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Monday’s Leftovers: On Notre Dame’s dual needs at defensive coordinator

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Notre Dame’s search for a defensive coordinator hinges on a balance of the near and distant futures. Ideally, Irish coach Brian Kelly would find someone who would both maintain schematic consistency and has a penchant for developing talent with time.

Neither of those traits is a common one on its own. Thus, the combination will be a difficult one to not only come across but then to also convince to join the Notre Dame coaching staff.

In most cases, the schematic consistency would not be as much of a necessity, but turning to a third approach in three seasons would likely lead to chaos within a defense previously expected to be the backbone of a 2018 season with grandiose expectations. Mike Elko’s ability to create a worthwhile unit in his vision in only one season was the welcome surprise of 2017. It is a task not easily replicated.

Notre Dame’s defense will have much better chances of success in 2018 if senior linebacker Drue Tranquill is as well-utilized as he was this season. (Getty Images)

That vision put senior safety-turned-rover Drue Tranquill in proper position for the first time in his career. (Health also helped, naturally.) It led to the rapid development and deployment of junior linebacker Te’von Coney. If Coney opts to follow Tranquill’s lead and return for one more season, the two were expected to build on those successes in Elko’s 4—2.5—4.5 system, if you’ll grant the rover as a half-count amid both the linebackers and the safeties.

A change to a 3-4 should be off the table given the personnel gathered for a year, especially considering the Irish defensive line went from a weakness to a strength over the season. The idea of taking away snaps from freshmen tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish after they spend a full year in a collegiate weight room would be a flawed concept given how impressive they were in their debut seasons with minimal appropriate strength and conditioning.

The more playing time current freshman defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (right) can see moving forward, the better it bodes for the Irish. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Yet, Kelly cannot sell out for that stability without thinking about the years down the road. It is always possible he will not be around to see Tagovailoa-Amosa’s and Hinish’s final seasons, but there is no reason to presume as much. If they do not develop, Kelly will be shorting any possible 2019 or 2020 success for the hopes of it in 2018.

In these respects, replacing a successful coordinator may hold more pressure than replacing a failed one. If Elko had not found success this fall, it would have been very easy to point to his predecessor’s failings in development, schematic implementation and recruiting as setting Elko up for failure. If the next Notre Dame defensive coordinator stumbles in 2018, no such crutches will be available, courtesy of Elko’s successes in all three categories.

Speaking of recruiting
Coney has one more week to declare any intention to head to the NFL this spring. Technically, Tranquill does, too, but such a backtracking would be inconsistent with his actions throughout his career, both on and off the field. (Yes, he flipped from a commitment from Purdue, but it was not exactly a surprise.)

One player — well, 12 players, but one in particular as an example — heavily influenced by Elko does not have the option of following the assistant coach out the door. Consensus four-star linebacker Shayne Simon, just like the 11 other defensive commitments signed by the Irish during the early period in December, is bound by the signature on his National Letter of Intent as far as the NCAA is concerned.

Elko targeted Simon as a rover of the future. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds in signing day boasts, Simon has both the frame and the speed to serve the dual role of tracking down running backs and matching up with tight ends serving as pseudo-receivers. But now, there may not be a rover on the Notre Dame defense when he is due to earn his playing time.

This is both the flaw and the reality to an early signing period. Then again, it is not all that different than normal courses of action.

As an easily-found example, consider Oregon co-offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo, also handling the duties of coaching the Ducks’ quarterbacks and tight ends. When Willie Taggart arrived at Oregon as head coach the first week of December 2016, he set to filling out his coaching staff as much as he could. Arroyo did not join the Ducks until mid-February, though.

He had been busy as the running backs coach at Oklahoma State, signing three running backs in that class. Then, up he went to join Taggart.

Assistant coaches have long and often waited until after signing day to move to a new gig. Now they just do it after the early signing period but before the traditional February date, when recruits could genuinely still be considering schools. The difference is only theoretical, not actually seen in practice.

Speaking of that traditional February date …
The Irish signed 21 players in December. Another, consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy; Little Rock, Ark.), committed a week later. Thus, three spots remain in the class before Notre Dame reaches the maximum allowed of 25.

With Jones and those 21 signees, the Irish roster for 2018 currently includes 87 players. That counts both Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, also considering the NFL, as well as junior tight end Alizé Mack. It also factors in the fifth-year seniors long expected such as Tranquill, tight end Nic Weishar and center Sam Mustipher, and then one arguable surprise. ND Insider’s Eric Hansen reports receiver Freddy Canteen is expected to be one of eight returnees.

