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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Georgia, Miami & Navy remain undefeated; one of those to be tested this week

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Three Irish opponents remain undefeated and all three are favored to win again this week. Overall, Notre Dame’s foes went 7-4 last weekend, not counting the Irish victory over Miami (OH), and they are expected to replicate that again.

Temple (2-3): Consider any Owl conference championship hopes dashed. Temple now stands 0-2 in the American Athletic Conference this season thanks to a 20-13 loss to Houston. That score was much more lopsided entering the fourth quarter, when the Owls outscored the Cougars 10-0.

Three interceptions from junior quarterback Logan Marchi make it seven picks in two weeks for Temple’s quarterback. The Owls also had great difficulty on third downs, converting only four of 16 attempts.

A possible win at East Carolina this weekend (12 p.m. ET, ESPNU) will cleanse some of that taste from Temple’s mouth, but it will not do too much as it pertains to longer-termed goals. The spread favors the Owls by 2.5 points with a combined point total over/under of 62, indicating a final score of 32-29.

Georgia (5-0): This space would need much less editing each week if it were kept simpler. Something along the lines of: “The Bulldogs defense stifled [insert opponent here], forcing X turnovers while the Georgia rushing attack powered the offense to a YY-Z victory.”

Georgia freshman quarterback Jake Fromm has not excelled statistically, but he has not lost as a starter and, thus, will likely keep his job even when sophomore Jacob Eason returns to health. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

In this instance, the Bulldogs defense stifled Tennessee, forcing four turnovers and tilting the time of possession toward Georgia’s favor by 10 minutes. The Bulldogs rushing attack powered the offense with 294 yards en route to a 41-0 victory.

Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm completed 7-of-15 for only 84 yards, one touchdown and one interception, but his game management was certainly enough to likely keep sophomore Jacob Eason on the bench even though Eason is nearing health, apparently.

Vanderbilt will be Georgia’s next victim (12 p.m. ET, ESPN). The Bulldogs are 17.5-point road favorites with an over/under of 42, hinting at a 30-13 conclusion.

Boston College (2-3): Freshman quarterback Anthony Brown did not wow — quite the opposite, actually, with 14-of-21 passing for 85 yards and a touchdown — but the Eagles topped Central Michigan 28-8 thanks to 224 rushing yards and three Chippewa turnovers. Those yielded zero points, but they at least cut short Central Michigan drives.

Boston College will face a much stauncher test this week, and a much more motivated opponent, for that matter. Virginia Tech takes to the road following a season-altering loss to Clemson. Favored by 16, the Hokies are expected to win 32-16. (7:15 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

Michigan State (3-1): The Spartans took care of business against Iowa, and not a whole lot more can be said. Michigan State topped the Hawkeyes 17-10, led by Brian Lewerke. The junior quarterback completed 18 of 28 passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns while adding 42 yards on 12 rushes.

Remember a few weeks ago when Notre Dame ran right through the Spartan defense? That same unit held Iowa to all of 19 rushing yards.

Similar defensive success will be needed at Michigan (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC) to overcome an 11-point underdog status. The over/under of 41 points makes for a 26-15 hypothetical score. This will not be a trendy upset pick this week, and it probably shouldn’t be, but that is something to at least think about before Saturday.

Miami (OH) (2-3): Obviously, the RedHawks lost to the Irish 52-19, unable to contain the Notre Dame rushing attack.

They will likely be able to contain Bowling Green’s entire offense. The Falcons have yet to win a game this season, part of why Miami is favored by more than two touchdowns. Look for a 34-20 final, by the bookmakers projections, though a larger spread seems more likely.

North Carolina (1-4): The Tar Heels’ season has officially gotten away from them. A loss to Georgia Tech was expected. A 33-7 defeat was not. North Carolina has yet to beat an FBS-level opponent aside from Old Dominion.

The Tar Heels gave up 403 rushing yards and were outgained 456 yards to 247. Just how thorough was the Yellow Jackets’ game control? They had possession for 38:35.

Speaking of dangerous rushing attacks, here comes Notre Dame’s at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC. As of Tuesday morning, the Irish are favored by 16 points with an over/under of 64.5. By those numbers, file away a 40-24 prediction. Then remember the Irish defense has yet to allow 20 points this season and realize that alone could lead to a larger margin of victory.

