Jarron Jones

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Mailbag: What impact will Jones and Smythe have in Fiesta Bowl?

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Too many good questions, not enough space. So I figured we should spread some of these questions out and take some time with it.

Let’s start off with a good one from good ol’ Bern, who is wondering what a slightly healthier Notre Dame roster will look like against Ohio State.

(question shortened and clarified, so I actually have something to answer.)

 

bernhtp: What is the likely impact of the return of (Durham) Smythe and (Jarron) Jones?

How about this for an answer—both incredibly significant, yet maybe not all that statistically impactful.

I’ll start with the most important part: Both of these guys are practicing and preparing for a game. That’s just so critical when you think about a season that would’ve been essentially lost to injury with no football even practiced until spring. Now Smythe is back on the field for the first time since Virginia and Jones gets his first chance to play in 2015—in one of the best matchups of the bowl season. If Jones is capable of getting his fitness level up, he can all but announce his presence for 2016 as he likely profiles as Notre Dame’s next defensive All-American candidate.

With limited updates from Brian Kelly over the past week, we haven’t heard much more on the return of these two veterans after season-ending injuries. But Smythe was ahead of Jones progress wise and I don’t think that’ll change any time soon. I expect to see Smythe in the starting lineup and Jones at least making an impact in the trenches as the Irish try to slow down Ezekiel Elliott.

I didn’t get wrapped up in Smythe’s emergence this preseason—I kept expectations fairly modest, hoping Smythe would end up with 20 catches. That obviously didn’t happen, but while the offense absorbed the throws intended for him, they struggled blocking in the trenches with Tyler Luatua, Nic Weishar, Chase Hounshell and Alizé Jones. Trusting a tight end in the red zone is also important, and when you’re look for reasons why the red zone offense sometimes sputtered, it’s fair to wonder if Smythe would’ve helped the execution (I put more of that on first-time quarterbacks.)

Expecting anything major from Jones might be pushing it. While Taylor Decker gets most of the acclaim, guard Pat Elflein graded out as the Buckeyes highest-graded offensive lineman. Teamed with center Jacoby Boren, both are undersized but veteran players who’ll challenge the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive front. Getting Jones 15 to 20 snaps will be a great accomplishment, and from there you just have to think that the 320-pounder will find a way to push the point of attack.

 

 

Jarron Jones, Durham Smythe both on track to return for Fiesta Bowl

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 11: Jarron Jones #94 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes against Jon Heck #71 of the North Carolina Tar Heels at Notre Dame Stadium on October 11, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame will welcome back two long-injured starters for the Fiesta Bowl as Jarron Jones and Durham Smythe both return to practice this week and are on track to play, Brian Kelly said Sunday.

Jones, expected to be Notre Dame’s starting nose tackle heading into the year, will play his first game of the season, lost in preseason camp to a knee injury. Smythe went down in week two against Virginia, with surgeries performed on both his shoulder and knee that kept him out for the remainder of the regular season.

Jones’ return comes just as the Irish get ready to face Ezekiel Elliott and an Ohio State running game that’s among the best in the country. He’ll finally have a chance to return to the lineup next to Sheldon Day, a duo that was expected to be among the best interior pairings in the country.

“Jarron Jones is cleared for full practice and participation, beginning Thursday,” Kelly said. “It’ll just be a matter of increasing the volume as we work through the bowl preparations… I think we can increase his volume where he can be playing for us and contributing.”

What that workload will be remains to be seen. Kelly talked about the strength challenges that come with rehabbing a major knee injury, though did say that he thought Jones was at around 90 percent, turning most of December into a conditioning and strength setup.

At tight end, the Irish will welcome Smythe back, especially as they look to develop consistency at the position heading into 2016. With the ground game needing solid perimeter blocking from an attached tight end, if Smythe is all the way healthy, he’ll have a chance to fill that role.

“I know [head trainer] Rob Hunt thinks we can get Durham to where he was in August,” Kelly said.

