Notre Dame roster moves continue, what do the changes mean?
For those curious, the heavy, wooden doors leading into the Guglielmino Athletics Complex at Notre Dame have not been replaced with a revolving one, but you couldn’t be blamed for believing that.
The Fighting Irish football program continued its 2018 roster alterations Tuesday, as one player changed his mind about leaving, while four more reportedly didn’t have that option.
Defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner flipped his career script and elected to return for a fifth season after initially leaning toward graduating and moving on.
“Jonathan’s an awesome kid,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly posted on Twitter Tuesday. “He could’ve moved on with his degree, but he decided to return to further his education and help us work toward a national championship.”
That news was the positive side of the day, while the negative side included the dismissal of sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson, freshman running back C.J. Holmes, redshirt freshman running back Deon McIntosh, and redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Brandon Tiassum.
Here is what each of these moves means for the 2018 Fighting Irish.
BONNER IS BACK
Recently-hired defensive coordinator Clark Lea could not have possibly had a better couple of weeks.
In addition to climbing in 12 months from nowhere (linebackers coach at Wake Forest) to somewhere (the leader of the Notre Dame defense) following his promotion from Irish linebackers coach earlier this month, Lea was able to secure 2018 commitments this week from his most productive defender (senior-to-be linebacker Te’Von Coney), as well as two of his best defensive linemen (Bonner and nose guard Jerry Tillery), each of whom had options to leave.
“Jonathan’s made great strides on the field,” Kelly said, “and I’m excited to see him rewarded for those efforts.”
Bonner amassed just 14 total tackles in his first two seasons (with just one being for a loss), but he exploded onto the defensive scene this season as new defensive line coach Mike Elston made the unit much more impactful.
Bonner totaled 30 tackles in 2017, with 3 ½ being for a loss and his four quarterback hurries matched his total combined from his first 22 games of his career.
Bonner and Tillery returning allows the entire defensive front (along with ends Jay Hayes and Daelin Hayes) to come back and build on what was a very impressive season compared to 2016.
“It’s a mentality that we’ve developed within our football program,” Kelly said following a strong performance by the Notre Dame defense in winning the recent Citrus Bowl against LSU. “It’s a mentality that we lacked, quite frankly, last year, in that we didn’t fight for every inch.”
In the case of Tiassum, he spent his first two seasons with the Irish as a redshirt and then didn’t play, while he saw action in three games this year and finished with just two tackles.
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STEPHERSON IS NO SURPRISE
It would have been much more shocking if Stepherson would have been allowed to continue as a student-athlete at Notre Dame than finding out Tuesday’s news that he was dismissed.
The mercurial, but talented wide receiver was in trouble – legally and athletically – more often throughout his time in South Bend than he wasn’t in trouble.
He began his career in August 2016 by being arrested with four other players in Fulton County in a vehicle that contained marijuana and an unlicensed weapon.
He spent the entire spring practice and half of this season in Kelly’s doghouse as the coach sought to make him mature, but just as he did in the 2016 season, when Kelly allowed him on the field, he produced.
Stepherson was the team’s second leading receiver as a freshman and was third this season despite playing in just eight of the 13 games.
“I think it’s pretty easy to point out his athletic skills,” Kelly said this season of Stepherson. “We’ve never questioned those. This has been about having the right traits, not the talent.”
However, he followed a nice second half of this season by getting arrested not once, but twice in a two-day span.
After speeding and possessing marijuana, but no valid driver’s license, in Marshall County in December, Stepherson and Holmes got caught shoplifting at a South Bend mall the very next day.
Both were suspended for the bowl game and reportedly dismissed Tuesday.
The loss of Stepherson will make an impact, because the Irish already lost leading receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, who declared for the 2018 NFL Draft.
If Stepherson would have behaved over the next 12 months, he would have been the most athletic and effective pass-catcher for Notre Dame. Quite frankly, a great 2018 could have put him in position to declare for the 2019 NFL Draft, he has that level of talent. However, he is a long way from that point today.
The Irish rode a potent run game to much success, particularly in the first two months of this past season. However, a good portion of that attack is not returning for the 2018 season.
Junior Josh Adams finished his career with almost 3,200 yards gained on the ground and is leaving for the NFL, while McIntosh and Holmes departures will be felt to a degree. However, all is not lost in that regard due to the fact that senior-to-be Dexter Williams and redshirt sophomore-to-be Tony Jones Jr. both return.
Neither of those two were healthy throughout the regular season, but were able to practice in December and play against LSU, and Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long really liked what he saw, especially regarding Jones Jr.
“He’s another great runner,” Long said prior to the game. “He has great vision, a low center of gravity; he is just a hard guy to tackle.”
Jones Jr. showed explosiveness and power in training camp, but was limited all season. That “pop” came back last month and should make him effective next season.
“It hurt us not having him for a great portion of the year,” Long said, “but he’s a tremendous player with a tremendous upside.”
As for Williams, he only carried the ball two times against the Tigers, but one of those was for a 31-yard scamper, which showed what he can do if healthy.
Those two will be joined by incoming freshman Jahmir Smith, who Kelly said upon signing him will get a serious look for playing time next season.
“Jahmir Smith is going to come in and if he’s got it, you play freshmen running backs,” Kelly said last month. “I would never tell a guy, hey, you’re going to redshirt. You let those guys go.”
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