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Monday Morning Leftovers: Notre Dame’s defensive depth and youth bodes well for the future

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Despite featuring a rout settled by the end of the first quarter, this weekend produced some thoughts which did not quite fit into the immediate coverage of Notre Dame’s 52-17 victory over Miami (OH). Wait, that’s the whole point of this weekly piece. Funny the way that works.

The sophomore defensive ends keep coming.
The spring and preseason buzz focused on Daelin Hayes, justifiably so. Hayes has totaled 12 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack and two fumbles recovered already this season. His athleticism has shown through time and time again, but he is not alone as an up-and-coming sophomore defensive end.

First came Julian Okwara, earning some notice in the season’s initial third with five tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble in the first four weeks. He did not have an extensive chance to add to those numbers this weekend, because the Irish coaching staff turned to the reserves earlier than usual. Even Hayes notched only one tackle, though it was two yards into the RedHawks backfield.

“We were able to get up big and so a lot of our developmental guys were able to get reps and that really shows the direction of our program,” junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery said. “I’m so excited watching guys who have been through it all with us get in and get reps.”

Irish sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem (53) has emerged as a genuine option in the Notre Dame rotation at the position, providing unexpected depth at what was supposedly a weak spot entering the season. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

In this instance, the reserve who made the most of his reps was Khalid Kareem, making two tackles, including an eight-yard sack toward the end of the third quarter.

“Khalid is really emerging in so many ways,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “Physically in the weight room, his numbers are off the charts in terms of what he’s been doing. He’s just physically coming into his own. Very trustworthy in terms of what he’s doing day-to-day with [defensive line coach Mike Elston]. He’s earned his playing time.”

Kareem looked every bit the part of a Division I pass-rusher. With seniors Andrew Trumbetti and Jay Hayes (no relation) still large factors in the defensive end rotation, Kareem’s chances this season may be limited to blowouts and occasional pass-specific situations. Entering the season, though, the idea of a rotation so deep a viable contributor would see only sporadic chances would have been a concept completely foreign to Irish expectations.

Te’von Coney may “break out” next season, but don’t be fooled. It has already happened.
Junior linebacker Te’von Coney made only four tackles against Miami, three coming in the first half.

Watching the first few RedHawks drives, this scribe made a note of Coney’s performance, entirely expecting to include a mention of Coney’s evening in postgame coverage. The final stats sheet, however, showed him tied for fifth in tackles Saturday. Two of those ahead of him are the two senior linebackers with whom Coney both splits time and exchanges the season lead in tackles on a week-to-week basis.

Nyles Morgan made seven tackles Saturday, raising his total through five games to 41 to lead Notre Dame. Greer Martini had five takedowns, now with 34 on the year. Coney’s four this weekend brought his tally to 36, including two tackles for loss and one sack.

Coney catching the eye early yet not necessarily getting the statistical shine goes to show how much of an effect he is having overall. With both Morgan and Martini in their final season of eligibility, next year likely will be referred to as Coney’s “breakout season.” That will be too easy of a description, and short-sighted, at that. He has already broken out, even if only in shared playing time.

Chuck Martin’s return to Notre Dame did not go as the Miami coach may have hoped on the field, but he was pleased with everything off the field surrounding both programs. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Chuck Martin on Campus Crossroads
The former Irish assistant took the head coaching job at Miami long before any construction began at Notre Dame Stadium. His return to campus thus not only included reunions with friends all around — he specifically mentioned seeing 40 ushers he used to interact with daily or weekly — but also a look at a venue with some pretty thorough changes.

“I love what they did with the renovations,” Martin said. “I hadn’t been in it until yesterday. Totally different.

“They obviously hit a home run. Inside, outside, the whole deal. That part is cool.”

Continuing the Justin Yoon record watch
The junior kicker went 1-of-2 on field goal attempts Saturday. If Yoon makes three of his next seven attempts, he will set the Irish record for career percentage. Seven more attempts will be needed, no matter if he sends his next three kicks through the uprights, to officially reach the record’s minimum of 50 attempts.

Small, but unusual, gesture from Kelly to McGraw
Between the first and second quarters Saturday, Notre Dame recognized women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw for her induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. McGraw and her team took the field toward one of the end zones.

Kelly left the Irish sideline to spend a moment congratulating McGraw in person. It was a small thing that would go largely unnoticed, but it is also unexpected to see any football coach tend to something non-football in the middle of a game.

Georgia’s defense is good at the football thing.
Per the SEC Network’s Cole Cubelic, the Bulldogs have forced 26 three-and-outs this season, second-most in the country.

Seven of those came against Notre Dame. An eighth does not count toward that total, but it was in fact more impressive. That would be the final Irish drive of that 20-19 loss, when Georgia forced a Brandon Wimbush fumble on the third play of the drive, a different version of a three-and-out, if you will.

Bryce Love is also good at the football thing.
The Stanford junior running back ran for more than 1,000 yards before it came time to turn on Green Day’s fall anthem.

