Associated Press

Things We Learned: Notre Dame can turn to Book, though may prefer not to

38 Comments

For at least a day, No. 21 Notre Dame could survive without junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. Testing that fate long-term might be a riskier proposition.

Irish sophomore quarterback Ian Book started in Wimbush’s stead during Notre Dame’s 33-10 victory at North Carolina on Saturday. Book completed only 17-of-31 passes for 146 yards and one score, also throwing two interceptions and rushing for 47 yards on 11 carries.

Those statistics certainly qualify as underwhelming — especially the 4.7 yards per passing attempt, compared to Wimbush’s 5.9 to date — but Book did not need to put up dazzling numbers to qualify as a one-off success. He needed to avoid crippling mistakes, he needed to keep the Irish offense on-task and he needed to make a play here or there. That much, Book did.

“He’s a very confident kid,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He overthrew a couple of balls here and there. For a first start, I was really pleased with what he did today. To win on the road is hard to do. The ideal situation is to start at home in a more comfortable environment but I thought he went in and did some really good things for us.”

Even the two interceptions were tolerable. One came from Notre Dame’s own three-yard line. Without many options available, Book heaved a pass downfield for junior receiver Chris Finke. Slightly overthrown, it gifted possession to the Tar Heels at the 47-yard line. Essentially, it served as a punt without the risk of a punt block in the end zone.

The other pick came when Book overthrew fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe. That mistake cost the Irish a red zone opportunity, but it may have been the result of Book’s inexperience more than anything else. To the untrained eye, it looked as if Book expected Smythe to run the route a yard deeper, but Smythe gauged the coverage slightly differently.

Neither turnover qualified as “crippling.”

Wimbush should be back against USC in two weeks. (More on that, and other injuries, in a bit.) Presuming that is the case, Book served the spot starter role well. More than that, though, he showed the potential to carry the load down the line.

His arm is not as strong as Wimbush’s, few are, but it was more than able to get passes into tight windows. Some of that can be attributed to accuracy, a rare sight around the Irish offense with Wimbush at the helm.

Notre Dame frequently got sophomore quarterback and first-time starter Ian Book out of the pocket Saturday to simplify the reads in front of him as well as to play to Book’s strengths as a mobile passer. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Book lacks Wimbush’s big-play running ability, but he was mobile enough to throw on the move. That skill, in fact, played a part in Notre Dame’s 25 first-half passes. From the outset, Kelly wanted to play to Book’s strengths.

“We wanted to mostly take advantage of some of the play-action opportunities to complement our run game,” Kelly said. “It was going to be a run-centered game for us. Getting some high-percentage throws, on the move, where he didn’t have to sit in the pocket and do progression reads across the field.”

The first touchdown pass of sophomore quarterback Ian Book’s career was also the first touchdown at Notre Dame for fifth-year senior and Arizona State graduate transfer Cam Smith. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Those play calls served to simplify Book’s reads and to tilt the field toward his favor. Without Wimbush’s speed, Book’s rollouts-turned-scrambles were never going to gain 30-plus yards, but he frequently took advantage of open space available. Most notably, he ran for nine yards on a second-and-10 from the North Carolina 20-yard-line at the end of the first quarter. Two plays later, Book found fifth-year receiver Cam Smith for the first score of the day. That scramble kept the drive moving forward, preventing a worrisome third-and-long.

Book worked through his progressions well. He knew where his safety valves were. With more time, those skills would only grow, and he would better understand what Smythe sees in a defense.

Book did not play so well Notre Dame hopes he gets that playing time in the near future, but he did play well enough the Irish won’t need to panic should that situation arise.

Wimbush should be back after the bye week. As should everybody else.
Kelly claimed he debated playing Wimbush up until Saturday. The starter looked good Friday, very much wanting to play, but on game day, Kelly did not see the requisite “bounce” in Wimbush’s step as he recovers from a grade one right foot strain.

“Today he just didn’t have it in him,” Kelly said. “He just didn’t feel great. He didn’t have any bounce. Yesterday he looked good in our walk-through preparation and he had a lot of energy. It went back-and-forth.”

