Five things we'll learn: Keys to the Irish season

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In the nine months that have passed since the Notre Dame Fighting Irish last played a meaningful football game, Irish fans have done a lot of heavy thinking.

They just watched one of their own fail. A coach that dazzled the Irish faithful with his Super Bowl wins and unprecedented offensive fireworks. He found early success with recruits from a regime long thought mediocre at procuring high-level talent, but then failed when he brought in his own players, blue-chippers that competed annually for mythical national recruiting titles.

This one stung. Notre Dame Nation had just done all it could to get the last guy run out of town after three years. Even he started with a bang, riding an opportunistic defense and a recharged fanbase to a top-five ranking and eight consecutive wins to start his tenure, the Coach of the Year trophies and Sports Illustrated covers now sit covered in dust next to an old set of golf clubs.

(Let’s not even get into the guy before him. He never made it to his first practice, learning first-hand that while Student Affairs may be tough on students who are caught turning in a paper that’s less than truthful, the administration has even less leeway for coaches that may play a little loose with their CV.)

And so Irish fans sit, 13 years since Lou Holtz roamed the sidelines, having played in only eight bowl games and three BCS bowls, walking away with a lone victory against Hawaii on Christmas Eve, 2008. It’s been 17 years since Irish fans could even complain about getting truly worked over, when the Irish beat the eventual national champs head-to-head in November. (But even then they had themselves to blame after giving away the title to Boston College a week after ascending to No. 1.)

Fast forward to today. The New Guy. Brian Kelly. Named head coach of the Irish on Dec. 10, he’s gone undefeated since then, navigating effortlessly through the media obligations, his first recruiting class, some 180 speaking engagements, fifteen spring practices, and his first fall camp. He’s everything the last few guys haven’t been. Unfortunately, on Saturday against Purdue, there’s a good chance he could turn into the rest of them.

He’ll actually have to coach a game.

Heading into Saturday’s season opener against the visiting Boilermakers on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, here’s five things we’ll learn about the Irish, Kelly, and the state of Notre Dame football:

1. Brian Kelly has the experience needed to succeed at Notre Dame.

As we’ve learned from the Charlie Weis and Tryone Willingham, starting fast doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on the road to greatness. Nor does starting slow — Lou Holtz was only 13-10 after two seasons, including a 5-6 season that matched the final year of Gerry Faust. But Holtz had the experience needed to succeed at Notre Dame, he had already made stops at major college programs like Arkansas and Minnesota. In the last 50 years, the only Notre Dame head coaches to have had multiple D-I jobs are Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, and Lou Holtz. All three won national championships.

Kelly himself conceded he wouldn’t be ready if Notre Dame was his first stop.

“I could not do it. I could not do it. I learn something every day,” Kelly said last week. “I learn about press conferences and what I should say and what I shouldn’t say. It’s a learning experience. To have 20 years just to be able to function, I could not have done the job without that experience.”

One final tidbit that should have Irish fans feeling confident: Kelly’s 23-3 mark in the last two seasons at Cincinnati is the best two-year run by an incoming head coach since Frank Leahy came from Boston College in 1941.

None of this guarantees he’ll wake up the echoes, but at the very least he’ll know what to do if he finds them.

2. The defense will determine whether the Irish make a BCS run.

Charlie Weis likely sealed his own fate when he replaced Corwin Brown’s 3-4 system with the blitzing attack of Jon Tenuta. While Brown’s troops only played average football, under Tenuta the defense fell apart, giving up back-breaking big plays and blowing critical assignments.

Now defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is tasked with turning a defense returning most of the same players into an outfit worthy of its rallying cry: B.I.A. Best in America.  The talent is there to back up the seemingly preposterous statement. Notre Dame’s two-deep depth chart is littered with top-notch talent, every bit as strong as the units at Alabama, TCU or Texas.

