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Notre Dame makes quick, easy work of USC

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — A lot can change in 11 months. Five days fewer than that ago, USC ended Notre Dame’s miserable 2016 season with a 45-27 rout. The No. 13 Irish turned the tables Saturday, dispatching the No. 11 Trojans to the tune of a 49-14 trouncing.

Following the 2016 finale, Irish coach Brian Kelly challenged his team to think about the work needed to change the program’s trajectory. If they were up for it, then buckle up.

“I just said the rebuild starts here right now. Everything that we need to do is a commitment that you’ll have to make,” Kelly recalled following the redeeming victory. “So you’ve got a couple weeks, whether you want to be back here because it’s going to be very difficult. You’re going to have to make a 100 percent commitment to bringing this program back.

“And they did.”

At least by the metric of beating USC, Notre Dame left no doubt. Turnovers played a large part in the final result, but they played only a part, unlike the seemingly-comparable 38-18 victory over Michigan State back on Sept. 23. The Spartans hung with the Irish in most facets of the game, but turnovers were their ultimate undoing. The Trojans did not hang with Notre Dame, not in the least. The Irish outplayed them in nearly every aspect of the game.

Notre Dame outgained them 497 yards to 336, and outrushed them 387 yards (adjusting for sacks) to 104. USC did not score until the second half, by then already trailing 28-0.

“Credit their football team and their coaching staff for the job they did,” Trojans head coach Clay Helton said. “They came out and executed I thought a flawless game plan. Started with their run game. They were extremely physical tonight.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Sometimes it is most important to take what is given to you. Irish senior linebacker Drue Tranquill did just that when USC punt returner Jack Jones muffed a second-quarter punt inside his own 10-yard line. Having beaten his blocker, Tranquill pounced on the loose ball. This wasn’t an excellent play by Notre Dame. This wasn’t a great piece of scheming. This was simply an opportunity grasped.

“The turnovers, obviously, were key for us in the first half,” Kelly said. “And being opportunistic, which really has been what we’ve been all year, offensively.”

Three plays later, Adams found the end zone from three yards out and the Irish didn’t actually need any more points than that 21-0 lead.

At this point, if there is enough time before the end of a half, it should nearly be taken for granted the Irish will produce following a turnover. As much as 17 turnovers to date are a testament to the defense, the resulting 13 touchdowns and a field goal are a credit to the offense making the most of those chances. (Two of the remaining three turnovers came in situations where Notre Dame drained the clock.)

“When they take away the ball, you just get so excited,” said Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who finished 9-of-19 passing for 120 yards and two touchdowns along with 106 rushing yards and two more scores. “Coach Long wants to be aggressive and call a play, usually a shot. The offense has done a great job of turning around and putting points on the board after the defense does a great job.”

Tranquill’s fumble recovery was a gift, a welcome gift. Converting that into a touchdown, rather than a field goal, deflated any USC hopes and only furthered Notre Dame’s momentum.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
USC nearly halved the Irish lead in the second quarter’s opening moments. If not for a minute detail within NCAA rules and the correct implementation of it by the officials, the Trojans very well may have.

Trailing only 14-0, USC faced a third-and-four from the Notre Dame six-yard line. Trojans junior quarterback Sam Darnold took the snap and rolled toward the left, soon pursued by Irish sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara. With full extension of his body, Okwara brought down Darnold for a 10-yard sack, seemingly ending any Southern Cal hopes of finding the end zone.

Flag on the play.

Notre Dame sophomore safety Jalen Elliott had been called for defensive holding. Typically, if a defensive back is flagged for that particular penalty, it leads to an automatic first down. Yet the referees granted USC half the distance to the goal and a third-and-one. Junior running back Ronald Jones tried up the middle, but Irish senior linebacker Nyles Morgan met him in the backfield. Trojans kicker Chase McGrath missed a subsequent 27-yard field goal attempt.

The NCAA rule is defensive holding results in an automatic first down only on passing plays. By the letter of the law, a sack is not a passing play. Thus, USC’s red zone possession was shortened appropriately. (The argument can be made defensive holding leads to the sack. It is a valid argument, but it also heads down the subjective path of differentiating between a sack and a quarterback-designed run.)

