Notre Dame suspensions yield opportunities for RB Tony Jones Jr., TE Cole Kmet
ORLANDO, Fla. — Before arriving in Orlando, Brian Kelly gave his team two options:
Comfort, or achievement.
“With comfort, we’ll just roll the ball out here, and I’ll leave early and coaches won’t stay late and break down film,” Notre Dame’s eighth-year head coach said, standing in the shadow of Camping World Stadium on Saturday. “Or do you want achievement? We can do both. We can have fun, but we want to win the game.
“So everybody’s on the same page in terms of wanting to win this football game.”
Well, maybe not everybody. Two days prior to No. 14 Notre Dame’s Citrus Bowl date with No. 16 LSU, Kelly confirmed that sophomore running back Deon McIntosh was sent home on Thursday for “a violation of team rules.”
McIntosh — a 5-foot-11, 193-pound running back from Pompano Beach, Fla. — is the fourth Irish player to be suspended for the bowl game, joining wide receiver Kevin Stepherson, tight end Alizé Mack and running back C.J. Holmes.
But is this a series of unfortunate outliers, or a more troubling trend?
“This isn’t anything out of the ordinary,” said Kelly, who clarified that McIntosh will not be suspended beyond the Citrus Bowl. “It’s just, guys need to make good choices. I made it pretty clear that if you didn’t make a good choice, you’re going to lose your opportunity to be part of what we’re doing down here.
“It’s not quite different than any other bowl situation where you’ve got a young man making a poor choice.”
A poor choice, to echo Kelly’s words, also yields new opportunities.
Without running backs McIntosh and Holmes, who rushed for a combined 400 yards and five touchdowns this season, Notre Dame is left with three available scholarship running backs: juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams, and sophomore Tony Jones Jr.
But Jones, Kelly said, may be pulling double duty.
“Tony will be involved in a different manner as well, in a sense that you’re going to see him line up as a wide receiver,” Kelly said. “You’re going to see him in the backfield, obviously. But we think he’s got that multidimensional role in our offense.”
Even before arriving in South Bend, Jones’ athletic aspirations were multidimensional. The 5-foot-11, 225-pound running back learned how to catch, in part, by tracking fly balls as a left fielder on his high school baseball team. The St. Petersburg, Fla., native batted .471, with an on-base percentage of .557, in his junior season at IMG Academy in 2015.
Jones said that he has spoken with Kelly about potentially playing for the Irish baseball team this spring, joining dual-sport freshman tight end and pitcher Cole Kmet.
But first, he needs to make a different type of introduction.
“It’s just a big opportunity for me to show that I’m a multiple-type back,” Jones said of his expanded role in Monday’s game. “I can catch, run, block — all of that. I can just show the world who Tony Jones is.”
Like Jones, Kmet — a 6-6, 256-pound freshman tight end — will be pressed into expanded service in the wake of his teammates’ suspensions. The Lake Barrington, Ill., product caught just two passes for 14 yards in 12 games this season.
But, according to Kelly, he isn’t the same player that first impressed in fall camp.
“First of all, (Kmet learned) the grind of practice and preparation and the physicality of the position week in and week out,” Kelly said. “He’s obviously a great-looking kid. He’s physically extremely talented. But I think (he gained) the day-in, day-out understanding of what it takes to play the position.
“Then what I think he’s learned from (graduate student tight end Durham Smythe) is how to take care of himself, both on and off the field. Durham’s been a great role model for him.”
Without McIntosh, Holmes, Stepherson and Mack, the question isn’t which Irish skill player will be asked to close the gap.
It’s players, plural.
It’s an army of many, marching toward “achievement.”
“(Junior wide receiver) Miles Boykin will be pressed into a very prominent role in the short field,” Kelly said. “He’s going to be matched up, there’s going to be fades thrown to him and he’s going to have to make some plays. (Junior wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown) will move around to take some of the press coverage off of him.
“You’ll see two backs in the backfield, so you’ll get Tony Jones a little bit as that third receiver. You’ll get a tight end as that third receiver. You’ll get (Chris) Finke. You’ll get C.J. Sanders. You’ll get a mixture of that as the next kind of rotation out there offensively.”
Kelly expected his team to practice with shoulder pads on Saturday.
His players’ physicality forced a change of plans.
“It was a physical practice for us on Thursday. Really physical,” Kelly said on Saturday. “More like an in-season kind of effort, to the point where I normally would have shoulder pads (on the players) today. We took the shoulder pads off.
“So they’re ready to play, and they’re prepared to play. We wanted to back off a little bit today.”
The goal, of course, is to deliver the healthiest, most explosive version of Notre Dame (9-3) when the Irish kick off against LSU (9-3) at 1 p.m. on Monday.
It’s different group, Kelly hopes, than the one that limped to a 1-2 finish in another November swoon.
“I think they’re fresher. You’ll see it,” Kelly said. “You’ll watch the game and see that these guys are moving better. Josh Adams has a stride back where he was earlier in the season.
“I’d like to be as crisp as we were mid-season. Maybe that doesn’t happen right out of the gates with a month off. But you’ll clearly see that guys have got their legs back.”