Nearly every player in the depth chart was a four-star recruit, and as the Wall Street Journal pointed out last week, Notre Dame’s projected starters have the third-highest recruiting rankings in the country, trailing only USC and Florida. Better yet, most were recruited to play in the same 3-4 scheme that Diaco employs. Part of the offseason was spent rebuilding the psyches of some players that were left gun-shy after a terrible season. If Diaco can turn this group of talented players around, expect him to be running his own program soon.

3. The Notre Dame offense depends on the health of Dayne Crist.

While the “Next Man In” philosophy is a key tenet of Brian Kelly’s belief system, the head coach is tweaking his rules when it comes to starting quarterback Dayne Crist. While Crist has only thrown 20 passes in his college career, behind him the Irish are looking at true freshman Tommy Rees and former walk-on quarterback Nate Montana. With Crist only 10 months removed from a torn ACL, Kelly is playing a delicate balancing act with his junior quarterback.

“Dayne Crist is a guy who is going to have to use all of his tools,” Kelly said. “He’s a pretty good athlete. He can run as well and he can extend plays. He’s going to get hit out there. But we’re not going to put him in a position where we get running hits on our quarterback. That’s just not smart.”

The physical ability of Crist has never been questioned, and nobody inside the program would be surprised if he leaves Notre Dame drafted higher than Jimmy Clausen. But for Notre Dame to win now, they’ll need to keep the quarterback healthy.

4. If the offensive line can hold up, Notre Dame will dominate with its running game.

Many assumed the implementation of the spread offense meant throwing the ball a majority of the time. But if you look back at the history of Brian Kelly’s offense, you’ll see that he’s kept a run-pass balance that purists would find refreshing. At Central Michigan, Kelly ran the ball nearly 53-percent of the time. At Cincinnati, that number was 48-percent.  

“It’s a misnomer that with the spread you’re going to throw the ball every down,” offensive coordinator Charley Molnar said. “If we can get the defense in the looks where we like to run the football, where they’re really trying to play coverage, we’ll create running lanes for our running backs that would be no different than what you would get in a conventional offense.”

More importantly, the Irish will depend on the run to keep its relatively youthful offensive line protected, leaning on the zone running system that Kelly and Molnar have utilized as well as the expertise of line coach Ed Warinner to protect Zack Martin and Taylor Dever, two tackles starting their first games on Saturday.

Armando Allen, Cierre Wood, Robert Hughes and Jonas Gray are the most talented backfield the Irish have had since the Holtz era. The Notre Dame rushing attack took a backseat during the Charlie Weis era, as the team’s finesse style struggled to create an even average ground attack. Expect that to change under Kelly, where explosive running plays from the spread could bring back memories of Reggie Brooks and Tony Rice breaking free in the second
ary.

5. The i
dentity of Notre Dame football has changed for the better.

Even if the 2010 season doesn’t go as well as many Irish fans hope, there’s still plenty of reason to believe that the Irish football program has changed for the better. New strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo has implemented a program that made incredible gains to a roster that consistently faltered in November. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick worked with Kelly to institute a training table, catching the Irish up in a dietary arms race that Notre Dame has been lagging behind in for years. And Kelly re-energized the Notre Dame community, meeting with professors, deans, and students in ways that Charlie Weis never made time to do. Kelly didn’t need to make 180 stops in 180 days this offseason, but he understands better than any coach that’s been at Notre Dame since Lou Holtz that being an ambassador at award dinners, fund-raisers and golf outings is part of the job as well.

While Weis touted a schematic advantage, Kelly might also better him on the field immediately by installing a frenetically-paced, no-huddle spread attack that will wear down teams with their conditioning and precision. While Weis reveled in outsmarting his opponents, Kelly plans on out-hustling his opponents with smart players, a change that could pay immediate dividends.

The days of Brian Kelly being perfect end this Saturday. But even if he’ll never be, Notre Dame fans can at least find hope in the new beginning.

Irish A-to-Z: Mark Harrell

Mark Harrell
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As a fifth-year player, Mark Harrell is the elder statesman of the offensive line. He’s also still waiting for his opportunity to crack the starting lineup.

