Brock Wright

Associated Press

Monday’s Leftovers: Coney & Tillery once enrolled early at Notre Dame, now to the NFL or not?

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Today marks two occasions. It is the day before Notre Dame begins its spring semester. In other words, it is the day before this year’s seven early enrollees begin classes. It is also the deadline for early entrants to file for the NFL draft.

There are two common threads to the separate events. Junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery both enrolled early in 2015, and they have both delayed their stay-or-go decisions to today.

With the early signing period’s implementation, the former date holds less import. These players have already signed with the Irish. Gone are the days of putting down a drink and racing to a computer after finding a source to confirm a consensus five-star quarterback’s early arrival. With an early signing period, Gunner Kiel likely would have been bound to at least begin his career at LSU in the spring of 2012, rather than show up on Notre Dame’s campus at the 11th hour.

The tangible value of arriving early can still hold legitimacy, but that theoretical does not become much of a reality until spring practice commences, anyway.

Junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) will need to decide today if he will head to the NFL Draft or return for his senior year. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

So an early enrollee summary can wait until tomorrow’s first day of classes. In the meantime, breathes remain baited waiting for the decisions from Coney and Tillery. Will they return for a year under first-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea, or follow the lead of running back Josh Adams and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and head for the NFL?

As has been discussed and seems rather obvious, both Coney and Tillery would greatly boost the 2018 Irish defense. They would also both likely hear their names called in the NFL draft, so there is merit to whatever option each chooses.

— As it pertains to the early enrollees, the measureable benefit of the semester’s head start can be debated. In looking at the last three classes, it has appeared to have great effect with a few of the freshmen, but not for most.

2015: Tillery, Coney, defensive lineman Micah Dew-Treadway, offensive lineman Tristen Hoge.
2016: Safety Devin Studstill, receiver Kevin Stepherson, defensive end Daelin Hayes, defensive end Khalid Kareem, safety Spencer Perry.
2017: Offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, tight end Brock Wright, running back C.J. Holmes, safety Isaiah Robertson, offensive lineman Aaron Banks.

Of those 14, Tillery, Studstill, Stepherson and Hainsey offered genuine contributions in their debut seasons.

Tillery started three games in 2015, appearing in all 12, making 12 tackles with one sack. More than the counting statistics, the depth Tillery provided at defensive tackle was an absolute necessity.

As injuries and suspensions purged the Irish secondary just before the 2016 season’s start, Studstill was forced into a starting role. He finished the year with 38 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. He was not yet ready to be a collegiate starting safety, but he was needed to be, and the time spent going through the paces in the spring provided Studstill enough of a base to be somewhat serviceable from the outset.

Stepherson broke out as a deep threat right away — a likelihood with or without an early enrollment simply due to his speed. In his only complete season with the Irish, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Hainsey’s impact was far and away the most distinct. He went from the second most-heralded early-enrolled offensive lineman to a starter at right tackle. That surge puts Hainsey in pole position to start at left tackle in 2018. He may have ended up there, anyway, but the freshman first played a pivotal role on the best offensive line in the country.

— It would not be a site dedicated to football if it did not include some mention of the Minnesota Vikings’ victory Sunday evening. Some adjective should precede victory in the previous sentence, but no quick combination encapsulates just how absurd, dramatic and, per the quickly-adhered catchphrase, miraculous the conclusion was.

Stefon Diggs’ game-winning touchdown may not have been as excellent as Irish receiver Miles Boykin’s was in the Citrus Bowl if compared in a vacuum, but Diggs’ score came with no time remaining on the clock, while Boykin’s was merely an excellent play that if failed, other chances would have followed.

Of course, being the Vikings, the Notre Dame connection is thorough.

— A thought experiment sparked by that Minneapolis tangent … The Minnesota Timberwolves played their first game in franchise history Nov. 3, 1989, meaning it has endured a title drought the exact same length as the Irish have.

Which wins its respective championship first?

Book and Boykin heroics give Notre Dame a Citrus victory

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Notre Dame had not put together a successful two-minute drive all season until sophomore quarterback Ian Book found junior receiver Miles Boykin for the winning score in Monday’s Citrus Bowl, topping No. 17 LSU, 21-17. The 55-yard touchdown delivered Notre Dame its 10th win of the season and first New Year’s Day victory since 1994.

“To get to 10 wins in two of the last three seasons, it’s really a nice mark for our football team,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said.

