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Things We Learned: Without a passing game, Notre Dame is not *there* yet

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Seven years ago, the Notre Dame men’s basketball team began the season with eight consecutive wins before falling to No. 17 Kentucky in Freedom Hall in Louisville, Ky. Then a freshman seeing his first collegiate action, point guard Eric Atkins was asked what he learned about the Irish in the loss.

“I learned that we won’t be undefeated this year,” he replied.

It was tongue-in-cheek, it was the only answer he offered, and it was accurate.

In No. 3 Notre Dame’s 41-8 loss at No. 7 Miami on Saturday, we learned the Irish will not be going to the College Football Playoff this season. So long, dreams of New Year’s Eve in Los Angeles and a balmy afternoon at the Rose Bowl. You made life tolerable for a few weeks.

Notre Dame won’t be in the Playoff because its struggling passing game could be hidden for only so long. It will adjust its view to finishing in the CFP selection committee’s top 12 because the one-dimensional offense could not stand up against a defense featuring speed. It will spend the next few weeks discussing abstract concepts such as pride, what we’ve built and tradition because sometimes a buzzsaw awaits you, and sometimes that buzzsaw comes complete with a raucous fan base ready to throw a rager.

At some point, the Irish were going to need to pass successfully and efficiently. They couldn’t.

Since the overhand nadir of the Boston College rout, Notre Dame’s aerial attack has gradually progressed. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush was beginning to look like he could look the part. To paraphrase ESPN basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla, Wimbush was a month away from being a month away.

That timetable could have been quick enough. He would have been rounding into form just in time to face an SEC defense in a national semifinal. (Sigh, Pasadena, you will haunt dreams for weeks, won’t you?)

His difficulties were exacerbated by his receivers’ drops. Even those, though, spoke of better things to come. Surely talents like junior Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomores Chase Claypool and Kevin Stepherson would not keep losing track of sure-catches for long. Perhaps they won’t, but they did at Hard Rock Stadium.

The Irish needed the passing game to keep Miami honest. Sooner or later, that would be the case. With that time arrived, the passing game was not ready at all, not even a little bit.

Wimbush and sophomore Ian Book combined to finish 13-of-27 for 152 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. Both St. Brown and Claypool each had at least one notable drop. Go ahead and point out the first-quarter pass to St. Brown was off-target high. It was, but it still went off his hands to the Hurricane defender. That qualifies as both receiver and quarterback error.

Add in the five sacks allowed for 21 yards, and Notre Dame spent 32 plays to gain 131 yards, an average of 4.09 yards per snap, with 19 of those going for zero yards, negative yards or a change of possession in Miami’s favor.

“It’s a full-team responsibility,” Irish fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “Interceptions and turnovers are a part of the game. There’s no one man. It’s a team effort. It doesn’t matter who is turning the ball over.

“I can probably protect better on those interceptions. I know the rest of the [offensive line] would say the same.”

McGlinchey is correct, but the onus does not lie on him. It lies with a passing game that was still far from developed-enough to handle an elite defense.

That passing game allowed the Hurricanes to showcase their strength, a strength nearly unstoppable from a personnel standpoint in college football.

This argument has been made here before. It will likely be made again, though perhaps one day it will be from the other side of the coin.

Miami knew not to worry too much about Notre Dame’s passing game, so it keyed on the ground attack, led by junior running back Josh Adams and the formidable offensive line in front of him. It very well may be the best offensive line in the country, but when the defense knows what is coming, even the best offensive line cannot counter the anticipation. Combine that anticipation with natural speed and the defensive front wins the battle.

Notre Dame junior running back Josh Adams struggled to outrace Miami to the edge Saturday, finishing with only 40 yards on 16 carries. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Very good defensive lines beat great offensive lines. It is that simple. In this instance, it was a motivated and very good defensive line.

“Early on it looked like we were going to have a good day in that regard,” Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt said. “They were struggling blocking our guys. We do have some quickness, for sure, but we’ve got some pretty big boys inside there, too.

“… They were challenged because of the reputation of Notre Dame’s offensive and defensive lines. They’re big, strong physical people and they took the challenge to try to move them a little bit.”

Notre Dame rushed for 140 yards on 31 carries (sacks adjusted), an average of 4.52 yards per carry. That would seem to be plenty, even if well below the norms heading into the weekend. That is a generous average when considering 13 of those 31 carries went for two yards or fewer or even lost yardage. That inconsistent ability to gain a push forced the Irish away from the run game to the untrustworthy passing game.

In the season’s first nine games, Notre Dame averaged 44.67 carries per game. Sticking with the ground game for another 14 rushes Saturday would have likely produced another six fruitless plays.

“They just were able to control the game a little bit,” McGlinchey said. “They got around on the perimeter very well, a lot better than a lot of the teams that we’ve played.”

Even an elite left tackle like Irish fifth-year lineman Mike McGlinchey can do only so much against a top-flight defensive front. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

That is what speed and quickness do. A very good front allows a defense to focus on the field’s 53-yard width, not its 120-yard length. McGlinchey might handle his block just fine, but no one will then block the linebacker racing around the edge set by the end engaged with McGlinchey. This leads to two-yard losses on running plays and four-yard sacks on passes.

McGlinchey is a special talent. Senior left guard Quenton Nelson is even more so. Senior center Sam Mustipher has been having an outstanding season, as has senior right guard Alex Bars. The right tackle combination of sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey has fared far better than anyone would have expected it to this year. Miami’s success does not eliminate all that offensive line has done to date this fall.

It does, however, highlight the gap between Notre Dame and the top of the country as well as the desperate need for a dangerous passing game to make an opposing coordinator at least ponder using a nickel package with the safeties far from the line of scrimmage.

None of this was helped by Hard Rock Stadium’s atmosphere.

