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.
Little good can ever be drawn from a 41-8 embarrassment on national television. If Notre Dame wants to have any reason to look back on what happened at Miami two weeks ago and not lament every second of the disappointment, it will need to use that experience to its advantage this weekend at another top-25 opponent.
By no means will Stanford’s “Farm” echo the Hurricanes’ Hard Rock Stadium. That atmosphere truly defined raucous. An impartial observer had no choice but to deem it outright impressive. Nonetheless, Cardinal fans will feed off the slightest early Irish mistake, just as Miami’s crowd did.
“It’s exactly what we did at Miami that you can’t do, turn the football over,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “We fed that atmosphere at Miami. … You’ve got to take care of the football. You can’t give anybody on the road that energy that gives them that extra momentum at home.”
This may seem simple. In fact, it is simple. Yet, it remains critically important on the road. When dealing with 18- to 21-year-olds, momentum can shift to steamrolling shockingly quickly. (That is, in fact, part of the allure to college football.)
The issues in south Florida went beyond turnovers. More precisely, they went beyond south Florida. Afterward, Kelly looked back on the week’s practices with some skepticism. The Irish have acknowledged their readiness was not up to the necessary standard.
“I didn’t prepare to the best of my ability Miami week, and obviously it showed,” junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush said Tuesday. “Being militant in the way we go about this week and everything that we do, so having intention to the way we practice, to the way we watch film, to the way I eat, things like that, it’ll all go into the game.”
If Notre Dame learned from the mistakes of the past, that loss can at least serve a purpose, a greater future good. If not, it was simply the moment a promising season was lost.
How will the Irish defensive line handle itself against the best offensive line it has faced this season?
By every possible metric, Notre Dame’s defensive line has exceeded expectations this year. Admittedly, little was expected.
If it plays a part in limiting Stanford’s exceptional rushing attack — averaging 215.7 yards per game and 6.41 per carry, good for No. 26 and No. 4 in the country, respectively — then it will have proven itself to be a strength heading into 2018.
Using rushing stats as the barometer with an exception for Navy’s triple-option approach, the best offensive lines the Irish have faced this season were Georgia and Miami (FL).
The Bulldogs average 267.4 rushing yards per game (No. 10 in the country) and 5.80 yards per carry (No. 9). Against the Irish, they gained 185 yards on 43 carries, a 4.30 average.
The Hurricanes average 176.7 yards per game (No. 55) and 5.32 per rush (No. 19). Notre Dame gave up 237 rushing yards on 42 attempts, a 5.64 average. (As always when discussing national rankings, none of these rushing figures are sacks adjusted.)
The Irish defensive front does not need to stop the Cardinal backs outright, only slow them. Stanford’s passing attack is decently efficient but far from genuinely dangerous. Since slipping past Oregon State in late October, a game without both Love and sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello, the Cardinal have averaged 167 yards through the air per game, completing 57.53 percent of attempts with 6.86 yards gained per attempt. That efficiency stems from defenses fearing the run, not from an overwhelmingly consistent or threatening passing attack. Thus, Notre Dame will focus on keeping the ground game in check.
Stanford junior Bryce Love will, at best, be hobbled with a bum ankle. At worst, he will not even take the field, leaving Cameron Scarlett to carry the load.
“[Scarlett] seems to be a physical back, downhill runner, a good one-cut guy,” Irish senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said Tuesday. “Can make you miss, and physical. I think he embodies what Stanford tries to be about, and that’s tough, pro-style football, and that’s being efficient, keeping the ball away from their opponent, and playing tough.”
Scarlett has seen significant time this season with Love battling the ankle injury for much of the year. Scarlett has taken 73 carries for 362 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 4.96 yards per rush.
Nonetheless, Kelly will prepare anticipating Love’s speed.
“To me, it’s his ability to break that first tackle [that sets Love apart] and then ultimately he’s got incredible speed,” Kelly said. “… He’s got elite speed and he breaks tackles, and that is a lethal mix.”
In a perfect world, both Love and Notre Dame junior running back Josh Adams would be 100 percent, with fully-supportive ankles free from all swelling. The two could try to one-up each other possession after possession without ever taking the field at the same time.
Alas, this is far from a perfect world. Speaking of which …
If not for the national holiday of gluttony Thursday, this may already be known. Instead, the junior receiver’s status in the concussion protocol may not be known until close to Saturday’s kickoff (8:14 p.m. ET; ABC).
If St. Brown is cleared to go, then the norm continues with an increasing emphasis on sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. If St. Brown is not available, look for more of junior receiver Miles Boykin.
