerous return men. They kicked to him anyway.

Jackson’s 55-yard punt return and 97-yard kickoff return were two more touchdowns given up by Scott Booker’s special teams, a fitting end to a nightmarish season where the five return scores allowed only covered a fraction of the damage done.

On a day where the Irish special teams needed to be clean, they were anything but. And when Jackson picked up a bouncing punt and sprinted to the end zone, he turned a field goal-game into a 10-pointer. And when Jackson answered his coverage blunder with a hurdling, highlight reel return touchdown, he all but ended the game.

“Unfortunately today, special teams was a huge deciding factor in the game and we gave up two touchdowns there to a very talented player,” Kelly said postgame. “But we knew how talented he was going into the game.”

That talent presented omnipresent problems, the Irish unwilling to kick away from Jackson when they knew playmakers like Ronald Jones and JuJu Smith-Schuster awaited. And with Jackson’s lone catch going 52-yards for a touchdown, the All-American candidate left Irish defenders grasping at air as the all-purpose weapon scored three times—with Irish fans hoping they’ve seen Jackson for the last time with a stay-or-go decision coming soon.

(Speaking of those…)

 

DeShone Kizer may well be a high first-round draft pick. But before he makes his final decision, he’d be wise to look at all the information on hand. 

DeShone Kizer hasn’t made any decisions. That was the message from the quarterback after he faced a swarm of tape recorders, all hoping to get something from a football player far too smart to offer anything.

But if this is indeed it for Kizer, he’ll leave a resume far less convincing than the one he had entering the season. As NFL teams looks for a quarterback to change the future of their franchise, Kizer will need to prove that the player showing up on tape is the real deal, not a signal-caller who regressed in his second season as a starter.

Kizer’s final Saturday of the season was another mixed bag. His 17 completions included some throws that’ll make football men nod with approval. But his 15 misses included some head-shakers, none more confounding than Ajene Harris‘s interception, the throw into coverage breaking Notre Dame’s back.

Kizer’s receiving corps was undermanned, with Corey Holmes struggling in a featured role and Chris Finke supplying most of the playmaking. Add in challenging weather conditions, and it was difficult to tell if Kizer struggled or merely fought an uphill fight.

“There were some good things that he did. At times, he didn’t get the support that he needed,” Kelly said postgame. “There were some balls that could’ve been caught. It could’ve been a little bit better of a throw, a little bit better of a catch. It was kind of a mixed bag.”

Notre Dame has submitted paperwork for an NFL evaluation, a key factor in Ronnie Stanley deciding to return after his third season. While Kizer is a favorite of the mock draft community, he’d be wise to make sure the reality matches with the perception before making any final decisions.

 

Two nightmarish minutes told the story of the season. 

In the second quarter, Justin Yoon trotted onto the field, hoping to even a game at 10-10. Instead, the sophomore kicker’s miss triggered a two-minute run that was the beginning of the end for the Irish.

Technically, the Irish defense delayed things, forcing the Trojans to punt in just four plays. But with the Irish down just three points and hoping to take some momentum into half (Kelly deferred possession until the third quarter), they imploded—going backwards before the Irish threw away some good luck on special teams (Scott Daly’s high snap that blew through Tyler Newsome’s hands was erased by the officiating crew), trading a safety for a touchdown as Jackson’s magic act starting with just over 90 seconds remaining.

Two players later, Kizer’s interception turned a tight game into a 17-point deficit. And with 63 seconds left in the half, Notre Dame was lucky to get to the break without any more damage—even though the game was essentially done.

Kelly has often talked about the lapses this football team has shown, a season marked by streaks of poor football that too often contributed to a critical loss. That was evident once again.

“We just have not been able to sustain performances for four quarters,” Kelly said. “We’ve shown a propensity of self-inflicted wounds.”

 

The mistakes covered up a gutty performance by an Irish team that went toe-to-toe with the Trojans. 

Notre Dame wasn’t blown off the field. They weren’t outclassed. And while an eighth defeat and the end of a season eliminates any opportunity to find silver linings, the fact that Notre Dame kept Sam Darnold in check and out-scored the Trojans offense is certainly something most didn’t see coming.

Neither was Josh Adams’ afternoon, a 180-yard performance the high-water mark of the season. While Ronald Jones broke loose for a long touchdown and Jackson got one of his own, the defense—playing many young players—will take this momentum forward.