A graduate transfer from Michigan, Canteen’s 2017 was cut short by a shoulder injury. Inviting him back for another season, which he was always going to be eligible for, may be the Irish coaches honoring a two-year commitment when they recruited him last winter or it may be a sign they truly want a chance at utilizing his speed. Either way, he counts toward that 87.

Such a count does not include sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson (indefinitely suspended), senior defensive tackle Daniel Cage (health), or either of junior running back Josh Adams or junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (declared for the NFL Draft).

One way or another, that 87-to-90 needs to be at 85 by the fall. Transfers such as freshman defensive end Jonathon MacCollister’s aid that cause and are thus natural for the time of year.

Expect a few more. With 10 receivers and nine linebackers on the roster, those both seem like prime spots for further attrition, based solely on those numbers and the realities of on-field deployment.

Of those 87, six are tight ends …
Which makes sense when considering:

A thought sparked by former Irish tight end Ben Koyack winning an AFC Wild Card Game on Sunday.

U.S. Army All-American Bowl, featuring five Notre Dame signees: Who, what, when, etc.

rivals.com
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WHO? More than a hundred of the best high school seniors of the class of 2018, including five Notre Dame signees and two more targets, one of which will announce his commitment during the game.

The signed commits: Consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec.
Rivals.com four-star tight end George Takacs.
Consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola.
Consensus four-star linebacker and possible future rover Shayne Simon (pictured above).
Consensus four-star safety Derrik Allen.

Consensus five-star receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (Mater Dei High School; Anaheim, Calif.) will announce a commitment to either USC, Stanford or the Irish during the game. The Trojans seem his most likely choice.

Consensus four-star linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu (Mater Dei H.S.; Anaheim, Calif.) will also play in the exhibition, with Notre Dame still among the contenders for his commitment.

WHAT? Arguably the top of the high-school all-star games, the U.S. Army All-American Bowl is in its 19th season, having featured more than 400 eventual NFL players, per its website.

WHEN? 1:00 p.m. ET.

WHERE? The Alamodome; San Antonio, Texas. The game will be broadcast on NBC, hence its featuring in this space.

If considering watching online, this should work out for you.

WHY? It is a pretty simple argument: This will be the last chance to see these incoming freshmen in any form of competition until September, with the exception of Takacs. The Naples, Fla., product will enroll this month and should be involved in the Blue-Gold Game to conclude spring practices. Otherwise, the five, perhaps seven, will be behind a figurative curtain until any action seen in the fall.

Of the committed five, at least three of them and possibly four are likely to play for the Irish in 2018, with Takacs ironically the exception.

Ademilola’s and Simon’s chances of seeing consistent defensive snaps will rise significantly if current juniors defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and linebacker Te’von Coney opt to head to the NFL rather than return for their final seasons of collegiate eligibility. Coney’s decision notwithstanding, Simon seems primed for special teams duties.

Derrik Allen (rivals.com)

Allen may well become a starter, as has been detailed concerning the situation at safety. He told ND Insider’s Tyler James he strives to prove he is ready for that possible opportunity.

“Just show people I can move,” Allen said of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. “I’m fast. I can play safety at the next level. Show people I can do it.”

Similarly to Allen at safety, Jurkovec’s potential impact at quarterback speaks as much to the dearth of confidence there currently as it does to his talent.

ALLEN’S RESPONSE TO ELKO’S DEPARTURE
He may be only a high school senior, but Allen’s reaction to Notre Dame defensive coordinator departing for the same gig at Texas A&M was more mature than most fans’ or even current players’.

“Part of the buisness [sic],” Allen posted to Twitter on Thursday. “Sign to a place cause of their cultures and beliefs not because of a coach.”

Phil Jurkovec (rivals.com)

HOW COME JURKOVEC ISN’T ENROLLING EARLY?
Any debate about enrolling early seems unnecessary and inconceivable for those through college or irrationally cheering for a particular football team. But do not forget the subject of the debate is still a high schooler, looking to appropriately conclude what has been nearly two decades with friends. The cliché example of that nostalgic concept is prom. There are other reasons at hand, though.

Jurkovec has not only excelled on the gridiron at Pine-Richland High School, Gibsonia, Pa., but also on the hardwood.

“I’ve been playing [basketball] my whole life, so I wanted to play [this year],” Jurkovec told James while in San Antonio. “It helps me, too. For me, it shows I’m not really tapped out with football, because I don’t play football year-round. Playing basketball has really helped me develop athletically.”

