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Opponent Preview: Michigan

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This is the second of twelve opponent previews, profiling Notre Dame’s 2011 opponents. The first installment was on South Florida.

The Overview:

When Michigan failed to woo favorite son Jim Harbaugh to Ann Arbor after waiting far too long to let go of Rich Rodriguez, athletic director Dave Brandon reached out to San Diego State head coach Brady Hoke, selling the former Michigan assistant’s work as a rebuilder to the Wolverine faithful that bristled at bringing in a coach with a record hovering just below .500.

But Hoke has struck the right chord with those that love the maize and blue, harkening on the days of yesteryear where the Wolverines were known for their smash-mouth football and blue-collar roots, all while scoffing at the idea of rebuilding at his first Big Ten media day. “I don’t think we’re rebuilding. Period. I mean, we’re Michigan.”

While a hot start recruiting has got Michigan fans at a fevered pitch, Hoke’s true test will come when he takes to the field with a team that struggled to stop anyone under Rich Rodriguez, even when a high octane offense powered by Denard Robinson. Hoke has brought in two coaching veterans, Al Borges with him from San Diego and Greg Mattison back from the NFL, to try and install systems that erase the memory of the Rodriguez era. How quickly those changes can take hold on a roster talented but thin will be the running theme of Brady Hoke’s first season.

Last time against the Irish:

In a game that featured three Irish interceptions, three Irish quarterbacks, and a heroic effort by Denard Robinson, the Wolverines withstood a second half comeback by the Irish to beat Notre Dame 28-24. After jumping out of the gates with a picture perfect opening drive, the Irish lost Dayne Crist to blurred vision, and were stuck in neutral on offense for the rest of the first half, save a 37 yard completion in the final seconds of the half. With a first and goal from inside the Michigan five and only three seconds left before halftime, head coach Brian Kelly gambled for the first time as an Irish head coach. His bet backfired, with Nate Montana airmailing his throw into the seats, and the Irish walked into halftime down 21-7, getting nothing from the scoring opportunity.

With Crist back in command after halftime, the Irish scored ten third quarter points to bring the game within a score and with under four minutes to go, Crist hit Kyle Rudolph for a thrilling 95 yard touchdown pass. With the Irish defense needing to get one more stop and escape with a win, they couldn’t do it. Robinson ran and threw the Wolverines down the field on a 12 play drive that ended with a two yard quarterback keeper for the game’s winning touchdown with just under thirty seconds remaining. For the second year in a row, the Irish gave up a game-winning touchdown to a Michigan quarterback.

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 games the Irish play this season, I rank Michigan as the third toughest opponent on the 2011 schedule.

7. South Florida
6.
5.
4.
3. Michigan

The Match-up:

After being named the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year, Denard Robinson is capable of challenging a defense maybe better than any other player in college football. Robinson threw for over 2,500 yards last season while running for an additional 1,702, carrying the ball 256 times, an incredible amount of wear and tear on a quarterback that’s barely six-feet tall and weighs less than 200 pounds.

While Borges’ pro-style system will keep Robinson in the pocket more than in the past, he’ll likely still be the Wolverine’s most dangerous offensive player. The top three runners on the Michigan roster return and there’s depth along the offensive line as well, led by David Molk. In the passing game, Robinson won’t have Darryl Stonum, who is redshirting this season after the second DUI arrest of his college career, but will have Roy Roundtree, Martavious Odoms and Junior Hemingway returning.

If Hoke’s squad is successful, it’ll be because he and Greg Mattison turn around a defense that returns eight starters. The strength of that unit is along the defensive line, where seniors Mike Martin and Ryan van Bergen lead the front four. The Wolverines will have to replace Jonas Mouton, but they welcome back Kenny Demens at middle linebacker and converted wide receiver Cam Gordon hopes to infuse some athleticism into the linebacking corps.

The real key to the Michigan defense will be solidfying the secondary, a unit that was 112th nationally in 2010. The return of Troy Woolfolk will help, and J.T. Floyd can only play better this season. Anchoring the secondary is Jordan Kovacs, who made 116 tackles last season, not necessarily a good thing. There’s still not a lot of depth here, but at least there’s some experience returning.

How the Irish will win:

Watching this match-up last September, it was clear that Notre Dame’s Achilles heel came back to bite them as soon as Dayne Crist was injured at the end of the first drive. Without Crist, the Irish offense was lost. That doesn’t make up for the dreadful work the Irish did against Denard Robinson in the first half, but even with everything that went wrong, the Irish just needed to stop the Wolverines one last time to pull out a tremendous comeback victory.

As the team’s enter 2011, it feels like the teams are in opposite places. It’s Michigan that’s starting anew, learning new systems and transitioning styles on the fly. With the Irish winning the battle at the line of scrimmage, they’re able to keep Robinson at bay while limiting the Michigan offense’s ability to make big plays through the air.

Also unlike last season, Brian Kelly will get Michael Floyd involved early and often. After being nearly unstoppable against the Wolverines as a sophomore, the Irish failed to get Floyd involved in the game, as the Irish’s best offensive player only touched the ball five times, with two receptions and the bulk of his yards coming on the game’s final drive.

With a crowd that’ll be electric, Notre Dame will do their best to grab the momentum early, and after two years of coming up short, the Irish should have a relative easy time dispatching a Michigan team a year behind the Irish in their renaissance and far less talented. Don’t be surprised if the Irish keep their foot on the gas, taking advantage of a national spotlight to make a statement.

How the Irish will lose:

For all that Rich Rodriguez didn’t do in Ann Arbor, he still beat two Irish teams that were probably better on paper in soul-crushing fashion. In Al Borges and Greg Mattison, Brady Hoke is bringing in two coordinators that’ll take the finesse out of Michigan’s team, while still allowing the athletes they have to make plays. In front of a jacked-up crowd, Michigan will get a few big plays from Robinson early and mix a capable running and passing attack, keeping the Irish off balance and unable to get to Robinson without bringing pressure.

Behind an exotic mix of pressures from Mattison, the Irish offense is kept off balance, with the running game struggling to get on track and the Irish passing attack failing to find any secondary targets after Michigan decides to take away Michael Floyd. In a victory that’ll likely have Desmond Howard, in town for both ESPN’s Game Day and university honors, crowing, Brady Hoke will upset the Irish for his first “signature win.”

Gut Feeling:

I have a hard time seeing the Irish losing this game, even though they’ve managed to do it each of the last two seasons. While Michigan’s offense has some dangerous weapons, I just don’t think the Wolverines will be far enough along to beat Notre Dame, even if it is the first time under the lights in the Big House.

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

2018 twins Jayson and Justin Ademilola commit to Irish

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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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