Analysis: Latest attrition goes beyond affecting Notre Dame at Citrus Bowl

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Quarterback Brandon Wimbush missed Notre Dame’s bowl practice Thursday, reportedly with a severe migraine.

Somehow he was probably having a better day than his head coach, Brian Kelly.

Shortly after delineating some of the specifics of the day-old news regarding indefinite suspensions for sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson and freshman running back C.J. Holmes, Kelly added another name to the attrition list for the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl matchup in Orlando, Fla., with 16th-ranked LSU (9-3).

Tight end Alizé Mack.

Another suspension. This one for the bowl only.

“All of our players are eligible academically,” Kelly offered about what the suspension was not about. “It’s an internal team matter.”

Mack, a junior from Las Vegas, missed the entire 2016 season for academic reasons.

He had a career-high 19 catches for 166 yards this season and his first and only collegiate TD, but only two of those receptions came over ND’s final six games of the regular season.

Mack’s suspension, Kelly clarified, was unrelated to those of Stepherson and Holmes, each of whom was detained and cited for allegedly shoplifting at University Park Mall in Mishawaka last Friday, according to a police report.

“If I could explain 18- to 21-year-olds and their thought process, after being in (coaching) for 27 years, I would have written that book already,” Kelly responded when pressed why players that receive so much free clothing and gear would then allegedly shoplift a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt.

“We try to expose our kids to the foundational principles of making good decisions. They broke one of our commandments. They can’t steal, and they did. I can tolerate a lot of things, but I can’t tolerate stealing. And that’s why they’re suspended indefinitely and (why) they put themselves in jeopardy.”

Add recent season-ending shoulder injuries to sophomore wide receiver Chase Claypool and freshman tight end Brock Wright, and suddenly five of Wimbush’s offensive options are gone, including three of ND’s four leading receivers. Both Claypool and Wright required surgery this week.

Junior and leading receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, who moved from his familiar short-field outside receiver position into the slot when Claypool went down last week, is now lining up at Stepherson’s vacated spot on the wide side of the field.

Junior Miles Boykin will take St. Brown’s old outside spot, and grad senior Cam Smith and juniors Chris Finke and C.J. Sanders will vie for playing time at the slot receiver spot.

None of them have more than nine receptions this season, nor does freshman tight end Cole Kmet, now smack in the middle of the rotation at that position.

All of which adds up to another layer of obstacles for a scuffling Wimbush, a prolific runner in his first season as a starter, charged with rediscovering his passing mojo against the nation’s No. 9 pass-efficiency defense.

The Tigers will be without three injured starting linebackers from that unit when they face the 14th-ranked Irish (9-3), including elite pass-rusher junior Arden Key.

“Brandon’s focusing on Brandon,” Kelly said when asked how Wimbush was dealing with the constant flux in the receiver/tight end corps. “He’s really focusing on his mechanics and becoming much more consistent throwing the football.

“So that really, quite frankly, hasn’t been much of an issue at all. He didn’t practice today, but the last couple of days, it’s really been about him and being more consistent in his delivery. I think he’s done a nice job in some of the things we’ve asked him to do mechanically.

“So it’s really not been a thing he’s had to concern himself with as much as accuracy delivering the ball on time, getting the ball out of his hands.”

That might sound nice in theory, but it won’t play well in reality.

Wimbush’s timing and chemistry with receivers was adversely affected early in the season because of too wide of a rotation among both the receivers and tight ends throughout training camp — an oversight that was eventually corrected in season.

The bigger-picture challenge is even more daunting and more critical for Kelly, though.

Immediately after surviving a largely agitating 12 minutes with the media, the eighth-year head coach was off to start roster management for the 2018 season.

The first order of business was sharing the evaluations that just came back from the NFL Draft Advisory Board with the players who submitted them. The biggest wild cards among that group — junior defensive lineman Jerry Tillery and junior linebacker Te’von Coney.

Unanimous All-American offensive guard Quenton Nelson is the only one among the possible early entries who has already declared for the 2018 NFL Draft. Kelly declined sharing any of the new details, deferring instead to the players themselves. That particular group of players, however, was not available to the media on Thursday.

Kelly said he’s already met with the other 13 seniors with fifth-year options, two of whom — rover Drue Tranquill and tight end Nic Weishar — have already announced their returns.

But when you add up the 20 recruits who signed national letters-of-intent Wednesday, the three to five more the Irish would like to add in the later signing date in February, all the fifth-year possibilities and then subtract seven players with expiring eligibility, getting down to the mandatory max of 85 scholarship players will take some careful roster pruning.

It’s hard to imagine Stepherson getting another chance, given his August 2016 arrest, the still unrevealed circumstances that led him to be benched for the first four games of the 2017 season, and now this.

“I don’t need to make a decision tomorrow as to whether he’s going to play football or not,” Kelly said. “I can make that obviously after the (bowl) game. I’m not in a rush to do it. He’s suspended indefinitely, and then I’ll make what I believe is the best decision for our football program.”

Beyond that there are usually enough medical hardships and pop-up transfers to make the number work, but maybe this time there may be a not-so-subtle push out the door for those who don’t voluntarily fall into one of those categories naturally.

Kelly told his team this week that if they wanted the bowl game to be just about fun or a chance to achieve something, it was totally up to them, but it’s not. He’s keeping score.

Running a football program isn’t about being pristine, not if you live in the real world. You hope for that, recruit to that, strive for that. But in the end, it’s about how you handle the inevitable puffs of adversity.

“I don’t go into this business expecting our kids to be perfect,” Kelly said. “We expect our kids to make good choices. And when they don’t, we’ve got to hold them accountable.

“So there’s always going to be growing experiences and the most important thing is to hold them accountable.”

Notre Dame tight end Alizé Mack (86) tries to get past Boston College’s Kamrin Moore (5) during ND's 49-20 victory, Sept. 16 at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Mass. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)