BY HOW MUCH? Just kidding. It would take a real degenerate to know of a betting spread on a high school exhibition game.

WHO ELSE? Consensus four-star defensive back Houston Griffith and consensus four-star linebacker Jack Lamb partook tin the Under Armour All-American Game earlier this week.

ANOTHER OUTGOING NOTRE DAME TRANSFER
Freshman defensive end Jonathon MacCollister announced on Twitter on Friday he will head to Central Florida … as a tight end. Originally from Florida, MacCollister spent this season on the sideline, as he will be required to again in 2018 due to transfer restrictions.

“I would like to thank the University of Notre Dame and Coach [Brian] Kelly and his coaching staff for giving me an amazing opportunity to be part of one of the best institutions in the country,” MacCollister wrote. “I would also like to thank my teammates for accepting me into their family and treating me like their brother from day one, and to me they will always be my brothers.”

One of two defensive ends in his class, along with Kofi Wardlow, the likelihood of MacCollister seeing imminent playing time decreased with the rapid development of sophomore Khalid Kareem and the presumed return of senior Jay Hayes after a productive season from the veteran. Additionally, sophomore Daelin Hayes (no relation) continued strong progression and MacCollister had a future of competing with sophomores Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji for any remaining playing time.

At tight end, MacCollister never would have seen the light of day with the Irish.

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE OF THE CITRUS BOWL VICTORY:
Book and Boykin heroics give Notre Dame a Citrus victory
Things We Learned: Kelly is open to a Notre Dame QB competition; WRs emerge
Things We Learned from the season: 10-3 Notre Dame is two glaring holes from being much more

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE OF DEPARTURES:
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko leaves for Texas A&M
Friday at 4: Notre Dame not at fault in Mike Elko’s departure, but the next decision could determine 2018
C.J. Sanders to transfer from Notre Dame; DT Pete Mokwuah, as well
Notre Dame’s leading receiver, Equanimeous St. Brown, heads to the NFL
One-time Notre Dame Heisman candidate, Josh Adams declares for the NFL

OUTSIDE READING:
Future Irish QB Phil Jurkovec catches Notre Dame’s fantastic Citrus Bowl finish
Analysis: Sizing up Brian Kelly’s next step after Mike Elko’s departure from Notre Dame
Fisher tabs Elko as Aggies’ defensive coordinator
Nelson, Yoon make AP All-Bowl Team
Under Armour All-America Game viewing guide for Notre Dame fans
USC QB Sam Darnold declares for NFL Draft
The final steps of Baker Mayfield’s inimitable college football career ($)

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

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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

Friday at 4: Notre Dame not at fault in Mike Elko’s departure, but the next decision could determine 2018

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Today, it certainly seems like defensive coordinator Mike Elko left Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly holding the bag, exactly how much cash was within it notwithstanding. Elko’s departure for Texas A&M after only one season with the Irish comes as a surprise because the defense improved so drastically in his one season, because it was only one season, and because Kelly felt assured enough of Elko’s permanence for at least another year to say so publicly just a week ago.

Then the Aggies and Jimbo Fisher called Elko again, apparently upping their offer to the point Notre Dame was either not willing to match it or too bothered at being asked for a second raise in two weeks to indulge the conversation. Exactly which of those reasons was the reality hardly matters. In many respects, they are one and the same. In all respects, the result does not change.

There comes a point when paying an assistant coach an average of $2 million per year — a figure reported by ND Insider’s Eric Hansen as what Elko will receive at A&M — is counterproductive to a program’s broader goals, no matter how well that coach improved a defense both individually and as a unit in just one season.

People change. Milkshakes melt. Football staffs turnover. These are realities of life. At some point, Elko was always going to leave Notre Dame. There was an unavoidable chance it would not be on good terms.

Perhaps Irish Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick would opt to dismiss Kelly after a middling campaign. Paying the required balance of the head coach’s salary would get the headlines, but being on the hook for millions on millions to an assistant coach would be just as painful to a bank account. Maybe that would result in the next head coach feeling the burden of being encouraged to retain Elko. That relationship would be doomed from the outset.

Perhaps Elko and Kelly’s thus far harmonious relationship would sour with time. That is not a reflection on either individual. Again, people change. Such a rift could lead to a gossip mill of rumors as a buyout is negotiated as has been the case for weeks at LSU while head coach Ed Orgeron and offensive coordinator Dave Canada try to quietly part ways, though tied by millions of dollars.

