aaron lynch Sack

IBG: Getting ready for the Irish Wake

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Okay people, don’t worry — nobody died. But while some of you might be mourning the fact that they decided to stack Notre Dame-Wake Forest at the exact same time as LSU-Alabama, I wouldn’t be insulted if you simply followed me on the live-blog Saturday night while flipping back and forth between the two games. I’m willing to be your eyes and ears, as always.

This week’s Irish Blogger Gathering is hosted by our friend Blog Davie at the GameDay 40 blog. I can’t confirm the spray tan or the propensity to run a QB draw on 3rd and 6, but you should check out he and the GameDay 40 team’s work, if only because they also support Kirk Ferentz and Iowa, which means they must be feeling pretty terrible about themselves these days.

On to the questions…

I don’t know anything about Wake Forest except that Tim Duncan went there.  Who is the Tim Duncan of the Wake Forest footballers, i.e., one guy that the Irish must game plan for on Saturday and why?

You’re looking for another Tim Duncan? The guy was a 6-foot-11 swimmer from the Virgin Islands who walked from college to the NBA and immediately averaged 20 and 10. Not to go all Bill Simmons on you, but there’s nobody on the Wake Forest football team that even belongs in the same pool as Duncan. People tend to forget it now, but Duncan was a total freak in college, and I remember watching those games and listen to hecklers call him Spock, which I thought was spectacularly funny.

That said, if I had to call one guy a freak of nature on this team, it’s definitely Nikita Whitlock. He’s a 5-foot-11 (just one foot shorter than Duncan) nose guard that has 12 tackles-for-loss already this season — which is more than Manti Te’o. He also has the best action hero name I’ve heard in a long time.

(I don’t know how good of a swimmer he is.)

Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray have been a solid running back tandem this year with Gray coming on strong in the last couple of games.  With a finite amount of opportunities for each back, how do you think BK should split the carries in the coming weeks?  Explain.

At this point, they should be splitting the carries pretty evenly, though I’d probably give Cierre more snaps, only because he’s more versatile in the passing game. What Jonas Gray has done this year after a tough opening drive is pretty incredible. That he’s been able to dig himself out from the shallow grave most Irish fans dug for him has been a testament to the kid’s really hard work.

When you opened the season, I don’t think after 8 games many people would’ve thought Gray would be chasing one of George Gipp’s rushing records. That said, after seeing Wood put his head down and run hard against Navy after a few slips in the open field, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him have a breakout game either.

Andrew Hendrix did not play against Navy.  Without speculating as to the reasons why he didn’t play against the Midshipmen, do you think he’s being underutilized?  Why or why not?

I actually think he’s being utilized perfectly. The kid just isn’t ready to start throwing the ball up the seam and running this entire offense, at least not the vertical part of it. While I get that everybody really wants a quarterback that can run the ball and make the offense a true spread running attack, the coaching staff knows what its quarterbacks can do, and if BK and company aren’t ready to let Hendrix throw a complete route tree, then I think everybody should trust them.

There’s no reason to speculate why Kelly didn’t use Hendrix against Navy. He essential said it: He didn’t think he needed him to win. (That, and I think it was more important to get Dayne Crist’s mojo back after the way his playing time against USC ended.)

Most importantly, this is an important lesson for Irish fans wishing for a stable football program. R-E-L-A-X! Andrew Hendrix is basically a freshman! He’s got three full seasons left in this program. If you want stability, stop demanding to see what a redshirt freshman can do on offense and openly worrying that if you don’t see it soon that Hendrix might transfer.

After inheriting a program that had zero healthy scholarship quarterbacks, Kelly has finally built some depth at the position. He’s likely losing Dayne Crist after this season, so there’ll be three quarterbacks left, and potentially one more if Kelly can convince Gunner Kiel to come to South Bend. That’s the way it should be. Remember, Matt Leinart was a third-stringer at this point in his career at USC. That’s what happens when you’ve got good depth.

What do the following series of statements mean—if anything— for Notre Dame versus Wake Forest this weekend?  Wake Forest beat NC State.  NC State beat Virginia. Virginia beat The U. The U beat Ohio State. Ohio State beat Illinois. Illinois beat Arizona State. Arizona State beat USC. USC beat Notre Dame.