The Irish also expect to have James Onwualu back for the bowl game. The junior linebacker injured his knee against Wake Forest and missed the regular season’s two final games. C.J. Prosise‘s high ankle sprain still needs time to heal, but his cast was off and he’ll likely have a chance to finish the season on the field as well. KeiVarae Russell‘s return looks less likely.

 

As injuries mount, Kelly acknowledges depth chart has breaking point

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish returns a fumble against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Next Man In has been a bedrock philosophy for Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. But even he understands that the Irish are approaching a breaking point.

The loss of Drue Tranquill is the latest season-ending injury for the Irish, pushing the Irish coaching staff into a sticky spot at safety, the latest position group to see its depth chart tested. And as the Irish move forward this week as their focus turns to UMass, Kelly acknowledged that the Irish need to weather the storm, especially at a few key positions.

“Certainly we can’t afford to lose any more players at key positions,” Kelly said. “Quarterback, running back, you start to get into true freshmen, and that will be obviously a significant change in what we look like.”

At quarterback, true freshman Brandon Wimbush was warming up on the sidelines when Georgia Tech recovered an onside kick and held onto the football. Expect to see Wimbush this weekend, with Kelly knowing full well that he needs to get his young quarterback experience before he heads to Death Valley.

Behind C.J. Prosise, freshman Josh Adams received just three carries on Saturday. But both he and Dexter Williams will likely get a chance to wet their feet against a UMass defensive front that gave up 390 rushing yards to the Colorado Buffaloes.

With Tranquill the latest hard-luck Domer to go down, the safety position gets interesting. Avery Sebastian is still a few weeks away from returning, likely after the off week. Max Redfield stayed off the field on Saturday, both scheme and a broken hand limiting him.

That could lead to utilityman Matthias Farley stepping into the lineup, at a position that’s not exactly his natural spot. Or it could means freshman Nicco Fertitta is activated. Kelly was candid when he said he and Brian VanGorder hadn’t decided what to do yet.

“Matthias has the ability to play a couple of different positions,” Kelly explained. “Brian (VanGorder) and I have not had that personnel conversation yet relative to what will be the next move that we make there. Whether we bring somebody up into that role, or whether it’s Nicco Fertitta, or do we have (Nicky) Baratti move. We’ve got to make that decision here in the next 24 hours. I’m not really sure yet.”

The loss of Tranquill takes away an important piece of Notre Dame’s option puzzle, with Navy still to come. And with the defense already short Jarron Jones and nickel back Shaun Crawford, how this team keeps things together remains to be seen.

“There is a break point. You know, we are still at a point where we have guys that can come in and step in,” Kelly said. “But there’s no question that we have to be able to stem the tide here with these injuries.”

Injuries mean opportunities for young talent

Kris Boyd, Josh Adams
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Notre Dame lost Tarean Folston on his third carry of the season, with the junior running back tearing his ACL within the first 10 minutes of the season. The injury hurts the Irish depth chart, taking a frontline player from a position group that already was thin on numbers and experience.

Folston’s injury is the second one of Notre Dame’s building blocks to go down. The Irish already lost Jarron Jones in preseason camp, the starting defensive tackle rolled up in a pile and done for the year, erasing a large piece of experience (and talent) in the trenches.

But injuries happen. And while Irish fans thinking back on last season’s injury-plagued demise are likely looking over their shoulder, Brian Kelly‘s team soldiers on.

So a program that’s long held the tenet “Next Man In” will call on the credo one more time, with the sixth-year head coach ready to show that injuries also create opportunities.

After all, before there was KeiVarae Russell, there was serious worries about how the Irish would replace cornerback Lo Wood. Russell would’ve likely never played on the defensive side of the ball had it not been for an Achilles injury to Wood, paired with the preseason departure of Tee Shepard.

Don’t forget Joe Schmidt. Notre Dame’s captain and underdog story might just be another special teams ace if not for the injury to Jarrett Grace and depth issues plaguing Bob Diaco’s 2013 unit.