“Boykin will go in and do a great job,” Kelly said. “We’ll just plug-and-play him. What you’ll see is his ability — in the game against Navy, he filled in very nicely, caught a couple passes, did a nice job blocking on the perimeter.
“You just take [St. Brown] out and you put Miles Boykin in there, and we keep rolling.”
Kelly described Williams (ankle; quad contusion) as “about as 100 percent as we’ve had him.” If that is the case, the junior running back will have a featured role in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s game plan.
Fifth-year receiver Cam Smith (hamstring) might be not much of a concern most weeks, but St. Brown’s questionable status could create a chance for Smith to return to the offense as a contributing piece.
Though Notre Dame’s 48-37 victory over Wake Forest was hardly ever in doubt Saturday, the Irish defense also never played up to its 2017 standard. The Demon Deacons final three scores can perhaps be chalked up to garbage time malaise, but the yardage totals before that stretch speak to an efficient offense moving the ball nearly at will.
Through two minutes less than three quarters, Wake Forest gained 352 total yards (224 passing, 128 rushing). The only thing preventing the Demon Deacons from putting genuine pressure on Notre Dame was their difficulty on third downs, converting only three of 10 to that point. For context, that is more total yards than five previous Irish opponents, including each of the last three, managed in entire games.
Before criticizing the Irish defense, some kudos should be offered to Wake Forest and head coach Dave Clawson’s staff.
“That’s the first thing I’ve told everybody tonight, hats off to Wake Forest,” Notre Dame senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said following the final victory of a successful three-game stretch at home. “Offensively they came in and executed really well. Their quarterback was crisp in his reads, getting the ball to his receivers, and they got effective in the run game.”
Naturally, Tranquill and the Irish expected to keep the Deacons in check no matter how well senior quarterback John Wolford played (28-of-45 for 331 yards and two touchdowns plus 62 rushing yards and a score on 11 carries). Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday some of the issues may have come from a schematic angle.
“From a coaching standpoint, if we had to do some things differently, we definitely would have done them differently,” Kelly said. “Maybe [we] got too cute in terms of what we were trying to accomplish, trying to cover up some things that we thought they knew about us.”
Without saying as much, Kelly seemed to be referencing the unique dynamic of Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko having spent the last three seasons in the same position at Wake Forest. If his tendencies, preferences and plans are familiar to anybody, it should be Clawson.
“We didn’t do what we normally do,” Kelly said. “We’ll take some of the blame for that in terms of coaching.”
Then, there is the indifference created by a large lead. Kelly specifically referenced Notre Dame’s 41-16 advantage it gained with 2:04 remaining in the third quarter. The Deacons promptly went 75 yards in six plays and 1:34 to cut seven points off that margin. If including that with the fourth quarter totals, Wake Forest gained 235 yards in Saturday’s final 17:04. Including one on that touchdown drive, the Deacons converted three of their final four third downs.
“We didn’t handle ourselves in a manner to close out the game the way we have all year,” Kelly said. “So a little bit of coaching there, a little bit of having a killer instinct on defense, and Wake Forest executing extremely well.”
The Elko aspect is a confluence of his success, Notre Dame’s lax defense last year and a one-in-three chance of scheduling. That will not come about again.
The decreased defensive intensity, however, will undoubtedly be a coaching point for Kelly this week before heading south to face a Miami (FL) offense averaging 461.0 yards per game.
Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush officially has a bruised left hand. Kelly indicated the treatment was as simple as an ice pack and expects the dual-threat to be good to go against the Hurricanes.
Kelly reiterated junior running back Josh Adams is not in the concussion protocol after missing all but the first quarter Saturday.
“He felt great today,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to practice and be ready for Miami.”
Junior running back Dexter Williams may not have the same availability. A sprained ankle has robbed Williams of his explosiveness much of the season. When he broke loose with open field in front of him but was quickly tracked down by the Wake Forest defense, that ankle presumably prevented Williams from speeding away for more than 32 yards.
Kelly said the ankle is no longer the pressing concern with Williams, but rather a quad contusion from earlier in the season has acted up.
“It’s an old injury that has been one that has popped up here and there,” Kelly said. “As you saw in his long run, it affected him. He’s a day-to-day kind of guy.”
From there, Notre Dame should be relatively healthy. Sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem suffered a hyperextension of his knee, but Kelly said he will not be limited this week. Junior tight end Alizé Mack will return from a concussion Monday. Senior cornerback Nick Watkins will be as available as tendonitis allows him to be. When he can’t go, in steps sophomore Troy Pride.
