Friday notes: Assistants hit the road

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It’s officially the spring evaluation period for college recruiting. Thanks to a recent rule change, head coach Brian Kelly won’t be able to hit the hallways of high schools, but his assistant coaches will.

The Irish coaching staff will fan across the country, with each assistant working their region or position grouping for key recruits. Expect to see Bob Diaco on the east coast, Tony Alford covering Florida, Mike Denbrock on the West Coast, Chuck Martin covering the Midwest, Ed Warinner all across the country meeting with linemen, Kerry Cooks in Texas, Tim Hinton doing his best to lock down the state of Ohio, Mike Elston also working the Southeast as Charley Molnar sets sail to reel in an elite quarterback. There’s only so much time to be on the road, and with Kelly relegated to alumni functions and awards dinners, the assistant coaches will do much of the heavy lifting this spring.

Here are a few interesting headlines from a quiet week of Notre Dame football, as we cross the 120 day mark until the Irish kick things off against Purdue.

* Tim Prister at IrishIllustrated.com broke down the remaining offensive linemen in play for the Irish after receiving big verbal commitments from Matthew Hegarty, Jordan Prestwood, Conor Hanratty, and Tony Springmann.

The Irish have offers out to Maryland tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, Tennessee’s Antonio Richardson, Arkansas’ Brey Cook, Arizona native Cyrus Hobbi, Georgia tackle Watts Dantzler, Colorado tackle Brendon Austin, and Virginia’s Jay Whitmire, according to Prister. If I had to guess the next guy to pledge to Kelly and the Irish, it’d be Austin, although the staff would be happy to take any of the guys on this list.

* It seems Jimmy Clausen didn’t need to show up in a stretch Hummer to get people wondering if he’s still too cocky or a bad teammate. Arriving at Carolina’s mini-camp with a 12-pack of Cactus Cooler that was requested by star teammate Steve Smith, Clausen had all eyes on him during an impressive mini-camp. But it wouldn’t be a football season without some Clausen controversy, and PFT’s Mike Florio seemed to supply it, with a well-placed source claiming that Smith thought Jimmy was “a punk.”

Smith didn’t take too kindly to that quote and has been on a warpath denying a report he labeled “all BS.” He was eager to challenge Florio on-air earlier today, but Mike passed on the confrontation, knowing that he wasn’t going to give up a source that Smith would’ve demanded be named.

Regardless of all the manufactured noise, it was interesting that the reports that did come out about Clausen all kept the familiar theme of his questionable off-the-field personality. Some of the more interesting reports quoted veteran teammates who were surprised that Clausen would reach out to them with text messages and introductions, something maybe not that common with rookies, but something essential in a quarterback expected to lead. If you’re looking for a comparison, there’s no articles questioning Tim Tebow’s decision to reach-out to his new teammates, and Clausen is far closer to seeing the field that Denver’s new first road quarterback is. Jimmy will battle rumors until he’s actually given the opportunity to go out on the field and play football, which I’ve got a hunch comes sooner than later.

* Uber-freshman T.J. Jones is making some noise on the national scene with his surprise ascendancy to the top of the WR depth chart after only a semester at Notre Dame. The guys at Rivals.com took a look at the top early-enrollees who made an impact during spring practice, and they listed Jones and Oklahoma’s Kenny Stills as the two wide receivers that created the most buzz.

Here’s what they had to say about Jones:

Jones, whose first name is Tai-ler, moved his way onto the first team
midway through spring drills and stayed there the rest of the way. He
caught an 18-yard TD pass in the spring game. Notre Dame is looking for a
complementary receiver for star WR Michael Floyd, and Jones could be
that guy. His dad, Andre, was a defensive end at Notre Dame from 1987-91
and played on the Irish’s 1988 national championship team. His uncle is
Philip Daniels, a veteran NFL defensive end.

I’m eager to see what Jones can do out of the slot for the Irish. After watching him during the Blue-Gold game, it’s clear that he’s one of those athletes that won’t shy away from the big stage, a crucial trait for a true freshman that wants to see the field.

* The news that the Pac-10 and the Big 12 are in discussions on a possible collaboration for a television contract is interesting news on the conference realignment front. While Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is out looking for potential additions to the conference as a way to build their TV empire, the Pac-10 and Big 12 are taking creative looks at building their negotiating power with the TV networks without mortgaging the history and affiliations of the conference.

Both the Big 12 and Pac-10 have expiring TV contracts that pay them much less than the Big Ten and the SEC, so they’re looking for every possible way to build leverage, including building a TV network that takes advantage of the fact that six of the nation’s top 13 media markets are in the heart of Pac-10/Big 12 country.

While people consistently believe that the Irish either need to relinquish independence or merely go it alone regardless of the consequences, Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe and Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott are looking at an outside-the-box solution that could give their universities the revenues needed to compete with the other conferences, while not hurting the other athletic programs at their respective universities.

It’s interesting now that Jack Swarbrick is moving closer to a 6-5-1 scheduling model instead of continuing to try and work with the ridiculous 7-4-1 template Kevin White installed, the Irish could put themselves in a better position to forge creative alliances that could be both lucrative for the university financially while also allowing them to hold on to their independence.

* One final note: It’s SHOCKING, just shocking, to see that NFL defensive rookie of the year and former USC Trojan Brian Cushing has been suspended for performance enhancing drug use. Rumors of steroid use have dogged Cushing since his days at USC, and pictures like this one have been around for years.

Cushing had appealed the suspension, but was rejected earlier today. Cushing will sit out the first four games of next season for the Houston Texans.    

Notre Dame makes Alexander and Balis hires official

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Notre Dame confirmed the news that Del Alexander and Matt Balis are joining Brian Kelly’s staff. As expected, Alexander will coach wide receivers while Balis was named director of football performance.

The program announced both hires on Thursday.

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

Alexander, who’ll lean on his West Coast roots and familiarity with new offensive coordinator Chip Long, said the following:

“I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country. Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

Balis comes to Notre Dame from UConn, with an impressive pedigree that counts jobs at Mississippi State, Florida, Virginia and Utah. He takes over for Paul Longo, who is taking a leave of absence from the football program, per the official release.

“Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh,” Kelly said. “He’s already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn’t be more excited to have him in place moving forward.”

 

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.