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State of the Irish program

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(Color me in a patriotic mood after watching last night’s State of the Union and Republican Response…)

Brian Kelly had about a week on Barack Obama, giving his “State of the Program” speech last Friday, officially putting the 2010 season in the books, while turning his gaze forward to finalizing recruiting as well as preparing for the 2011 season.

With next week surely to be focused on the finalization of a Top 10 recruiting class (not to mention the best defensive end haul since Rivals started keeping tabs), I thought it appropriate to piggy back on the President’s address to the nation last night, and take stock in where the Irish football program is 13 months after Brian Kelly took it over.

OFFENSE

Many assumed the Irish offense would be the strong suit of the 2010 squad, even with the loss of two All-American caliber players in Jimmy Clausen and Biletnikoff winner Golden Tate, not to mention both starting tackles and center Eric Olsen. Whether or not it was blind faith in Kelly’s reputation as an offensive innovator, Dayne Crist waiting in the wings, or returning front-line players like Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph and Armando Allen, the fact that the Irish took a step back offensively seemed to surprise more people than it should have.

From a trend perspective, the Irish offense regressed in several key categories, not surprising considering the Irish offense in 2009 was one of the top units in the country, with a third-year starter at quarterback at the trigger. That said, it’s interesting to note that Kelly’s squad had more success running the football, gave up less sacks, and scored more touchdowns in the red zone. Statistically, the improvement was moderate, but it’s amazing to think that an offensive line replacing three starters and subbing Braxston Cave in for Dan Wenger, while running almost exclusively out of the shotgun, could have a better season rushing the football than an offensive with the 4th best passing efficiency in the country. While you can say that the high-tempo spread offense is less conducive to sacks than Weis’ pro-style attack, it’s hard to understand why the Irish offensive line, behind one of college football’s most veteran units, gave up 25 sacks last season, six more than the Irish did in 2010, who finished a respectable 34th in the nation while starting three first-time starters.

More incomprehensible is the (albeit slight) improvement in the red zone. The fact that Kelly’s squad, quarterbacked by Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees, and missing Kyle Rudolph and Golden Tate, could do better in the red zone scoring touchdowns defies logic. Whether it be better play-calling or just better execution, there’s no reason for Jimmy Clausen’s 2009 offense to struggle in the red zone more than the 2010 edition.

Looking to 2011, there’s every reason to believe that Kelly’s offense will take fairly large steps improving in nearly every facet. Year To do that, they’ll need a better effort on the front line from Ed Warinner’s troops running the ball, who will only replace Chris Stewart from an offensive line that improved as the season went along. They’ll also need to do better on 3rd downs, improving their conversion rate from the 38-percent clip they hit on last year. Kelly’s teams have never been great third down teams (neither have the last three Oregon teams), but if they want to play at the frenetic pace that Kelly desires, they’ll need to be able to keep drives moving. Most importantly, regardless of who wins the quarterback job, there’s a huge leap in production for quarterbacks in Year Two of a Brian Kelly system. Expect that trend to continue.

DEFENSE

The improvements the Irish defense made in Kelly’s first season are hard to understate. The Irish improved in virtually every major defensive statistic, outside of opponent completion percentage and red zone defense (though in the latter’s case the Irish were far stouter limiting opponents to field goals, finishing 7th in the country in red zone touchdown defense). The Irish were a Top 30 defense in six major categories in 2010, they were a Top 30 defense in only one in 2009.

While the alignment changed, there weren’t many personnel changes to the defense Bob Diaco coordinated. If anything, the Irish lost their most consistent performer when Kyle McCarthy graduated. Yet playing with virtually the same players, the Irish defense transformed itself in Diaco’s multiple 3-4 system, playing its best football down the home stretch, when past Notre Dame defenses fell apart. Stepping back from statistical analysis and just relying on the eyeball test, it’s shocking to consider that Notre Dame played USC and Miami, two of college football’s most athletic programs, and dominated both teams with their defense at the end of the year.

As we look to 2011, the Irish will need to replace Ian Williams from the center of their defense, something they did successfully after Williams went down with a knee injury versus Navy. At linebacker, they’ll need to find a new starter at ‘Dog,’ where both Kerry Neal and Brian Smith graduate. Smith also doubled as a replacement in the middle, where he stepped into Carlo Calabrese spots after injuries hampered the sophomore’s ability to play. In the secondary, the Irish will lose Darrin Walls at cornerback, but have Robert Blanton ready to slide back outside after spending much of the year playing at nickel back. All three major safety contributors, Harrison Smith, Zeke Motta, and Jamoris Slaughter return, with Smith leading the secondary after a breakthrough season.

The Irish played winning defense not by doing any one thing dominantly, but by having no weak link. In 2009, the Irish had the toxic combination of the 112th ranked yards-per-completion passing defense and the 101st rated run defense, basically historic ineptitude on one-side of the football for ND. (To put it in perspective, it’s nearly a mirror-image of the 2007 Irish offense.) With players like Darius Fleming, Harrison Smith, Ethan Johnson and Manti Te’o poised for breakthrough seasons, there’s every reason to believe that the 2011 Irish defense has the chance to be something very special.

SPECIAL TEAMS

David Ruffer’s season kicking field goals was record-setting, but surprisingly it wasn’t that much better than the 19 for 22 that Ruffer and Nick Tausch combined for in 2009. But as expected, Mike Elston’s special teams statically improved in 2010, with a few major exceptions.