Suffice it to say, sophomore quarterback Ian Book was an unlikely hero for Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Book took over for junior quarterback and season-long starter Brandon Wimbush late in the second quarter. The three preceding Notre Dame drives all failed to gain a first down, netting a total of five yards. Book preceded to lead an 11-play, 51-yard drive for a field goal four seconds before halftime, breaking a scoreless tie.

“We have confidence in Ian,” Kelly said. “He hasn’t played a lot of football, but we threw him right into the fire and he leads a winning drive in a game that was on the line. He has that ability. It doesn’t surprise us that he’s able to do that.”

Kelly said he intended to play both Book and Wimbush all along in bowl preparations, but that plan was apparently shelved at halftime. Wimbush never saw the field again, finishing the day 3-of-8 for 52 yards passing and 38 rushing yards on four carries.

After that initial success, it took Book a bit to find a sustainable rhythm. He threw an interception to end the first Irish drive of the second half, and then turned excellent field position into only another field goal toward the end of the third quarter.

In that interim, Notre Dame’s defense held the Tigers in check, barely. Though LSU gained 399 yards and averaged a strong 5.3 yards per play, the Irish forced three field goal attempts in the red zone, including two on drives that reached the one-yard line.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Book took one snap in the first-quarter, throwing an incomplete pass on a third-and-10. When he returned to the field to lead the two-minute offense, it seemed he would take that opportunity and then Wimbush would return after halftime. Book went 3-for-4 for 33 yards on the drive, rushing for 27 more.

He should not have taken a sack on a third-and-four at the end of the drive, but the six-yard loss did not knock Notre Dame out of junior kicker Justin Yoon’s range, and there was hardly time left to take more than one more shot at the end zone, anyways.

The first signs of production from the Irish offense ensured Book would remain at quarterback the rest of the afternoon.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
LSU missed two first-half field goals. Those were hardly defensive successes. What was a defensive accomplishment, though, was tackling Tigers junior running back Derrius Guice inches from the end zone in the fourth quarter’s closing minutes.

Sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes and freshman safety Jordan Genmark-Heath brought down the future early NFL Draft pick on a third-and-goal from the three-yard line, but LSU going for the last few inches on fourth down seemed a certainty. Instead, head coach Ed Orgeron sent out his field goal unit, a questionable move on a good day but an even more surprising one given the two misses earlier.

“Obviously, you think about it, but you go ahead,” Orgeron said. “You go ahead with two minutes left to go. Your defense had played well. I didn’t think they were going to score. I thought we could stop them. I wanted to give our team a chance to win.”

Orgeron will now have eight months to second-guess that decision.

PLAY OF THE GAME
Obviously, Boykin’s game-winning, one-handed, tackle-shedding touchdown will be the moment to remember.

Book and Boykin gelled from the moment Book took to the field. Two of his five first-half pass attempts went toward Boykin, completing one for 18 yards and a first down on that drive for Yoon’s first field goal. Boykin finished with three catches for 102 yards, earning Citrus Bowl MVP honors.

“We were in practice, and we knew we were going to have to get a couple of one-on-one matchups on the outside, and I told Miles, you’re going to win the MVP trophy,” Kelly said. “He looked at me like I had two heads, but I felt like he had a chance.

“He has the ability if we can get him the football.”

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Book may have had a stronger claim to the postgame hardware. For that matter, his first touchdown may have been more impressive than the deep ball to Boykin. Six yards from the end zone with five receivers and an empty backfield, Book had plenty of time but no open targets. When pressure did start to develop, he rolled out while keeping his eyes moving, surveying his targets.

Finally, he found a window to freshman receiver Michael Young.

Book finished the day 14-of-19 for 164 yards and two touchdowns passing, also adding 64 yards on seven rushes (sacks adjusted). His ability to genuinely consider both the run and the pass in run-pass options made life more difficult than LSU had expected.

“[Book] made a difference,” Orgeron said. “We had a plan. He came in and scrambled. Zone-read gave us problems. [He] extended plays.”

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME
Junior linebacker Te’von Coney made 17 tackles Monday, underscoring Notre Dame’s hopes he will return for his senior season, a decision he said he has not yet made.

STAT OF THE GAME
The Irish offense lacked three of its top four pass-catchers from the regular season, with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson and junior tight end Alizé Mack both suspended and sophomore receiver Chase Claypool out with a shoulder injury. Freshman tight end Brock Wright, used as a situational blocker, was also sidelined by a shoulder injury, and sophomore running back Deon McIntosh, the team’s third-leading rusher, was suspended, as well.

“We were a little shorthanded out there,” Kelly admitted afterward. “… Young players out there that I think started on scout team.”

Yet, Notre Dame averaged 6.07 yards per play against one of the country’s best defenses. For context, the Irish offense averaged 6.42 yards per play in the regular season.