In other words, Wimbush should be good-to-go with a bye week’s rest ahead of him. The same goes for junior running back Dexter Williams. He did not even dress for the contest, following the same timeline as sophomore running back Tony Jones did a week ago coming back from an ankle sprain Kelly has compared to Williams’ now.

Junior running back Josh Adams had another short day, partly due to dehydration. Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown also saw limited action thanks to cramping. Anyone worried about senior linebacker Nyles Morgan need not do so: The captain suffered a stinger in the third quarter and was back to full health by game’s end. None of those should linger past, well, past Sunday, frankly.

Senior right tackle Alex Bars suffered an ankle sprain, but Kelly made it clear it was not a high ankle sprain. Traditionally speaking, that is considered a good thing.

But if Bars is out, Hunter Bivin will not be the answer.
When Bars first went to the sideline, fifth-year offensive lineman Hunter Bivin stepped in at right guard, as would be expected. Then Bivin committed two penalties within three plays to knock Notre Dame out of an ideal first-and-goal from the four-yard line. His day ended.

The Irish shifted sophomore Tommy Kraemer from his timeshare at right tackle, allowing freshman Robert Hainsey to take over those duties full-time.

This personnel development is worth remembering for two reasons: Obviously, if the ankle plagues Bars down the line, this will be the alignment deployed. Beyond that, it speaks to Hainsey’s rapid development. If he could not be counted on at right tackle, Kraemer would need to remain there. Bivin would then be the best option available at right guard, no matter how inconsistent he may be.

In the long-run, an argument can be made Kraemer’s best future is at guard. Hainsey’s emergence makes that more of a possibility, one that just might bring the beginnings of a consideration of a smile to Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s face.

Hey, look, that’s Alizé Mack chipping away.

Junior tight end Alizé Mack moved the chains on four of his six catches during Notre Dame’s 33-10 win at North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The junior tight end was targeted 10 times, catching six of them for 38 yards. Just more than three dozen yards and no scores may sound like another underwhelming stat line. That would be too simple of a reading, and an incorrect one.

Four of Mack’s catches yielded first downs, including a fourth-and-one conversion and a third-and-two conversion. This is the consistent production expected of a tight end presenting the target Mack does.

Entering the weekend, he had caught six passes of fewer than 15 yards. Those receptions hold merit, much merit. At North Carolina, Mack matched that total.

Chunks of 32 or 33 yards may be preferable, but they cannot be counted on. Gains of seven, six and even three yards are the plays that keep drives moving down the field.

All good things must end.

CHAPEL HILL, NC – OCTOBER 07: Nick Polino #58 of the North Carolina Tar Heels dives for a fumble forced by Te’von Coney #4 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the game at Kenan Stadium on October 7, 2017 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Two stats had become the preferred methods of illustrating just how different these Irish are from last year’s version. Notre Dame had scored on all 22 trips to the red zone this season, and the Irish had scored touchdowns after 10 of 11 forced turnovers, the one exception coming less than a minute before halftime.

Both storylines became cluttered this weekend. A trip to the red zone resulted in one of Book’s aforementioned interceptions. That stat line now stands at scores on 24 of 25 trips with 21 touchdowns. It remains hardly something to scoff at.

Of the three Tar Heels turnovers, only one resulted in any Notre Dame points, and that was just a field goal. Nonetheless, the Irish have now outscored their opponents off turnovers by a whopping margin of 73-10.

C.J. Holmes joins the running back fray.

Junior running back Deon McIntosh played a key part in Notre Dame maintaining possession for 12:16 of the fourth quarter. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

If sophomore running back Deon McIntosh continues to turn mop-up duty into a starring role — taking 12 carries for 124 yards and two touchdowns against the Tar Heels — then freshman C.J. Holmes will be stuck as the fifth running back on Notre Dame’s depth chart. However, a week ago that designation would have been nominal only. Now, it is a sincere description.

Holmes took eight carries for 32 yards in his first collegiate action, also participating on at least three of the Irish kicking units.

With Adams, Williams and Jones all tending to battered ankles already, Holmes may be needed yet this year, fifth running back or not.

Kevin Stepherson, three others no longer on Notre Dame roster

Getty Images
10 Comments

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

Associated Press
6 Comments

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?

rivals.com
23 Comments

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

Getty Images
14 Comments

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.)