A football coach likely knows the best way to make God laugh—tell him your (preseason) plans. So while the on-paper team we saw coming together this offseason is already off course, the Irish coaching staff was likely expecting the unexpected. That’s why Kelly and his assistant coaches are spending today preaching a new lesson to the bottom-half of a very talented roster.

“We have some young guys that we think are still capable of playing for us that are down on the depth chart a little bit. They kind of have that look like, well, I may never get out of this position that I’m in,” Kelly said after the game on Saturday.

“I told our coaches, it’s important that you go to these guys on Monday and let them know, they are probably going to get an opportunity to play this year. And to continue to work with them and continue to build their confidence that when we call on you, be ready, because we think we have some depth that may have to play for us and they are quality players.”

Those plans likely include activating Dexter Williams, a running back that in an ideal situation may have saved a year of eligibility. They include a tag-team at defensive tackle with sophomore Daniel Cage and Jerry Tillery, and likely snaps from guys further down the depth chart, especially with Georgia Tech right around the corner.

Notre Dame’s work on the recruiting trail, and Kelly’s six-year efforts to rework the Irish roster are taking hold. And that will allow a talented freshman class that looked ready to wait its turn push for every opportunity it can get.

“Any top-notch football program has to be able to call on some of these freshmen players that have the mental and physical—and I underline the mental, as well as the physical ability—to come in and compete right away, because it creates competition within your program that rises all ships,” Kelly said. “And that means the upperclassmen, as well.”

We’ve seen that in the secondary, where junior cornerback Devin Butler fought his way into the lineup as the unlikely outside cornerback in nickel situations. We’ve also likely seen DeShone Kizer take a step forward, noticing the talent of freshman Brandon Wimbush. That applies to all positions across the board.

Josh Adams has made my two veteran running backs better, because of his level of play, and that’s across the board. Equanimeous St. Brown has made Will Fuller better,” Kelly said.

“So when you get a freshman class like that that can come in and compete and play at that level, those kids see it. Those veteran kids see it, and it really drives them to be better players. And I think it’s a very, very important factor.”

Right now, you talent like Nick Coleman is making his impact on special teams. Same with Te’von Coney. But that’ll change in the coming weeks, as the Irish are forced to call on their depth as the schedule stiffens until the Irish play USC in mid-October before taking a well-earned week off.

“We like the guys we’ve got. That’s football,” Kelly said, when asked about how he moves forward without his starting running back. “We’re certainly disappointed for Tarean. He’s worked so hard to get where he is. But that’s the nature—there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s why you try to develop the depth in your program.”

 

Last looks: Defensive line

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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With the season right around the corner and preseason camp finished, it’s time to get our final preparations done before the games start counting and the journey begins. We spent the summer pumping out tens of thousands of words on Notre Dame’s evolving roster, so if you’re looking for 50 hours of easy reading, check out the Irish A-to-Z series.

But with cameras ready to roll on one of the most highly anticipated seasons in recent memory, let’s take our last looks at each position group.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE
Position Coach: Keith Gilmore

 

PROJECTED TWO-DEEP DEPTH CHART

DE: Romeo Okwara, Sr.
DT: Sheldon Day, Sr.
DT: Jerry Tillery, Fr.
DE: Isaac Rochell, Jr.

DE: Andrew Trumbetti, Soph.
DT: Jay Hayes, Soph.
DT: Daniel Cage, Soph.
DE: Jonathan Bonner, Soph.

Additional Depth:

DE: Grant Blankenship, Soph.
DT: Elijah Taylor, Fr.
DT: Jacob Matuska, Jr.
DE: Doug Randolph, Jr.
DT: Pete Mokwuah, Soph.
DT: Brandon Tiassum, Fr.
DT: Micah Dew-Treadway, Fr.

Key Injury:

DT: Jarron Jones, Sr.