That chance won’t likely come unless something goes wrong. But Harrell is the closing thing to an insurance policy on the offensive line, a versatile reserve who has spent time playing virtually every position up front.

Likely a bridge at tackle between starters Mike McGlinchey and Alex Bars and talented freshmen Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg, Harrell’s a program player, with loyalty running two-ways as he plays out his eligibility in South Bend.

 

MARK HARRELL
6’4″, 306 lbs.
Grad Student, No. 75, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A three or four-star prospect depending on the service, Harrell was a first-team All-State player in North Carolina with offers from Michigan, Auburn, Clemson, North Carolina, South Carolina, Stanford and Tennessee.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2012): Did not see action, saving a year of eligibility.

Sophomore Season (2013): Did not see action.

Junior Season (2014): Played in two games, seeing action against Rice and Michigan. Served as a backup at center, with the ability to also play guard and tackle.

Senior Season (2015): Saw action in five games. Played 12 snaps at right tackle against UMass, earning a +1.2 grade from PFF-College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Feels like I could copy and paste after swapping out Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin’s names.

Harrell has the type of positional versatility you want in a backup. He served as a reserve center last year during the Blue-Gold game, and while he’s no longer on the depth chart behind Nick Martin, he’d likely be called upon in a pinch rather than burning Tristen Hoge’s redshirt. What happens if Ronnie Stanley or Mike McGlinchey go down at tackle is largely a mystery as well, so there’s likely playing opportunities, but again, only if things start to go awry.

Harrell will likely spend some time on special teams in 2015, capable of taking some snaps on field goal and punt teams. But the depth chart is packed and one of the toughest spots to get on the field, and Harrell’s lack of opportunity is largely because of the talent in front of him.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

A fifth-year backup, Harrell was tapped by Kelly this spring to move outside to tackle, hoping to solidify a depth chart that’s thinner than you’d expect, considering the impressive recruiting Harry Hiestand has done during his tenure in South Bend. But Harrell is likely on the outside because Jerry Tillery is playing defensive tackle and Ronnie Stanley was the first offensive lineman selected in the NFL Draft.

It’s hard to know what Harrell can do if we haven’t seen him do it yet. But at this point, the fact that the coaching staff preferred keeping him on the roster and serving as a backup (likely at right tackle) is telling—because there’s a very high likelihood that Harrell could’ve used his graduate transfer to step onto a campus of a lower-tier program and start right away.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

If all goes according to plan, we’ll only see Harrell in mop-up situations or on special teams. If it doesn’t? Expect to see how he does at right tackle, with a redshirt preferred for both talented freshmen tackles.

 

Regardless, peg Harrell for more appearances in 2016 than his career total of seven games, knowing that it’ll be important to gain some experience and keep McGlinchey and Bars fresh.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston

Irish A-to-Z: Tarean Folston

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Getty
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When Tarean Folston limped off the field after his third carry of the season, few knew what would happen next. The junior running back’s season was finished. But it spawned giant years for C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams, turning Prosise into a third-round draft pick and Adams into the most prolific freshman runner in school history.

That big year could’ve been Folston’s. Behind an elite offensive line, the Florida native was primed to be the leading man in the Irish backfield, with a breakout season all but guaranteed.

But injuries happen. And after working his way back into shape during spring practice and returning to a depth chart that all of a sudden has some young competition, 2016 is a chance to make up for lost time.

 

TAREAN FOLSTON
5’9.5″, 214 lbs.
Senior, No. 25, RB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Notre Dame beat out Auburn on Signing Day, waiting a few uncomfortable extra hours for a fax from Folston after he went on a late-January visit. Folston was Florida’s 4A first-team All-State running back, a do-everything high school player.

The Under-Armour All-American had offers from Oregon, Florida, Florida State and a few dozen other programs before picking Notre Dame in early January.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Played in 12 games, starting two as a true freshman. Nearly set a single-game freshman rushing record when he ran for 140 yards against Navy, the most since 1999. Named Offensive Newcomer of the Year.

