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And In That Corner … The injured Tar Heels of North Carolina

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Notre Dame’s trip to North Carolina may never have been the most-daunting road trip on the 2017 schedule (that’s likely to be Nov. 11 at Miami), but few expected the Tar Heels to be slogging along at 1-4 come the first week of October. That is the case, nonetheless. To figure out how and why North Carolina has struggled so much thus far, let’s pepper Andrew Carter of The Charlotte Observer with some questions …

DF: First off, thanks for taking the time to help Irish fans know what to expect this weekend. How long have you been covering the Tar Heels?
AC: Since November of 2011. This is my sixth full football season.

From this distance, two storylines seem to sum up North Carolina’s year. One of those actually points to last year — all that was lost from the offensive side of the ball. Obviously, quarterback Mitch Trubisky went No. 2 in the NFL Draft, but much more talent went out the door, as well. By my count, four of last year’s top-five receivers departed and all four of the Tar Heels’ top-four rushers left (if including Trubisky). Just to toss out a few more names Notre Dame fans will remember, Ryan Switzer led those receivers and Elijah Hood played a key role in that rushing game.

Is that exodus to fault for North Carolina struggling to score the last two weeks, with 17 points against Duke and seven at Georgia Tech? What underlying issues are handicapping the Tar Heel attack?
There are two primary reasons why the Tar Heel offense is struggling. The first is all the departures you mentioned. North Carolina lost its starting quarterback, its top three receivers, its top three rushers and two of its best offensive linemen from last season. Several of those players were among the best in school history at their positions: Trubisky at quarterback, Switzer at receiver, Hood at running back, and the list goes on. Secondly, the Tar Heels have been decimated by injuries.

Even if North Carolina remained healthy, its offense would have faced a difficult rebuilding year. But, the Tar Heels have not been healthy. They have been anything but healthy. The offensive line has been a bit of a patchwork mess during the first month of the season. The best lineman there, senior left tackle Bentley Spain, missed all of one game with a hand injury and most of another, and he’s probably still not at full strength. Several others have been banged up, as well.

Then-junior receiver Austin Proehl caught 43 passes for 597 yards and three touchdowns last season, but a left arm/shoulder injury ended his 2017 after only four games with 16 catches, 270 yards and one touchdown. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Injuries at receiver have become comically absurd (as much as injuries can be). North Carolina lost its top three receivers off last year’s team … and then it lost three of its best receivers during the first four games this season. Among them are senior Austin Proehl, the only returning receiver who played a large role last year, and junior Thomas Jackson, the only other returning receiver with double-digit catches last season. And then sophomore Rontavius Groves, arguably the Tar Heels’ most-talented young receiver, suffered a season-ending knee injury in his first collegiate game, after recovering from … a different knee injury.

It’s not difficult to surmise the hows and whys of North Carolina’s failures on offense. It lost a ton of production from last season, and since then it has endured hard-to-believe misfortune with injuries. With the injuries up front and at receiver, it has been difficult for the Tar Heels to establish any kind of rhythm.

Despite those issues, sophomore quarterback Chazz Surratt has put together some decent numbers, throwing for 988 yards and five touchdowns with a completion rate of 63.3 percent, seemingly ending LSU transfer Brandon Harris’ career. Is that latter assumption a safe one?
I think that’s probably fair. I’d be surprised if Brandon Harris spent any significant time at quarterback the rest of the season, barring a Surratt injury (which, the way things are going on that front …).

North Carolina sophomore quarterback Chazz Surratt has rushed for four touchdowns to complement his five scores through the air. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora won’t come out and say this — not yet, anyway — but at some point it becomes common sense to start planning for the future and do what’s best for down the road as opposed to what might lead to relatively minimal improvement this season. The Tar Heels have probably already arrived at that point. I do think Harris could help North Carolina in the short term, but how much would that really be worth? An extra win, maybe?

The Tar Heels are not going to win their division this season. An upper-tier bowl game is already out of the question. Harris will be gone after this season, while Surratt will have three more years of eligibility remaining. It would not make much sense to play Harris, while Surratt could use this time as an opportunity to develop and gain some valuable experience.

With that in mind, what kind of future does Surratt project to have in Fedora’s system?
A pretty good one, assuming he improves his arm strength. Surratt is plenty mobile and he seems pretty durable, but the offense is a bit limited with him right now because he doesn’t have the ability to stretch a defense vertically with his arm, not that he necessarily has healthy receivers to target downfield, anyway.

North Carolina has kept its playbook pretty basic with Surratt, which is understandable given he’s seeing his first playing time. Another offseason or two in the weight room adding strength could do wonders for Surratt, because all the other skills and intangibles are there.

The other storyline would be the Tar Heels’ struggling defense. Perhaps I am being overly harsh, but then again, North Carolina has given up 35.5 points per game against four FBS-level opponents. Is it really that, uhhh, bad?
The defense has actually improved the past two weeks, though the numbers don’t bear it out. Against Duke, the defense kept the Tar Heels in it and gave North Carolina a chance until Surratt threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Another interception in the third quarter turned the game Saturday during the Tar Heels’ loss at Georgia Tech.

Player attrition and injuries have affected the defense, as well. It lost its best lineman from last season, Naz Jones, now with the Seattle Seahawks. One of the team’s best cornerbacks, Des Lawrence, was a senior.

This season, already, North Carolina has lost starting middle linebacker junior Andre Smith for the season, and one of its most talented defensive lineman, junior Jalen Dalton, hasn’t played in three weeks.

So no, the defense hasn’t been especially good, but it’s kind of a less dramatic version of the offense in terms of the injury situation. Exacerbating the defensive issues, when the Tar Heels’ offense is bad, it puts a huge strain on the defense — even more so than what a “normal” team could expect, given how abnormally quickly North Carolina attempts to operate its offense.

The Tar Heels use an up-tempo spread. When it’s going three-and-out several times per game, the defense has no time to rest. Eventually that adds up, and in the fourth quarters of all four North Carolina losses, the defense was exhausted. That’s the defense’s fault, in part, for not getting off the field on third down earlier in the game (and that’s been a huge problem), but the offensive woes certainly play a role, too.

Again, removing the statistics from the Tar Heels’ 53-23 victory over FCS-level Old Dominion, opponents have had equal success rushing and passing against North Carolina, averaging 251.75 rushing yards per game and 252.75 passing yards per game. Presuming the Irish rely on the run as common sense and recent history would indicate, do the Tar Heels have the personnel to sell out to stop Josh Adams & Co.?
Probably not, honestly. I’d expect this game to follow a similar script as North Carolina’s losses against Louisville and Duke. I think the Tar Heels can keep it close for a while, maybe for a half, even three quarters. Then their inability to sustain offensive success — combined with the lack of depth and inability to generate stops on third down on defense — will take its toll. If the fourth quarter does not completely belong to Notre Dame, it would be a surprise, based on everything UNC has shown to this point.

It will likely take more heroic efforts like this for the Tar Heels to challenge Notre Dame this weekend. Plus, this is just a cool photo. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Presuming the spread closes around 16 or 17 in Notre Dame’s favor (or even 13 or 14 if Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush is ruled out), can North Carolina realistically keep it that close? I imply a blowout largely because of the Notre Dame rush offense vs. the Tar Heels rush defense. Perhaps I am very much off-base.
I don’t think you’re off-base.

I appreciate the agreement. While we’re at it, how about a score prediction?
I think something in the 40ish to 20ish range sounds about right.

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.)