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Brian Kelly on suspensions, Notre Dame’s fifth-years’ timetable

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Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly expressed disappointment and perhaps even frustration when discussing the indefinite suspensions of Irish sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson and freshman running back C.J. Holmes on Thursday.

“We ask our players to be smart and make good choices,” Kelly said. “You’re always disappointed.

“They’re teenagers. I don’t go into this business expecting our kids to be perfect. We expect our kids to make good choices and when they don’t, they have to be held accountable. There’s always going to be growing experiences and the most important thing is to hold them accountable.”

Stemming from an arrest for shoplifting on Dec. 15, this marks the third “growing experience” for Stepherson. He was arrested in August of 2016 along with four teammates for marijuana possession and, separately, was held out of the first four games in 2017. Unsurprisingly, those previous missteps will factor into how Kelly measures indefinite this time around.

“I’m not going to get into the specifics of what [Stepherson’s] future is going to be but it’s clearly a young man that has made a poor choice and it’s not his first,” Kelly said. “We have to evaluate all those things before I make a final decision on his status here within the program.”

Both Stepherson and Holmes — and, for that matter, junior tight end Alizé Mack who is also suspended for the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 vs. LSU for an internal team matter unrelated to academics — remain eligible with the University. To a degree, that lessens the need for Kelly to make an immediate decision about Stepherson’s future.

Kelly will not decide on Stepherson’s place with the program until after the bowl game, perhaps not even until the beginning of the spring academic semester.

“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. “… I’m not in a rush to do it. He’s suspended indefinitely and then I’ll make what I believe to be the decision based on what’s best for our football program.”

If Kelly does or does not opt to give Stepherson a fourth chance, it will be due to the (lack of) severity of the most-recent situation. On one hand, trying to dodge a double-digit purchase pales in comparison to, for example, getting arrested for possessing a handgun. On the other, shoplifting is a premeditated decision with a clear victim, even if that victim is a large corporation.

“If I could explain 18- to 21-year-olds and their thought processes after being in [coaching] for 27 years, I would have written that book already,” Kelly said. “We try to expose our kids to the foundational principles of making good decisions.

“They broke one of our commandments. You can’t steal. And they did. I can tolerate a lot of things, but I can’t tolerate stealing.”

Stepherson finished 2017 with 19 catches for 359 yards and five touchdowns with five rush attempts gaining 76 yards. In his freshman season, he caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five scores.

Fifth-year news forthcoming
Kelly and his staff know the plans for the seniors who may or may not return in 2018, but those roster decisions will not be announced until the season concludes, Kelly said.

Linebacker Drue Tranquill and tight end Nic Weishar have publicly declared intentions to return next season while defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner told Notre Dame’s student newspaper, The Observer, he does not plan to do so.

The most obvious other options for returning for fifth years of eligibility would be center Sam Mustipher, right guard Alex Bars, defensive end Jay Hayes, cornerback Nick Watkins and punter Tyler Newsome.

In a way, the same goes for any players considering entering the NFL Draft. Players who requested draft evaluations will receive them before heading home for Christmas.

Juniors defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, running back Josh Adams, receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and Mack are presumably weighing that option.

On Brandon Wimbush
The junior quarterback is now practicing without his Nos. 2 and 3 receivers in sophomore Chase Claypool and Stepherson, respectively, as well the fourth-leading producer (by receptions) in Mack. Kelly said Wimbush’s focus nonetheless remains on improving as a passer, no matter who he is targeting.

“He’s really focusing on his mechanics and being much more consistent throwing the football,” Kelly said. “… The last couple of days it’s really about him being more consistent in his delivery. I think he’s done a nice job in some of the things we’ve asked him to do mechanically.

“[The change in receivers] is not something he’s had to concern himself with as much as accuracy, delivering the ball on time, getting the ball out of his hands. It’s really about him and his focus on his work more than anything else.”