In the end, Okwara does not get credit for the sack. The play never happened, statistically. But because he chased down Darnold and wrapped him up with a dive from behind, USC had only one down to gain a yard rather than four downs to gain three. When McGrath missed his field goal, Okwara’s sack had turned a likely seven points into zero.

Notre Dame punted on its following possession. That punt was mishandled and recovered by Tranquill, leading to the above turning point.

PLAY OF THE GAME
The second Irish touchdown stands out as much for the decisive two-possession lead it created as for who scored it. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson made a twisting back-shoulder grab for the 23-yard catch, his second reception of the season and first moment reminiscent of his breakout freshman season.

Rather, the first moment through the air. Stepherson had already taken two first-quarter end-arounds for 24 rushing yards, each gaining a first down. Kelly said earlier this week Stepherson would be more involved in the game plan moving forward — after sitting out the season’s first four games and taking some time to recalibrate to game speed in the next two — and those rushes certainly showcased Stepherson’s speed.

“[I’m] proud of guys like Kevin Stepherson, who has been in Siberia mostly this season and comes out and really impacts the game,” Kelly said. Stepherson finished the day with three catches for 58 yards to go along with those two carries for 24 yards.

The catch clearly featured Stepherson’s hands, perhaps an underrated aspect of his game. While it wasn’t the first score, the back-breaking score (Wimbush’s seven-yard touchdown run in the third quarter) or even the points that would provide the winning margin, Stepherson’s tally resulted from the first genuine Irish drive of the day. At that point, it was clear Notre Dame would not have much trouble scoring against the Trojans. Considering it was the second touchdown in only eight minutes (plus a one second), it set the foundation for a rout, a rout that indeed came to fruition.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
For someone splitting time with a senior captain up until now, and only seeing more action because of that captain’s injury, junior linebacker Te’von Coney had an excellent ballgame. It would have been a career day for most any Irish defender.

With Greer Martini sidelined recovering from a slight meniscus tear, Coney finished with 11 tackles, including a sack and another for loss, and a forced fumble he recovered himself on USC’s first snap. That fumble began when the snap caught Darnold off-guard and higher than expected, but he had about gathered himself when junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery was in the backfield. Tillery could not get the ball from Darnold, nor could sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes, but they both kept Darnold off-kilter.

When Coney got to him, he quite literally grabbed the ball out of Darnold’s hands. Calling it a fumble would be disingenuous. The ball was never uncontrolled. Coney simply took possession of it. This was part of the Irish plan.

“We know that [Darnold is] really loose with the ball, so just attack was the plan,” said sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem, who finished with two sacks and received the game ball. “Be physical with him.”

Coney did just that. Three plays later, Wimbush found junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown for a 26-yard touchdown and a lead that would not be relinquished.

Coney repeatedly found the ballcarrier, made four additional tackles within a yard of the line of scrimmage and showed a capacity to handle an increased workload.

STAT OF THE GAME
Pick from a few. Notre Dame won the turnover battle three to zero. All three of those became touchdowns.

The Irish sacked Darnold five times, with Daelin Hayes and senior defensive end Jay Hayes joining Kareem (2) and Coney in the action. Notre Dame made five more tackles for loss.

QUOTE OF THE EVENING
Junior running back Josh Adams gained 191 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries, including an 84-yard dash that halted USC’s second-half momentum after the Trojans scored on each of their first two third-quarter possessions. Up until then, Adams had been relatively quiet. At that point, the highlights and hype began anew.

“Here’s what I know, we’re going to play some really good football teams the rest of the year,” Kelly said. “Maybe everyone should just wait until the end of the year and vote for the Heisman.”