Sophomore Season (2014): Ran for 889 yards and caught 190 yards worth of passes as the team’s leading rusher. Averaged over 5.0 yards per carry for the second-straight season. Broke 100 yards in four out of five games, coming two yards shy against North Carolina of making it five out of six.

Junior Season (2015): His season was cut short after just three carries (for 19 yards) against Texas, lost for the year with a torn ACL. Earned a medical redshirt.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

There’s no doubt in my mind that Folston wouldn’t put up monster numbers last year if he stayed healthy.

I’m doubling down on Folston. I expect the biggest season from a running back in the Kelly era — and I’m pegging Folston for a 1,200 yard, double-digit touchdown 2015.

Part of this confidence comes from seeing what Mike Sanford did riding a running QB and top-shelf back at Boise State. The other part comes from seeing Notre Dame’s offensive line figure itself out this spring instead of mixing and matching into fall camp.

But mostly it comes from the natural talent I see with Folston, a back who’ll get better as he collects touches. There’s nobody to steal them from Folston to begin the season. And after he establishes himself, there’s nobody who should take them away from him, either.

So stay healthy and Notre Dame will have a running back to showcase.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

My biggest question for Folston has also been one of his biggest strengths—the space between his ears. For two seasons, Folston’s vision and Football IQ have been excellent. The natural ability he displayed—too often in flashes—made him the envy of a depth chart filled with talented runners.

But coming back from a knee injury is different. And Folston needs to be able to cut loose with absolute conviction and get up the field, because breakaway speed has never been the power of his game.

The depth chart Folston returns to is a different beast than the one he left. Adams has the heft to run between the tackles and the speed to hit a home run. Dexter Williams is greatly improved. Even Justin Brent is an envious No. 4 back.

But Folston is an NFL running back. His versatility, ability to catch the ball in space, and make defenders miss likely didn’t go anywhere.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

This is Notre Dame’s leading ball carrier in 2016. That may be a bold statement. Or it could turn out to be an obvious one after we see Folston ripping through Texas and Nevada.

Still, this is a leap of faith considering we only saw brief glimpses of Folston is spring football, donning a non-contact jersey in the Blue-Gold game. And because of the season Adams put together in 2015. But Brian Kelly believes too much in his veteran running back and knows his value to this offense. With a running game that’ll likely be the strength of the attack, putting the ball in Folston’s hands early and often can’t be a bad plan.

I’m still betting that Josh Adams ends up with a higher yard-per-carry average, but I think Folston’s senior season will be his best in South Bend.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Fertitta

 

Irish A-to-Z: Nicco Fertitta

Nicco Fertitta CASHORE
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As Notre Dame searches for answers at safety, one under-discussed option is sophomore Nicco Fertitta. The Las Vegas native, best known through his recruitment as the high school teammate of Alizé Jones (and outside the football world for his father Lorenzo, the Chairman & CEO of the UFC), has been overlooked before. That comes with the territory when you’re built like a walk-on.

But Fertitta’s college career is on schedule—and maybe ahead of plans. A freshman season saw Fertitta make 11 appearances. A sophomore season will see more special teams duties, and if Fertitta can find a way, a battle to get into a very uncertain two-deep at both safety positions.

An overachiever who became a key piece of the foundation at one of the best high school football programs in the country, Fertitta faces long odds to do more than play special teams. But that’s business as usual for the pint-sized heavy-hitter, who’ll look to take a step forward in his second season in South Bend.

 

NICCO FERTITTA
5’8.5″, 185 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 28, S

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

U.S. Army All-American, First-team All-State per the Las Vegas Review Journal. State champion, with Bishop Gorman also being named a national champion (no championship game was played).

A three-star prospect, Fertitta chose Notre Dame over offers from Arizona, Hawaii, Houston, UNLV (where his prep coach Tony Sanchez took over the program) and Utah.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Played in 11 games, all in special teams appearances. He made one tackle on the season and forced a fumble against UMass.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Got the special teams contributions right. Got a little bit ahead of myself thinking he’d have a chance to play in sub-packages.