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Notre Dame announces Alizé Mack suspension

Notre Dame announces Alizé Mack suspension

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Notre Dame suspends WR Kevin Stepherson and RB C.J. Holmes
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Notre Dame’s eight offensive signees: Brian Kelly’s takes

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He never specifically said who he was thinking of, but it was plenty clear Notre Dame recruiting director Brian Polian was referring to one player in particular when he pumped the brakes on the expectations around the Irish class of 2018 and the 20 commits who signed Wednesday.

“Let’s be careful about who are anointing the next stars,” said Polian, also the Notre Dame special teams coordinator. “That puts pressure on 17-, 18-year-old kids. That’s not fair. …

“Obviously we feel these young men can come in and compete at a high level but sometimes it takes time, and we need to allow for that learning curve and that process before we start anointing guys as saviors.”

In other words, consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec may be very good, but it seems unwise, quick-triggered and misguided to heap undue expectations upon a high school senior.

Then again, Irish head coach Brian Kelly was far from conservative in his effusive praise of Jurkovec in the first public comments Kelly was allowed to offer on the Pennsylvania product.

Consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland High School; Gibsonia, Pa.)
Measurements: 6’5”, 200 lbs.
U.S. Army All-American
Brian Kelly’s take: “I think he’s the best quarterback in the country. He’s somebody that I could put up against any quarterback that I’ve ever seen. …
“The reviews about him leading as a sophomore, at his age. He wasn’t a sophomore that was held back. He was a young sophomore that was out there leading his football team against really good competition. That was something that we needed to go see — presence, leadership ability, you have to see that in person. How he interacts with his teammates when he comes back on the sideline. To see that as a sophomore, it was important for us in this recruiting process of making decisions on quarterbacks that I needed to know about his makeup and that gave us the first glimpse of who he was and what his makeup was. …

“When I got a chance to go watch him play basketball, just his drive, his competiveness, his interaction with his teammates, those things you can’t get in the gym. You can get a little stronger, certainly you can continue to throw and build relationships in one-on-one, but you can’t get those traits that separate the good from the great.”
“This year they spread the field with massive splits and the ball was going all the way out to the numbers with great accuracy and speed. So what we saw in this past year was just a really quick release. Then we saw the ability to run the offense at the line of scrimmage, get into the right plays, run the football, just a complete control of what was going on out there. A clinic, at times.”

Consensus four-star receiver Kevin Austin (North Broward Prep; Pompano Beach, Fla.)
Measurements: 6’3”, 185 lbs.
Offense-Defense All-American
Kelly’s take:
“Kevin Austin is a unique player in that he can play all three positions for us. We wanted somebody that has versatility at that position. He can play X, Z and W. Smooth player, catches the ball extremely well, has great speed. We wanted somebody that wasn’t going to be penciled into a position.”

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township; Gurnee, Ill.)
Measurements: 6’5”, 205 lbs.
Kelly’s take:
“Micah is more of a boundary player, big, physical, can win one-on-one matchups. We love that about him and his size.”

Kelly on further receiver recruiting: “Obviously we need to continue to recruit at that position. We’re hoping to add to that position in this cycle to balance off the receiving crew. …
“The receivers, to be frank with you, they all get to come in and compete for starting positions, and that’s how I’ve articulated it to them.”

Rivals.com four-star tight end George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.)
Measurements: 6’6”; 235 lbs.
U.S. Army All-American

Consensus three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan School; Norcross, Ga.)
Measurements: 6’4”, 225 lbs.

Kelly’s take on both Takacs and Tremble: “We needed to replace [Durham Smythe] and then add into this cycle. George and Tommy are terrific athletes that can be in line or they can spread out. They keep fitting the exact profile that we’ve been recruiting over the last few years at that position.”

Consensus three-star running back Jahmir Smith (Lee County; Sanford, N.C.)
Measurements: 6’0”; 199 lbs.
Kelly’s take:
“Jahmir Smith is going to come in and if he’s got it, you play freshmen running backs. I don’t know if he’s going to beat out all those guys, but I would never tell a guy, hey, you’re going to redshirt. You let those guys go. If they’re good enough, they’re going to play.”
Polian’s take: “I am a big Jahmir Smith fan, and I’m not sure that he got the type of recognition that he deserved. He’s a big, physical back, 5-10, 5-11, nearly 200 pounds as a high school senior, north and south runner, exceptional student, terrific kid.”

