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The business decision of ‘the best quarterback in the draft’

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The headline in these parts was—Kelly on Kizer: ‘He’s got all the tools … He needs more football’

Irish coach Brian Kelly would rather it have read something along the lines of, “Coach Kelly sees Kizer as the best quarterback in the draft” or “Kelly sees Kizer as having great character.” Neither would have been an inaccurate description of Kelly’s comments regarding former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer from a Monday afternoon interview on SiriusXM radio.

“Whatever was interpreted, I have a great deal of positive feelings for DeShone,” Kelly said Friday. “I think he’s the best quarterback coming out. I think that everybody that comes to Notre Dame would benefit from another year when they don’t have their degree and could use college football to season themselves. DeShone’s not in that category by himself.

“I think he has great character. I named him a captain. So for that to be seen any other way but positive … but it wasn’t and there’s nothing I can do about it. I think the world of DeShone and I think he’s going to be a great quarterback in the NFL.”

With that straightforward follow-up to the comments from earlier in the week, let’s take another look at some phrases from those remarks. Monday and Tuesday were spent focusing on what Kelly actually did say and mean with context. With that settled, taking a look at periphery points seems the logical next step. Call it a day-two story delayed.

‘BUSINESS DECISIONS’
Immediately following the phrase that turned Twitter into a sniping forum, Kelly explained Kizer’s decision to turn professional with two years of college eligibility remaining.

“The circumstances are such that you have to make business decisions,” Kelly said. “He felt like it was in his best and interest, and I’m going to support him and his decision.”

At any other position, Kizer’s decision may have made poor business sense, but a quick look around the NFL explains the logic for a quarterback. In the span of one drink, 21 starting quarterbacks can be identified as some form of stalwarts (Rodgers, Brady), entrenched veterans (Manning, Flacco) or intriguing prospects (Wentz, Mariota). That leaves 11 teams pondering their future passers.

Again, in the span of a drink, seven more teams can be written off as featuring just-paid question marks (see Mike Glennon; Chicago Bears), balancing injury dilemmas (Teddy Bridgewater/Sam Bradford; Minnesota Vikings), or tolerating serviceable solutions (Ryan Tannehill; Miami Dolphins). Admittedly, some of these designations were given generously, but that was by intention to support the argument.

Finally, and this may necessitate internet access more than a third drink, looking around at the NFL’s backups, perhaps six more worthwhile options present themselves.

With great reach, that makes 35 quarterbacks in the NFL worthy of taking snaps. Note: This less than three dozen includes the likes of Derek Anderson, Drew Stanton and Trevor Siemian. It does not include Brock Osweiler. That is what happens when you are the centerpiece of a history-making deal based on cash considerations.

If Kizer—or any of the other quarterbacks in this draft—can outperform the next 29 quarterbacks, he will set himself up as a backup. That is not a bad gig. If he can outperform four of the current backups (the aforementioned three, plus Jimmy Garoppolo, Paxton Lynch and Nick Foles), Kizer would positon himself to be a starter-worthy NFL quarterback.

That is not an opportunity to pass up. That is an opportunity to chase the moment it is presented. There are simply not enough quarterbacks to provide quality play at the position in the NFL. Teams will back up the armored truck to find someone who can fill that void. Again, look at the Bears.

This is not meant to start a conversation on Kizer’s viability as an NFL starter now or in the future. That has already been debated plenty this week. The only resolution on that debate will come no earlier than five months from now, possibly not until five years from now.

This is meant to illustrate why the business decision may have been a smart one.

‘SUFFICIENTLY SUPPORTED’
Kelly acknowledged other former Irish players who turned pro with eligibility remaining, not just Kizer. For that matter, not just Kizer and show host Brady Quinn.

Quinn began the interview by asking Kelly about Kizer and his pro day. In his response, Kelly brought up the question asked most often of Kizer during this buildup to the draft.

“He’s got to answer the questions that everybody’s asked about being a 4-8 quarterback and certainly, can he lead a football team?” Kelly said. “My response to all that is, ‘Look at what he did as a redshirt freshman when he was sufficiently supported around him with a Will Fuller and a C.J. Prosise and the balance that he had.’”

Kelly, of course, was referring to Notre Dame’s 2015 season and the large number of departures following its 10-3 finish. Kizer made a similar point when he was interviewed at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis in early March.

‘INSIDE THE IRISH’ MARCH MADNESS POOL
Here is a public kudos to Dennis, apparently otherwise known as rocket1988 in these parts, for winning the March Madness pool. His entry of “Brey Brey’s Kids” had only one Final Four team correct—the accurately-picked eventual champion North Carolina. Not exactly the strongest performance by anyone involved.

Your host finished back in 40th position. Not so terribly as to fall onto the third page of rankings, but disappointing, nonetheless. To my eye, fortunately enough, I knew no one in the top three.

MY OWN TARDINESS
There is an innate flaw to naming a seemingly-recurring piece after a particular time on a specific day. A week will come when instead of writing the majority of that bit the night before, one instead opts to head to a local establishment to watch a hockey game. Then, a Brian Kelly press conference delays catching up on the needed work Friday morning. Suddenly it is 4 p.m. CT. Posting when most on the East Coast and many in the Midwest are leaving their offices for the weekend runs counter to any acknowledgements to corporate desires regarding page views.

Thus, alas, this will post Saturday morning. I do not aim to make excuses. I am, after all, the one who named the seemingly-recurring piece after a particular time on a specific day. But given the Saturday posting, understand the deviation from a usual “Friday at 4” headline.

If you needed this post Friday afternoon to know what to do Friday at 4 p.m., well, then I profusely apologize. Blame Thursday night’s debate regarding what grouping of quarterbacks should include Ryan Fitzpatrick of the New York Jets. That did require a third drink.

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.