I tend to think Fertitta is going to be one of the freshmen taking the field against Texas come September 5th. He’ll likely be covering kicks and chasing down punts, but Fertitta’s freshman season will hinge on his ability to make big plays in the game’s third phase, something Scott Booker is still looking to establish.

As a safety, Fertitta could also be very helpful in sub-packages. As Notre Dame takes on a heavy dose of run-heavy (and option) offenses in Georgia Tech, Navy, Pitt and Boston College, there’s a place for a run-stuffer with the ability to play in space, and just as Kelly and the Irish used Jamoris Slaughter, Fertitta could be an option at a position that doesn’t have a ton of flexibility.

But any road onto the field as a freshman should be considered a strong debut season for Fertitta.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Fertitta’s high school highlight reel showcased an undersized safety who hit like a freight train. That physicality likely helped get him on the field in 2015, but the aforementioned size feels like a larger barrier—especially when you see the disparity between Fertitta and a strong safety like Drue Tranquil.

Notre Dame knew the player they offered. They also knew he’d play large roles in the locker room as well as on special teams. Fertitta will likely take a step forward in special teams and then have a chance to compete for a backup role, especially before the reloaded secondary gives guys like Jalen Elliott and Spencer Perry a chance to get comfortable.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I expect Fertitta to play in all 13 games, but only take snaps on defense in mop-up duty. Unless injuries hit, Tranquill should be in the starting lineup with Avery Sebastian supplementing him. At free safety, Redfield will be competing with Devin Studstill, with a very large hole behind those two players.

If Fertitta looked and played the game like a center-fielder, that’s where I’d have him penciled in. But he’s a mini-Tranquil, with physical limitations also hindering his ability to be a single-high safety, making him a better fit at strong safety.

As long as there’s a hole in the depth chart at safety, you’ve got to give Fertitta a chance to see the field. And as long as there are multiple sub-packages and schemes being deployed by Brian VanGorder, there’s always a chance that a sure tackler like Fertitta can find a role. But it just feels like there are other options available that’ll better suit what VanGorder and Todd Lyght want from their secondary, leaving coverage teams the likely home for Fertitta in 2016 and beyond.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott

2018 twins Jayson and Justin Ademilola commit to Irish

Ademilola twins 247
247 Sports
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Notre Dame’s 2018 recruiting class just doubled up, adding twin brothers Jayson and Justin Ademilola. The New Jersey natives—both potential impact players on the defensive line—pledged their commitment to the Irish on Sunday, adding two more building blocks to a distant recruiting class that’s all of a sudden got some serious juice.

Fresh off a visit to South Bend, the brothers committed to Notre Dame, picking the Irish over Michigan, Auburn, Georgia, Penn State and more than a dozen other offers. They hail from St. Peter’s Prep, the same high school that produced current Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

Both Jayson and Justin took to Twitter to announce, simultaneously making the news official:

While rankings for the 2018 class (entering their junior season) aren’t formalized, 247 Sports views both brothers as 4-star prospects. Justin is more of an edge player—currently an outside linebacker or rush end—while Jayson profiles as a three-technique defensive tackle.

Steve Wiltfong, 247 Sports’ director of recruiting, caught up with Rich Hansen, the high school coach at St. Peter’s Prep. Hansen had this to say about the two brothers.

“They’re getting two guys, what they’re doing now is just the tip of the iceberg,” Hansen told 247 Sports said. “The potential, Justin is a really good athlete that can play a multiple of positions. It will be interesting how he develops and what role he fills for them and Jayson I think is going to be a monster inside for them.”

“They’re young, a lot of development is going to take place over the next two years and Notre Dame is going to get two potentially dominant football players at that level.”

The Ademilola brothers make four early commitments to the 2018 class, a sign that Notre Dame’s recruiting—and evaluation process—is humming under Mike Elston’s direction. They join blue-chip quarterback Phil Jurkovec and Indiana running back Markese Stepp.

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