David Bruton, David Grimes, and Maurice Crum

The case for 9-3


When addressing the media after his worst coaching loss in nearly two full seasons, Brian Kelly made it clear that the season could go two ways, after starting with three loses in their first four games.

“There’s going to be a lot of 1-3 football teams across the country,” Kelly said after losing to Stanford. “Some
are going to finish 1-11, some are going to be 8 or 9-3. It’s what you
decide to do from here on out.”

Since then, the Irish have righted the ship and rattled off three straight wins to up their record to 4-3 as they prepare to face Navy. And Kelly’s hope that the Irish could be one of those select teams that turn their season around is on the right track.

The remaining schedule for the Irish:

Oct 23 — Navy (at Meadowlands)
Oct 30 — Tulsa (Home)
Nov 13 — Utah (Home)
Nov 20 — Army (at Yankee Stadium)
Nov 27 — Southern Cal (Away)

At the beginning of the season, various websites did win probability polls that determined confidence in the Irish winning games. Here’s what two websites — NDNation.com and ClashmoreMike.com came up with:

Navy                      84% (CM) 86% (ND)
Tulsa                     92% (CM) 92% (ND)
Utah                      69% (CM) 64% (ND)
Army                     96% (CM) 94% (ND)
USC                      53% (CM) 48% (ND)

By this logic, the Irish should be favorites to win in every game, except for USC, giving Notre Dame fans hope that the best-case scenario still has a few chances of happening.

The Irish did salvage victories against Boston College and Pitt, two of the games that fans predicted to be some of the most difficult on the slate. Unfortunately, they also lost games against Michigan, Michigan State, and Stanford, three other games that people predicted the Irish should (slighty) win.

If you checked an Irish fan’s gut, you’d think that they’d feel confident that the Irish would beat Navy, Tulsa, and Army, and probably be 50-50 to beat both Utah and USC. Noted college football predictor Jeff Sagarin ranks both Utah and USC within his top 20, though Utah is facing the Irish at home after a bye week, and also has played the 110th best schedule thus far this year, an indicator that we’re just not sure how good the Utes really are.

The Irish head to Southern Cal on Thanksgiving Saturday, facing a Trojan team that lost last-second games to both Washington and Stanford, and finally put together a convincing victory against Cal last weekend after playing uneven football in the first seven weeks of the season. There’s no evidence that points to the Irish having a better than 50/50 chance after the last decade against the Trojans, but USC has a razor-thin roster and a coaching staff that has hardly proven itself as adept as the previous regime in Troy.

One incredibly interesting way of looking at the Irish’s chances of running the table comes courtesy of Brian Fremeau. Fremeau created the Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI), a “rating system based on drive-based Game Efficiency data
that rewards playing well against good teams, win or lose, and punishes
losing to poor teams more harshly than it rewards defeating poor teams.”

How does Fremeau rank the Irish chances of running the table?

Well, not so good:

Final Record Win Likelihoods:

9-3 3.3%

8-4 22.7%

7-5 39.1%

6-6 26.9%

5-7 or worse 8.0%

Fremeau gives the Irish only a 3.3 percent chance of running the table, and a one in four chance of winning eight games. He ranks the Irish as the 38th best team right now with a strength-of-schedule at No. 15 to date. His ratings likely take into consideration the inconsistencies that have plagued the Irish offense thus far, struggles that make beating teams like Navy, Utah, and USC statistically less possible.

(They also probably don’t take into consideration injuries to Kyle Rudolph and Theo Riddick, and the possibility that Michael Floyd might also miss some time.)

Crunching some numbers, I feel like Fremeau might be selling the Irish a tad bit short. My rudimentary number-crunching and mediocre statistical skills makes me feel like there’s about a 20 percent chance that the Irish walk into bowl season with a 9-3 record, something Irish fans should feel happy about after starting the year in a massive hole thanks to some two heart-breaking losses. That said, your case for a nine win season is far stronger if you trust your gut feeling rather than any mathematical breakdown.

Not many Irish fans have trusted their gut lately, a product of disappointing losses and underachievement over the years. If Kelly could pull this one off, running the table and beating the numbers that so often have defined the Irish football team, it’d have plenty of people very happy — coaches, fans, and administrators alike.

Report: Tarean Folston won’t return for fifth year

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl

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)

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


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

ASU Sports Information

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.