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Four defensive positions to watch in Notre Dame spring game

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Entering spring, question marks riddled Notre Dame’s defense. What is a rover? Who will play on the defensive line? Do the Irish have enough big bodies to fill the defensive line? What about athletes at safety?

Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game (12:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network on the NBC Sports App) will provide fans a glimpse at some of those possible answers.

What four defensive players/positions should fans be most focused on? Let’s start with that much-discussed, about-to-finally-be-seen rover position, a focal point in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme.

ROVER: Drue Tranquill and Asmar Bilal
The lessons learned here this weekend should be applied more to the position than to the individual players. Senior Drue Tranquill and junior Asmar Bilal will both contribute at the safety-linebacker hybrid position, though it increasingly sounds like it is more linebacker than safety.

Theoretically, the rover provides the defense additional flexibility when compared to a traditional linebacker. Tranquill, for example, is plenty well-built at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, but he still provides better coverage abilities than a third linebacker such as junior Te’von Coney might. Bilal, at 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, offers a bit better coverage option than a Coney or sophomore linebacker Jonathan Jones would, and much better run-stopping tendencies than a safety such as sophomore Devin Studstill’s. At least, that is the theory.

In practice, what will the rover’s primary assignments be? Admittedly, this may change on a week-to-week basis depending on an opponent’s strengths, but Notre Dame’s offense should present many looks and opportunities for Tranquill and Bilal to showcase the position’s unique nature. When the Irish offense trots out three receivers and a tight end like graduate student Durham Smythe, the rover will need to either cover Smythe, sophomore “slot” receiver Chase Claypool or account for the possibility of a running back coming out of the backfield. One way or another, the rover will be tested.

In that hypothetical, it is more likely one of the senior linebackers—captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini—covers the running back, leaving the unenviable option of Claypool or Smythe (or any one of Notre Dame’s other tight end options) for the rover.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow

For the sake of sample size, hopefully the Irish coaching staff puts one of the two in blue and the other in white, rather than symbolically designating them as 1A and 1B by keeping both in white. That roster alignment—usually seen as an “OR” on the depth chart in the fall—may be more accurate, but it would be more worthwhile to see a full set of snaps from each. Especially considering how Kelly has touted Bilal as the likely option against run-based teams, perhaps placing him on the second-unit defense this weekend could present a worthwhile experience, facing a solid backup offensive line blocking for either junior Dexter Williams or sophomore Tony Jones.

DEFENSIVE END DAELIN HAYES
Yes, the sophomore gets his own entry on this list looking at four positions. He has, after all, seemingly secured a starting position as the rush-side/weakside defensive end. Throughout the spring, only praise has followed Hayes’ name when mentioned by Kelly or any other coach, but they also caution with discussion of his need to understand more fundamentals.

“He’s a great example of him taking his level of focus and understanding of the position up a couple of levels,” Kelly said of Hayes on Wednesday. “The position is new to him this spring in the sense that he dabbled at it a little bit, but this is really a new position for him…

“Taking on blocks, dropping into coverage, paying attention to those details that go with the position so when he gets to that first game, I think you’re going to see a player that has improved dramatically because he’s really paid attention to those kinds of things.”

Hayes arrived at Notre Dame as a five-star recruit, according to rivals.com. The tools are there, but if Hayes does not utilize them, the Irish do not have much in the way of options behind him.

RELATED READING:Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

Saturday, he will face a stout challenge, one possibly tougher than most he will face in the 2017 season. Graduate student left tackle Mike McGlinchey is an NFL prospect. Some thought he could have, maybe should have, entered the NFL Draft this year. Hayes will need to excel to get around McGlinchey. If he doesn’t, the summer will need to be spent continuing to learn those techniques and fundamentals.

OPPOSITE DAELIN HAYES: Andrew Trumbetti or Jay Hayes?
Many neighbors and a number of “borrowed” cups of sugar would be necessary to sugarcoat the lack of depth on Notre Dame’s defensive line. Kelly may continue to laud the position group’s strengths and potential, but it is still spring and that is exactly what a head coach is supposed to do in the spring. The rest of us can wonder who will start at strongside defensive end.

Senior Andrew Trumbetti entered this spring as the frontrunner by default thanks to 26 tackles last season. From the first spring practice, Kelly praised Trumbetti, in part thanks to the revamped Irish weight room program.