Let’s make this clear: The Irish offense’s inability to sustain a drive and four turnovers cost Notre Dame the game.

The Irish defense did not start real well, though. It was not done any favors by the offense’s charitable donations to the Miami Fund. (That is not a real non-profit organization, but it is a step toward working Human Fund into a story in this space.)

By the end of the night, the Miami student section was likely the rowdiest party in south Florida. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Everyone around Notre Dame will deny this until the day they die, but the loud and energetic crowd may have gotten into the heads of some of the young defenders. Three sophomores started in the secondary and another got the nod on the defensive line. Linebacker Te’von Coney may be a junior — and led the team in tackles for the fourth consecutive game — but he has only been seeing major minutes for two months now. The same can be said of tackle Jonathan Bonner with a senior distinction.

None of these players had ever competed in an atmosphere like Saturday’s. Frankly, the Hurricanes fans should be applauded.

Naturally, they were so upbeat because Miami is good, really good.

The Hurricanes had apparently been playing down to their schedule to date. For the second consecutive week, they rose to a challenge, and then some.

Feel free to sound your the-world-is-ending alarms, however unnecessary they are. Notre Dame lost to a top-five program for the second time this season. That fact alone is not cause for panic. It was a complete and utter blowout, yes, but much of that traces to the turnovers rather than systematic failures.

Stepherson may get the headlines, but loss of two RBs will cost Notre Dame most

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Notre Dame split with four players Tuesday night, two of them having a more noticeable ripple effect than the others.

Kevin Stepherson’s Irish career coming to a premature conclusion became an inevitability in December. The sophomore receiver forced the issue with back-to-back legal missteps underscoring a disregard for what must have already been a zero-tolerance situation. Though unproven, Notre Dame has a litany of options to replace Stepherson’s big-play potential.

To be blunt, the Irish will hardly notice Brandon Tiassum’s absence on the field in 2018. The junior defensive tackle was passed on the depth chart by two freshmen this past fall, and a few more newcomers may have pushed him further from playing time between now and Sept. 1.

But in losing two running backs — current sophomore Deon McIntosh and freshman C.J. Holmes — from the roster, Notre Dame will have to make some adjustments. If health were guaranteed the two remaining known commodities at the position, then the absences of McIntosh and Holmes could be written off with only a bit more consternation than Tiassum’s. At running back, though, health is not guaranteed. It is, in fact, rare.

Between junior Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones, the Irish have the makings of a top-flight backfield. Williams has an abundance of playmaking ability, if lacking as both a receiver and a blocker, while Jones excels in those latter two capacities and can pick up chunks of yardage simply by bowling over defenders. But, at some point in the next 11 months, at least one of the two will be hampered. Maybe yet another ankle will turn balky. Maybe Williams’ quad will seize up again. Perhaps something more severe will befall one of, if not both, Notre Dame’s lead backs.

At that point, as the roster is currently, only early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith will be available. That will not be enough.

A year ago, the Irish entered spring practice with known-stalwart Josh Adams, Williams and Jones ready to go. Holmes had enrolled early. Those four were expected to be the running back corps. Then Holmes injured his shoulder early in the spring. The idea of only three healthy running backs was such an uncomfortable thought, the coaching staff opted to move McIntosh to the backfield from receiver.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh finished 2017 with 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries, a 5.7 yards per rush average. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

As anyone who watched the latter half of the 2017 season will attest, it was a good thing they did.

How Notre Dame goes about finding a fourth back this year will sort itself out only with time. Some will bandy about the thought of moving rivals.com three-star cornerback Tariq Bracy to the offensive backfield. He excelled both as a running back and a cornerback in high school, and the Irish have depth at the latter position these days. Bracy is certainly a possibility.

The fringe will posit this is a prime opportunity to move junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush away from taking snaps. That concept will not and should not be considered for even the five seconds it took to read that sentence.

Most likely — perhaps in combination with turning to Bracy or another, less obvious suspect — Notre Dame is already urgently looking for a second running back in this recruiting class. Finding one will be easier suggested than executed, and doing so will likely take away from adding at another position.

The Irish currently have 22 commitments in this class, 21 signed and consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy; Little Rock, Ark.) ready to do so in February. They were likely planning to reel in another offensive lineman, another defensive back and a receiver with the remaining three spots in the class.

For example, rivals.com four-star/247sports.com five-star offensive tackle Nick Petit-Frere (Berkeley Prep; Tampa, Fla.), consensus four-star cornerback Noah Boykin (H.D. Woodson High School; Washington, D.C.) and consensus three-star receiver Lawrence Keys (McDonogh 35; New Orleans, La.). There are a litany of other permutations of that combination, but the point stands. Adding a running back to that limited capacity will take away from somewhere else.

RELATED READING: With four spots remaining, what recruits is Notre Dame still chasing? (Dec. 23)

Notre Dame does theoretically have the option to exceed 25 recruits in the class by counting some of the newly-arrived seven early enrollees toward last year’s recruit class numbers. It is essentially a known loophole within NCAA rules, but that theory is unlikely to become reality.

In the long view, it could create an exacerbated roster crunch in years to come. That algebra is constantly shifting. Exceeding 25 players in this class would also necessitate four recruiting successes in an abbreviated period with a shallow pool of prospects remaining after the early signing period.

Thus, the odds stand at slim of the Irish coaching staff exceeding 25 signees in this class, meaning Jones plus only three more Feb. 7. With Tuesday’s churn, a running back will likely be one of those three, and thus another position will not be.

Losing McIntosh and Holmes drains Notre Dame’s running back depth in 2018. It also shifts, ever so slightly-yet-noticeably, the roster in the years immediately afterward.

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. That count had already presumed Stepherson off the roster. Thus, this development drops that number to 84, including committed consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones. 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