And in that corner… the Washington Huskies

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Notre Dame’s game with Washington this Saturday got infinitely more interesting when the Huskies pulled off the upset of this young season and beat the USC Trojans in Husky Stadium. Steve Sarkisian’s victory over his mentor Pete Carroll marked a remarkable turnaround from the winless Husky’s of a season before.

Nobody follows the Washington program closer than the Seattle Times’ Bob Condotta. The award-winning writer was kind enough to trade a few emails with me as I tried to get a closer glimspe to the program that’s made quite a turnaround.

Inside the Irish: Having been around the program, what’s been the difference between Willingham’s Huskies and Sarkisian’s Huskies?

Bob Condotta: Just about everything. The most notable to outsiders are their
approaches to public relations — Willingham closed practices to media
and most fans while Sarkisian immediately re-opened them during the
spring and fall camp to just about anyone who wanted to come, which got
a lot of people enthused about the program again. Players seemed to
like the new approach, as well. Sarkisian is a young, energetic guy who
seems genuinely excited to have this chance. Willingham, some thought,
may not have had the passion for it anymore by the time he got here.
The words you hear over and over again from those who watch practice
are energy, tempo and enthusiasm, and you’ve seen that in the way the
team has played, especially the first three games.

ITI: How do Husky fans view Ty Willingham the man and Ty Willingham the
coach? Is there a resentment against him like the one that exists among
Notre Dame fans?

BC: He had definitely worn out his welcome by the time he was fired. I
think many fans appreciated much of what he stood for — after having
had some troubles with the NCAA, many thought a guy with a reputation’s
like Willingham’s was needed to “clean up the program” so to speak.
Whether he really did that is a subject for debate. But Willingham did
talk about doing things the right way, and many fans appreciated that
early on and still respected that approach even once it became apparent
it wasn’t working on the field. He hurt his image a bit with the way
the last year went — he seemed to imply often that the talent wasn’t
very good and that UW was “downtrodden” when he took it over. But I
don’t think the resentment against him is quite what it is at Notre
Dame, maybe because by the time he was fired it was so evident that
change was needed that there was never really the heated debate about
it the way there was at Notre Dame.

ITI: As someone who has seen Jake Locker throughout his time in college,
what do you think of him as a player and as a leader. Are all the
superlatives true? What does he have to do to become a complete player?

BC: One of the key things to keep in mind on Locker is that he has still
started just 20 games in his career — it has taken a lot of QBs
longer than that to really come into their own. And I think any fair
judgment of his career would keep in mind that he was pretty darn good
as a freshman — he was named the conference’s freshman of the year by
the coaches and set a record for rushing yards by a QB. The talent has
always been evident. Some have questioned his leadership since the team
hasn’t won much during his time, but I think the last drive against USC
answered most of those. The biggest issue about him has always been his
passing accuracy. He remains a work in progress there, as the game
against Stanford showed. But he has improved immensely in that area as
evidenced by the 60 percent completion percentage in the first three
games.

ITI: Can you maybe tell us about some of the other people the Irish should be worried about?

BC: On offense, a couple of real early standouts have been redshirt
freshman Chris Polk, whose play has been better than his numbers might
indicate — he has run really hard and picked up lots of yards after
contact; and true freshman WR James Johnson, who caught TDs in each of
the first two games and played beyond his years in emerging as Locker’s
most dependable target.

On defense, the best player so far has
been MLB Donald Butler, who had a monster game against USC. Another
really solid player is DE Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, a senior who has been
bottled up at times this season as opponents focus on him, but who is
the team’s most consistent player up front. Another name people may
recognize is freshman CB Desmond Trufant, who is the younger brother of
Marcus Trufant of the Seattle Seahawks.

ITI: What needs to happen for the Huskies to win on Saturday?

BC: The Huskies have to play a lot better on both lines. They were exposed
quite a bit there against Stanford, especially on defense where they
have some young players who really had trouble holding up against the
Cardinal’s physical play. They also have to figure out a way to get a
consistent running game going.

Locker has to play better than he did — he threw two interceptions against Stanford that really turned the game.

And
the special teams has to be better as UW allowed an opening kickoff
return against Stanford and had poor field position all game.

UW
also simply has to not be intimidated by the environment. UW has a lot
of young players and hasn’t won a road game in almost two years, so
they have to forget about where they are and just go play.

To check out more of Bob’s writing, check out his Husky Football Blog at the Seattle Times.

Report: Tarean Folston won’t return for fifth year

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
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Tarean Folston will declare for the NFL Draft. The senior running back, who has a fifth-year of eligibility available after a medical redshirt in 2014, will instead turn his focus to preparing for the professional ranks. Irish Sports Daily’s Matt Freeman broke the news, confirming the decision with Folston.

The departure wasn’t totally unexpected, though Folston was also a candidate for a graduate transfer. But after running for 1,712 yards over four years, the 214-pound back will hope an NFL team takes a shot on him, likely looking at tape of Folston the underclassmen to make their evaluation.

