South Florida v Notre Dame

Crist vs. Rees: Breaking down Tommy’s throws

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Brian Kelly named Tommy Rees the starting quarterback for Saturday against Michigan. It was a decision that made plenty of sense from a production point of view — Rees went 24 of 34 for 296 yards in the second half, when everyone in the stadium knew Rees would be passing to catch up, in conditions hardly optimal.

After looking at every throw a few dozen times, not every decision Rees made was the right one, but the sophomore was able to turn the Irish offense into a high octane attack against a good defense, something the Irish haven’t seen in the Brian Kelly era.

“Our hopes are Tommy is productive and can play at a high level week in and week out,” Kelly said Tuesday. “He’s got a pretty good resume, 4-0 as a starter, and he’s come off the bench twice and has played well under those circumstance.”

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the throws Rees made to impress the coaching staff — all 34 of them:

TOMMY REES’ PASSING PLAYS

Throw 1: 1st and 10 at USF 49

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 7 yards.

A high percentage play. With the corners off and Floyd by himself on the short-side of the field, Rees throws a quick hitch for a nice gain. Nice play call to get Rees warmed up and an easy completion.

Throw 2: 1st and 10 at USF 34

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 4 yards.

Another high percentage throw, but potentially a missed opportunity for Rees, who had Theo Riddick flashing open from the slot on the field side. With five wide, the Irish might have caught USF in a missed coverage and Rees didn’t see Riddick. Again, a nice throw and modest completion to Floyd, but I’m sure in the film room the coaching staff will let Tommy know he missed an open read.

Throw 3: 2nd and 6 at USF 30

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 5 yards.

All three receivers on the field side ran slants, and Rees chose TJ Jones on the outside to go to. The ball sailed high on him a bit, but Jones went up and made a very nice catch. Nothing wrong with the read, but Rees’ accuracy wasn’t all that great. Still, three throws and three completions, all done at a pace faster than the Irish moved with Crist in the first half.

Throw 4: 1st and 10 at USF 20

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 15 yards.

With trips to Rees right, he hits Floyd, the inside receiver with a quick bubble screen. Sprung by a nice block by Theo Riddick, Floyd accelerates around the corner for a big gainer, taking the Irish to the USF five yard line.

Throw 5: 1st and Goal at USF 5

Rees pass intended for TJ Jones intercepted by Michael Lanaris, returned for no gain.

A tough play for a number of reasons. Obviously, Jones never gets his head around to look for the ball, a huge no-no. (As Brian Kelly’s reaction made evident.) With Floyd and Eifert split tight to the right and Riddick and Jones split tight to the left, Riddick pulled the defensive backs on the far side of the field to the corner of the end zone, while Eifert occupied the end zone on the right side.

In what was essentially a two man route, Rees jumped his first option, Jones, throwing to him on the crossing route before he was able to get his head around to the ball. Jones had a step on his defender, but was never looking for the ball, which caromed from Jones’ helmet into the arms of Lanaris, keeping the Irish out of the end zone.

If you watch the replay enough times, you’ll certainly see how well constructed the play is, with Floyd clearing behind Jones and breaking wide open just after the ball is out of Rees’ hands. Just a horrible outcome that probably won’t ever happen again, but did so at the absolute worst time for the Irish.

Throw 6: 1st and 10 at ND 34

Rees pass incomplete to Theo Riddick

A well-designed screen set up for Riddick, but Taylor Dever struggles to keep his man out of Rees’ face, and the defensive end knocks the pass down. Looked like there was some room to operate if the pass were completed.

Throw 7: 2nd and 10 at ND 34

Rees pass incomplete to Michael Floyd

Another throw where Rees might have locked on Floyd too early. He sailed the throw out of bounds, a miscommunication with Floyd, who pulled up with the defensive back in man coverage. Again, it’s hard to say without knowing the play call, but Riddick seemed to be open on a skinny post from the opposite slot.