 

LEADING MEN

Sheldon Day & Isaac Rochell. While Day is the returning captain, Rochell might be the one to watch this season, anchoring the strongside defensive end position, with the ability to slide inside if the unit needs him to do it. He played large last year when Ishaq Williams went down. Expect that to be the tip of the iceberg.

Day’s career at Notre Dame has been plagued by injuries, making it difficult for him to be as productive as many believe he can be. But the senior has had a strong fall camp, comes into the season healthy and will be more disruptive in his second season working with Brian VanGorder and paired with 4-3 expert Keith Gilmore.

 

NEED BIG SEASONS

Jerry Tillery Romeo Okwara/Andrew Trumbetti. Notre Dame’s asking a freshman to step into the starting lineup at defensive tackle. And the craziest part? Nobody seems that worried. That’s a huge compliment to Tillery and tells you quite a bit about the talent the Irish staff believes they have in their 6-foot-6.5, 305-pound defensive tackle.

The other big spot that absolutely needs to produce is the weakside defensive end. Coordinator Brian VanGorder has all sorts of ways to bring pressure. But the best way to succeed? Get Okwara or Trumbetti to get after the quarterback. Nobody expects this group to produce a double-digit sack master. But getting to that number in a platoon would be a great start.

 

THREE BIGGEST FACTORS…

Win against the run. It sounds simple, but early in the season Notre Dame’s front seven was remarkably stout against the run. Losing Jones is a difficult blow to the point of attack. But there’s a lot of depth here, and hopefully this group is up to the task, destroying blocks, getting in the backfield and letting the Irish’s fleet linebackers get to the football.

 

Combatting tempo. Nobody wanted to talk about it, but this defense feels good about their adjustments against uptempo offenses. Last year, the Irish were exploited starting with North Carolina and then against pretty much anybody else who wanted to go fast.

Sprinting massive defensive tackle Daniel Cage off the field isn’t the answer. We’ll see if they figured one out, likely in week three against Georgia Tech.

 

Stopping the option. With Georgia Tech and Navy both on the schedule, stopping the triple-option will be critical. Notre Dame’s brought in a recruited walk-on to better simulate the scout team. They’ve also added a defensive line coach that teaches the attacking style of play that Brian VanGorder prefers.

VanGorder likely went horse on media day repeating the talking points that nobody truly stops an option attack, with 350 yards on the ground an average day at the office for the Yellow Jackets and the Midshipmen. But here’s hoping that Bobby Elliott’s recon work helped the defensive staff shove a few tricks up their sleeve.

 

THREE RANDOM THOUGHTS

No better time than now, Sheldon Day. Rarely has Notre Dame’s staff been bullish on a player who’s performance has been decidedly… eh. Sure injuries get in the way and a scheme shift likely disrupted some of Day’s development, but we’ve been talking about Aaron Donald when discussing Day. It’s up to the senior defender to make that comparison even in the same ballpark.

 

Is Rochell’s slide inside inevitable? I’m not saying that it is, but if Jerry Tillery gets knicked up even in the slightest, I think it has to be. Rochell played on the inside against LSU. He’ll likely do it on third downs. So while Kelly and BVG have been quick to say that Rochell isn’t going anywhere, he’ll be surrounded by defensive linemen on quite a few snaps already, so this might just be holding the cards close in the preseason, especially in a system that’ll likely be more multiple this year.

 

Can the other kids be alright? I don’t know anybody who isn’t buying into Tillery’s skill set. But if this group is going to be a CFB Playoff level unit, they’re going to need to get big contributions from some of the other first and second-year players.

Key pieces: Jay Hayes, Jonathan Bonner, Grant Blankenship and Daniel Cage. I’m almost discounting Andrew Trumbetti from this group, but he counts, too. And it’ll be interesting to see what this unit gets out of Elijah Taylor. He’s a thick, barrel-chested stocky guy who can eat some space.

These are young, developmental prospects who are desperately needed to step up and play a supporting role. If they can do it, this defense can achieve its goals.