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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 receivers, now without both St. Brown & Stepherson

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Unknown applies to Notre Dame’s receiver corps, but that is as much because of struggles at quarterback as it is due to the very different exits of Equanimeous St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson.

With only eight receivers around this spring, each should get a genuine look. Come fall, the position group will welcome three more incoming freshmen, creating some version of depth.

Spring Roster:
— Rising junior Chase Claypool (pictured above) will lead the way at boundary receiver, if recovered from December shoulder surgery. Despite that injury qualification, Claypool may be the only sure thing of the initial alignment.
— Rising senior Miles Boykin will at least get a chance to earn a starting role at field receiver.
— Rising junior Javon McKinley and rising sophomore Jafar Armstrong are the obvious candidates to fight for backup duties at boundary and field, while early-enrolled freshman Micah Jones presents as a prototypical field option.
— Rising sophomore Michael Young, fifth-year Freddy Canteen and rising senior Chris Finke will all be in the mix at slot receiver.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Kevin Austin joins Jones as a physical option in the class, offering a large target for whomever starts at quarterback, while incoming freshmen Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys will provide top-end speed.

Miles Boykin’s 55-yard game-winning touchdown in the Citrus Bowl showcased both his strong hands and playmaking abilities, but he will need to prove more consistent this spring if he wants to earn a starting role. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Claypool and Boykin should get the first chances at starters’ roles, and Claypool’s 2017 performance will likely give him some cushion in that competition moving forward. Boykin’s Citrus Bowl heroics, however, are not necessarily enough to outright overshadow the rostered talent untapped to date, namely McKinley, who spent last season recovering from a broken leg suffered in late October of 2016.

A year ago, Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long considered the possibility of starting three large targets at receiver. In time, Claypool established himself as a quality counterpart to St. Brown, but Boykin never quite broke though, one memorable catch aside. That positional theme will likely be brought to the surface again, but Boykin will need to prove its merit.

The competition among Young, Canteen and Finke could last into the fall. Notre Dame presumably promised Canteen two years when he transferred from Michigan, thus the invite for a fifth year, and upholding that guarantee is the right decision. Nonetheless, Canteen will need to earn a starting spot. Health will be the first key for him, after nagging injuries limited him throughout 2017 just like they did when he was with the Wolverines.

Young and Finke create the stereotypical “young talent against consistent producer” dilemma. Young’s ceiling may be higher, but Finke has been reliable each and every time he has been given an opportunity in his career. As much as some like to say the Irish may have beaten Georgia if Stepherson wasn’t silently suspended, one could wonder what might have happened if Finke had been involved in the passing game before the fourth quarter. He was not targeted a single time before that final frame, at which point he turned five attempts into three catches for 36 yards.

Biggest (Reader) Question(s):
Curious if you think these speedster WRs can play right away. I think ND really lost something when Stepherson got the boot. That kid was quick and it would be nice to know these guys can match his speed and step in right away.” nudeman

This specific view may be more of a summer or fall concern, when Keys and Lenzy arrive, than it will be a spring possibility, but the overlying point is valid. Notre Dame lost its greatest speed threat with the continued missteps from Stepherson.

This spring, that absence may be where Canteen justifies his fifth-year roster spot. Again, if the Irish coaching staff assured him he would get to fulfill his collegiate eligibility at Notre Dame, standing by that is the right choice. Such an offer may have been made based solely on Canteen’s (healthy) speed.

Even if Keys and/or Lenzy arrive in the summer and prove faster than Canteen, his knowledge of the system would give him a leg up for at least the first few weeks of the season, and his speed could be the difference in a game or two.

Of those receivers around this spring, Canteen is likely the fastest, and he may be the one to look to when replacing Stepherson’s breakaway abilities.

Javon McKinley was a “big get” for Notre Dame, but seems to have dropped off the grid. I’m not seeing him in any projected two-deeps for 2018. — Ken M.

McKinley was spending a prototypical freshman season contributing on special teams before he broke his leg. With the receiver depth chart not a concern last season, the decision to have him preserve a year of eligibility while getting back to full health made sense, but it also led to him “dropping off the grid.”

He will be back in the mix this spring. Worry not, Ken.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Claypool: 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns in 12 games.
Boykin: 12 catches for 253 yards and two touchdowns in 12 games including that one ho-hum reception to end the season.
Finke: Six catches for 102 yards.
Young: Four catches for 18 yards and one Citrus Bowl score.
Canteen: One catch for seven yards in three games.

2017 Departures:
The exits of St. Brown (33 catches for 515 yards and four touchdowns) and Stepherson (19 catches for 359 yards and five scores in eight games) will continue to get the most mention, but outgoing transfer C.J. Sanders should be included, as well, even if he failed to gain a receiving yard last season. When discussing a lack of speed options this spring, his absence will be quite noticeable. The same could be said for Cam Smith (eight catches for 60 yards and a score in score games), but he was out of eligibility, so the departure is not as stark.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Kevin Austin and Micah Jones
Notre Dame gets the letter: Lawrence Keys
Notre Dame signs consensus four-star WR Braden Lenzy at end of early signing period

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions
Tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent
Defensive line, a returning strength

Notre Dame gets the letter: Lawrence Keys, consensus three-star receiver


Lawrence Keys

McDonogh 35 High School; New Orleans

Measurements: 5’11”, 160 lbs.