“I liked a lot of things that we did today. The toughness that I was really looking for,” Kelly said. “We had a lot of inexperienced players out there so they learned a lot from it.”

Julian Love’s nine tackles end his season on a high note. Elijah Taylor’s surprising play gives a clue as to how the Irish will move forward without Jarron Jones. Kevin Stepherson left Jackson in his wake as he caught his fifth touchdown. Equanimeous St. Brown‘s late touchdown catch from Malik Zaire might have come in garbage time, but a ninth score is a big number for the sophomore.

If Brian Kelly is indeed going to lead this team forward, he’ll need to find a way to begin that transition to 2017 now.

 

The coaching carousel doesn’t look like it’ll include Brian Kelly. But that doesn’t mean big changes aren’t coming—and maybe sooner than later. 

As Jack Swarbrick watched from the side of the cramped interview tent, he didn’t look like an athletic director about to make a cataclysmic move. So unless a plot twist befitting the final scenes of the Godfather takes place over the next 48 hours, Notre Dame will move forward with Brian Kelly atop the football program.

But that doesn’t mean big changes aren’t coming.

Kelly will return to South Bend to take stock of his program. He’ll talk to his outgoing players—not to mention his boss—and forge a path. And that likely means some significant changes to a coaching staff that’s already looking or a defensive coordinator.

“Everything is on the table. I have to evaluate a lot of things within the program,” Kelly said. “There are some really good things in place but I’ve always felt that the blend of continuity and change is the sweet spot. And for me, we need to clearly look at where that is because it was off. And so I have to clearly look at where that mix is of continuity and change.”

A defensive coordinator is the first step forward, a national search that likely needs to reach a conclusion before the team’s year-end banquet set for mid-December. A change on special teams is also probably mandatory, Scott Booker leaving few who believe he’s a viable option for any longer.

In the past, Kelly has leaned on his own coaching network to find answers. The optics of that alone lead you to believe that will be off the table. But heading into his eighth season, a reinvention is in order.

Whether Kelly can accomplish that or not remains the unanswerable question. But change better come quickly. Because a September schedule that features a visit from Georgia, four bowl teams, and Mark Dantonio will be here before we know it.

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.

Notre Dame adds two top defensive back commits; Elliott officially a ‘Husker

allen
rivals.com
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It’s early. It’s really, really early. Not in the day, though this post is scheduled for an a.m. hour. No, it is early in the 2018 recruiting cycle. Any piece of news, each commitment, everything should be taken with two grains of salt.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame—and more specifically, new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght—enjoyed Tuesday’s recruiting news when two consensus four-star coverage men committed to the Irish.

Safety Derrik Allen (Lassiter High School; Marietta, Ga.) and cornerback Kalon Gervin (Cass Tech; Detroit, Mich.) joined a class of now eight commitments, six of which play on the defensive side of the ball.

Gervin, the No. 11 cornerback in the class according to rivals.com, waited mere days after attending Notre Dame’s Junior Day over the weekend. Irish coach Brian Kelly and staff’s failure to land a recruit at Gervin’s position in the 2017 haul actually helped reel in the recruit with offers from Florida, LSU, Michigan and dozens others.

“The opportunity to play right away, they didn’t sign a cornerback this last class,” Gervin told Blue & Gold Illustrated helped sway him. “Also, the education is second-to-none. It speaks for itself.”

Allen, pictured at top, has leaned toward Notre Dame for months. The No. 3 safety in the country per Rivals, he chose the Irish over the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Florida State.

Elliott officially to Nebraska

The two highly-touted defensive backs will not have the chance to learn under the tutelage of Bob Elliott. Nebraska officially announced the hiring of the former Notre Dame safeties (2012-13) and linebackers (2014) coach. Elliott spent the last two seasons serving as a special assistant to Kelly, focusing largely on defending the triple-option attacks of Army, Navy and Georgia Tech.

Elliott rejoins former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in Lincoln. Diaco was hired as the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator in January.

The Lincoln Journal Star’s Brian Cristopherson reports Elliott will make a nice wage in eastern Nebraska.

Could Kelly move a receiver to cornerback?

PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 30:  Bennett Jackson #2 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish intercepts this pass intended for Michael Rector #3 of the Stanford Cardinal during the fourth quarter at Stanford Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Before the weekend, Notre Dame already had 10 receivers on its depth chart, all with at least two seasons of eligibility remaining. Cornerback, meanwhile, is a position where the roster seems to be lacking, with only seven currently on scholarship. The only fact staving off panic is that all seven also have two years of eligibility in hand. Nonetheless, an additional body in the defensive backfield at practice would seem to be a reasonable want, if not quite a necessity.

Thus, the addition of graduate transfer receiver Freddy Canteen—himself having two seasons of potential college football to go—brought the return of wonderings: Should one of the plethora of Irish receivers switch to breaking up passes?

Aside from balancing the roster and easing some concerns should an injury strike, such a move could also present the player a chance at increased playing time. By no means would the maneuver need to be a selfless one.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has had success with such positional flipping. Specifically, Kelly and his coaching staff have overseen the successful switches of receiver-turned-cornerback Bennett Jackson and receiver-turned-safety-and-then-linebacker James Onwualu. Furthermore, defensive backs Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell both arrived at Notre Dame expecting to be on the offensive side of the ball before changes early in their careers.

BENNETT JACKSON
A three-star receiver recruit, Jackson stuck with Notre Dame during the transition from Charlie Weis to Brian Kelly, signing with the Irish only weeks after Kelly took the lead of the program. In his freshman season, Jackson carried the ball plenty, as the kick returner. Aside from fielding kickoffs, he had only one carry for 20 yards. That was it for his offensive playmaking.

On special teams, however, he excelled without the ball, too. Jackson finished with 10 tackles, including four against Purdue to start the season. That nose for the ballcarrier prompted the coaching staff to switch Jackson’s positional group. In the following three seasons, he amassed 147 tackles, 11 pass break-ups and two interceptions.

Before Notre Dame faced Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, Jackson looked back on his career change.

“I liked receiver. Obviously, I wanted to be a guy with the ball in my hands,” he said. “At first, I wasn’t mad about it, but I wasn’t fond of it.

“As time went on, I actually liked the position a lot more. I had a lot more fun and I got to compete a lot more.”

JAMES ONWUALU
A four-star recruit with the ambiguous “athlete” designation in 2013, Onwualu—like Jackson—spent his freshman season as a receiver. Unlike Jackson, he actually caught some passes. Two, to be exact, for a total of 34 yards. Continuing on a parallel to Jackson, Onwualu totaled six tackles on special teams.

Years later, it is easy to see the receiving depth in Notre Dame’s class of 2013. Onwualu aside, the Irish brought in Corey Robinson, Torii Hunter, Jr., and Will Fuller. It was going to be a tough road to featured playing time for Onwualu. Realizing this, he set to finding a different path.

“I honestly wasn’t sure receiver was the spot for me anyway, so I walked right up to coach Kelly’s office and we had a talk about where I wanted to go and what my thoughts were for my career,” Onwualu told und.com early in his senior season. “We ended up agreeing that the defensive side, we might as well give it a shot, and it worked out.”

Initially, that conversation landed Onwualu at safety. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, he found himself at linebacker pretty quickly thereafter.

“That was a tough one for me because he’s so valuable offensively in a number of ways,” Kelly said before 2014 spring practice. “He’s such a consistent player and he loves to compete. But he’s got great contact skills.”

Onwualu ended his Notre Dame career with 143 total tackles, including those pivotal six his freshman season, along with six sacks.

MATTHIAS FARLEY & KEIVARAE RUSSELL
Both Farley and Russell entered Notre Dame as “athletes”, the former a three-star recruit and the latter a four-star prospect. While Farley was expected to line up at receiver and Russell at running back, each switched to safety and cornerback, respectively, before ever joining the Irish offense. Safe to say it worked out rather well for each.

WHO NOW?
Far be it for the internet to speculate, but that seems to be one of its three primary purposes in the 21st century.

None of the current 11 receivers entered college deemed “athletes” by recruitniks. One does mirror Jackson and Onwualu in that he excelled on special teams last year. Rising sophomore Chase Claypool recorded 11 tackles in his debut season to go along with his five catches for 81 yards. Claypool notched multiple tackles against Nevada, Syracuse and Virginia Tech.

Kelly and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko very well may choose to test fate in 2017 and rely on only seven cornerbacks. After all, how often would the Irish ever have more than four on the field, anyways?

But if Kelly and Elko err on the side of caution, whoever makes the positional switch should not cringe in doing so. It has worked out pretty well both for his predecessors and for Notre Dame.