Notre Dame junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown will heed his father’s advice and head to the NFL with a year of eligibility remaining. Each of the past two seasons, St. Brown led the Irish in receiving yards and receptions, also leading in caught touchdowns last year while finishing second in that category this season to sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson.
“Three years ago I decided to attend the best University in the world, Notre Dame,” St. Brown posted to Twitter on Thursday. “I’m extremely thankful for the opportunities given me and the lessons that the coaches taught me. I’m a better person and player because of it.
“I also want to thank my professors, who challenged me to be a better student, and my mentors, who helped me take the right path. To my teammates, I love you guys. I’ve formed friendships and memories that will last a lifetime. It’s been an honor to play by your side.
“Last, and certainly not least, I want to thank my family for supporting me. I don’t know what I’d do without you. Thank you for everything.
“I’ve wrestled with this decision, but I’ve decided to declare for the 2018 NFL Draft! While my Notre Dame playing career has come to an end, I will come back to complete my degree. That’s a part of this process that was never in question.”
St. Brown ends his Irish career with 92 catches for 1,484 yards and 13 touchdowns, highlighted by a sophomore campaign of 58 catches for 961 yards and nine touchdowns, a rare bright spot amid the dismal 4-8 season. His final Notre Dame touchdown will be a drag route sprung for 75 yards at Stanford in this regular season’s finale.
St. Brown’s length will make some NFL teams at least consider him, though he is not yet a highly-touted Draft prospect. A strong combine and workout season could certainly change that.
Losing St. Brown compounds an Irish issue already apparent, with the odds highly unlikely Stepherson is with the team come fall, currently suspended indefinitely following a shoplifting arrest. Stepherson finished as the third receiver this season in both yards and receptions, and the two playmakers combined for 52 catches, 874 yards and nine touchdowns.
That will leave current sophomore Chase Claypool as the offense’s only proven receiver. He finished 2017 with 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns, breaking loose for nine of those receptions, 180 yards and a touchdown against Wake Forest at the start of November.
After Claypool, attention could quickly turn to freshman Michael Young and junior Miles Boykin, they of the two fourth-quarter Citrus Bowl touchdowns.
St. Brown has a younger brother, Amon-Ra, highly-rated in the recruiting class of 2018 who has Notre Dame among his three finalists, along with USC and Stanford. The tea leaves continue to point toward the youngest St. Brown becoming a Trojan.
And one last time, the full name is Equanimeous Tristan Imhotep J. St. Brown. No, the “J.” is not technically short for anything.
The Irish continue to wait for NFL-or-stay decisions from four juniors: running back Josh Adams, tight end Alize Mack, defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and linebacker Te’von Coney. They have until Jan. 15.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
“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.”
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 signs consensus four-star WR Braden Lenzy at end of early signing period
Notre Dame finished the early signing period with a flash Friday night thanks to the commitment of consensus four-star speedster receiver Braden Lenzy (Tigard High School; Portland, Ore.). Lenzy’s signature ends a circuitous recruitment right back where it began.
Lenzy first committed to the Irish in February before flipping to Oregon in June, primarily citing concerns about his ability to run track at Notre Dame. When Ducks head coach Willie Taggart took the head job at Florida State, Lenzy once again reopened his commitment, narrowing the possibilities to Notre Dame, Oregon and UCLA.
“When I made my official visit [to Notre Dame] last week after opening my recruitment back up, I had this one moment of clarity that I’d been waiting for without knowing it,” Lenzy wrote in an essay announcing his commitment on The Players’ Tribune. “I was walking out of the locker room and onto the field. The weather wasn’t great — it was 30° outside and snowing — but for some reason it also seemed perfect. It was almost like an itch had finally been scratched.”
He joins consensus four-star Kevin Austin (North Broward Prep; Pompano Beach, Ill.) and rivals.com four-star Micah Jones (Warren Township; Gurnee, Ill.) to form an excellent grouping of receivers in the now 21-commit class.
When the first 20 of those, including Austin and Jones, signed Wednesday, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly pointed to receiver as an area the Irish would continue to recruit after praising the committed duo.
“Obviously, we need to continue to recruit at that position,” Kelly said. “We’re hoping to add to that position in this cycle to balance off the receiving crew.”
It is within reason Notre Dame looks for even another receiver if that player fits Kelly’s description of “best player available,” the third priority remaining behind defensive back and offensive line.
BRADEN LENZY Tigard High School; Portland, Ore. Measurements: 6’0”, 170 lbs. Accolades: Consensus four-star; No. 13 receiver in the class per rivals.com and No. 3 prospect in Oregon.
Other Notable Offers: Lenzy could have gone nearly anywhere in the Pac-12, including USC, Stanford or Washington State. Instead, his recruitment always centered around Notre Dame and Oregon with UCLA gaining ground in the race once Chip Kelly was hired as head coach.
Projected position: Receiver
Quick Take: You can’t teach speed, and Lenzy has it. That alone will get him on the field early. Irish coach Brian Kelly has always preferred to have at least one speedster on the field to take the top off the defense. (See: Chris Brown, Will Fuller, Kevin Stepherson.) With hands providing legitimacy to that deep threat, Lenzy offers a dynamic option.
Short-Term Roster Outlook: If Lenzy had signed the first day of the early signing period, this bit would have read much differently. Then, current sophomore Kevin Stepherson would have stood staunchly between Lenzy and consistent playing time. Now, Stepherson’s future at Notre Dame is very much in doubt. Thus, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long could be looking for a new deep yet shifty playmaker. Lenzy fits that bill better than any other receiver already on the roster.
Long-View Depth Chart Impact: The trio of Austin, Jones and Lenzy makes for a complete set of receivers in one class. Austin could someday be the starter at the field position (a la current junior Equanimeous St. Brown in ideal scenarios) with Jones on the boundary (think of sophomore Chase Claypool) and Lenzy in the slot but able to quickly move to a sideline to force a defense’s hand.
Already without sophomore receiver Chase Claypool, Notre Dame will not have sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson or freshman running back C.J. Holmes in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced Wednesday afternoon.
University of Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly announced Wednesday that sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson and freshman running back C.J. Holmes have each been suspended indefinitely from all football related activities.
WNDU reported this suspension stems from a shoplifting incident Friday night in which both Stepherson and Holmes were arrested. Charges are pending.
This is Stepherson’s second suspension of the 2017 season, though the first one that cost him the season’s first four games was never officially confirmed. He was also involved in an arrest of five Notre Dame players for marijuana possession the week before the 2016 season.
It took Stepherson another couple games to find his on-field groove, finally breaking loose against USC for three catches for 58 yards and a score, adding two rushes for 24 yards. He finished the season with 19 catches for 359 yards and five touchdowns with five rush attempts gaining 76 yards. Accumulating those stats in essentially half a season kept Stepherson on a similar pace — actually, a better one — as his breakout freshman campaign.
Holmes enrolled early last winter, but then suffered a shoulder injury in spring practice. At first, it seemed that might keep him out the entire season, but as ankle injuries depleted the Notre Dame running back corps, he saw some action to provide possible depth. Holmes finished with eight carries for 32 yards, all coming in the Oct. 7 victory at North Carolina.
Claypool will miss the bowl game against No. 17 LSU due to shoulder surgery. He finished the season with 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns.
Kelly previously said junior Equanimeous St. Brown would move into Claypool’s position as the field receiver and junior Miles Boykin could see more time at the boundary position, St. Brown’s usual duty. That should still be the case even without Stepherson.
Irish fifth-year receiver Cam Smith has recovered from hamstring issues that plagued him in the season’s second half. He could be a quick fix to Stepherson’s absence.