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Friday at 4: Four Defensive Questions

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When you finish a three-hour, 25-round fantasy baseball draft, your next move involves pouring a combination of liquids over ice and talking about anything but baseball. Thus I found myself last night with a Dark and Stormy in hand fielding questions from an old friend. We’ll call him Corey, due to him grabbing Corey Kluber in the second round before I had a chance to do so myself.

Corey knows me quite well, and thus knows I generally prefer to avoid Notre Dame football conversations when shooting the breeze. He also knew it could be broached last night—I would have gone so far as to discuss politics if it meant I didn’t have to think about the surplus of stolen bases available this year.

As good of a friend as he may be, he doesn’t read this space. I know as much. He knows I know as much.

That gives me the luxury of parroting our conversation here without him realizing our Notre Dame football chatter can actually serve a purpose for me. His questions may be your questions.

“In layman’s terms, what about [new Irish defensive coordinator Mike] Elko’s defense will be different?”
It is clear Corey caught me in a serviceable mood when I did not simply retort, “Only time will tell.” I first paraphrased a Saturday quote from Irish coach Brian Kelly. This is the internet, though. The space is boundless. Why limit to paraphrasing here?

Kelly was asked how he can tell Elko’s emphasis on turnovers is taking hold with the Notre Dame defense. It can be counterproductive to have defensive backs swiping at the ball every chance they get in practice.

“We’re already doing some things we haven’t done in the past that are going to be reaping benefits for us,” Kelly said. “Defensive line is going to be batting down balls. You’re going to see guys stripping the football, getting the ball out. Those in particular are areas you’re going to start to see on the field, in particular, more turnovers.

“It’s a little more difficult when you’re going against your own team. You don’t want to pull somebody by the jersey and put them in a compromising position while they’re running out while you’re trying to really punch the ball loose.”

Kelly continued by discussing the work being put in on those areas during position group periods. Today (Friday), Kelly elaborated.

“We’ll be better at taking away the football because it’s an emphasis every single day. Last year, before we went to team—and this not better or worse, but this is just a different emphasis—before we went to team, the defense would spend five minutes on pressures. We spent five minutes today before we went to team on stripping the football and getting the football out … Today we spent 25 minutes in different segments during practice on how to get the ball out in different fashions, how to stay on your feet and not jump and getting in the face of the quarterback.”

Furthermore, look for the Irish defensive line to worry less about taking up blockers and more about getting to the ball. The latter may seem like it should always be the objective, but there is value to taking up an extra blocker and granting the linebackers more space to work with.

In Elko’s scheme, less concern will be directed toward maintaining and containing. More will be focused on disrupting and disturbing.

Again, time will tell much more.

Who will start at safety against Temple?
To answer that with any certainty, one has to know who will start at rover: junior Asmar Bilal or senior Drue Tranquill? If the former, as Kelly has indicated given the Owls’ predilection to relying on the run, then Tranquill may be in the mix at safety.

Aside from that, junior Nick Coleman sure sounds to have landed on his feet in moving from cornerback to field safety.

“Our evaluation of Nick Coleman is that he’s going to be a dynamic player at that position,” Kelly said today. “We all know that he possesses the athletic ability. We want to see if he can translate the other skills at that safety position, tackling, picking up the scheme in terms of how you play off the hash.

“Based upon what we’ve seen through seven practices, he won’t be moving to another position. For me to tell you today that he’s our starter, he’s our guy, we need more body of work, but he won’t be moving anywhere else.”

At the other safety position, Kelly said sophomores Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott are in a tight competition.

Back to Tranquill, briefly. Notre Dame posted a brief conversation between him and Elko earlier in the week. In it, the oft-maligned senior provided some noticeable self-awareness of his abilities.

“I’d like to think my characteristics on the field translate off the field,” Tranquill said. “I’m a relentless, hardworking individual who is just passionate about what I do. I love the game of football. I’m a tough guy. I’m really smart. I understand the game out there. I’m able to kind of communicate and move guys around.

“Areas I need to improve on, I’m kind of a bigger safety. My ability to open my hips and move in space is something I’ve consistently had to work at just because I’m bigger.”

“I’ve heard so much about Elko being this defensive savant and he is going to greatly improve our defense from last year. But what has he actually done? Has he developed anybody into great players? NFL players?”
Knowing there was no chance I could list off any NFL products from Wake Forest or Bowling Green, Corey took a satisfied sip of his Moscow Mule. Admitting that personal deficiency, I pointed him toward this space’s brief statistical analysis of Elko’s time with the Deacons against common Irish opponents.

But to the question asked, let’s start with disclaimers: Elko was at Wake Forest for only three years. While he did develop some players (more on that in a moment), the ones he recruited, the ones he had the most chance to mold, are still in school. Before that, Elko was at Bowling Green for five seasons. While that is a stretch more conducive to successfully working with players, one must also recognize the limitations of the talent Bowling Green typically recruits.

Three players from Elko’s tenure at each school have made it to the NFL. More from Wake Forest could still. Looking at the progression of their collegiate statistics, one can glean a few things from some of those six.

Current Detroit Lions linebacker Brandon Chubb’s Deacons career took off when Elko joined the program in 2014. Sure, Chubb made 88 tackles in 2013, good for second-most on Wake Forest’s defense, but only three of those were for a loss and he did not sack the quarterback so much as once. In the following two seasons, Chubb made 216 tackles, including 15 for loss and 3.5 sacks, not to mention another 12 quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles.

Similarly, current Houston Texans cornerback Kevin Johnson did not make a single tackle for loss in 2013. Elko’s arrival likely played at least a part in Johnson’s 3.5 such tackles in 2014 before he was drafted by the Texans with the No. 16 overall pick. In 22 career NFL games, Johnson has a total of 79 tackles.

When defensive tackle Chris Jones entered the NFL Draft in 2013, Bowling Green had not produced a defensive draft pick since defensive back Charles Williams went to the Cowboys in the third round in 1995. The Texans took Jones in the sixth round, presumably partly because of the time he spent in opponents’ backfields the previous three years. Jones produced 44 tackles for loss, including 27 sacks, in his sophomore through senior seasons.

How much of these performances is attributable to the players’ natural skills? How much is due to coaching and development? That is the gridiron version of a nature vs. nurture debate. Working through that philosophical issue is not the objective here. That is to simply answer Corey’s query.

One other statistic jumped out when looking at the six NFL players from Elko’s path. Bowling Green cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah’s tackles jumped from 24 in 2013 to 82 in 2014, the year Elko left for Wake Forest. The Falcons also gave up 1,688 more passing yards in that season, presumably creating more opportunities—and needs—for Adjei-Barimah to bring down ballcarriers. A defensive coordinator’s departure alone does not explain allowing 4,080 passing yards, but it does not help.

“Do you want another drink?”
What a courteous host Corey was. Unfortunately, last night the answer was no. Now, however, well, look at the time.

You know what to do.

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.