One of the things John Goodman isn’t is Golden Tate. That’s the best way to describe the drop in punt returns from 2009 to 2010, where the Irish went from 19th in the country to 101st, averaging an abysmal 4.9 yards per return in the punt game. The Irish also struggled in the kick return game, ranking 74th in the nation and a half-yard shorter per return than the 2009 edition, something that had to befuddle Brian Kelly, especially with some of the talented players he had on the roster. But in many cases, Kelly was limited in the return game by a rash of injuries to skill guys primed to thrive in the return game. Armando Allen battled through injuries until he was shutdown, limiting his impact on the return game. Ditto for Theo Riddick, who could’ve brought some excitement bringing back kicks and punts if not for an ankle injury. Whether it’s Bennett Jackson or not, the Irish can expect to improve in 2011, at the very least having more options to choose from.

Even though Kelly will have Ruffer and Tausch on the roster next season, Notre Dame accepted Kyle Brindza in early enrollment, bringing another powerful leg to campus. While he’s mostly thought of as a kicker, he’ll immediately challenge Ben Turk at punter, a place where the Irish know they need to do better. While Turk’s 36.3 yard net average is an improvement over last year, he struggled getting air under the ball and was the beneficiary of quite a few nice rolls, bumping that average up quite a bit.

COACHING STAFF

When Kelly assembled his first staff at Notre Dame, he did it with coaches he had relationships with, something that was helpful from a familiarity perspective, but didn’t move anybody’s star-meter when judging the coaches coming to Notre Dame. Keeping Tony Alford on the staff and bringing back Mike Denbrock, Kelly made two strategic moves. Alford brought great continuity, while Denbrock gave Kelly a long-time confidante who could show him the ropes around South Bend while also bringing his ties to the West Coast.

Kelly’s decision to bring Bob Diaco in as his defensive coordinator while Chuck Martin, his successful successor at Grand Valley State coached the secondary, had people questioning the move, but 13 games later it looks like a success. Diaco, preaching principles and discipline, improved the defense, while Martin transformed a secondary while leading the charge as recruiting coordinator.

While both Martin and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar’s names swirled around some head coaching vacancies, no coach left Kelly’s inaugural staff, keeping a unit that worked very well together intact. More importantly, both Kerry Cooks’ transition to outside linebackers coach (after spending most of his career as a secondary coach) and Alford’s transition to wide receivers seemed to take, as neither unit suffered from first time position coaches.

We’ll know for sure next Wednesday, but the major concern with this unit was their recruiting prowess, something that will officially be alleviated when Notre Dame inks the most impressive defensive recruiting class of the modern era. Many already knew that Alford was dynamic on the recruiting trail, but Mike Elston, Bob Diaco, and Chuck Martin pulled some major talent, with guys like Kerry Cooks getting players out of Texas, a major priority for Kelly.

As the staff transitions into Year Two, expect more of the same — coordinators preaching the same principles, a staff completely in sync with their head coach, and player development that’s been a hallmark of Brian Kelly football teams.

Irish A-to-Z: Daelin Hayes

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Irish 247
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Notre Dame’s best pass rusher may be true freshman Daelin Hayes. The early-entry freshman came to South Bend with a 5-star rating and an NFL physique, but there are more questions than answers about the Michigan native.

None of those queries are bigger than his actually on-field abilities. With shoulder injuries plaguing him for two high school seasons and off-field family issues putting him in eligibility purgatory, Hayes is an elite football prospect in spite of the fact that he hasn’t played a lot of football.

Capable of practicing this spring even if he arrived on campus just weeks removed from a shoulder surgery, Hayes took reps and stayed active this spring, mostly because he’s the perfect fit for a pass-rushing role this fall—assuming his body (and brain) allow it.

 

 

DAELIN HAYES
6’3.5″, 257 lbs.
Freshman, No. 9, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A U.S. Army All-American selection, Hayes earned a 5-star ranking from Rivals and was one of the best players in the Midwest, despite not being on the football field for much of his three seasons of high school football.

But that didn’t keep college football’s top programs from chasing him and Notre Dame won a hard-fought recruiting battle over programs like Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma and USC.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Hayes opened eyes immediately on campus, testing with a 4.8 40-yard dash at 257 pounds. That type of speed allows him to play linebacker as well as defensive end, though it’s obviously a big reason why everybody sees a potential edge rusher when they look at him. The Irish staff cross-trained him this spring, though it’s pretty clear the need at weakside defensive end begs for Hayes to find a home there.

If Hayes stays healthy, he’s every bit the NFL prospect you come to expect from a 5-star defensive end recruit. I’m not sure he’s an Aaron Lynch type recruit (he’s shorted and thicker than the current version of Lynch), but the Irish roster doesn’t have a lot of athletes like this capable of chasing the quarterback.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I see a designated pass rusher season coming on for Hayes, with the hopes that it’ll allow him to specialize at something, and potentially stay healthy in a restricted role. Some have mentioned Kolin Hill’s freshman campaign as a comp. I think that’s setting the bar too low.

Instead, look at Prince Shumbo’s rookie campaign. Even as a tweener, Shembo found the field in pass rush situations, putting together a nice stat line with five TFLs and 4.5 sacks as a freshman.

Again, the hope is Hayes is a quick learner, because he’s played less than a full season of football at the high school level. So while he may have been a workout warrior and dominated the camp circuit on his way to a 5-star grade, that’s just not a lot of experience.

The good news? Notre Dame’s not asking him to play quarterback or free safety. They need him to chase down quarterbacks—a skill Keith Gilmore should be able to unearth from Hayes rather quickly.

Hayes should play every week this season if he can stay on the field. If he does that, I’ll say he matches Shembo’s freshman season.

 

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
Mark Harrell

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

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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

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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