The good, the bad, the ugly: Western Michigan

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Before we put Saturday’s 44-20 victory in the rear-view mirror, let’s talk about what was gained from the win against Western Michigan, the first MAC opponent to play the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium.

The Irish were able to pull out their first three-game winning streak since early last season, erasing the three-game slide that put the Irish season in danger after only four game. They were able to continue developing depth along the offensive line, with reserve linemen Mike Golic, Chris Watt, Alex Bullard, Lane Clelland, and Andrew Watt getting significant playing time, in addition to tackle Matt Romine starting for a second straight week at left tackle.

Between depth building along the offensive line and a group of freshman playing significant minutes, the Irish made the most of their first (and likely) last game against a MAC opponent in South Bend.

Here’s a look at the rest of the good, bad, and ugly from Saturday’s victory over Western Michigan. 

THE GOOD

Running backs Cierre Wood and Robert Hughes combined for 162 yards on just 19 carries, effectively controlling the clock in the second half and wearing down an undersized Western Michigan defense. Wood’s 39-yard touchdown run was the longest for an Irish running back since Hughes galloped for 45 yards against Stanford in 2007, and was the longest touchdown run for an Irish running back since Ryan Grant broke a 46-yarder against the Cardinal back in 2003.

While Wood was held a yard shy of the century mark, he was able to establish a rhythm running the ball, and afforded Brian Kelly and the offensive staff the chance to rest Armando Allen, who only played briefly as he nursed a hip flexor injury.

“He’s a guy that needs to get into the flow of the game,” Kelly said about Wood. “At
times you wonder some of the things he’s doing out there, but once he
got enough carries, he showed, obviously, that he’s got great athletic
ability and it was fun to watch him.”

Wood was able to get those carries because the Irish offense called his number more often after halftime.

“Coach Kelly really couldn’t say anything to me at halftime because I
only got one carry in the first half,” Wood said after the game. “In the second half I decided that
whenever I got the balI I was going to make something happen.”

Wood showed his big-play ability with his burst around the right end for a touchdown. He also showed great elusiveness as he pin-balled his way through Bronco defenders making some electric cuts in the open field.

This is the time of year that Wood will be a valuable change of pace for the Irish, and his development will be crucial for the Irish.

Robert Hughes also reminded the coaching staff that he’s a viable option in the backfield, running with purpose, power, and great pad-level as he powered the Irish offense through the fourth quarter. With the Irish struggling on first down, Hughes is a great option to get the Irish offense in 2nd-and-favorable situations, a potential option against a Navy defense that’ll be out-sized at the line of scrimmage this weekend.

THE BAD

The Irish committed nine penalties for 80 yards, easily their sloppiest game of the year, and a considerable step back for a disciplined unit that had been one of the least penalized teams in college football.

That lack of discipline showed up particularly in the first half, with both the offense and defense missing assignments and playing lackluster football. Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder was able to pick up good yardage by throwing against inside linebackers Manti Te’o and Carlo Calabrese, something opposing coaches will likely notice with cornerbacks Darrin Walls, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton playing at a high level.

Kelly mentioned in his postgame comments that both Te’o and Calabrese made bad decisions when defending curl patterns, and it’ll be important for both linebackers to fix those mistakes down the stretch, with teams like Utah and Tulsa likely throwing the ball early and often against the Irish defense. 

(Honorable mention bad: Dayne Crist’s fourth quarter interception, a laser-like throw that was behind tight end Mike Ragone and tipped into the air for a WMU interception. Crist has got to develop some touch on his underneath throws, and rockets like that have some fans worried that while he’s got a canon for an arm, it only delivers balls one way — not necessarily a good thing for an offense that relies on precision and accuracy.

THE UGLY

The injuries are starting to pile up for the Irish, and this time it’s wide receiver Theo Riddick that’s going in for an MRI on a tweaked ankle.

“Theo was in a boot today,” Kelly revealed on his Sunday teleconference. “He’s going to have to probably get an MRI. The X-ray was clean and the
MRI would tell us if there’s any further damage there. We’ll do that
today.”

Riddick’s injury means Kelly will likely reshuffle his receivers.

“TJ Jones would probably be the guy who would move in there,” Kelly said today. “Goodman would then go to X. I’ve always tried to put the top four guys
on the field. Toma would back up the Z, Bennett Jackson would
back up the X.” 

Riddick’s injury will just add more defensive attention to Michael Floyd, and the offense’s productivity will depend on Jones’ ability to learn the slot position.

Jamoris Slaughter is also suffering from ankle pain, with Kelly ordering another MRI for Slaughter after his ankle has been slow to respond to treatment. While Zeke Motta has stepped up in Slaughter’s place, the Irish would be better served having Slaughter opposite Harrison Smith, especially in a game against Navy, where play-action throws will depending on the safety biting on the run fake, something both Zeke and Harrison have been known to do.

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.