“We think he’s in a stronger position to handle the rigors of that position, in particular the strongside,” Kelly said. “When he wasn’t holding his weight in the manner we needed him to, that would have been more of a concern, but we feel really good about where he is right now.”

RELATED READING: Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

Classmate Jay Hayes was certainly in the mix, but he had not made enough of past opportunities (10 tackles in 2016) to warrant more chances. This spring, however, Kelly has mentioned Hayes (no relation to the aforementioned sophomore) with greater frequency. If he makes an impression Saturday, suddenly Notre Dame may have more of a defensive line presence than figured all spring.

For that matter, if senior tackle Daniel Cage can log a notable number of snaps with genuine productivity, it would be an excellent indicator moving forward. Cage has struggled to return to form following a concussion last season, but a return to full-strength would bring not only another body but also experience to the defensive line.

Two-thirds of the Irish defense could be considered strengths. Starting two senior captains at linebacker—three if you count Tranquill at rover—bodes well. There might be too many quality cornerbacks, believe it or not.  Safety has some question marks (see the next section), but overall could contain some unexpected quality play. Up front, though, remains shallow and unproven. If Trumbetti and/or Hayes manages to perform well Saturday, that greatest concern may be mitigated by half.

THE SECOND SAFETY: Elliott or Studstill?
Junior cornerback-turned-safety Nick Coleman seems to have claimed the starting position at field safety, but who will line up with him, Jalen Elliott or Devin Studstill? The two rising sophomores both saw playing time in all 12 games last season, but neither played so well as to stake a claim to a first-team role this year. Per Kelly on Wednesday, only those three are currently operating at a level which he would feel comfortable playing, adding Tranquill could fit that distinction in “certain situations.”

Junior Nicco Fertitta is playing with an injured left wrist, and would be the next one in at the position. After him, sophomore D.J. Morgan and early enrollee freshman Isaiah Robertson round out the group.

RELATED READING: Friday at 4: Four Defensive Questions (March 31)

If neither Elliott nor Studstill impresses Saturday, Kelly may further ponder the possibility of moving a cornerback to safety. He initiated the thought Wednesday, emphasizing right now it would be only a situational ploy.

“We’ve got some flexibility with maybe another corner giving us down-and-distance work back in the safety position, as well,” Kelly said. “If it’s third down, we’ve got five corners and we like our corners. We can insert a corner and maybe one of those corners can go back and play half. Not a run-fit guy, but maybe a half-fit player.

“When we’re talking about those situations, we’re talking about maybe playing two-man and playing half over the top, a ball hawk.”

Aside from those specific spots, though, either Elliott or Studstill will need to join Coleman.

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online: ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: USC and Stanford lost the most in early departures to NFL

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Notre Dame’s roster fared better than was anticipated when it came to players entering the NFL draft with remaining collegiate eligibility. Left guard Quenton Nelson was always expected to take the leap, as any possible top-five pick should. Running back Josh Adams may have considered returning to the Irish, but logic sent him to the pros, as well. Receiver Equanimeous St. Brown long seemed to be leaning that way.

Those were not surprises.

Getting both linebacker Te’von Coney and Jerry Tillery to return was a bit of a shock, and a welcome one for head coach Brian Kelly and his staff.

Of Notre Dame’s 2018 opponents, a few saw top-flight talent depart. Their coaches had assuredly hoped, with varying degrees of reasonability, such players would stay. These losses lower a team’s ceiling, but it does not necessarily spell trouble. USC will not altogether mind quarterback Sam Darnold hearing his name called early in the first round if incoming freshman — and reclassified recruit, at that, having actually been only a junior in high school this fall — J.T. Daniels proves to be the better coming of Matt Barkley.

Speaking of the Trojans, they lead a listing ordered by obvious impact lost:

USC: Not much more really needs to be said about Darnold. His 2017 was filled with stellar comebacks necessitated by poor decisions.
— Receiver Deontay Burnett: With 86 catches for 1,114 yards and nine touchdowns in 2017, it made sense for Burnett to test the next level. Eight of those catches went for 113 yards and a touchdown against the Irish. He had 56 catches for 622 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago.

Ronald Jones (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

— Running back Ronald Jones: Finishing his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and 39 career rushing touchdowns, Jones proved plenty at the college level. Notre Dame bottled him up this October, but he gashed the defense for 134 yards and a score on only 16 carries in 2016.
— Defensive end Rasheem Green: His final season with the Trojans featured 12.5 tackles for loss, including 10 sacks, amid 43 tackles.

