And in that corner… the Pitt Panthers

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This weekend’s matchup with No. 8 Pittsburgh certainly got more interesting with Notre Dame’s shocking loss to Navy. What looked like a battle for a BCS bid now looks like a battle for Charlie Weis’ survival.

Pitt has slowly worked its way up the rankings, and has ascended into the top ten for the first time this season, quite a surprise for a team that lost its most explosive weapon when LeSean McCoy left early for the NFL.

Nobody follows the team closer than John Grupp of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. John was kind enough to answer a few questions to give us a little bit more in-depth look at the team that could very well decide the fate of this year’s Notre Dame squad.

Inside the Irish: Obviously this game lost some prestige when Notre Dame lost to Navy,
but now it’s got a whole other level of intrigue. Do you think Pitt
smells blood in the water? Do they think ND will be primed for a rally? How is Notre Dame perceived this week, as opposed to pre-Navy?

John Grupp: Honestly, I really don’t think a lot of the luster of the game wore off
because of the Irish’s loss to Navy. It’s already a sell out and will
likely be the biggest crowd to ever witness a sporting event in
Pittsburgh history — pro or college. Certainly, the game doesn’t look
as difficult as it did a couple of weeks ago, but the players and
coaches aren’t taking Notre Dame lightly in any way. If anything, the
Panthers expect an angry, hungry Irish team.

ITI: Where does the Pitt-ND rivalry stand for the football team and fans of Pittsburgh?

JG: It’s not nearly as important as some of the Big East rivalries,
especially West Virginia. Really, I wouldn’t call it a big rivalry as
much as just a big game. There’s not a palpable dislike of Notre Dame
by Pitt fans that you typically see in most bitter rivalries. But they
have such a long history of big games, dating from Tony Dorsett to Tyler Palko, and Notre Dame will always be a big game.

ITI: Dion Lewis has been a force. Do you expect the the offensive formula to
be a steady diet of Lewis with some play-action passing against a
suspect ND secondary?

JG: Pitt will follow the same recipe for success — let the defense decide
what it does. The Panthers will certainly get Dion Lewis involved — he
has fared very well against top rush defenses this year — but if Notre
Dame sells out to stop the run, they will let Bill Stull throw to their
wide array of receivers, such as WR Jonathan Baldwin and TE Dorin Dickerson, two of the best at their respective positions in the Big East, if not the nation.

ITI: The lightbulb has gone on for Bill Stull. What’s changed this season and contributed to the gaudy numbers?

JG: Stull was awful late last season after suffering a concussion. He’s healthy now, but the biggest change is offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr.,
and a system that gives Stull a good chance to succeed. He has a ton of
weapons, a good offensive line and the play-calling has a set, defined
progression of reads. Stull is confident right now and he gained the
respect of a lot of people with the way he handled the booing and
backlash earlier this season.

ITI: What’s the recipe for a Pitt win?

JG: Basically, the same for every game. Avoid turnovers and don’t let Jimmy Clausen
beat them. The Panthers allowed 400 passing yards to Buffalo and their
lone loss to N.C. State. Their secondary looked vulnerable early in the
year, but some personnel changes seem to have helped.

ITI: If you had to predict what was going to happen this weekend, what’s your gut telling you?

JG: Biggest crowd in Heinz Field history, excellent game by Clausen, big game for Dion Lewis, three-point final (not ready to commit to winner).

Special thanks to John for the help this week and be sure to check out the excellent coverage from the Tribune-Review.

Saying Goodbye: Five things I learned writing Inside the Irish

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As Lloyd Christmas said, “I hate goodbyes.”But after eight seasons of covering the day-to-day happenings of Notre Dame football, it’s time to say just that.

It’s crazy to think that it’s almost been a decade since I talked the good people of NBC Sports Digital into paying me money to cover the daily comings and goings of the Irish football team. And it’s even crazier that come this Friday, I won’t wake up wondering what I’ll be writing about.

But, it’s time. After eight seasons, two head coaches, 65 wins, 37 losses and one imaginary girlfriend, I’m turning in my wings.

So let’s do this the only way I know how. Here are five things I learned writing Inside the Irish.

 

No matter how fair you try to be, you’re always going to have favorite players. 

My introduction to Notre Dame football was a memorable one. Big-box speakers blared down the fourth floor hallway of Stanford Hall, a rude early-morning awakening for an 18-year-old freshman who was still a little groggy from the night before. I still hadn’t seen a football game in Notre Dame Stadium, though I did manage to wander through the stadium gates and down the tunnel the night before, running phantom pass patterns on that shaggy grass field after a night of exquisite Keystone Lights.

The next day, the Irish beat the defending Rose Bowl champs. And a very young Keith Arnold wondered if all Saturdays would be as magical as this one.

They wouldn’t be. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t all interesting.

The above story is license to expand my very first (and last) All-Inside the Irish Team, building a roster of my favorite players to man their respective positions since the virus that is Notre Dame football took hold of me.

 

The All-Inside the Irish Team

QB: Brady Quinn
RB: Autry Denson
RB: Darius Walker
WR: Golden Tate
WR: Michael Floyd
WR: Jeff Samardzija
TE: Tyler Eifert
LT: Zack Martin
G: Quenton Nelson
C: Jeff Faine
G: Chris Watt
RT: Ryan Harris

DE: Justin Tuck
DT: Trevor Laws
DT: Louis Nix
DE: Stephon Tuitt
LB: Jaylon Smith
LB: Manti Te’o
LB: Kory Minor
CB: Shane Walton
S: Harrison Smith
S: Tommy Zbikowski
CB: KeiVarae Russell

P: Hunter Smith
K: David Ruffer
Returner: Julius Jones
X-Factor: Tommy Rees

 

For as close as they got, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been. 