That sounds even sensible.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
12:45 — Notre Dame touchdown. Equanimeous St. Brown 26-yard completion from Brandon Wimbush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, USC 0. (3 plays, 51 yards, 1:04)
6:59 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Stepherson 23-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, USC 0. (10 plays, 79 yards, 3:19)

Second Quarter
7:43 — Notre Dame touchdown. Josh Adams three-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, USC 0. (3 plays, 9 yards, 0:36)
3:54 — Notre Dame touchdown. Wimbush four-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 28, USC 0. (7 plays, 59 yards, 3:08)

Third Quarter
10:00 — USC touchdown. Steve Mitchell five-yard reception from Sam Darnold. Chase McGrath PAT good. Notre Dame 28, USC 7. (12 plays, 77 yards, 5:00)
6:06 — Notre Dame touchdown. Wimbush seven-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 35, USC 7. (8 plays, 65 yards, 3:54)
3:26 — USC touchdown. Deontay Burnett 16-yard reception from Darnold. McGrath PAT good. Notre Dame 35, USC 14. (6 plays, 73 yards, 2:40)
3:07 — Notre Dame touchdown. Adams 84-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 42, USC 14. (1 play, 84 yards, 0:19)

Fourth Quarter
13:17 — Notre Dame touchdown. Adams 14-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 49, USC 14. (5 plays, 52 yards, 1:37)

Nick Watkins announces transfer from Notre Dame

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With the announcement from fifth-year cornerback Nick Watkins he will seek a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, it may seem the Irish cornerback depth is taking a massive hit. It was actually that depth that likely spurred Watkins’ decision.

The Texas native announced his decision to transfer Thursday afternoon on Twitter.

“When I decided to attend Notre Dame, my primary goal was to earn a degree from this prestigious University,” Watkins wrote, “and I’m proud to say that I’ll achieve that goal.”

Watkins started nine games in 2017 before knee tendonitis slowed him, giving now-junior Troy Pride an opening to take the lead role opposite junior Julian Love. Pride played well and has continued that progress this spring, knocking Watkins from a starting role. Furthermore, senior Shaun Crawford saw some time at cornerback this spring, rather than focusing solely on nickelback, creating even more viable competition at cornerback.

Thus, Watkins will head elsewhere after making 37 career tackles in 35 games with the Irish, including 29 tackles last season with eight pass breakups and one interception. Watkins missed all of his junior season with a broken arm. Since he will graduate before transferring, Watkins will be immediately eligible wherever he ends up.

Notre Dame will also have four more cornerbacks joining the fray this summer when incoming freshmen D.J. Brown, Noah Boykin, Joe Wilkins and Tariq Bracy arrive.

The Irish roster still sits at a projected 87 scholarships for the coming fall, two over the maximum allowed by the NCAA.

Avery Davis’ move bumps Notre Dame’s RB depth from dire to versatile

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It may not be what Avery Davis always imagined, but his move to running back at least gets him on the field in a Notre Dame jersey. From a practical standpoint, Davis offers more than just running back depth amid a depleted Irish backfield. His move from quarterback to running back/receiver creates a new possibility of playmaking. That concept was the primary reason the sophomore welcomes the position switch rather than dreads it.

Davis’ motivations are that pure and simple. After spending the 2017 season preserving a year of eligibility and watching quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book both prove more than capable, Davis could see his chances at quarterbacking for Notre Dame dwindling. The prospect of another year with a similar view was not one to which he looked forward.

“I love the quarterback position, I’ve played it my whole life,” Davis said following the Blue-Gold Game. “But that redshirt season, to be standing on the sidelines knowing you could make an impact, knowing you could make plays, that pushed me into this.

“… What I’m really trying to do is help the team however I can.”

The Irish coaching staff’s motivations are undoubtedly as pure, regarding helping the team however Davis can, but one may wonder if the move would have happened if not for the dismissal of half the running back depth chart following the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU. Regardless, Notre Dame had a need, and Davis’ natural skills can now help fill it.

“It was a mutual understanding,” Davis said. “… I knew they were serious, because I was serious, too. Week two [of spring practices] I got my chance and that’s when it started clicking.”

By the end of spring practice, Davis had pushed his way firmly into the running back rotation, with a few cameos at receiver, as well. He finished the Blue-Gold Game with 30 rushing yards on 11 carries and 24 receiving yards on two catches, to go along with 2-for-2 passing for 26 yards in the closing moments.

The presence of a viable rushing and receiving threat plays right into the hands of Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long’s preferences. The mere presence of Davis on the field will put defenses into compromising positions. At least, that will be the theory.

It will likely not be long into the season when Davis first lines up in the backfield before motioning into the slot position, thus exposing more of the defense’s blitz and coverage intentions, if not outright forcing adjustments to them. Not long after that, Davis will at some point line up wide only to take a jet sweep a la Cam Smith in 2017’s first month and Kevin Stepherson in the latter half of the year.

