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Notre Dame stifles North Carolina throughout 33-10 victory

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Notre Dame did not quite have a bye week before its scheduled week off, but the Tar Heels presented such a little challenge, one can be forgiven for making that mistake. Even without junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, the No. 21 Irish (5-1) never trailed in a 33-10 victory at North Carolina (1-5) on Saturday, outgaining the Tar Heels 487 yards to 265. As Wimbush spent the week on the sidelines due to a strained right foot, sophomore quarterback Ian Book got his first career start.

“All in all, to go on the road and win by 20-plus points for a third time this year, I’m really pleased with our guys in terms of their mental preparation and how they go on the road and attack this,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “It is hard to do, really hard to do, and I’m proud of them.”

Through a quarter, North Carolina played Book and Notre Dame even in one regard and only one regard: the score. The Irish had 146 total yards to the Tar Heels’ seven. Notre Dame had rushed for 57 yards, while North Carolina lost eight on the ground. Book completed eight of his 11 passes in the opening frame. One of the two teams had the ball for 11:37 of the quarter — go ahead and guess which — yet the contest remained scoreless.

Book changed that on the first play of the second quarter, connecting with fifth-year senior receiver Cam Smith from six yards for Book’s first career touchdown and Smith’s first at Notre Dame. After a quick Tar Heels three-and-out, Irish junior running back Josh Adams romped 73 yards to give the Irish enough scoring they could have stopped then. Adams finished with 118 yards on only 13 carries, again seeing only abbreviated time due to both a lopsided score and his own wear-and-tear.

PLAY OF THE GAME
Let’s give that nod to Adams’ long touchdown run. It has become something of a weekly feature. In this instance, the left side of Notre Dame’s offensive line opened up quite a hole, the workhorse shed one tackler, and it was off to the races.

HONORABLE MENTION PLAY OF THE GAME
On the third quarter’s third play, North Carolina quarterback Chazz Surratt dropped back from his own 21-yard line, looking for a quick route to convert a third-and-four. He thought he saw an option.

Instead, Irish sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara batted the pass into the air with his right hand, located it above his head and pulled in the interception. Since Surratt made a tackle after a five-yard return to prevent a touchdown, Okwara’s first career interception may not make every highlight reel, but the athleticism displayed deserves that showcasing. (See the 1:00 minute mark of this video.)

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
If the Tar Heels had simply lined up Surratt directly behind his center and plunged forward just before halftime, they could have gotten the ball to start the second half down a mere touchdown. Instead, North Carolina attempted a long pass out of the shotgun. Notre Dame sophomore safety Jalen Elliott could not track down Surratt’s overthrown pass. Tar Heels disaster seemingly averted. North Carolina coach Larry Fedora had other plans in mind.

On second down, they lined up in shotgun again. This time, they opted to try a running play. Perhaps the Tar Heels offensive line was unaware time remained on the clock, because it hardly tried to block Irish junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery or senior defensive end Jay Hayes. The two wrapped up running back Jordon Brown in the end zone with no doubt whatsoever he had returned to the goal line.

“We threw the ball down the field,” Fedora said. “We thought we could get a double move on the guy and we didn’t.

“Then what I wanted to do was get out of the half without any problems. We were going to run a basic zone play and we turned some guys loose and they hit us in the backfield.”

It may have been a terrible play call, but the North Carolina offensive line also should have blocked better. The two-point safety returned Notre Dame’s lead to two possessions.

If that did not deflate the Tar Heels entirely, Okwara taking away the ball to start the second half certainly did.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
The Irish began a late first-quarter drive at their own 20-yard line. Seven plays in, they had advanced to just past midfield, facing a fourth-and-one. A drive earlier, in the exact same situation, a Book quarterback sneak did not come near gaining the needed yardage, yet  Kelly doubled down on the fourth-down attempts, going for it again.

Book completed a crossing route to Notre Dame junior tight end Alizé Mack. With the yards Mack gained after the initial catch, the 13 yards not only notched the first down but also pushed the Irish that much further into North Carolina territory.

It took another seven plays for Book to connect with Smith for the afternoon’s first score. By then the fourth-down conversion was already just a piece of a long drive. It was that call, though, that kept the drive alive.

More than reflecting an aggressive philosophy in agreement with analytics, the two early fourth-down attempts showed a lack of respect for the Tar Heels offense. Frankly speaking, that dismissiveness was warranted, considering North Carolina gained an average of 3.8 yards per play.

“The sense that I got was that we were going to be stingy defensively today and I am very confident in our offense,” Kelly said.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Rather than a player, how about a unit? How about a position group long-expected to be a debilitating weakness in 2017 but has instead become a spot of distinct strength? How about the Notre Dame defensive line?

Okwara’s interception and the Tillery/Hayes safety were but the most notable highlights. Sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes (no relation) also recorded a sack and two quarterback hurries. Tillery added two more quarterback hurries and Jay Hayes pressured Surratt once more, as well.

The Irish defensive front controlled the point of attack all afternoon. A month ago, predicting that would have elicited only laughter. Now, it is a reality and one that sets up the entire Notre Dame defense for continued success.

STAT OF THE GAME
The Irish entered the weekend having converted all 22 of their trips into the red zone this season, 20 of those for touchdowns. Book’s pass to Smith continued that streak. A third-quarter field goal from junior kicker Justin Yoon pushed it to 24, though diluting the seven-point percentage.

Book ended the run with an interception from the 18-yard line in the third quarter. The Irish did not return to the red zone after that.

Without Wimbush’s rushing, converting in the red zone became a bit more difficult. In the season’s first five games, seven of those 20 touchdowns had been Wimbush rushes. As suitable as Book appeared in the passing game and as well as he managed the offense overall, losing that dynamic playmaking in the close quarters of the red zone was a noticeable drop-off between him and Wimbush.

SCORING SUMMARY
Second Quarter
14:54 — Notre Dame touchdown. Cam Smith six-yard reception from Ian Book. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, North Carolina 0. (15 plays, 80 yards, 4:57)
12:38 — Notre Dame touchdown. Josh Adams 73-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, North Carolina 0. (2 plays, 73 yards, 0:17)
1:50 — North Carolina touchdown. Anthony Ratliff-Williams 25-yard reception from Chazz Surratt. Freeman Jones PAT good. Notre Dame 14, North Carolina 7. (6 plays, 47 yards, 1:49)
0:28 — Notre Dame safety. Jay Hayes with a tackle for a one-yard loss. Notre Dame 16, North Carolina 7.

Third Quarter
11:15 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon from 29 yards. Notre Dame 19, North Carolina 7. (7 plays, 5 yards, 2:47)
6:41 — Notre Dame touchdown. Deon McIntosh 35-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 26, North Carolina 7. (2 plays, 46 yards, 0:28)

Fourth Quarter
14:11 — North Carolina field goal. Freeman from 34 yards. Notre Dame 26, North Carolina 10. (16 plays, 56 yards, 4:31)
9:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. McIntosh 24-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 33, North Carolina 10. (11 plays, 75 yards, 5:06)

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.)