Throw 8: 3rd and 10 at ND 34

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 37 yards

A really impressive throw into a tight window. With Eifert detached on the right side of the line, Rees has a narrow window to fit the throw in, and he does it. Eifert splits two linebackers and breaks into the secondary for a really big gain. If you’re looking for a throw that Brian Kelly would term “decisive,” this is one of them.

Throw 9: 1st and 10 at USF 29

Rees pass complete to Cierre Wood for 5 yards.

Tommy does a good job buying time in the pocket, and with nobody open downfield, Rees dumps the ball off to a crossing Cierre Wood, who needs to break just one tackle before he’s into the secondary for a potentially big play. A good example of Rees’ subtle mobility, and nice work to make something out of nothing, putting the Irish in a second and short instead of a 2nd and long.

Throw 10: 2nd and 5 at USF 24

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 24 yards for a TOUCHDOWN.

Perfect throw. With Rees seeing Floyd in one-on-one coverage, he hits No. 3 in stride with a perfect strike and let’s Floyd do the rest. Presnap, USF made the decision easy for Rees, with the corner up in man coverage on Floyd and the safety creeping up before the play. NBC announcer Mike Mayock makes a nice observation about Floyd’s spot on the field, staying on the short side and forcing USF to decide whether they want to play him one-on-one or roll a safety to the shorter side of the field, leaving the rest of the field unprotected.

The Bulls coaching staff left Floyd alone, and Notre Dame made them pay.

Throw 11: 1st and 10 at ND 33

Rees pass complete to Theo Riddick for 27 yards.

Another perfect throw. Great route by Riddick, who puts a stutter move on the linebacker before getting over the top of him vertically, and Rees puts the ball in the hole before the safeties converge. This throw was open multiple times for Riddick, and he had a few big drops on it. Don’t be surprised if the Irish continue to try and take advantage of this pattern against the Wolverines. Again, another decisive decision and a big league throw by Rees.

Throw 12: 2nd and 4 at USF 34

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 15 yards.

The same play that went for five yards to Jones early goes to Floyd, who makes a defender miss and turns it into a big gainer. As the outside receiver in the three wide to the left formation, Floyd makes a good play on a ball delivered accurately by Rees, another difference between the shorter completion to Jones.

Throw 13: 2nd and 5 at USF 14

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 1 yard.

A slip screen that didn’t quite work, Rees gets the ball quickly to Jones, but both Chris Watt and Braxston Cave miss their blocks on the screen pass. Jones is tackled for a short gain instead of breaking free for a potentially big gainer.

Throw 14: 3rd and 4 at USF 13

Rees pass incomplete to Cierre Wood.

Well defended by the Bulls. Neither Floyd nor Eifert came open after their shallow crossing routes and Theo Riddick was well covered on the deep cross. Rees essentially throws the ball away over Cierre Wood’s head, settling for what looked like an automatic chip shot for kicked David Ruffer.

Getting nothing out of this drive was a huge blow for the Irish.

Throw 15: 1st and 10 at ND 24

Rees pass incomplete to Theo Riddick

A critical drop by Riddick, who could’ve easily had a 20 yard gain if he’d have held on to the perfectly thrown ball by Rees on the deep crossing pattern. It was a tough evening for Riddick, who came up looking for someone to blame, but ultimately knew that drop was on him.

Throw 16: 2nd and 10 at ND 24

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 6 yards.

A quick hitch to Floyd that Rees hit on time. An important throw to get out of 3rd and long. The cornerback started off, then crept up on Floyd only to push back off presnap. An easy completion against a defensive back that’s protecting against the deep ball as well.

Throw 17: 3rd and 4 at ND 30

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 5 yards.

With Robby Toma in the slot for Riddick, TJ Jones runs a slant on the top side of the field that was open, but Rees takes Floyd on the short hitch, who spins for the first down. A five yard play when you need four. Can’t fault him for that decision, to a receiver who was probably his primary option.

Throw 18: 1st and 10 at ND 35

Rees pass incomplete to TJ Jones

If you’re looking for the difference between Rees and Dayne Crist, you might have your answer here. On a designed roll out, Rees doesn’t get enough on the deep smash route to Jones and the ball skips short. A long throw, but one Rees should have hit. Also — the same throw that Crist waited on and then went to Eifert on the square out, who was covered by then.