These are the dilemmas created by a multi-dimensional threat such as Davis appears to be. Sure, it was just the spring game, but it showed the wrinkles he can create. No one else currently among Notre Dame’s running backs or receivers offers such a variety. Sophomore receiver Michael Young may come the closest, but his frame is not designed for the beating of a running back’s workload.

Nor is Davis’ at this point, necessarily, but he knows as much.

“It’s just more of a physical toll on your body,” he said when asked of the greatest difference from the quarterback position. “You take more hits. That’s something that comes with being in the weight room.”

Atop Davis’ offseason to-do list is add more muscle across the chest and in the shoulders. Next will be to work on his routes and pass-catching skills. As far as reading the defense’s approach, quarterback prepared him for that. His focus is now slightly different, looking for gaps at the line rather than gauging coverage holes, but the underlying skills are the same.

Along with the potential poised by Davis’ position switch and the inherent disclaimers attached to any spring successes, two more aspects of the sophomore’s future should be explicitly noted. First of all, he does not let slip even the slightest misgiving about the move from football’s glamor position. Davis knew what the Irish depth chart looked like when he arrived at Notre Dame, and he knew who had already committed in the following class in consensus four-star Phil Jurkovec.

“When it comes down to it, I love playing the game,” Davis said. “Wasn’t too hard for me. It was a personal decision.

“It was a decision to come here, and I’m living with it. I’m really happy with it, to be honest.”

Secondly, this is a move the Irish coaching staff is committed to, but it retains the right to work Davis in at quarterback. Even Jurkovec’s arrival is unlikely to knock Davis from the spot of No. 3 quarterback to be deployed in emergency situations, lest Jurkovec burn a year of eligibility to offer a quarter’s worth of work.

“The conversation we had with Avery is, what do you want to do?” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “If you want to stay [at quarterback], right now it looks like it’s 1A, 1B, and you’re 3. You can stay in that position, or we think you’ve got some talents to help our offense. He wanted to do this.

“He doesn’t want to give up his ability to play quarterback down the road, but in the meantime, you need to play this year. This gives him that opportunity.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS/IS AT RUNNING BACK:
Without Davis and the move of sophomore Jafar Armstrong from receiver, the Irish had two upperclassmen and an early-enrolled freshman at running back this spring. Each of senior Dexter Williams (pictured above) and junior Tony Jones have shown the physical ability to be a loadbearing ballcarrier in the past, but neither has stayed healthy enough to grant peace of mind if in that role. Depth was needed.

Specifically in reference to Williams, Kelly acknowledged past restrictions due to Williams’ durability, or lack thereof.

“How long can you stay on the field?” Kelly said Saturday. “He seemed to be a guy that we couldn’t keep on the field very long. He had a really good spring. He wasn’t a guy that we had to pull out or wasn’t conditioned well enough.”

Much like Davis, Armstrong’s emergence this spring soothes some of those concerns. In the Blue-Gold Game, he finished with 48 yards on five carries along with one catch for 21 yards, showing decent quickness with a burst that will become only more decisive with more experience.

Armstrong should be more than capable of replacing Deon McIntosh as the No. 3 or 4 running back who can offer some modicum of production. In time, he could certainly become more than that.

Early-enrollee Jahmir Smith did about what one would expect from a high school senior taking part in collegiate practices, and that is meant as a compliment, but by no means did he lay the groundwork to force his way into the rotation by September.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE:
The Irish will welcome C’Bo Flemister as a sixth running back in the fall. Presuming health of the top four (Williams, Jones, Davis and Armstrong), Flemister should join Smith in spending a year in strength and conditioning, perhaps adding some special teams work. More likely, though, at least one of that initial quartet will suffer a plaguing injury, if not something worse, and the freshmen duo could be a sprained ankle away from being activated, just as C.J. Holmes was halfway through 2017.

ONE MORE NOTE, NFL DRAFT-WISE:
The NFL draft begins tonight (Thursday). Former Notre Dame running back Josh Adams will not hear his name called in the first round, but it is likely his name comes up Saturday, somewhere between late in the fourth round and the end of the sixth round.

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.