Associated Press

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions


Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

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

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

Associated Press

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?

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.

With four spots remaining, what recruits is Notre Dame still chasing?


Notre Dame finished the early signing period with 21 signatures thanks to consensus four-star receiver Braden Lenzy’s (Tigard High School; Portland, Ore.) commitment on Friday. That leaves at least four spots for February signees on the traditional National Signing Day, Feb. 7.

If the right players wanted to commit to the Irish, the class could expand as high as 29 players without straining against NCAA rules. Early enrollees can be counted toward the previous class, meaning Notre Dame could chalk up four of the seven early enrollees as part of the class of 2017, which had only 21 pledges. Thus, neither class would exceed the ceiling of 25 prospects.

It is more likely 25 remains the mark to meet this year, at the most.

“We’re not going to take guys just to take guys, they’ve got to address needs,” Irish recruiting director Brian Polian said Wednesday. “We could go to 24, 25. We may go to 21, 22. We’ll see how it plays out here through the course of the rest of the recruiting period.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly outlined those needs. At that point, receiver was still in the discussion, but Lenzy’s commitment diminishes that need drastically.

“Defensive back is still in play for us, offensive line is still in play, and then best player available,” Kelly said. “I would probably highlight them in that fashion.”

Ten players seem most likely to fill those remaining scholarships and roster spots …

Consensus four-star safety Julius Irivin (Servite High School; Anaheim, Calif.)
The No. 8 safety in the class per rivals.com and the No. 87 prospect overall, Irvin appeared set to decide between Notre Dame, Washington and USC this week before a family emergency prompted him to delay his signing until February.

Consensus four-star cornerback Noah Boykin (H.D. Woodson H.S.; Washington, D.C.)
The No. 20 cornerback in the class and the No. 193 prospect overall, Boykin (pictured above) committed to Maryland in July but did not sign a National Letter of Intent this week. In other words, he is hardly committed. Such is the transparency the early signing period provides.

“It clears up a lot of the uncertainty in this process of guys not committed when they should be still visiting other schools and saying that they’re soft verbal [commitments],” Kelly said to explain his favorite part of this new process. “That never made any sense to me.”

Rivals.com four-star/247sports.com five-star offensive tackle Nick Petit-Frere (Berkeley Prep; Tampa, Fla.)
The No. 7 offensive tackle and No. 67 prospect overall, Petit-Frere has kept his recruitment thoughts close to the vest. He visited both Notre Dame and Michigan this fall and has shown interest in Alabama and Florida, as well.

Consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy, Little Rock, Ark.)
The No. 45 offensive tackle in the class per rivals.com, Jones mirrors Boykin. Jones committed to Arkansas in July but did not put pen to paper — or finger to cellphone screen, as would most likely be — this week. The difference lies in the coaching change at Arkansas. That alone could be the reason for Jones’ delay, wanting to gauge a possible relationship with new head coach Chad Morris, formerly of Southern Methodist University.

Malik Langham (rivals.com)

Consensus three-star defensive end Malik Langham (Lee H.S.; Huntsville, Ala.)
The No. 38 defensive end in the class, Langham toes the line between an Irish positional need and the “best player available” distinction. Notre Dame only offered him in December, joining the likes of his homestate Alabama and a few other SEC options.

Kelly made it clear Wednesday he will not pursue defensive linemen, specifically defensive ends, unless they fit a broader mold for the Irish. He has that luxury this cycle thanks to the continued progression of the four current sophomores at defensive end, led by Daelin Hayes and Khalid Kareem.

“We’re not going to take somebody just to take somebody in this class at that position,” Kelly said. “It has to do certainly that there is a need there, but if the fit is not there, we’re not going down that route unless the right fit is there.”

Consensus three-star defensive tackle Moro Ojomo (Katy; Texas)
Consensus three-star defensive tackle Otito Ogbonnia (Taylor H.S.; Katy, Texas)
Notre Dame extended offers to both these Texas products this week. Reading between the lines, that could point toward expectations of current junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery heading to the NFL Draft, creating a need for more depth in the defensive interior.

Consensus five-star receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (Mater Dei H.S.; Anaheim, Calif.)
The youngest brother of current Irish junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, Amon-Ra certainly fits the “best player available” qualifications. Rivals.com considers him the No. 1 receiver in the class and No. 3 prospect in the country. Notre Dame would jump at the chance to sign him even with the talented trio of receivers already committed. Plus, it would mean the Irish beat out USC, a victory just to not have to face a talent like St. Brown every season.

The Trojans gained another edge in this race, though, when St. Brown’s high school quarterback and the top passer in the class of 2019, JT Daniels, reclassified into the class of 2018 on Friday. He has been a staunch USC commit since July.

Consensus three-star receiver Lawrence Keys (McDonogh 35; New Orleans, La.)
The likelihood of Keys ending up with Notre Dame decreased significantly with Lenzy’s commitment, but if the Irish have a spot open come Feb. 7 and Keys wants it, there would be little reason to turn him away.

Consensus four-star linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu (Mater Dei H.S.; Anaheim, Calif.)
It may be outright greedy of Notre Dame to look for the signing of a fifth linebacker, four of which would be four-star prospects, but Tuliaupupu might rival Jack Lamb (Great Oak; Temecula, Calif.) as the best of the bunch. Rivals.com slots Tuliaupupu as the No. 3 inside linebacker in the country and No. 94 overall prospect.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Ja’Mion Franklin, consensus three-star defensive tackle

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North Caroline High School; Ridgely, Md.

Measurements: 6’2”, 300 lbs.

Accolades: Consensus three-star; No. 11 prospect in Maryland per rivals.com and No. 34 defensive tackle in the class.

Other Notable Offers: More than half the ACC offered Franklin, including Boston College, Pittsburgh and Virginia, as well as Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s previous home, Wake Forest.

Projected Position: Defensive tackle.

Quick Take: Franklin’s abilities may shine through more in stopping the run than in pursuing the quarterback. His frame carries his 300 pounds without trouble, a prototypical mound in the middle.

Short-Term Roster Outlook: Franklin will provide depth at a position very recently lacking any and all such options. If current junior Jerry Tillery heads to the NFL, then that need will increase exponentially. Either way, Franklin could be in line for some action in 2018, but a Tillery departure would all but assure some situation-specific duties.

Long-View Depth Chart Impact: Along with freshman Darnell Ewell, Franklin is one of few true defensive tackles on the Irish roster. That is not the case just because he breaks 300 pounds. Rather, Franklin’s ability to consume blocks is only rivaled by his hands’ ability to shed individual offensive linemen. Before long, that is likely to move him up the depth chart to a consistent role.