With Book taking snaps, Notre Dame worked even more efficiently. Book’s offense gained 267 yards on 40 plays, an average of 6.68 yards. Wimbush’s time in the game gained 103 yards on 21 plays, an average of 4.90 yards.

SCORING SUMMARY
Second Quarter
0:04 — Notre Dame field goal. Justin Yoon 46 yards. Notre Dame 3, LSU 0. (11 plays, 51 yards, 2:00)

Third Quarter
11:37 — LSU touchdown. Derrius Guice 20-yard reception from Danny Etling. Jack Gonsoulin PAT good. LSU 7, Notre Dame 3. (5 plays, 43 yards, 2:16)
2:47 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 49 yards. LSU 7, Notre Dame 6. (5 plays, 18 yards, 2:20)

Fourth Quarter
11:13 — LSU touchdown. Guice two-yard reception from Etling. Gonsoulin PAT god. LSU 14, Notre Dame 6. (12 plays, 75 yards, 6:34)
7:49 — Notre Dame touchdown. Michael Young six-yard reception from Ian Book. Two-point conversion good. Josh Adams two-yard reception from Book. LSU 14, Notre Dame 14. (10 plays, 75 yards, 3:24)
2:03 — LSU field goal. Gonsoulin 17 yards. LSU 17, Notre Dame 14. (12 plays, 76 yards, 5:46)
1:28 — Notre Dame touchdown. Miles Boykin 55-yard reception from Book. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, LSU 17. (3 plays, 73 yards, 0:35)

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s offense filled with questions for the Citrus Bowl

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Bowl games are similar to preseason practice finales. Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game can offer insights into the playmakers likely to define a season to come or unveil aspects of a new scheme previously unknown. If the Irish are fully engaged in the Citrus Bowl on Monday vs. No. 17 LSU (1 p.m. ET; ABC), then much can be learned from the occasion. The 2018 depth chart can gain some order at a position or two. Pending personnel losses will be seen in an evaluator manner, rather than merely with a reactionary response. Overall composure may be measured.

If, however, the afternoon in Orlando is treated like the mere exhibition it largely is, then it becomes an exercise in entertainment otherwise lacking effect.

Without Kevin Stepherson, who can Notre Dame turn to as a deep-threat playmaker?

The sophomore receiver will not be in Florida this weekend, and it is exceedingly unlikely he is in South Bend in the fall. Thus, this lesson can shed light toward the Irish future at receiver.

Exclude from these results any production from fifth-year receiver Cam Smith, finally healthy from a hamstring issue. He will not be in the mix in 2018.

Instead, any noticeable impact from current freshman Michael Young would warrant attention.

“He’s had his best practices,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Wednesday following the first Irish practice in the Florida heat. “He’s shown a confidence level, consistency level, that maybe escaped him at times during the year, which is pretty typical of some of the younger players.

“You can kind of see him settling into a more comfortable position right now, too. We’re going to have to count on him to make some plays for us.”

An emergence from Young would establish him as only the pole position holder. Signed commit and consensus four-star receiver Braden Lenzy (Tigard High School; Portland, Ore.) has the speed to immediately force his way into this conversation during the summer.

Whoever emerges from that mix, it will obviously be in a complementary role to junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. Even when Stepherson was hitting on all cylinders, the opposing defenses’ primary focus remained on St. Brown — he has shown a higher probability of taking over a game thus far in their respective careers. Against LSU, Kelly expects St. Brown to see time at multiple receiver positions, partly due to sophomore Chase Claypool also being sidelined thanks to shoulder surgery.

“For us, more than anything else, it’s going to be keeping the ball out on the perimeter, winning some of those matchups and then when we get a chance we’ll move some of those guys around,” Kelly said. “[St. Brown] is going to move all over the place. He’s going to be a guy that we’re going to have to lean on heavily.”

Relying on St. Brown on Monday with any success would be a positive notion for a 2018 sans Stepherson, presuming St. Brown returns for his senior season.

With junior Alizé Mack suspended due to a violation of team rules, Notre Dame may rely on senior tight end Nic Weishar more than usual in the Citrus Bowl on Monday. He has announced his intentions to return for a fifth year, so the bowl showcase could be a prelude to his 2018. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Without Alizé Mack, who can Notre Dame turn to as an aerial threat at tight end, if anyone?

There is little-to-no indication the junior tight end will not be with the Irish when they take the field against Michigan to open the 2018 season, but it is a possibility worthy of acknowledgement. If Mack is elsewhere then, offensive coordinator Chip Long will need to deploy someone else as the detached tight end intended to force matchup difficulties for the defense.