Almost a perfect example of the two quarterbacks on Saturday. With Rees, if he misses it’s because of a physical problem. With Crist, it was because he took too long to identify the read, and the defense had time to get back into position.

Throw 19: 1st and 10 at ND 39

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 22 yards.

A nice throw over the corner and in front of the safety and an even better catch by Floyd. A big-league deep ball by Rees, who sees Floyd beat the corner and then get wide enough to find a hole in the two-deep zone. Another throw that if not made early is a really dangerous decision.

Throw 20: 1st and 10 at USF 39

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 7 yards.

With Riddick running off the safety, TJ Jones wide running a curl, Eifert is open at seven yards, and Rees delivers the ball for an easy completion.

Throw 21: 2nd and 3 at USF 32

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 11 yards.

On the wide side of the field, Floyd’s got a linebacker trying to bump him. He gets inside of him anyway, and runs a slant into the middle of the field for 11 more yards.

Throw 22: 1st and 10 at USF 21

Rees pass incomplete to Michael Floyd.

Looked like a max protect route, with the tight end staying in. Rees was going to take his shot to Floyd and when it looked like he was covered, he may or may not have thrown that ball semi-away. A play that felt a lot like a Jimmy Clausen-Charlie Weis play call, a “go out and get it” throw to Floyd.

Throw 23: 1st and 10 at USF 21

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 15 yards.

A similar route combination to some others we’ve seen, only this time Rees wasn’t on the roll out. Jones was open early and open late, and Rees worked his way to Jones, who turned a small gain into a nice one.

Throw 24: 1st and Goal at USF 6.

Rees pass complete to Theo Riddick for 5 yards.

A nice route, a nice throw and a really nice tackle by the USF safety, with LeJiste really laying the wood. Sets up second and goal from inside the one yard line, where Cierre Wood eventually jams it home.

Throw 24a: Two-point conversion attempt

Rees pass incomplete to Michael Floyd.

With Floyd matched up one-on-one on the short side of the field, Rees went to Floyd on the jump ball – fade route, but threw the ball too wide, forcing Floyd out of bounds on a throw he couldn’t hold onto either. It’s a zero-margin for error route, and probably a play-call that’s a little risky after they had moved the ball half the distance to the goal line. Any chance of the Irish winning was cut in half with Notre Dame not converting there, and I’m sure Kelly would want that play call over again, especially after he had to burn a timeout when Rees didn’t get the play off in time before the penalty.

Throw 25: 2nd and 6 at ND 13

Rees pass intercepted by Jerrell Young at ND 30. (Intended for Michael Floyd)

A bad decision by Rees, who might have had a tough throw available with Tyler Eifert on the wheel route on the outside. With Rees flushed from the pocket, that probably eliminated that option, but Tommy would’ve been wise to take the check down to Cierre Wood, but instead tried to fit a ball into double coverage while on the run.

The decision reminds me of one of Charlie Weis’ old rules: never throw the ball on the run across your body. You can’t call this throw the nail in the coffin, but it was another one of those plays that made the comeback even harder to pull off, especially deflating that it came right after a long rain delay.

Throw 26: 2nd and 13 at ND 2

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 23 yards.

With Floyd bracketed on the top side of the field, Rees fits another ball in-between the corner and the safety, with TJ Jones holding on with an amazing catch and taking another big hit. At this point, Rees needed to take any shot he could, and credit Jones for making a really nice catch and taking a big-time hit.

Throw 27: 1st and 10 at ND 25

Rees pass incomplete to Tyler Eifert

With not much there on any of his options, Rees tries to squeeze a throw in short to Eifert, but the ball is knocked away. A good incompletion, with the clock stopping instead of continuing to run on a five yard gain.

Throw 28: 2nd and 10 at ND 25

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 1 yard.

