Notre Dame wide receiver Kevin Stepherson, right, catches a touchdown pass as Southern California defensive back Adoree' Jackson defends during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, in Los Angeles. USC won 45-27. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. USC

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Notre Dame’s 2016 season is finished, the Irish coming up woefully short of their lofty preseason goals. And as fast as the team bus could leave the Coliseum on Saturday evening, Brian Kelly needs to turn his program around.

But before we get into that heavy offseason remodel, let’s get through the good, bad and ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Josh Adams. It wasn’t a great season for Josh Adams, who couldn’t get out of training camp without getting dinged up. But he certainly finished the season strong—a career-best 180 yards on the ground against a USC defense that had held six of its previous seven opponents to season-low point totals.

Adams burst out of the gates, stopped just short of the goal line on a 74-yard scamper to open the game. But even without that big number buoying his stat line, Adams still ran for nearly six yards a carry, a very nice outing.

Adams will be a key piece of next season’s offense. Finishing on a good note was a good start.

 

Jarron Jones. Total respect to Jones, who certainly played like a senior leader on Saturday, another monster effort in the trenches with seven tackles and 1.5 TFL. Any worry that he’d be checked out after bowl eligibility disappeared was eliminated immediately, and Jones led the Irish defense with a PFF-best +3.9 rating—a dominant effort by any measurement.

Postgame, Jones was proud of the defense’s effort, emotional about this being it for him at Notre Dame, and also emboldened about the status of head coach Brian Kelly.

“I think it’s garbage. If anything, Coach Kelly deserves another chance, if people are talking about him being fired,” Jones said. “The fact that it’s one bad season. He took us to the national championship and the Fiesta Bowl last season. He’s a great coach and just because we have one trip up doesn’t mean he should be fired.”

 

Equanimeous St. Brown & Kevin Stepherson. We wanted to see Notre Dame’s young receivers hold their own against USC’s talented cornerbacks. Well St. Brown led the game with 94 receiving yards and a touchdown and Stepherson torched Adoree Jackson for a 29-yard touchdown on a double move.

While Torii Hunter wasn’t able to give much to the Irish offense in his limited action, the two sophomores looked like starting outside receivers—with Stepherson finally getting action after Corey Holmes was targeted 10 times and came away with just four catches for 29 yards.

Notre Dame’s athleticism on the edge wasn’t great. But it was a nice building block for next season, St. Brown and Stepherson key pieces to the 2017 puzzle.

 

Julian Love. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback held his own against USC’s talented receiving corps, giving up seven catches, but limiting those receptions to just 51 yards.

Love looks like a building block. With Troy Pride playing 25 snaps and Donte Vaughn 17, those three freshman will have every chance to take over next season, with Shaun Crawford hopefully ready to return from his achilles injury.

Love is an interesting freshman. He’s played very solid football, well beyond expectations. But to take the next step, he’ll need to continue to play with the high football IQ that he displays, because his physical traits aren’t going to jump out.

Still, this is was an incredibly positive debut season. And Love’s finale against USC, where he played nearly every snap, was another great game for the rookie.

 

The Offensive Line. It was a really strong final game for the guys up front, who may have given up six sacks to USC’s pass rush, but seemed to win the battle at the point of attack while doing a better job than the stats indicated, even in the passing game.

Surprisingly, redshirt senior Mark Harrell graded out as PFF’s top blocker, with Quenton Nelson playing another solid game. Mike McGlinchey didn’t allow a sack at left tackle, though did false start again—something he’ll need to get under control this offseason.

The Irish need to find stability with this starting five, a group that should welcome all but Harrell back, and could also see competition at center and right guard again, even with Sam Mustipher returning. But it was a nice competitive effort that Kelly applauded postgame.

“I liked the way our offensive line was able to at times exert their will in tough third-down-and-short and tough fourth-down situations,” Kelly said.

 

THE BAD

Jerry Tillery. A season after being one of the featured members of the Irish football team on Showtime, Tillery showcased all the wrong things in an embarrassing afternoon.

Two very bad looks for Tillery, who after being flagged for his personal foul, heard quite a bit from his head coach. And while the internet’s reaction to the two cheap shots was probably just as dumb as Tillery’s decision (no, he shouldn’t be expelled), Kelly made it quite clear that after they review the incidents (he didn’t see either live), that Tillery will be held accountable.

“Jerry has to be accountable of this actions every day. Jerry is a good kid. If he made a mistake we’ll hold him accountable for that mistake,” Kelly said. “Again, I don’t know the scenario, we’ll take a look at it. Jerry is a very smart kid and if there is something there we have to handle internally we certainly will and we’ll hold our players accountable internally.”

Worse than any on-field decision is the fact that Tillery desperately needs to grow up. He’ll be the defensive line’s most experienced player in 2017. By most reports he’s a great student-athlete, and a fully incorporated part of the student body. But he also now has a second black mark on his football resume, a Fiesta Bowl suspension when he was one of the rare healthy linemen available.

Tillery’s leadership is important and he plays a critical position of need for next season. So maybe this incident will turn him around.

 

Nicco Fertitta’s ejection. The sophomore safety delivered the hit of the season on Saturday, separating Aca’Cedric Ware from the football on a nasty hit that ended with Ware down for an extended time and leaving the game with a suspected concussion. But after the third replay review found Fertitta guilty of targeting and ultimately ejected, it gave the football back to USC and gave the Irish another loss this season on helmet-to-helmet hits.

Whether people Fertitta deserved to be ejected mostly falls upon partisan lines. But one thing that’s undeniable is the subjectiveness of the penalty and the inconsistent enforcement, a rule that desperately needs changing when it’s the rare judgment call that carries with it an automatic ejection.

 

THE UGLY

The Special Teams. It was a fitting end to one of the most disappointing special teams seasons I can ever remember, with Scott Booker’s unit turning Adoree Jackson into Superman on Saturday. The two return scores make five on the season, and they were essentially eliminating factors in the Irish’s upset bid on Saturday.

At this point, Brian Kelly needs to look for outside help on special teams. A phase of the game that’s almost always only been paid lip service by the Irish head coach, it’s not going to get fixed because Kelly brings on a special teams analyst like Marty Biagi, who may have helped bring new ideas to the conversation, though they certainly didn’t help.

At every step the special teams were brutal. A rugby punt decision led to a blocked kick and loss in a hurricane against NC State. A hold on the opening kickoff took away a touchdown against Michigan State. Kickoff and punt returns were a hold-your-breath consideration, maddening when you consider the general competence of placekicker Justin Yoon and punter Tyler Newsome.

 

The list of breakdowns is long. The fixes are necessary. And a failure in the finale felt like par for the course.

 

4-8. No explanation necessary.

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.