Current senior Nic Weishar presents as a better fit for the role attached to the line, presently manned by fifth-year senior Durham Smythe. From there, Smythe has showcased both his sure hands and his strength as a blocker this season. Even their physical profiles are similar. Notre Dame lists Smythe as 6-foot-5.5 and 257 pounds with Weishar at 6-foot-4.75 and 243 pounds.

If that is where Weishar eventually excels, then the detached focus turns to the freshman duo of Brock Wright and Cole Kmet. The former has seen action this season as a blocker but will miss the bowl game due to his own shoulder injury, while Kmet has two catches for 14 yards. Kelly indicated the latter could be in the mix this week.

“The tight ends are going to be important for us,” Kelly said. “Durham Smythe, Cole Kmet, Nic Weishar, all three tight ends will be involved.”

Junior running back Josh Adams had a stellar season. If only he had been healthy for more of it … (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

What could a healthy Josh Adams have done all season?

This should be the junior running back’s last game with the Irish, and it certainly will be his last behind an offensive line this superior to its typical competition. The month off has allowed Adams to finally return to 100 percent health. Whether it was just his ankles or other issues in addition, it cannot be denied Adams lost much of his explosiveness by season’s end.

“He looks really good,” Kelly said. “He’s got his speed back, he looks healthy. He’s running very effectively. I expect him to play really well in this game. I think the time off for him really helped him.”

Adams will need that speed, that health and that efficiency to manage a good day against the Tigers. They rank No. 21 in overall rushing defense and No. 39 in yards per carry at 3.80. For context, Michigan State allowed 3.38 yards per carry this season (No. 13) and Georgia gave up 3.47 yards per attempt (No. 20).

If Adams runs through LSU, it will elicit wonderings of “What could have been” if only his ankles had not been landed on so many times in October. It will also bode well for the next back to run behind what will still be a strong offensive line in 2018, most likely sophomore Tony Jones.

With that in mind, monitoring the distribution of opportunities between Jones and junior Dexter Williams will also shed light on what could come down the road for the two when healthy.

When removing ready-made excuses, how do the Irish fare against a top-20 team?

Kelly cited the crowd’s impact for the disastrous start at Miami in November. Anyone in attendance understood his point. The second half stumble two weeks later at Stanford was a sign of mental and physical fatigue at the end of a stretch of six weeks featuring four ranked opponents, an underrated Wake Forest and the always-wearisome Navy. Logically, at least, the argument made sense.

Camping World Stadium will hardly be abuzz come Monday, and Notre Dame will have had more than five weeks off since its most-recent game, not to mention time away from schoolwork.

“Like anything else, we needed some time,” Kelly said. “Our football team needed to get their step back, some energy back to them. Obviously this is a long break, but I thought we prepared well.”

With those outside factors removed, LSU will offer an excellent gauge of how the Irish genuinely stack up against a top-20 opponent. That is, if Notre Dame focuses on the bowl game. Amid trips to Universal Studios, a spending spree at Best Buy and assuredly plenty of seafood, the game itself may not be at the top of the list of priorities all week. Such is the difficult nature of bowl games in the first place.

Notre Dame announces Alizé Mack suspension

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Notre Dame junior tight end Alizé Mack joins the list of those who will miss the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 against No. 17 LSU. Irish coach Brian Kelly announced a bowl game suspension for Mack on Thursday.

Mack missed the 2016 season due to an academic suspension, hence Kelly’s specific clarification. Furthermore, by declaring Mack’s issue arises from an internal issue, Kelly separated this matter from that around sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson and freshman running back C.J. Holmes. The latter duo has been suspended indefinitely after an arrest for shoplifting on Friday.

Mack finishes the season with 19 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown, missing the victory over Wake Forest due to a concussion and seeing less than a handful of snaps in the finale at Stanford.

Overall, the season qualifies as a disappointment for the supposed matchup nightmare. Many of the lackluster stats of Notre Dame’s receivers can be in part attributed to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s inaccuracy and inconsistency, but Mack exacerbated that cause by repeatedly dropping passes and rarely creating the expected separation.

With him not in Orlando, Fla., the Irish will have only three tight ends available. Wednesday reports ruled out freshman Brock Wright due to shoulder surgery.

Either senior Nic Weishar — already planning on returning for a fifth year in 2018 — or freshman Cole Kmet will be looked to step into Mack’s role alongside fifth-year senior Durham Smythe. Weishar caught seven passes for 39 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season while Kmet added two catches for 12 yards.

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Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.