Jones was again slow to get his head around on this crossing route, but to Rees’ credit, he waits until Jones makes eye contact and dumps the ball off to him. From there, Jones was good to get out of bounds.

Throw 29: 3rd and 9 at ND 26

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 12 yards.

Great job by Rees buying time in the pocket, and nice job by Eifert, sinking into a hole in the zone defense. He’s able to make his way across the first down marker and pick up a first down likely conceded by the Bulls soft cover defense.

Throw 30: 1st and 10 at ND 38

Rees pass complete to Cierre Wood for 8 yards.

With coverage solid down the seams, Rees waits for Wood to come open from the backfield and hits him underneath for another small gain that stops the clock.

Throw 31: 2nd and 2 at USF 36

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 18 yards.

Another rifle shot by Rees, putting this ball in a perfect place — just about the linebacker and just beneath the over-the-top safety. With the Bulls in a deep zone, this is a tough throw, but Rees takes the chance and puts the ball on the mark.

Throw 32: 1st and 10 at USF 36

Rees pass incomplete to Theo Riddick.

A ball that Riddick absolutely needs to catch. Theo was bursting up the seam and Tommy puts it on him perfectly. The Irish hope they get those kind of shots this Saturday, as they’re confident that Riddick will make more of those plays than he misses.

Throw 33: 2nd and 5 at USF 31

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 15 yards. (Roughing the passer accepted.)

With the Bulls in deep cover, Rees takes advantage of the match-up Eifert has on the linebacker and waits for the deep in route to develop. Tommy takes a big hit late, adding another 15 yards to the gain. An impressive throw staying in the pocket showing patience as the linebacker vacates the middle of the field.

Throw 34: 1st and Goal at USF 8

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 8 yards for a TOUCHDOWN.

We’ve seen this play before. Three wide, two inside guys run slants clearing the middle and Rees puts a perfect throw on Floyd. A tough play to defend when you’ve got a 6-3, 225-pound All-American like Floyd on the edge.

ADDITIONAL ANALYSIS

Here’s Rees’ receiver by receiver numbers:

Michael Floyd: 10 of 13 for 117 yards 2 TDs, 1 INT
TJ Jones: 5 of 7 for 45 yards, 1 INT
Theo Riddick: 2 of 5 for 32 yards
Tyler Eifert: 5 of 6 for 89 yards
Cierre Wood: 2 of 3 for 13 yards

Here’s a breakdown of where Rees went with the ball, a distribution chart that I don’t think many Irish fans will have a problem with.

Floyd targets: 38%
Jones targets: 20%
Riddick targets: 15%
Eifert targets: 18%
Wood targets: 9%

Even if Rees forced the ball to Floyd, as you can tell by the numbers, there really isn’t anything wrong with that. With a guy like Floyd, even against a secondary that has good talent and depth, he made them pay in a variety of ways, part of what makes No. 3 such a diverse weapon.

Rees also averaged 8.7 yards a throw, 2.5 yards per throw better than Crist. Rees’ half of football has him 30th in yards-per-throw, while Crist’s half has him at 65th. Even more telling, Rees’ numbers, even including the two interceptions, has him 37th in the country in QB rating. Crist’s first half numbers have him ranked 100th.

With the Irish offense having to work almost exclusively through the air as they played catch-up, the Irish have a chance to use their robust rushing attack — Cierre Wood went for over 100 yards on five yards a carry — against a Michigan defense that was the fifth worst team against the run in the country, giving up a gaudy 7.3 yards a carry to Western Michigan.

Again, you can argue that Brian Kelly gave Crist the hook too early. But after seeing the way the Irish responded to the change at quarterback, Kelly knew he needed to get the offense playing at a level that’d help support a defense ready to face a stiffer challenge with Denard Robinson ready for Saturday.

With a season on the brink and no margin for error, Kelly had the confidence to make a bold change. We’ll see if that switch was a mistake this weekend. If you look at the tape and the numbers, it sure doesn’t look like one.

 

 

Saying Goodbye: Five things I learned writing Inside the Irish

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As Lloyd Christmas said, “I hate goodbyes.”But after eight seasons of covering the day-to-day happenings of Notre Dame football, it’s time to say just that.