Stanford: The Cardinal lost the core of its defense, but the early departure cost could have been much worse. Junior running back Bryce Love returned for another season, waiting until after the declaration deadline to make his decision public.

— Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips: Rarely does a defensive tackle lead his team in tackles, and rarely does a defensive tackle total more than 100 tackles. Phillips led the Cardinal with 103 tackles including 17 tackles for loss with 7.5 sacks. Stanford genuinely loses a force with his exit.
— Safety Justin Reid: Only Phillips made more tackles for the Cardinal than Reid’s 99. He added five interceptions and six more pass breakups. Against the Irish in November, Reid managed nine tackles, one sack and one pass breakup.
— Cornerback Quenton Meeks: Stanford lost its fifth-leading tackler, as well, with Meeks taking his 65 tackles away, along with two interceptions and eight pass breakups.
— Tight end Dalton Schultz: He could be a physical presence in the NFL, although he also displayed strong hands throughout his career, finishing 2017 with 22 catches for 212 yards and three touchdowns.

Florida State: The Seminoles may have had a disappointing season, but there was still plenty of talent on the roster. The defense, especially, held up its end of the bargain. Some of that left, but keep the talent pool in mind when Florida State is undoubtedly hyped in August.
— Safety Derwin James: The Seminoles’ No. 2 tackler with 84, including 5.5 for loss, James also tallied two interceptions with 11 pass breakups.
— Defensive end Josh Sweat: Trailing James, Sweat made 56 tackles, highlighted by 12.5 for loss with 5.5 sacks, adding 3 pass breakups to the slate.

Auden Tate. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

— Defensive end Jalen Wilkerson: Only 19 tackles may not jump off the page, but six of them were for loss.
— Cornerback Tarvarus McFadden: Providing strong coverage no matter whom Florida State faced, McFadden complemented 30 tackles with 10 pass breakups.
— Receiver Auden Tate: At 6-foot-5, Tate turned a quarter of his 40 catches into touchdowns. His 548 receiving yards were second on the team.
— Tight end Ryan Izzo: His 20 catches were not necessarily that many, but Izzo’s 317 receiving yards and three touchdowns were each third on the team.

Virginia Tech: If noticing an imbalance tilted toward defensive players heading to the NFL throughout this list, that reflects football as a whole. The League is willing to invest in defenders. Most offensive playmakers are seen as a bit more replaceable. On the college level, the best defenses carry teams to the College Football Playoff (see: Clemson), thus getting those individual stars more attention and raising their draft prospects.
— Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds: The Hokies’ leading tackler with 109, Edmunds also managed 14 for loss while notching 5.5 sacks.
— Safety Terrell Edmunds: Virginia Tech’s No. 5 tackler with 59, Edmunds added two interceptions and four pass breakups.
— Defensive tackle Tim Settle: 36 tackles with 12.5 for loss and four sacks this year.

Pittsburgh: The Panthers have made a habit of tripping up a top-ranked team each fall. Losing three contributors will not help that cause, but head coach Pat Narduzzi will certainly have Pittsburgh ready to go Oct. 13.
— Offensive tackle Brian O’Neill: After starting 13 games at right tackle a year ago, O’Neill moved to left tackle with little trouble in making 12 starts this season.
— Safety Jordan Whitehead: The Panthers’ No. 3 tackler, Whitehead added four pass breakups and an interception to his 60 tackles.
— Receiver Quadree Henderson: Only 17 catches for 186 yards is hardly something to speak of, but Henderson did return two punts for touchdowns this season and averaged 20.96 yards per kick return.

Jessie Bates (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Wake Forest: Wherever safety Jessie Bates goes in the draft, Irish fans should take note. His development under former Demon Deacons and then Notre Dame and now Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko was exceptional. Elko may be gone, but his scheme remains. Any version of such development at safety could be the final piece to the Irish defense in the fall.

Healthy throughout 2016, Bates made 100 tackles with seven for loss and picked off five passes. Injuries slowed him toward the end of 2017.

Michigan: None of the other 2018 opponents had players head to the NFL before they had to, but it warrants mentioning the Wolverines didn’t in part because they had 11 drafted in 2017.

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.