Sure, it was a quirk of the calendar that allowed Love’s first grand to come within September, but to run for 1,088 yards in five games is absurd, no matter what month or months those games come in.

UPDATE: Fighting Amish tossed a question into the comments regarding Love’s running rampant.

“I know Bryce Love has been racking up the yards but I haven’t seen anything overly impressive. I’m not saying that he isn’t a talented back but … is there any way of checking how he did in the two losses vs. how good those defenses rank nationally against the run?”

Yes, yes there is a way. It just takes some time spent with Stanford’s box scores and the NCAA statistics page.

Against Rice, Love gained 180 yards on 13 carries. The Owls rank No. 35 in the country in rush defense, giving up 122.2 yards per game. If removing the Stanford game, Rice has given up 81 yards per game, which would be No. 7 in the country.
USC — 160 yards on 17 carries — No. 67 rush defense with 147.2 yards allowed per game. Removing the Stanford game, the Trojans defense has given up 141.5 yards per game, which would be No. 62 in the country.
San Diego State — 184 yards on 13 carries — No. 47 rush defense with 131.0 yards allowed per game. Removing Stanford, the Aztecs have given up 120.25 yards per game, which would be No. 33 in the country.
UCLA —263 yards on 30 carries — No. 125 rush defense with 284.2 yards allowed per game. Removing Stanford, the Bruins have given up 254 yards per game, which would be No. 122.
Arizona State — 301 yards on 25 carries —No. 96 rush defense with 190.9 yards allowed per game. Removing Stanford, the Sun Devils have given up 155.5 yards per game, which would be No. 74 in the country.

Fighting Amish included, “Everyone scores big points on Rice and UCLA. Has he even played a legit defense?”

No one else runs against Rice, and San Diego State and Arizona State have average to better-than-average defenses. Love is doing this against genuine competition as often as not.

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. Obviously, this development drops that number to 83. 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.

Seven early enrollees set a new Notre Dame high, but will they make an impact?

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Notre Dame does not lean on high school seniors to enroll a semester early, yet seven did so this year, a program high. By no means does the head-start guarantee an immediate impact. As discussed in Monday’s Leftovers, only four of the 14 early enrollees in the last three years made notable contributions their freshmen seasons.

Such a return indicates at least one of these seven will make an impact in 2018, and quite possibly two of them. In an attempt to predict that, the seven are listed below in order of likelihood of altering a game this year, dictated by positional need creating opportunities more than anything else.

As will be the case all offseason, when speaking of depth chart holes, one position stands out as the most needing rapid improvement, safety.

Consensus four-star defensive back Houston Griffith
Griffith may end up a cornerback, but the Irish are well-stocked there at the moment. His first chance to contribute will come at safety, something Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly did not rule out when Griffith (and the rest of these) signed in December.

For that matter, coverage duties can lead to a freshman missing a step. Playing the catch-all role of boundary safety may better suit an athlete like Griffith.

And, again, the Irish need safeties.

Consensus four-star linebacker Jack Lamb
Notre Dame also needs linebacker depth, even with junior Te’von Coney opting to return for his senior year. The reserves on the roster in 2017 did not inspire much faith moving forward. That could change, but Lamb seems just as likely to jump into the second-string of the depth chart.

Lamb may not yet be ready for much in the way of coverage duties, but he already has the physique to hold up in a physical matchup, and the early arrival will only further that cause. With a deep recruiting class at the position — including three early enrollees — defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea will have options to test out. Lamb simply seems the most likely to emerge as the leader of the inexperienced majority at linebacker.

Bo Bauer (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star linebacker Matthew “Bo” Bauer
If it is not Lamb who earns playing time spelling Coney, it could be Bauer. Like Lamb, Bauer fits best against the run.

This early emphasis on linebackers is a reflection of the distinct need for depth. Current sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) have not claimed a primary role for themselves, and the recruiting emphasis at the position this cycle points to a general letdown with freshmen David Adams and Drew White.

Someone in the mix will need to step forward. By enrolling early, Lamb and Bauer have given themselves a bit more time to make that impression.

 

Micah Jones (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones
The need at receiver is much less; though unproven, there are options. Nonetheless, that uncertainty creates an opportunity for Jones’ big frame. Offensive coordinator Chip Long has already shown a preference for big bodies at receiver, so that alone should play in the 6-foot-5 Jones’ favor.

This past spring, Long toyed with the idea of Equanimeous St. Brown, Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin as his starting receivers. Those latter two are still around. Even if Jones does not create another towering trio, he could backup either Claypool or, more likely, Boykin without creating much of a change for a quarterback’s reads.

This spring will give Jones time to learn the playbook and develop the needed consistency for that possibility. In a receiving corps proven to be inconsistent this past season, any version of reliability may be enough for Jones to break through.

