Running Game

Getty Images

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s spring questions focus on four non-QB positions


Notre Dame held two practices before spring break, both without pads. At the most, they set a base line, but much more should be learned in the coming month building up to the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.

Instinct, public opinion and headlines may presume the most-important thing to learn this spring focuses on the competition between rising senior Brandon Wimbush and rising junior Ian Book to be named starting quarterback. The fact of the matter, though, is that duel will almost assuredly extend well into the summer. It is thus not among the items to learn this spring.

Who will “start” at running back, however, may come into focus in the next five weeks. Whether rising senior Dexter Williams or rising junior Tony Jones gains an advantage over the other, both will receive plenty of carries in the fall.

For one thing, Josh Adams is no longer around to take 206 carries for 1,430 yards. If including the dismissals of Deon McIntosh and C.J. Holmes, 279 attempts for 1,831 yards and 14 touchdowns will need to be replaced from last season. That task begins with health, which neither Williams nor Jones had much of in 2017. Thus, the question of who takes the step forward has little previous evidence to provide an answer.

“Most people just see you on Saturday when you have your helmet on and shoulder pads, and wonder why isn’t he in the game,” Kelly said March 5 in discussing Williams. “Well, there’s four other days leading up to it, and his inability to really practice and provide the kind of work necessary to get to Saturdays put him behind a little bit.”

Kelly had similar thoughts regarding Jones, also acknowledging the first season of collegiate contact may have taken a toll on the then-sophomore.

“His strength in work volume is better than it was last year,” Kelly said. “He wasn’t healthy most of the season, as well. Stronger, he’s got a coat of armor on him. His work volume is better.

“Finally, we recognize how important he is and we have to make sure he gets the proper touches within the offense.”

Again, both Williams and Jones will have plenty of opportunities in the fall … if healthy. As much as this is a question of who gets more opportunities, perhaps it should be a wondering of who will stay healthiest, if either.

Rising senior Miles Boykin should finish this spring as a clear-cut starting receiver, a first in his career. (Photoby Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The Irish have to replace even more at receiver.

Notre Dame’s receivers totaled 113 catches for 1,716 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2017. With all of Equanimeous St. Brown (to the NFL draft), Kevin Stepherson (repeated legal issues), Cam Smith (out of eligibility) and C.J. Sanders (outgoing transfer) gone, the Irish lost 61 receptions for 934 yards and 10 touchdowns of that productivity. To put it more aptly, that is 53.98 percent of the receivers’ receptions, 54.43 percent of their yardage and exactly two-thirds of their scores.

That is, well, a lot.

With rising junior Chase Claypool only somewhat involved this spring due to shoulder surgery, even more of a vacuum awaits filling. Claypool leads the returnees with 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns.

Enter rising seniors Miles Boykin and Chris Finke and rising sophomore Michael Young. With Kelly identifying Boykin as one of roster’s quickest players in 10-yard bursts, then that trio is not only diverse in size but also a grouping of genuine speed.

Will they solidify their standing as the leaders at the position, along with Claypool, or will offensive coordinator Chip Long be desperate for the arrival of a trio of incoming freshmen this summer, not to mention early-enrolled freshman Micah Jones or finally-healthy rising junior Javon McKinley?

No production was lost at safety this offseason, but that is not inherently a good thing.

Someone will start at safety in the Blue-Gold Game. Perhaps it will be rising sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath and fifth-year Nick Coleman. Maybe rising junior Alohi Gilman will confirm a year’s worth of reviews this spring and earn the nod, joined by returning starter and rising junior Jalen Elliott.

If Jalen Elliott ends up as a front-runner for starting duties at safety for the third straight year, Notre Dame will still need to find him a running mate. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

It will not be rising sophomore Isaiah Robertson after his move to rover. Removing him from contention is about the only piece of clarity at safety thus far, and that cloudy view may remain until late August, quite frankly.

Whoever starts at safety to close the spring will have pole position to maintain that honor when incoming freshman Derrik Allen arrives to present an additional challenge.

Of the three position groups discussed thus far, safety is truly the one with the most unknown. Early-enrolled freshman cornerback Houston Griffith could line up at safety on April 21 and it would not be all that much of a shock. It would simply mean the dismal play offered by last season’s roster had not developed into something better.

Another early-enrolled freshman could be the answer to the question of, who will be the fourth linebacker?

