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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
DT: Jarron Jones, Sr.
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.
Reports: DT Jarron Jones suffers serious knee injury
Late Friday evening, rumors started swirling about a potentially serious knee injury to starting defensive tackle Jarron Jones. The senior from Rochester, New York, who is coming off a foot injury suffered late last season that required surgery, is a key building block to the Irish’s defensive front.
Most are reporting that the injury is serious, with multiple outlets (usually behind paywalls) citing sources that tell them Jones tore his ACL. If that is the case, the senior’s season is over before it started. There’s been some ambiguity in other reports, leaving a slice of hope that Jones’ 2015 season can be salvaged.
(I have not been able to confirm a season-ending injury or ACL tear.)
Whatever the case, expect some clarity later today, as Brian Kelly is meeting with the media after today’s practice. We’ll dig into what’s next for the defense after Notre Dame’s head coach gives us an update.
What a difference a day makes. Just 48 hours into our rollout and Notre Dame announces it’ll be without our No. 24 player on the list, running back Greg Bryant. Already lost for the first third of the season, Bryant’s inability to handle his business in the classroom adds another detour to a promising football career that may never get back on course.
But for as important as Bryant may be on paper, he was essentially Notre Dame’s No. 3 running back. So for all the five-star hopes, if this is “the big preseason story” that usually collides with Brian Kelly’s team in its opening days, the Irish should feel lucky.
Now back to the players eligible in 2015…
After looking at five experienced players who’ll help make up the core of the Irish, our next five players found ways to either play very good football, or at least show the ability to be able to do that.
There’s a multi-year starter. One of the team’s most impressive breakout defenders. A preseason All-American and a defender who—if healthy—has the same ceiling. And oh yeah, the team’s returning MVP.
2015 IRISH TOP 25 RANKINGS
25. Jerry Tillery, DL 24. Greg Bryant, RB 23. Durham Smythe, TE 22. Matthias Farley, DB 21. Quenton Nelson, LG
20. Nyles Morgan, LB 19. Chris Brown, WR 18. Elijah Shumate, S 17. Corey Robinson, WR 16. Mike McGlinchey, OT
15. Steve Elmer (RG, Junior): Elmer started last season at right tackle, a tough fit for a young player who had just learned how to play guard on the fly. While he’s certainly got the size to play on the edge, Elmer’s body control sometimes let him down, lunging his way out of position and missing—sometimes badly—on blocks.
But after three games, Elmer slid back inside to guard and his play almost immediately improved. And while there were still some high-profile rough patches, by season’s end Elmer had put together an impressive sophomore season, and found a permanent home at guard.
With NFL size and above-average athleticism, Elmer seems primed to have an elite season. He’s a high IQ played and with the chance to play two-straight seasons next to Mike McGlinchey, the right side of the Irish offensive line has really nice upside.
Highest Ranking: 8th. Lowest Ranking: 18th.
14. Isaac Rochell (DE, Junior): It looked like Notre Dame was going to have a huge question mark at defensive end last season when Rochell stepped into the starting lineup. While Brian Kelly sounded confident with his praise during preseason that Rochell could capably replace Ishaq Williams, it was hard to project greatness for Rochell after a mostly anonymous freshman season where he filled in sparingly.
But Rochell’s play up front was probably the best surprise on the defense. He held up well against the run. He made plays behind the line of scrimmage—with 7.5 TFLs and 10 quarterback hurries. But most important? He stayed healthy. On a defense that seemed to lose a body every game down the stretch, Rochell started all 13.
Where’s the pass rush going to come from in 2015? Why not Rochell? A three-down player who can kick inside on third down if Brian VanGorder wants to put some speed on the edge, Rochell has already shown the productivity of his more heralded teammate Sheldon Day, and he’s still just scratching the surface.
Highest Ranking: 8th. Lowest Ranking: 22nd.
13. Max Redfield (S, Junior): As you can see from the variance in ballots, the jury is still out on Redfield. When Notre Dame’s junior safety was named to Phil Steele’s All-American team, a few Irish fans chuckled. That certainly wasn’t the safety who got benched for a one-armed Austin Collinsworth and true freshman Drue Tranquill.
But Redfield salvaged last season against LSU. After hurting his ribs against USC, Redfield came back and played a productive football game, notching 14 tackles for a defense that badly needed support from its safeties.
One of the best athletes on the team, we heard this spring that the lightbulb turned on for the former five-star recruit. Checking in at No. 13, it’s pretty clear that this is still very much a wait-and-see proposition for this group, though it shouldn’t be a huge surprise if Redfield takes a big leap forward in his second season playing in VanGorder’s system. For the sake of the defense, they need Redfield to do it.
12. Joe Schmidt (LB, Grad Student): Again, our panel had a big difference of opinion on Notre Dame’s returning Team MVP. Some (me included) had him among the team’s top players. That was based on both above-average productivity as well as the mental part of Schmidt’s game that kept the defense on the same page.
Yet others see Schmidt for what he is: An undersized veteran who is surrounded by athletes at his position that look and fit the role of a middle linebacker better. Add in a more-serious-than-discussed ankle and leg injury, and Schmidt’s road back to the starting lineup may not be as difficult as the one that got him there to begin with, but it’s no easy stroll.
Ultimately, Schmidt’s production tipped the scales to allow him to sneak into the top half of our 25-man list. But as the personnel on this roster continues to improve, Schmidt’s ceiling may not match with the best players on this team, so he’ll have to continue to find a way to maximize his performance.
Highest Ranking: 5th. Lowest Ranking: 25th.
11. Jarron Jones (DL, Senior): If Jones wasn’t coming off a late-season foot injury, you could probably expect him to be closer to top-five than just outside the top ten. But then again, we’re still at a point in Jones’ career where the sample size is still relatively small.
For as dominant as Jones was against Florida State, Notre Dame’s senior defensive tackle is still learning the tricks of the trade. That stems from a slow start after a redshirt season spent at defensive end and a sophomore season only saved by an emergency Senior Day performance at nose tackle after Louis Nix and Kona Schwenke went down.
By nature, Jones is a productive player. While his body is sometimes doing the wrong thing, he has a knack for making plays. He’s dangerous as a kick blocker (it helps to be nearly 6-foot-6). He’s also shown an ability to wreak havoc in the backfield. But at No. 11, it feels like there’s still some worry about his healthy before our panel is assured that Jones is the type of talent who could emerge on the national stage.
Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: 17th.
Our 2015 Irish Top 25 panel Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish Bryan Driskell, Blue & Gold Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily Nick Ironside, Irish 247 Tyler James, South Bend Tribune Michael Bryan, One Foot Down Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated Jude Seymour, Her Loyal Sons JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago John Vannie, NDNation John Walters, Newsweek