Analysis: Six players to watch in Notre Dame's second half of the season

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — One of the strangest statistical oddities of the Brian Kelly Era of Notre Dame football is that the eighth-year Irish head football coach has yet to take down a top 10 team at home.

Nor has he had the opportunity to do so.

Saturday’s opponent, 11th-ranked USC (6-1), represents the highest-ranked team, via the AP poll, to visit Notre Dame Stadium during the Kelly regime. A more-convincing Trojan home win over Utah (28-27) on Saturday night may have done the trick.

The Trojans rallied with three late TD drives of 88 yards or more, snuffed a last-minute 2-point conversion and played against a backup quarterback, all likely reasons Oklahoma State jumped them to claim the No. 10 spot, by 14 poll points (USC is No. 10 in the coaches poll).

Kelly’s own team (5-1) moved up three spots, to No. 13, without taking the field last Saturday. The cross-country rivals clash Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. (NBC-TV) in the only one of ND’s four remaining home games that has sold out.

Roughly 80 members of Notre Dame’s 1977 national championship team will be in town to take in the 89th rendition of ND-USC and celebrate the 40th anniversary of their one-loss title run.

USC also happens to be the last visiting program to sport a Top 10 ranking while playing in Notre Dame Stadium. That was in 2009, the season before Kelly took over, with the No. 6 Trojans edging coach Charlie Weis’ No. 25 Irish, 34-27.

The last time the Irish beat a top 10 team at home was 2004. On Sept. 11 of that year, Tyrone Willingham’s unranked Irish upended No. 8 Michigan, 28-20.

That’s one of only three home wins over Top 10 teams — with Michigan being the opponent in all three — since coach Lou Holtz recorded the eighth and final one, a 38-0 drubbing of No. 5 USC in 1995.

Kelly does own road wins over top 10 teams, and home wins over teams that evolved into top 10 teams at season’s end.

He’s also king of the post-bye weeks. Of all Notre Dame’s head coaches who have been handed four or more byes during their respective regimes, Kelly’s .889 (8-1) win percentage is the best. He’s 19-2 (.905) for his career in such games.

With the six future opponents sporting a combined record of 31-7 (.816), the toughest remaining schedule by NCAA’s mathematical standards, Kelly has an opportunity to evolve his own team into a Top 10 squad.

Here are six players whose play in the final six regular-season games could strongly affect that end:

• Nick Coleman, junior, free safety: One of the feel-good stories of the season’s first half will have its sustainability relentlessly tested in the season’s second half.

The player who went from Notre Dame’s sixth option at cornerback at the end of the 2016 season to its starting free safety this season has been solid against the run and hasn’t yet been exposed in the passing game.

But five of the next six opponents rank in the top 50 nationally in team pass efficiency, with Navy just narrowly missing joining them (57th). Among the six first-half foes, only Georgia (13th) is currently higher than 75th.

The six safeties who have played so much as mop-up duty at the position in 2017 have combined for zero interceptions and two pass breakups. Those are groundbreakingly low numbers in the Kelly Era.

Coleman (21 tackles) has the speed and the fortitude to take the next step. The unknown is if he has enough experience to do so.

• Jerry Tillery, junior, nose guard: The Shreveport, La., product has a history of his production fading in the second half of seasons, but an improved focus, a noticeable maturity and ND’s strength-and-conditioning revolution are all reasons to be optimistic about a new pattern emerging in 2017.

So is his first-half production.

Tillery leads the team in — surprise — sacks (3) and shares the team lead in quarterback hurries (5) and tackles for loss (4.5). Overall he’s fifth in tackles (27), 10 away from his previous career high.

Those numbers are slightly ahead of the pace Louis Nix set in 2012, the standard of nose guard play in the Kelly Era.

What doesn’t show up in the stats is Tillery’s ability to command double teams, which ends up padding his teammates’ stats and is also one of many reasons the Irish lead the nation in fewest rushing TDs allowed (1). Last year they yielded 23.

• Kevin Stepherson, sophomore, wide receiver: Never has there been so much speculation/projection/handwringing over a player with one catch for minus-3 yards at the season’s halfway point.

And, oddly enough, it’s justified.