The Cocoa, Florida native burst onto the scene as a freshman against Navy when he ran for 140 yards on 18 carries in the Irish’s 38-34 win. He was Notre Dame’s leading rusher in 2014, running for 889 yards and 5.1 yards per carry  and six scores in 2014.

Expected to do big things in 2015, Folston’s season lasted just three carries, a torn ACL suffered against Texas in the season opener. After Josh Adams emerged that season, Folston fell behind him in the depth chart, getting just 77 carries in 2016.

The move clarifies a depth chart that looked to be unchanged heading into next season. But with Folston’s exit, rising sophomore Tony Jones will join Adams and Dexter Williams in the rotation. Fellow sophomore Deon Macintosh and incoming freshman C.J. Holmes will also compete for playing time.

Quenton Nelson will return for his senior season

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s talked about the rare 6-star recruit: Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Michael Floyd, Zack Martin. Well, add Quenton Nelson to the list. Notre Dame’s starting left guard has made it official that he’ll return for his senior season.

The New Jersey native adds another key building block to the Irish offensive line, returning with Mike McGlinchey to anchor Harry Hiestand’s unit. Like McGlinchey, Nelson had an option to be selected high in next year’s NFL Draft, staying in school even after receiving a second-round grade from the NFL’s Advisory Board, per Irish Illustrated.

Nelson took to social media to make the news public, with the NFL’s declaration deadline set for January 16.

“Excited for this team to grow every day this offseason by putting in nothing but hard work and grinding together. When we reach our full potential, look out. I’m right behind you Coach.”

Nelson was named a team captain for 2017 at the year-end Echoes Awards Show. He earned second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated and was rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 1 offensive guard in the 2017 draft class, a grade he’ll likely carry into next season.

Clark Lea formally named Linebackers Coach

clark-lea
UND.com
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Notre Dame formally introduced new linebackers coach Clark Lea on Thursday. The press release for the 35-year-old  included the following quote from the new assistant who has worked at Bowling Green, UCLA and Wake Forest, and rejoins Mike Elko in South Bend.

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said in a statement. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”

That work has already begun, with Lea on the prowl as the recruiting dead period ended and the rebuilt Irish staff hit the road. Yesterday, Lea was with defensive coordinator Mike Elko visiting commit David Adams, a key piece of the Irish puzzle on the defensive side of the ball. That starts a mad rush that’ll keep Lea’s belongs in boxes until after the first Wednesday in February, as Elko and his reshuffled defensive staff open their recruiting board, finding replacements for a handful of de-commitments and pieces that’ll fit Elko’s scheme.

If there’s any reason for optimism after a tough few weeks in recruiting, it’s the young staff that Kelly has assembled. The youth movement includes not just Lea, but the 39-year-old Elko. New offensive coordinator Chip Long is just 33, moving to Notre Dame after one season at Memphis. Running backs coach Autry Denson just turned 40 while special teams coordinator Brian Polian is practically long in the tooth at 42. (All that comes before the expected announcement of 25-year-old Tommy Rees.)

Lea’s pedigree is rock solid, earning kudos in 2012 for his work as Linebackers coach at Bowling Green, Football Scoop’s Linebackers Coach of the Year.

“Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” Kelly said in the release. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system — having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”

 

 

 

Reports: Lea, Alexander added to Irish coaching staff

delvaughn
ASU Sports Information
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Brian Kelly is adding to his rebuilt coaching staff, reportedly finalizing deals with Wake Forest linebackers coach Clark Lea and Arizona State assistant DelVaughn Alexander. Lea will reunite with Mike Elko and coach linebackers and Alexander will coach wide receivers. While both hires are still going through formal university vetting, the Lea hire has long been rumored before being reported by SI’s Pete Thamel. FootballScoop.com broke the news on Alexander, before multiple outlets confirmed the report.

In Lea, Elko brings a piece of his coaching staff with him to South Bend. The 35-year-old spent last season working in Winston-Salem and spent three seasons at Syracuse before that. He worked with Elko and Demon Deacons head coach Dave Clawson at Bowling Green and has spent time as an assistant at UCLA as well. He earned three letters at Vanderbilt, a 2004 graduate.

Alexander is a veteran presence to help replace Mike Denbrock and fill his void coaching receivers. He’s also a coach with first-hand knowledge of new coordinator Chip Long, having worked alongside him in Tempe under Mike Norvell. The move also comes in time for the reopen of the recruiting season’s home stretch, bringing a capable West Coast recruiter to the staff at a time when Notre Dame’s 2017 class is leaking a bit of oil.

Alexander played wide receiver at USC, playing for Larry Smith and John Robinson, before breaking into the coaching ranks there as a graduate assistant. He’s also had stops at UNLV, coached for Jim Harbaugh at San Diego, and spent significant time at Wisconsin and Arizona State where he coached multiple positions, taking over tight ends after Long left for Memphis.