Five things we learned: Notre Dame 50, Syracuse 33
After making the most decisive move of his tenure in South Bend, Brian Kelly’s team responded. And while the 50-33 win over Syracuse wasn’t pretty, there’s no need for a 2-3 team to display style points.
The Irish won with an offense that marched up and down the field and with a defense that did a good job—after a very rough start—of limiting the damage the Orange offense could do. They won by scoring on special teams, by making explosive plays and by getting some critical red zone stops.
With a month that may have been one of the worst of his coaching career, Kelly challenged his team and they responded, beginning October on the right track, earning an absolutely critical win that gets the Irish out of a funk.
“I just liked the way the kids played and prepared all week. It was a tough week. They came out here with a purpose and that’s a tough team to prepare for, when you make a change as we did on defense,” Kelly told ESPN after the game. “I’m proud of the way our guys played today, in particular, the basics of football were held up. We’ve got to do some things better in special teams and finish off some drives, but all in all it’s good to get a win.”
Let’s find out what we learned.
The defense found its footing.
It didn’t start out pretty. Syracuse marched down the field on its first series, scoring a touchdown on just eight plays in just over two minutes, covering 75 yards in big chunks. Making things worse, star receiver Amba Etta-Tawo made Julian Love his latest victim, the Orange matching Notre Dame score for score as the 72-yard touchdown catch had fans bracing for the worst.
But the defense recovered. And even after Devin Studstill was ejected on a questionable targeting call, the young Irish defense rallied. They forced punts on five of the next six possessions. They got after quarterback Eric Dungey. And they made Syracuse earn their yards and points, holding up in the run game.
Greg Hudson provided a needed spark and the Irish came out in the second half looking like a different unit. They held the Orange to just seven second-half points, a shocking performance that helped make the victory feel downright comfortable. After battling back from the fast start, the mental toughness displayed by the defense was absolutely impressive.
Equanimeous St. Brown broke the game open. Notre Dame’s sophomore receiver made the game’s first five minutes feel like a track meet. Taking his first two catches to the house, St. Brown’s afternoon was one of the most explosive in school history—and he didn’t catch a ball in the second half.
The lanky sophomore continues to emerge as the team’s go-to receiver, with Kizer targeting St. Brown in one-on-one coverage and making Syracuse pay. With good enough deep speed to get behind the Orange defense, St. Brown continues to develop his skills, all while building some much-needed chemistry with his starting quarterback.
St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson supplied three touchdowns of 54 yards or longer, two underclassmen providing the deep-threat firepower to a passing attack that is finding its footing without Will Fuller in that role. The ability to score quickly—something St. Brown is showing he can do—will be key to the team’s success moving forward.
Dexter Williams provided the game’s big play on the ground, and avoided what could have been a big injury.
A week after Kelly credited Williams for being the only player on his roster who was playing with passion, the sophomore back took another step forward when he made a game-breaking run midway through the third quarter. The 59-yard touchdown was the longest of his career, and showcased his ability to make something from nothing, not to mention some elite speed as he ran away from the Syracuse defense and into the end zone.
Williams earned the No. 2 job at running back, taking over for senior Tarean Folston. He also avoided what looked like a potential big leg injury, walking off the field under his own power and even returning to the game, avoiding anything major.
While Josh Adams did have a 100-yard afternoon, it was Williams that helped make the ground game more than just okay. And in doing that, he showed his teammates that the coaching staff was willing to award opportunities to the players who earn them.
Even putting up 50 points, the Irish offense left a lot on the field.
Coaching hard after a win is much easier. So expect Brian Kelly to do just that this week, knowing that his team managed to gain 654 yards of total offense and still didn’t look all that efficient.
Notre Dame failed to punch in a touchdown inside Syracuse’s two-yard line. They settled for three Justin Yoon field goal attempts. And the Irish’s struggles on third down were masked by their four explosive touchdowns.
Even quarterback DeShone Kizer sounded like a guy unsatisfied, crazy considering he threw for 471 yards and three touchdowns.
“It’s the sloppiest 50 point performance I’ve ever been apart of,” Kizer said postgame.
Brian Kelly spent most of his time this week working with the defense, a rare appearance on the other side of the LaBar practice fields. With a true road game set for next weekend in Raleigh, expect Kelly to wander back to the offensive side of the ball, with Irish offense needing to be more efficient.
After a bold program-shaking weekend, Notre Dame’s head coach proved he can still pull the right strings.
Last weekend’s press conference outburst had many wondering how the Irish roster would react. Could a team already sporting a major confidence problem withstand a leadership shakeup on the defense and a head coach who took dead aim at his players?