Consensus three-star offensive lineman John Dirksen (Marion Local; Maria Stein, Ohio)
Measurements: 6’5”, 300 lbs.

Consensus three-star Cole Mabry (Brentwood; Tenn.)
Measurements: 6’6”, 275 lbs.

Polian’s take on both Dirksen and Mabry: “I think Mabry and Dirksen [are underrated] in terms of their length and their size. These are going to be really big men that can move their feet. We often, on the offensive line, he weighs 270 pounds now — is he going to get big enough? We have a great strength staff. The world is filled with big guys.
“[Dirksen and Mabry are] big and can move their feet and bend and athleticism. You recruit that and hand them over to [Notre Dame strength and conditioning coach Matt] Balis and his staff, and let nature take its course.”

Kelly on the viability of starting freshmen offensive linemen: “It’s a little bit harder at the offensive line, although we saw it this year with [Robert] Hainsey, which was an anomaly, if you will.”

Notre Dame’s 12 defensive signees: Brian Kelly’s takes

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In signing 12 defensive players Wednesday, Notre Dame added depth to a defense that relied on a larger rotation of players this fall than had been the case recent years. Both that change and the recruiting to adjust to it can be attributed to defensive coordinator Mike Elko, coming up on the conclusion of his first calendar year with the Irish.

“Mike’s ability to say, I know what I’m looking for, that’s number one,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in describing Elko’s impact on recruiting the class of 2018. “Then, grinding, getting on the road and grinding it out. … It’s being decisive and saying that’s who I want, and it’s grinding it out.”

As a whole, Kelly praised the defensive class, one that may yet grow but is already positioned to make an immediate impact. A year ago that might not have been the same quality of a compliment, but after a strong season for the Irish defense, a quick imprint upon it means the recruits would have earned those chances, not stumbled into them by default.

“I don’t know from a defensive standpoint that there are many of these guys that we go and say these are projects,” Kelly said. “These are guys that we think can play and academically have been given a thumbs-up in terms of the work that they’re doing. That’s pretty impressive in December.”

Consensus four-star safety Derrik Allen (Lassiter High School; Marietta, Ga.)
Measurements: 6’1”, 204 lbs.
U.S. Army All-American
Brian Kelly’s Take: “He was the first guy that we saw that had the ability to cover man-to-man, play the ball in the air and get the ball down on the ground with his size. That was the trait that we had to have in this class. It was a must, must, must. It was underlined five times. We have to find this player.
“So it was all in on that type of player, and when we saw that trait, it was just — in terms of our efforts, they all had to be focused in that direction when we saw those traits coupled with great student, great character, all other intangibles. It was a home run for us.”

Consensus four-star defensive back Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.)
Measurements: 6’1”, 192 lbs.
Under Armour All-American
Kelly’s Take: “Houston has the natural ability to play corner for us, but we are going to bring in young men that have the athletic ability to play at corner [and] we’re going to develop them and as they progress in our program — we never close the door on where they can be best-suited as they move through the program and look toward a career at the next level.
“He could be a corner, he could play nickel for us, could be a safety at the next level. He certainly has the skillset to play corner for us.”

Rivals.com three-star cornerback Tariq Bracy (Milpitas H.S.; Calif.)
Measurements: 6’0”, 170 lbs.
Recruiting director and special teams coordinator Brian Polian’s Take: “Tariq is one of these guys — one of the reasons I love him — it’s interesting their greatest strengths can sometimes be their weaknesses, too. Getting Tariq on the phone was like an act of Congress, and my wife would grow frustrated with me being downstairs on the phone at 1:30 in the morning because that was my best chance to get Tariq on the phone.
“He was not a guy that said look at me in the recruiting process, seeking offers, going to every camp to try and get his stars up. … His recruitment, frankly, probably would have been bigger had he sought that, but he was an attention-seeking guy.”