It’s crazy to think that it’s almost been a decade since I talked the good people of NBC Sports Digital into paying me money to cover the daily comings and goings of the Irish football team. And it’s even crazier that come this Friday, I won’t wake up wondering what I’ll be writing about.

But, it’s time. After eight seasons, two head coaches, 65 wins, 37 losses and one imaginary girlfriend, I’m turning in my wings.

So let’s do this the only way I know how. Here are five things I learned writing Inside the Irish.

 

No matter how fair you try to be, you’re always going to have favorite players. 

My introduction to Notre Dame football was a memorable one. Big-box speakers blared down the fourth floor hallway of Stanford Hall, a rude early-morning awakening for an 18-year-old freshman who was still a little groggy from the night before. I still hadn’t seen a football game in Notre Dame Stadium, though I did manage to wander through the stadium gates and down the tunnel the night before, running phantom pass patterns on that shaggy grass field after a night of exquisite Keystone Lights.

The next day, the Irish beat the defending Rose Bowl champs. And a very young Keith Arnold wondered if all Saturdays would be as magical as this one.

They wouldn’t be. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t all interesting.

The above story is license to expand my very first (and last) All-Inside the Irish Team, building a roster of my favorite players to man their respective positions since the virus that is Notre Dame football took hold of me.

 

The All-Inside the Irish Team

QB: Brady Quinn
RB: Autry Denson
RB: Darius Walker
WR: Golden Tate
WR: Michael Floyd
WR: Jeff Samardzija
TE: Tyler Eifert
LT: Zack Martin
G: Quenton Nelson
C: Jeff Faine
G: Chris Watt
RT: Ryan Harris

DE: Justin Tuck
DT: Trevor Laws
DT: Louis Nix
DE: Stephon Tuitt
LB: Jaylon Smith
LB: Manti Te’o
LB: Kory Minor
CB: Shane Walton
S: Harrison Smith
S: Tommy Zbikowski
CB: KeiVarae Russell

P: Hunter Smith
K: David Ruffer
Returner: Julius Jones
X-Factor: Tommy Rees

 

For as close as they got, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been. 

For me, the best three minutes of covering the Irish were the three minutes before kickoff of the BCS National Championship game. I’ll remember that moment in the press box forever. I could’ve run through a wall, I was so filled with excitement.

The next three minutes? Not quite as good. But after eight years of watching the ups and downs, I’m still left with some serious “what could have been” moments.

What if Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate stuck around for their senior seasons? What if Dayne Crist never got hurt? What if Aaron Lynch didn’t leave? Or Eddie Vanderdoes didn’t want to see his grandma? Or Tee Shepard made it to spring ball? What if Brian Kelly didn’t hire Brian VanGorder?

What if a certain unnamed student trainer didn’t give a little bit too much help or if Everett Golson didn’t take accounting class? Or the 2015 team didn’t live out a Final Destination movie?

Follow a team close enough, and you’ll drive yourself crazy wondering about these scenarios. But at Notre Dame—a school where you’re always going to be on a razor’s edge—the one thing that hit me was the Sisyphean nature if it all. Just when it seemed like the Irish were close to getting that boulder to the top of the mountain, it always found a way to come barreling back down.

 

No matter how long I do it, I’ll never understand the people who can’t find a way to enjoy it. 

Apologies in advance, but let me get this one off my chest. There’s a passion that surrounds Notre Dame football. But for a very vocal group, that passion has gotten demented, an elephant in the room that’s hard to ignore—even when you’re trying your best to do it.

I’ll never understand that. How people who have all the enthusiasm in the world for Notre Dame football have gotten it so twisted that they’ve forgotten that this is supposed to be fun.

It’s sports.

I won’t miss this part. The hard-liners who hold kids and coaches to a standard so far outside the one that they have for themselves, or the ones who fail to understand that every Saturday one team leaves a winner and the other a loser—and sometimes that loser wears blue and gold.