The answer turns out to be yes.
Because any worry that Kelly could’ve lost his roster by speaking critically of their effort was eliminated when the Irish went out and played like a different team. The passion was there. The excitement was as well. And the team rallied around Greg Hudson, the new full-time assistant earning the game ball at his alma mater, an honor that reportedly had him so proud that he was near tears.
To think that Kelly, a man who built this program brick by brick, would misread his team’s response was kind of silly from the start. But after seeing the team get big plays from players young and old, from his offense, defense, and special teams, it’s clear that Kelly’s rare public outburst, one that likely was rooted more in frustration and candor than any motivational tactic, hit its mark.
Because his roster responded. And probably more importantly, his defensive tweaks paid off.
The Irish flashed their depth, with previously underutilized defenders like Jay Hayes, Asmar Bilal and Elijah Taylor seeing plenty of time. In the secondary, the Irish continued to get younger, yet came together after a rough start, holding the Syracuse offense to just 4.3 yards a play on the Orange’s last 52 snaps after giving up a harrowing 14 yards a play on the first 11.
One winning Saturday certainly doesn’t fix everything, and there’s more work to be done. But with a scheme that had already exposed the flaws in Brian VanGorder’s system and a must-win game on the line, Kelly rode his roster hard and they responded.
A third-string running back with home run potential, Dexter Williams made waves for the wrong reasons last week when he was one of five players in the infamous Ford Focus. The sophomore—thrown into the fire last season and ready to emerge in 2016—had been dazzling in camp, capable of breaking long runs, returning kickoffs and stepping into a small-but-important role in the offense.
With university discipline to be determined, Williams’ availability is still in question. So are his opportunities, running behind Tarean Folston and Josh Adams. But there’s no question the staff believes they have a big-time player in Williams, who’ll need to run his way out of the dog house and through the depth chart to carve out anything more than a supporting role this season.
A Top 100 prospect, Notre Dame beat out Miami on Signing Day and held off Florida, Ohio State and USC as well. He came to South Bend in mid-January, the last recruiting win for Tony Alford before he left for Columbus.
Freshman Season (2015): Played in seven games in a reserve role, getting 21 carries for 81 yards, scoring one touchdown. Biggest afternoon came in a reserve role against UMass.
WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR
Was right that he was running behind Adams. And also right that he’s going to be a good one.
One freshman running back looks like he’s going to play this season. And while a single day of practice reps hardly tells a story, Williams is running behind Josh Adams so far in training camp. And while Josh Anderson earning a scholarship doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to get onto the field, Anderson was also taking major practice reps, a veteran who could show young guys (Brent included) how things are supposed to look.
At this point, you can make a valuable argument for saving a year of eligibility or getting some part-time experience. Notre Dame’s redshirt running backs haven’t utilized that fifth year, with neither George Atkinson or Cierre Wood sticking around for it. (Of course, Atkinson and Wood made moves that weren’t necessarily based on what was best for their future from an on-field perspective.)
Life has to be quite a whirlwind for Williams right now. New places, classes starting soon and a playbook that looks quite different than high school. But working with new position coach Autry Denson, he’ll be able to make what he wants from his freshman season. Right now, I’d be surprised if that’s a role that’s on field, though Williams will dictate that by his work on the practice field.
There’s a frontline back here, though he’ll need to find opportunities to show that. The last time we watched Notre Dame juggle three (healthy) runners, they carved out specific roles for Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and George Atkinson. Only Folston remains of that trio, and Adams and Williams are better backs than the other two already.
Williams has good long speed, and while it might not be quite as good as Atkinson’s, he might be used in a similar role in 2016. But he’s capable of doing more. And with two more seasons in South Bend, he’s capable of becoming the rare “feature back” in a Brian Kelly offense, though he’ll likely be the part of a future 1-2 punch with Adams in 2017 and beyond.
The prediction here is still hazy thanks to Williams’ part in the preseason escapades. But Williams can play—and if he’s not marooned by the university’s disciplinary arm, it appears Kelly is willing to handle this internally while the four young players stay in the mix. I expect Williams to make some big plays this season, and with those plays will come more opportunities.
Josh Adams has been plagued by some training camp issues, namely a balky hamstring that’s limited Williams’ classmate all fall. Normally I’d view that as an open window for Williams, though if he’s sitting out more than a game or two, Adams will have his chance to get healthy and rolling first.
All of this is a long way towards getting to a prediction. I’ll go with this one: Williams will be third on the team in attempts, but lead the Irish in yards per carry. I think he gets around 50 carries and will turn those into a half-dozen touchdowns.