Where his potential impact shows up is in junior wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown’s numbers. ND’s leading receiver in 2016 (58 catches, 961 yards, 9 TDs, 16.6 yards per catch) has had his stats watered down (15 for 211, 2 TDs, 14.1) in 2017 for several reasons — a new QB, more options in the receiving corps and an offense that’s gone from No. 80 to No. 5 in rushing, among them.

One remedy to growing the passing game, or at least making it more efficient, is providing a stretch-the-defense deep threat at Will Fuller’s old position, outside and on the wide side of the field.

Stepherson’s skill set might be the best fit there. But after taking zero meaningful snaps in the spring and August training camp and being benched for the first four games of the season, can ND’s third-leading receiver in 2016 play catch-up fast enough?

And is he more dangerous than the player who snagged that spot in game 4 vs. Michigan State and now is ND’s third-leading receiver, sophomore Chase Claypool (12 catches for 144 yards, 1 TD)?

Until ND can make it hurt, opposing defensive coordinators seem content on investing their personnel in holding down St. Brown and taking their chances with everyone else.

• Josh Adams, junior, running back: The bye week came at a great time for Adams, who has been playing with a gimpy ankle for several weeks.

The nation’s seventh-leading rusher (129.3) has a combined 30 carries in his last three games, six fewer than fourth-stringer Deon McIntosh over the same time frame.

He’s at his best in a running back-by-committee format, which ND is committed to, and has never surpassed the 20-carry mark in a game in his career. But for the Irish to thrive offensively in the big games coming up, they need the nation’s No. 2 producer in yards per carry (9.02) to get closer to that 20-carry mark.

Among the nation’s top 20 rushers, only Adams (86) and Miami’s Mark Walton (56 and out for the season following ankle surgery) have fewer than 99 carries. In fact, the player sitting one spot ahead of Adams at No. 6 nationally, Colorado’s Phillip Lindsay, has played in one more game but has 92 more carries.

Adams’ quantity must begin to complement the quality, starting Saturday night.

• Daelin Hayes, sophomore, defensive end: Sometimes we forget this is a player who was a high school outside linebacker and played fewer than 10 games combined during his sophomore-through-senior seasons.

And had 11 tackles total last season at his new position.

The 6-foot-4, 258-pounder has already surpassed that (14). And he has 3.5 tackles for loss with two sacks — two stat columns that were filled with zeroes last season. What’s more, there are only four players nationally with more fumble recoveries than Hayes (2).

But if ND’s defense is going to get more dynamic and ratchet up pressures in October and beyond, Hayes and fellow sophomore ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem figure to be strong contributors to the Irish defense taking that step up.

• Brandon Wimbush, junior, quarterback: Everything in the Teaneck, N.J., product’s makeup and his past strongly hints that his No. 97 standing nationally in passing efficiency (114.0 ratings points) is a mirage.

A presumably fully healed strain to his right foot will help. The injury prompted Kelly to turn Wimbush into Plan B against North Carolina on Oct. 7 and never had to deploy him as backup Ian Book went the distance.

The fact that Wimbush has already faced three top 20 pass-efficiency defenses (Georgia, Boston College and Michigan State) and having an extra week to do a deep dive into film study should pay dividends. And it has to.

Notre Dame doesn’t have to have a prolific passing offense to stay on a New Year’s Six bowl trajectory, but it certainly needs a much more efficient one.

Wimbush’s impact in the run game has already arrived. His 80.4-per-game average is second only to reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville among non-triple-option quarterbacks (Arizona’s Khalil Tate doesn’t have enough games played yet to qualify for the national rankings).

“We have a winner that's at that position, so we will go with what we need to do to make it work for Brandon until he develops the balance necessary within the offensive scheme of things,” Kelly said. “It's just a matter of time.

“You know, all I've told him is that, ‘We're with you. I was a pretty bad coach last year, and people stuck with me. And I'm sticking with you. So we're in this together.’

“We're going to see this through. He's going to get better each and every week in some fashion, and I just think that there's going to be better days ahead for him.”

Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery (99) chases down QB Gus Ragland (14) during the 52-17 Irish romp over Miami (Ohio), Sept. 30 at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)