Accolades: Consensus three-star prospect, No. 22 recruit in Louisiana, per rivals.com.

Other Notable Offers: Holding offers from the likes of Georgia, LSU, Michigan and Oklahoma, Keys’ recruitment came down to Notre Dame and Texas.

Projected Position: Receiver.

Quick Take: Keys brings more speed to the Irish receiving corps. His measurements may indicate he is slight of frame, but that would not be wholly accurate. Nonetheless, time spent in a collegiate strength and conditioning program will diminish those concerns and help Keys fit more in line with what Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long typically prefers in receivers.

Short-Term Roster Outlook: Notre Dame’s current receivers do not boast an excess of top-end speed, especially after the dismissal of current sophomore Kevin Stepherson and the intended transfer of junior C.J. Sanders. Keys will not arrive as highly-touted for his speed as classmate Braden Lenzy will, but if he can establish himself before the Oregon track star does, then there may be a role for Keys right away.

Long-View Depth Chart Impact: Even if Lenzy gets the nod ahead of Keys this season, the latter will have plenty of chances moving forward, considering they are essentially the only two burners in the Irish receiving room at the moment. Junior Chris Finke is certainly quick and graduate transfer Freddy Canteen was brought in largely for his speed when healthy, but neither has the ability to take the top off a secondary like Lenzy and Keys should.

Keys is the fourth receiver in this class. That is quite a haul in every respect, and from a pure numbers standpoint, it sets up Notre Dame very well for the next few years.

Kevin Stepherson, three others no longer on Notre Dame roster

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Irish head coach Brian Kelly and Notre Dame parted ways with four underclassmen Tuesday, in a move only partially-expected. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, sophomore running back Deon McIntosh, freshman running back C.J. Holmes and junior defensive tackle Brandon Tiassum are no longer part of the team, a University spokesperson confirmed.

Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated first reported the dismissals. The spring semester began Tuesday.

Stepherson’s departure, at least, was widely-expected after a December weekend of bad decisions brought his count of mishaps to four during his brief Irish career and induced an indefinite suspension. The lesser of those transgressions came with Holmes at his side, as the duo was charged with shoplifting from a nearby mall. Stepherson was also charged with possession of marijuana, speeding and driving without a valid license. Back in August of 2016, he was one of five players charged with marijuana possession, though no suspension came from that issue.

Following the shoplifting incident but before the additional Stepherson charges had come to light, Kelly expressed distinct disappointment in the choice made on a Friday night.

“You can’t steal, and they did,” he said. “I can tolerate a lot of things, but I can’t tolerate stealing. That’s why they’re suspended indefinitely and they put themselves in jeopardy.”

Kelly said he did hope to keep the players, specifically Stepherson, eligible so if they were removed from the team a transfer may be in their futures.

“If I wasn’t to have him back in the football program we want him to maintain his eligibility here so he can transfer to another program,” Kelly said.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh provided crucial depth for Notre Dame as ankle sprains limited juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

McIntosh was sent home from Orlando during Citrus Bowl preparations due to a violation of team rules. Tiassum’s exit will be a question for the time being, with no public knowledge of any issues.

While long-presumed, the loss of Stepherson still bears the most notice. When engaged, he was Notre Dame’s most explosive receiver, finishing 2017 with 359 yards and five touchdowns on 19 catches in only eight games, with genuine offensive involvement in only six. He caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five scores in his freshman season.

Cutting ties with both McIntosh and Holmes comes as a bit more of a surprise and will cut deep into the Irish running back depth. As ankle injuries limited the running game mainstays, McIntosh provided a reserve option, finishing the year with 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries, a 5.7 yards per rush average. Holmes was activated to further counteract the injury concerns. If McIntosh were banged up, Notre Dame theoretically had one more option. He finished with eight carries for 32 yards.

Without the two backups, the Irish have only three running backs currently on the roster in junior Dexter Williams, sophomore Tony Jones and early-enrolled Jahmir Smith. Williams and Jones were likely to remain the top two on the depth chart, mitigating McIntosh and Holmes again, but the depth is always crucial at running back, as 2017 certainly proved.

Tiassum was unlikely to see much playing time in the future thanks to the returns of junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner announced Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Tiassum made two tackles in 2017.

Bonner’s decision to return brought the Irish roster up to 87 players with three spots open in the current recruiting cycle. That count had already presumed Stepherson off the roster. Thus, this development drops that number to 84, including committed consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones. The NCAA maximum allowed come fall is 85.

Notre Dame’s leading receiver, Equanimeous St. Brown, heads to the NFL

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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.