Those are the obvious financial concerns to forking over such money to an assistant coach, even if an overly-ambitious offer from a school free of state income tax has set the market that high. (Quick, rough, only somewhat educated math estimates Notre Dame would have needed to outdo a $2 million Texas bid by a bit less than $100,000 to make the net incomes match.)

There is also a clear logical piece of management at hand. Whether it be Kelly, Swarbrick or a power further up the University ladder, any employer wants to avoid an all-out bidding war. It sets an unrealistic and costly precedent. Every coach considering leaving the Irish in the future would have indicated he may stay for more money. That counteroffer could then be turned around to bilk more from the prospective next employer.

The subject of a bidding war also prompts natural wondering from colleagues. Is he there because he wants to be or because the paycheck had just enough digits?

Irish coach Brian Kelly did not expect to spend the week following a Citrus Bowl victory trying to find his next defensive coordinator. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

None of that would be healthy for a Notre Dame team with lofty expectations in 2018. Those aspirations began with the thoughts of the defense growing even further under Elko. Now, they hinge on Kelly’s next hire, likely the most pivotal of his Irish tenure.

In the long view, the success of Notre Dame’s next defensive coordinator will dictate the telling of Elko’s quick departure. If Kelly finds a staffer that improves the defense even more in 2018, then the University will be applauded as prudent, thoughtful and principle-driven. If not, then that narrative shifts to cheap, short-sighted and foolish.

Neither view will necessarily be correct. Elko’s decision and Kelly’s choice are not inherently tied beyond the former creating the moment for the latter. Yet, Elko’s time ably developing the Irish defense presents two obvious options for Kelly to consider and likely spent the night already pondering.

Entering the 2017 opener against Temple, Notre Dame’s defensive line was seen as a great weakness ready to be exposed. If it was indeed a barren wasteland, it would ruin the integrity of any scheme Elko would try to deploy.

Junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery’s development this season provided a backbone to what was expected to be a spineless defensive line. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Instead, the Irish defensive front was a source of strength. Senior tackle Jonathan Bonner became a stout point of attack to close a career previously filled with little-to-no contributions. Junior tackle Jerry Tillery consistently showed an ability that had long been seen only in spurts, such that he now has to genuinely consider heading to the NFL. Freshmen tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish excelled to the point that losing both Bonner and Tillery this offseason should no longer spark panic in the hearts of Notre Dame fans.

Senior ends Jay Hayes and Andrew Trumbetti became realized contributors. Sophomore ends Daelin Hayes (no relation) and Khalid Kareem continued to progress promisingly. Defensive line coach Mike Elston deserves much credit for every piece of that growth.

He also deserves credit for the Irish managing even four wins in 2016. As interim defensive coordinator for the final eight games, he turned a disjointed unit into one that could at times be described as serviceable. Included in those eight games were a contest played in a literal hurricane and two option-dependent opposing offenses. In the five other, normal games, Elston’s defense allowed 135.8 rushing yards per game. That mark would have been the No. 30 rushing defense in the country. The opponents were not exactly patsies, either, including Stanford, Miami, Virginia Tech and USC.

Kelly interviewed Elston for the job that eventually went to Elko last offseason. The defensive line’s development and the performance in 2016 create enough of a résumé to consider him again.

If looking at the 2017 defense, the other instances of rapid development that jump off the page would be those of senior linebacker Drue Tranquill and junior linebacker Te’von Coney. Tranquill finally found the role he was designed for at rover, Elko’s preferred defensive wrinkle. His continuing there provides Notre Dame’s defense a dynamic and physical playmaker always pursuing the ball.

The leap by Coney, meanwhile, exceeds most describing. Like Tillery, he is considering heading to the NFL. If he does so specifically because of Elko’s exit, that may be the costliest result of this coaching carousel for the Irish.

Kelly should not turn to linebackers coach Clark Lea in hopes of retaining Coney. If it played out that way, it would be a nice side effect, but pinning the staffing decision on the thought process of a 21-year-old would be far too risky.

Rather, Kelly should consider Lea because the linebackers showed much progress in 2017, and because Lea would continue to implement Elko’s system, having come with him from Wake Forest. That scheme worked this season. It should continue to work next year. Maintaining that stability could further those College Football Playoff thoughts.

There are other options across the country Kelly should and undoubtedly will look into. Some of them may demand the paycheck Notre Dame was not willing to write for Elko.

Whether the Irish land one of them, promote Elston or hand the keys to Lea, the defense is still better off than it was 12 months ago. Elko deserves credit for that much.

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.