Make no mistake, I know better than most that college football is big business. It’s helped me and my family earn a living, talking and writing about one team, every day, for eight years.  But for as good as it is when the team wins, the bad years are so much worse.

It’s hard not to draw parallels between the joyless cyber mob that infests Notre Dame football (and I’m sure many other programs) with the ones that turned this political season so toxic. The people who refuse to think there’s any nuance—that things either ARE or they AREN’T.

It’s hard to deal with people who believe that Notre Dame, if simply managed and operated by competent people, would still be the Notre Dame of the past. That if only Rockne, Leahy, Ara or Lou were in charge of the team, or Sorin, Moose or Father Ted were in the Main Building, things would be just fine.

Politics aside—and I truly mean that—nobody is going to Make Notre Dame Football Great Again. At least not how it used to be. And certainly not the echo chamber over at NDNation. So while that group will be very glad to be rid of me, know that—for the most part—the feeling is very mutual.

 

Enough doom and gloom. I’ll be eternally thankful for the community we built here—mostly because of you. 

I’ve met plenty of wonderful people because of this blog. I’ve even had people stop me on the streets of South Bend, a head-shaking occurrence still to this day, with the question, “Are you Keith Arnold?” Thankfully, it was for a good reason. Mainly, you read the blog.

So thanks to everybody who has played along—especially those who have lived below the fold. There is a large community of you that I will sincerely miss, even if I’m unwilling to single out any individual reader (other than my mom) for being better than the rest.

We’ve had some wonderful characters in the comment threads. Daily participants. Some who have come and gone. Some who have been banned and re-appeared. Even crazy disbarred lawyers with conspiracy theories.

The live blogs were fun. The tight finishes of the 2009 season were made even crazier when you saw the thousands of people feeding CoveritLive with their every thought. So were the (way too) occasional mailbag. Thanks to all for participating.

For as rough as I was above, there are so many people doing great work writing and podcasting about the Irish. Interesting, intelligent people who I am glad to call friends. There are too many people to single out, but whether they be premium websites that get by with subscribers or blogs run by people with a full-time job, there are too many people to single out, but it’s all really well done. Speaking as a daily-consumer of an unhealthy amount of Notre Dame coverage, it’s a wonderful time to be an Irish fan—4-8 season aside.

 

If I’ve learned anything these past eight years, it’s that Notre Dame does try to be different. 

If you want to get an eye-roll, go ahead and tell someone who doesn’t like the Irish that Notre Dame does it better than the rest. (Go ahead, it shouldn’t be hard to find someone.)

But as much as that statement makes my skin crawl—and I’m a proud alum—the more I dug deeper and deeper into the football team and Jack Swarbrick’s athletic department, the more comfortable I got saying that Notre Dame tried to do it right.

That doesn’t mean they always did.  In my time covering the team, I had to cover some terrible events—and had to ask some very difficult questions. But more often than not, I was always struck by the conscientious effort made to balance everything that goes into doing things the right way, challenging student-athletes to excel in a impressive academic environment while also attempting to compete for a national championship.

No matter what the NCAA tells me, I won’t forget the 2012 season. I won’t forget the moment when the Irish had the No. 1 Graduation Success Rate in the country and the No. 1 glowed proudly atop Grace Hall.

My thanks to the team and people who let me cover them. To those who let a guy living 2,000-plus miles away poke around and ask questions, even if sometimes they resulted in a story getting out that was purposely being kept under wraps. I’m guessing there were more than a few moments inside the Gug spent wondering how some guy with a laptop in Manhattan Beach found something out that he wasn’t supposed to know.

While I’m stepping away from blog, I won’t stop watching the games. And while my time with NBC is done (for now), we’re still thinking of ways for me to be involved with their always excellent coverage of the Irish.

So thanks again to everyone. I’ll be back here later this week to introduce you to the “new guy,” who you’ll soon like much better than the old one. And while shorter is usually better, anybody who has read this blog knows that’s never been one of my gifts.

Report: Tarean Folston won’t return for fifth year

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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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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.”