For me, the best three minutes of covering the Irish were the three minutes before kickoff of the BCS National Championship game. I’ll remember that moment in the press box forever. I could’ve run through a wall, I was so filled with excitement.

The next three minutes? Not quite as good. But after eight years of watching the ups and downs, I’m still left with some serious “what could have been” moments.

What if Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate stuck around for their senior seasons? What if Dayne Crist never got hurt? What if Aaron Lynch didn’t leave? Or Eddie Vanderdoes didn’t want to see his grandma? Or Tee Shepard made it to spring ball? What if Brian Kelly didn’t hire Brian VanGorder?

What if a certain unnamed student trainer didn’t give a little bit too much help or if Everett Golson didn’t take accounting class? Or the 2015 team didn’t live out a Final Destination movie?

Follow a team close enough, and you’ll drive yourself crazy wondering about these scenarios. But at Notre Dame—a school where you’re always going to be on a razor’s edge—the one thing that hit me was the Sisyphean nature if it all. Just when it seemed like the Irish were close to getting that boulder to the top of the mountain, it always found a way to come barreling back down.

 

No matter how long I do it, I’ll never understand the people who can’t find a way to enjoy it. 

Apologies in advance, but let me get this one off my chest. There’s a passion that surrounds Notre Dame football. But for a very vocal group, that passion has gotten demented, an elephant in the room that’s hard to ignore—even when you’re trying your best to do it.

I’ll never understand that. How people who have all the enthusiasm in the world for Notre Dame football have gotten it so twisted that they’ve forgotten that this is supposed to be fun.

It’s sports.

I won’t miss this part. The hard-liners who hold kids and coaches to a standard so far outside the one that they have for themselves, or the ones who fail to understand that every Saturday one team leaves a winner and the other a loser—and sometimes that loser wears blue and gold.

Make no mistake, I know better than most that college football is big business. It’s helped me and my family earn a living, talking and writing about one team, every day, for eight years.  But for as good as it is when the team wins, the bad years are so much worse.

It’s hard not to draw parallels between the joyless cyber mob that infests Notre Dame football (and I’m sure many other programs) with the ones that turned this political season so toxic. The people who refuse to think there’s any nuance—that things either ARE or they AREN’T.

It’s hard to deal with people who believe that Notre Dame, if simply managed and operated by competent people, would still be the Notre Dame of the past. That if only Rockne, Leahy, Ara or Lou were in charge of the team, or Sorin, Moose or Father Ted were in the Main Building, things would be just fine.

Politics aside—and I truly mean that—nobody is going to Make Notre Dame Football Great Again. At least not how it used to be. And certainly not the echo chamber over at NDNation. So while that group will be very glad to be rid of me, know that—for the most part—the feeling is very mutual.

 

Enough doom and gloom. I’ll be eternally thankful for the community we built here—mostly because of you. 

I’ve met plenty of wonderful people because of this blog. I’ve even had people stop me on the streets of South Bend, a head-shaking occurrence still to this day, with the question, “Are you Keith Arnold?” Thankfully, it was for a good reason. Mainly, you read the blog.

So thanks to everybody who has played along—especially those who have lived below the fold. There is a large community of you that I will sincerely miss, even if I’m unwilling to single out any individual reader (other than my mom) for being better than the rest.

We’ve had some wonderful characters in the comment threads. Daily participants. Some who have come and gone. Some who have been banned and re-appeared. Even crazy disbarred lawyers with conspiracy theories.

The live blogs were fun. The tight finishes of the 2009 season were made even crazier when you saw the thousands of people feeding CoveritLive with their every thought. So were the (way too) occasional mailbag. Thanks to all for participating.

For as rough as I was above, there are so many people doing great work writing and podcasting about the Irish. Interesting, intelligent people who I am glad to call friends. There are too many people to single out, but whether they be premium websites that get by with subscribers or blogs run by people with a full-time job, there are too many people to single out, but it’s all really well done. Speaking as a daily-consumer of an unhealthy amount of Notre Dame coverage, it’s a wonderful time to be an Irish fan—4-8 season aside.

 

If I’ve learned anything these past eight years, it’s that Notre Dame does try to be different. 

If you want to get an eye-roll, go ahead and tell someone who doesn’t like the Irish that Notre Dame does it better than the rest. (Go ahead, it shouldn’t be hard to find someone.)

But as much as that statement makes my skin crawl—and I’m a proud alum—the more I dug deeper and deeper into the football team and Jack Swarbrick’s athletic department, the more comfortable I got saying that Notre Dame tried to do it right.

That doesn’t mean they always did.  In my time covering the team, I had to cover some terrible events—and had to ask some very difficult questions. But more often than not, I was always struck by the conscientious effort made to balance everything that goes into doing things the right way, challenging student-athletes to excel in a impressive academic environment while also attempting to compete for a national championship.

No matter what the NCAA tells me, I won’t forget the 2012 season. I won’t forget the moment when the Irish had the No. 1 Graduation Success Rate in the country and the No. 1 glowed proudly atop Grace Hall.

My thanks to the team and people who let me cover them. To those who let a guy living 2,000-plus miles away poke around and ask questions, even if sometimes they resulted in a story getting out that was purposely being kept under wraps. I’m guessing there were more than a few moments inside the Gug spent wondering how some guy with a laptop in Manhattan Beach found something out that he wasn’t supposed to know.

While I’m stepping away from blog, I won’t stop watching the games. And while my time with NBC is done (for now), we’re still thinking of ways for me to be involved with their always excellent coverage of the Irish.

So thanks again to everyone. I’ll be back here later this week to introduce you to the “new guy,” who you’ll soon like much better than the old one. And while shorter is usually better, anybody who has read this blog knows that’s never been one of my gifts.

Report: Tarean Folston won’t return for fifth year

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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

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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.”