Consensus three-star defensive back Joe Wilkins, Jr. (North Fort Myers; Fla.)
Measurements: 6’2”, 175 lbs.
Kelly’s take on defensive backs in general: “The defensive players, the safeties, the corners, we all know that’s going to add competition to those ranks which is going to be a healthy situation for us. That’s what jumps out at me right away in terms of competition.”

Local consensus three-star safety Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.)
Measurements: 6’0”, 200 lbs.
Polian’s take:
“The one guy that nobody has mentioned that I love is Paul Moala, a local guy here. How special is that? That we can find a player that ultimately we believe we can compete for a national championship with that fits the academic profile and comes from 10 miles away. …
“That Irish Invasion, those summer camps, some of that is recruiting and some of that is, you want a chance, come in and show us what you got. That was the kid in this class that came in and took advantage of a camp date and crushed it.”

Consensus four-star linebacker Jack Lamb (Great Oak; Temecula, Calif.)
Measurements: 6’4”, 224 lbs.
Under Armour All-American

Consensus three-star linebacker Ovie Oghoufo (Harrison; Farmington, Mich.)
Measurements: 6’2”, 207 lbs.

Kelly’s take on both Lamb and Oghoufo: “You do a good job of evaluating the personnel, and you can see that they’re not just box players. They can play outside the box. They are guys that are extremely athletic. We would rather take them and then begin to hone in on where they can best fit in that defensive structure rather than saying, he’s a box player, that’s all he can play.
“These guys give us flexibility to see how they’re going to fill out and develop.”

Consensus four-star rover Shayne Simon (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.)
Measurements: 6’3”, 210 lbs.
U.S. Army All-American
Kelly’s take: “His ability to pick things up, very smart player. When you talk about that position, playing close to the ball certainly helps.
“Here is a guy that is over 210 pounds already, physically mature but also very smart. … Certainly when you project a player that is closer to that position already makes for an easy reach for us, but even if he was back on the hash more, I think we would still feel comfortable with what he can do for us.
Shayne is an exceptional player and a guy that we feel can come in and compete right away.”

Rivals.com four-star linebacker Matthew ‘Bo’ Bauer (Cathedral Prep; Erie, Pa.)
Measurements: 6’3”, 220 lbs.
Kelly’s take on the early enrollees, of which Bauer is one: “The early enrollee piece has to come together almost at the same time as our recommendation, and the player being on that track. It doesn’t come like this, ‘Hey, there’s a linebacker, we’re going to tell him to be an early enrollee.’
“Let’s be clear on that. There has to be an alignment in that fashion.
“In this instance, for the most part, that happened with the linebacker crew in the same fashion as our recruitment of it, more so than we went and dictated that through the recruiting process.”

Consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.)
Measurements: 6’3”, 290 lbs.
U.S. Army All-American
Kelly’s take: “Jayson has a little bit more of the length and athletic ability, if you will, to play the three[-technique]. So [he and Ja’Mion Franklin] were a great complement in terms of a shade and three that we saw out there early on. We thought they complemented each other very well.”

Consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin (North Caroline; Ridgely, Md.)
Measurements: 6’2”, 300 lbs.
Kelly’s take: “Ja’Mion has the ability to play the shade for us. He has that ability to lockout, hold the point, but also has the quickness at that position. He’s going to be a 300-plus player at that position where you’ve got to have the ability to hold the point in there.”

Consensus three-star defensive end Justin Ademilola (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.)
Measurements: 6’3”, 234 lbs.
Kelly’s take on defensive end recruiting: “If we had targeted and profiled the right fit for Notre Dame, we would have taken another pass rusher. … We’re not going to take somebody just to take somebody in this class at that position.”

Shoulder surgery sidelines Notre Dame TE Brock Wright

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Add another Notre Dame offensive skill player to the list missing the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 against No. 17 LSU. A shoulder injury will sideline freshman tight end Brock Wright, as first reported by Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated.

Surgery last week will likely limit Wright in spring practice, but its long-term effects are expected to be minimal.

Wright finishes his debut campaign with no catches in 11 games, primarily seeing action as a blocking back in specific situations. That would presumably have been his role in the postseason exhibition, as well.

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