USC junior quarterback Sam Darnold’s fumble on the Trojans final drive sealed the 30-27 loss. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

USC (4-1): The Trojans fell at Washington State on Friday, 30-27. The night saw junior quarterback Sam Darnold set a new career-low in passing yards, failing to reach the previous mark set against Notre Dame in 2016. Darnold finished 15-of-29 for 164 yards against the Cougars while USC’s defense allowed 462 total yards. That offensive success may have best shown itself in Washington State’s 8-of-18 third down conversions and 35:27 of possession.

Darnold can look to boost his statistics this weekend as the Trojans host Oregon State (4 p.m. ET, Pac 12 Network). USC is not favored by five touchdowns, rather only 34 points with an over/under of 61. The thought of a 47-14 rout may be alluring to coach Clay Helton’s team, but any spread that large against a Power Five opponent should be viewed with skepticism.

North Carolina State (4-1): A 33-25 win over Syracuse may not speak of a promising future to come for the Wolfpack, but that score was skewed by the Orange notching a touchdown and a two-point conversion with fewer than five minutes remaining.

North Carolina State gained 206 yards through the air along with its 256 on the ground, the latter quite a number when compared to Syracuse’s 59 rushing yards. To continue the time of possession theme this week, the Wolfpack had control of the ball for 36:29.

Now comes a second major test of the season — the first being a win over Florida State. Louisville visits the Wolfpack on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). As four-point underdogs, expect North Carolina State to come out on the high side of a 34-31 projected final.

Wake Forest (4-1): The Demon Deacons’ dream season fell apart with less than a minute remaining against Florida State. A 40-yard touchdown pass gave the Seminoles a 26-19 win, despite Wake Forest senior quarterback John Wolford completing 24 of 34 passes for 271 yards.

The Demon Deacons’ shortcoming came in the ground game, taking 34 rushes for only 96 yards, a 2.8 yards per carry average. They just could not quite put Florida State away.

On one hand, another opportunity arrives quickly. On the other, that opportunity is even more difficult. Wake Forest heads to No. 2 Clemson (12 p.m. ET, ESPN2) as three-touchdown underdogs. The over/under of 47 projects to a 34-13 final.

Miami (FL) (3-0): A season interrupted by Hurricane Irma gained momentum with a 31-6 victory at Duke on Friday. Only leading 17-6 entering the fourth quarter, Miami never let the Blue Devils make it too much of a close contest.

Duke attempted 42 passes, gaining only 166 yards. Its longest completions were for 28 and 27 yards, no other passes exceeding 20 yards.

For a better litmus test, the Hurricanes head to Florida State this weekend (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). Despite it being a road game in a very hostile environment, Miami is favored by 3.5 points with an over/under of 48. A 26-23 final would be closer than probably should be expected.

Junior quarterback Zach Abey has led Navy to a 5-0 start to the season, next to be challenged by Air Force.. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Navy (4-0): For a little bit Saturday, the Midshipmen looked ready to toss aside an undefeated season, falling behind Tulsa 14-0. Then, they merely scored 31 unanswered points to cruise to a 31-21 victory led by junior quarterback Zach Abey’s 36 rushes for 185 yards and three touchdowns. Malcolm Perry and Chris High also played pivotal roles in the rushing game (10 carries for 104 yards and a score; 13 rushes for 89 yards, respectively) as Navy gained a total of 421 yards on the ground.

Navy is going to Navy, it seems.

Now, it hosts Air Force (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network), favored by 7.5 points. The Midshipmen should come out ahead 30-22 by the metrics cited so often here.

Stanford (3-2): [Insert Bryce Love praise here.] Aside from the Cardinal junior running back, though, it was something of an underwhelming performance despite it ending in a 34-24 victory against Arizona State. Stanford gave up 214 rushing yards on 46 carries, a 4.7 Sun Devils average.

Life will get a bit more difficult for the Cardinal and Love will have his altitude fitness tested at Utah (10:15 p.m. ET, FS1). Favored by just less than a touchdown with an over/under of 55, Stanford is expected to prevail 31-24.

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.)