Rising junior Jonathan Jones is likely the backup to both fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill and rising senior Te’von Coney. If injuries were to pillage the rover possibilities, Tranquill would then move back to his former position and Jones would step into Tranquill’s place. And yes, Kelly confirmed Tranquill’s move to a more traditional linebacker role.

“You can write that down and get used to it,” Kelly said.

A number of other names could be plugged in where Jones’ appears in that paragraph. Early-enrolled freshmen Jack Lamb and Bo Bauer could both surpass Jones. Lamb and Bauer were such-heralded recruits, a jump past Jones and sophomores Drew White and David Adams could be just a confirmation of those reviews, not necessarily an indictment of the upperclassmen’s potential.

The final option, which would not be clear even if it came to be reality in the long-run, would be rising senior Asmar Bilal becoming the backup for both Tranquill and Coney despite also likely starting at rover. With similar logic to Tranquill possibly filling in for an injured rover, it could be determined relying on rising sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah or Robertson at rover with Bilal filling in at linebacker would provide the best fix of a lineup.

These are the things spring practice is intended for. A year ago, the questions hinged on new coordinators and new schemes. Even with the departure of Mike Elko to Texas A&M, the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator ensured consistency in scheme and message. Thus, the questions this spring hinge on a few positions, most notably these four.

Along with … How will Notre Dame’s offensive line fill the holes left by two first-round draft picks? and Who will replace Tranquill at rover with the captain now moving to linebacker?

In an effort to foster fun and competition and out of a societal need to have as many bracket groups as possible …

Inside the Irish 2018 Bracket Contest

There is nothing at stake except for bragging rights and a chance to embarrass this scribe by finishing well ahead of him. What more could one possibly need?

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

Getty Images

Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister

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

Getty Images

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 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, four-star/ 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

Getty Images

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.

One-time Notre Dame Heisman candidate, Josh Adams declares for the NFL

Getty Images

It would have been an ideal scenario for Notre Dame if junior running back Josh Adams returned for his senior year, but that may not have been in his best interests. Thus, Adams announced Friday afternoon he will head to the NFL.

“With a lot of thought, prayer and discussion with my family, I’ve decided to forgo my senior year and enter the 2018 NFL Draft!” Adams wrote. “… I’ll always have Notre Dame in my heart.

“With my decision, I hope that people will know, and kids will see how it’s okay to chase your dreams, because with God ‘ALL things are possible.’”

Adams went on to state he will “definitely” return to the University to earn his degree.

The Irish running game hinged on Adams and the dominant offensive line in front of him this season, with the one-time Heisman candidate finishing the year with 1,430 yards gained on 206 attempts, adding nine touchdowns. He finishes his career with 3,198 yards and 20 touchdowns, averaging a startling 6.6 yards per carry. His career total places Adams fifth in Notre Dame history. His 229 yards at Boston College in September are fourth in single-game school history and paced the team to its most-efficient rushing performance in modern history.

Perhaps not a first-round draft pick, Adams will still likely hear his name called in an early round. Given the career longevity for running backs in the NFL — rather, the lack thereof — seizing that opportunity makes an abundance of sense.

“I chose Notre Dame because it was a place that allowed me to pursue my full potential,” Adams wrote. “It was a decision that would affect the rest of my life.”

Without Adams, the Irish backfield still has both depth and talent, led by current junior Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones, with sophomore Deon McIntosh and (currently suspended indefinitely) freshman C.J. Holmes adding further depth and incoming freshman Jahmir Smith on the way to round off the options.

Arguments can be and have been made Williams was not used enough in Notre Dame’s offense in 2017, but that can be somewhat attributed to Adams’ record-setting successes. In addition, nagging ankle and quad injuries limited Williams throughout the season, as did an ankle to Jones.

The most likely scenario moving forward is Williams sees the most action only if he develops as an every-down back, as in, only if he develops as a pass blocker. For example, he followed two successful runs in the Citrus Bowl by immediately missing a block and exposing sophomore quarterback Ian Book.

If that progress occurs, Jones can continue to serve as a positional mismatch putting defenses in a bind. Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long relished opportunities to deploy a healthy Jones as a second running back due to his threefold abilities as a rusher, receiver and blocker. With him lined up with Adams, defenses truly did not know what type of play could be coming. Long’s ideal will presumably have Jones in a similar role alongside Williams.

With junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown declaring for the NFL Draft on Thursday, Notre Dame now awaits for decisions from three more juniors: linebacker Te’von Coney, defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and tight end Alizé Mack. They have until Jan. 15.

From Adams’ Instagram