Consensus three-star running back Jahmir Smith
Irish recruiting director and special teams coordinator Brian Polian raved about Smith in December. Every word Polian said may have been warranted, but it will still be difficult to crack the presumed trio of sophomore Tony Jones, junior Dexter Williams and freshman C.J. Holmes. They will take up the carries, no matter how aggressively Long splits the duties.

Kelly did note he would not hold back a running back simply because he is a freshman. If the back is ready, cut him loose. It is unlikely a productive back would stay for a fifth year, anyway. (See: Adams, Josh.) However, Jones preserved a year of eligibility in 2016 despite generous praise consistently offered his direction, so Kelly’s sentiment may deserve some healthy skepticism.

Consensus three-star linebacker Ovie Oghoufo
Oghoufo does not arrive as heralded as either Lamb or Bauer, or summer enrollee consensus four-star Shayne Simon, but he will have his chance this spring all the same. That is what happens when a spot needs a playmaker. One freshman will almost assuredly be needed for depth.

More likely, Oghoufo will use the added time to get some heft onto his frame. Albeit speedy, his slightness stands out when compared to the other linebacker recruits.

Rivals.com four-star tight end George Takacs
Notre Dame simply does not have a pressing need for a tight end. Recruiting Takacs was a forward-looking decision. He will be the fourth tight end this spring, with freshman Brock Wright presumably limited as he recovers from a shoulder injury. None of the three ahead, or Wright, are anything akin to slouches.

Unless injuries and/or suspensions run rampant, Takacs is a prime candidate for a season spent preserving eligibility.

RELATED READING: Kelly on the offensive signees
Kelly on the defensive signees

Notre Dame’s 2018 defense bolstered with Coney & Tillery returns

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Notre Dame’s defense found some stability last week with the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston to associate head coach following Mike Elko’s abrupt departure, but only some stability.

That foundation is much more solid now after the Irish announced the returns of both junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery on Monday.

Both Coney and Tillery enjoyed noticeable developmental progress in one year under Elko.  Coney totaled a whopping 116 tackles to lead Notre Dame, far and away his best season. Among those takedowns, he managed 13 for loss, including three sacks. Tillery, meanwhile, led the Irish with 4.5 sacks this season, adding another 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Notre Dame’s defensive tackle situation may have bordered on dire if not for the return of junior Jerry Tillery. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With Lea and Elston sticking around, Coney and Tillery are well-positioned for even further growth. If nothing else, they will step into starring roles in a rather complete front seven.

Notre Dame loses senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, as well as senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner and senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. If Coney and Tillery had joined that group, the front seven would have been rife with unproven commodities and little depth. Instead, Coney will fill in at linebacker, meaning only one youngster will need to step forward, and Tillery will headline a defensive line surging under Elston.

After amassing 17 tackles in the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, Coney insisted he had not yet put much consideration into his future.

“I’m just right now still focused on the win,” he said. “We just got this 10th win. I’m just trying to soak up the moment. This is a great moment. … Focusing on that and the win and enjoying it with my brothers.”

Those words combined with Elko’s sudden departure for Texas A&M made Coney’s return seem unlikely. His breakout season at least placed him into NFL draft conversations and capitalizing on that chance would have made a good amount of logical sense.

With Lea in his ear for another season, Coney will have a chance to become more than a physical player excelling in run defense and develop his coverage skills. Coney and senior Drue Tranquill will lead an otherwise lacking linebacker corps.

Sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) made 10 and four tackles, respectively, this year. Jonathan saw more playing time on defense, occasionally spelling senior Nyles Morgan, but has not yet looked the part of an every-down contributor. Irish coach Brian Kelly has previously admitted to considering a move to defensive line for Jamir, but that unit’s progression made that position shift less of a necessity.

If any of the incoming four linebackers or the two current freshmen, David Adams or Drew White, were to emerge, however, such a move may become an available luxury. Only Tillery’s return makes it a genuine luxury, though.

Tillery’s 56 tackles this year showed a level of consistency not seen in his first two seasons. His length alone makes Tillery an intriguing draft prospect. Logically speaking, a second season of such production, if not even increased output, should further his professional hopes. By returning along with Elston, the player/coach combination will provide experience to a position group otherwise devoid of it. With Bonner having said he will not return, Tillery and current freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are the only returning defensive tackles of contributory note.

Freshman Darnell Ewell will also certainly enter the rotation after spending 2017 preserving a year of eligibility. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will be in the mix, as well. Incoming freshmen consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademiloloa (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) and consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin (North Caroline High School; Ridgely, Md.) will complete the fray.

Reports on Monday indicate junior Elijah Taylor will leave Notre Dame after missing 2017 with a LisFranc fracture suffered in spring practice. He appeared in four games in 2016, making four tackles including one for loss. More than anything else, his departure is a step toward reaching the NCAA maximum of 85 rostered players. With Coney and Tillery returning but Taylor departing, the Irish roster currently stands at 86 players, though a few more recruits may be added. (This does not count sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, indefinitely suspended and presumed not likely to play for Notre Dame in 2018.)