The battle for the Midwest begins

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Thinking back to December of 2004, when Charlie Weis was working two jobs — one as the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, the other as the new head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish — Weis spent his days game-planning for a Super Bowl run and his evenings trying to build a coaching staff and recruiting class. While his work with the Patriots resulted in a Super Bowl ring, the results of those hectic two months on the college front were mixed.

Weis assembled a coaching staff long on experience, but his recruiting class was mediocre, his two most heralded recruits — wide receiver D.J. Hord and tight end Joey Hiben — finished their Notre Dame careers with two combined catches. That recruiting class, built by head coach Ty Willingham and salvaged by Weis had a distinct Midwestern flavor, with 8 of the recruits from traditional Midwestern states, and three more from Pennsylvania.

As Weis continued at Notre Dame, he and his staff cast a wider net for recruits, landing heralded prospects all across the country, including key recruits from states as diverse as California, Florida, Hawaii, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Weis built a coaching staff full of capable recruiters, and each had a niche — Brian Polian excelled getting players out of Southern California, Bill Lewis had success in the southeast, Bernie Parmalee and the Irish staff built a pipeline into Florida powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas. While Weis’ tenure at Notre Dame might be remembered more for his near misses (both on the field and in recruiting) the efforts by Weis and recruiting coordinator Rob Ianello on a national scale were impressive.

As the Irish make the transition to head coach Brian Kelly, and as news trickles in about his coaching staff, there is a distinct Midwestern flavor to the names being bandied about. It’s common sense — Kelly has spent his twenty years as a head coach in the Midwest — and most of the rumored staff has been around Kelly at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, or Cincinnati. You don’t have to have extensive coaching experience in a state to recruit well in it (Kelly’s Bearcats squad relied heavily on Florida recruits), and the Notre Dame logo gets you access in most high schools around the country, but Kelly’s decision to stay with coaches inside his circle makes the battle for the Midwest that much more crucial.

With the addition of Chuck Martin to the coaching staff, Kelly has a coach that knows Michigan high schools as well as anyone in the country, and probably better than anybody on Rich Rodriguez’s Michigan staff. Kelly’s success in Ohio this season, where he did his best to shed the little brother label to the home state Buckeyes, means Kelly will also go head-to-head with Jim Tressel for key recruits, especially in the southern part of the state.

Kelly’s entrance on the scene comes at a perfect time for Irish fans, as Michigan seems intent on shifting their recruiting efforts to Florida for an infusion of speed. Rich Rodriguez signed eight players from the state of Florida in his 2009 recruiting class, all but two of them skill players. With Kelly and Rodriguez running similar offensive systems, Rodriguez’s willingness to shift his focus away from the still fertile Midwest could be to the advantage of the Irish.

It’s tough to get a true gauge on Kelly’s first recruiting class, just as it was difficult to grasp Weis’ efforts back in that transitional season. Most of Kelly’s work this year is to hold on to the players the former staff picked up, and to add a few needs if they can. But make no mistake, Kelly’s in a much better place thanks to the tireless recruiting of the previous staff, and Kelly has acknowledged that point in his short time in South Bend.

As Kelly begins to get comfortable in South Bend, it’ll be interesting to see if he narrows his recruiting focus. I fully expect the Irish to be interested in more Michigan and Ohio players, and the Wolverines and Buckeyes have shown that strategy to be plenty effective. But for the Irish to be successful recruiting, they’ll need an ace recruiter like Tony Alford to continue to snag prospects nationally, as well as a coach like Bob Diaco to prove his mastery of the living room.

But with Brian Kelly and his new staff coming to town, Rich Rodriguez and Jim Tressel should be ready to do battle.

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

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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.