I think the transitive property has gone mad.

That said, I’m not sure if you’re hinting at it, but you’ve hit on one of the essential problems that college football has right now — it’s a lack of connectivity. If you scratch your head like I do when the polls come out every week, it’s because the voters have a really hard time comparing teams, other than using a flawed process like the one you used above.

Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders, hit on the issue on his website BCFToys.com over a year and a half ago when he looked at the 2009 college football schedule as compared to the slate from 1989.

In 1989, there were 106 Division 1A (now called FBS) teams. A total of 582 games were played between those teams, including 18 bowl games. 52 of the total games (8.9 percent, or about 1 in 11) were played between teams ranked in the Associated Press final top-25.

In 2009, 120 FBS teams played a total of 714 games against one another, including 34 bowl games. Only 38 of the total games (5.3 percent, or about 1 in 20) were played between Associated Press final top-25 teams. (EDIT: Actually, 39 games were played in 2009, 5.5 percent, or about 1 in 19. The infographic doesn’t reflect that Clemson and Georgia Tech played twice).

The AP final top-25 was significantly more connected in 1989 than 2009. Only nine ranked teams played at least four games against other ranked teams last season; in 1989, 18 ranked teams did so. Twenty years ago, the AP top-10 either played or shared a common opponent with an average of 17 other ranked teams. In 2009, the AP top-10 either played or shared a common opponent with an average of only 12.6 other ranked teams.

In twenty years, the frequency of games played between top-25 teams has been cut by nearly 40 percent. The primary reason for the decline has been conference expansion. In 1989, 25 teams were independent, including AP final Nos. 1, 2 and 3 and six of the top-25 overall. In 2009, only 3 FBS teams were independent, none of which were ranked. Additionally, there were 94 FBS vs. FCS games played last year, 17 involving AP top-25 teams. Only 50 such games were played in 1989, two by AP top-25 teams.

In simple terms: People just aren’t playing each other that often. I mean — look at the blueprint shown by Nebraska or Penn State. In their non-conference slates, each only played one BCS conference team, for Nebraska it was Washington, for Penn State it was Alabama. In Penn State’s case, they lost, but have then rolled through a mediocre stretch of conference games like Indiana, Iowa, Purdue, Northwestern and Illinois — Forrest Gumping their way to wins while building an 8-1 record. By default they’re ranked No.16, even though if they were to face Notre Dame on a neutral field they’d be almost a touchdown underdog.

Like in everything else — people have learned how to manipulate the system, or at least stack the front-side of their schedule as easy as possible. But Penn State will now face Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin, before playing in a potential Big Ten Championship game. We’ll find out if they’re the real deal or like Michigan State was last year — incredibly exposed by Alabama in a bowl game.

What’s your prediction for Saturday’s game against the Demon Deacons and why?  Bonus points if your answer is a Haiku.

I hate making predictions on games, especially with this Irish team. If good Notre Dame shows up — expect a comfortable win. If bad Notre Dame shows up — expect a nail-biter. I’m inclined to think that the Irish can overwhelm Wake Forest on offense, while unleashing pass-rushers like Aaron Lynch on Tanner Price. But expect the loudest 32,000 people you’ve ever heard on Saturday night and a very fired up Wake Forest team.

Here’s my attempt at a haiku:

Night games on the road
No I won’t change the channel
Just don’t beat yourself

Saying Goodbye: Five things I learned writing Inside the Irish

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Property of the University of Notre Dame
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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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UND.com
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Notre Dame formally introduced new linebackers coach Clark Lea on Thursday. The press release for the 35-year-old  included the following quote from the new assistant who has worked at Bowling Green, UCLA and Wake Forest, and rejoins Mike Elko in South Bend.

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said in a statement. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”

That work has already begun, with Lea on the prowl as the recruiting dead period ended and the rebuilt Irish staff hit the road. Yesterday, Lea was with defensive coordinator Mike Elko visiting commit David Adams, a key piece of the Irish puzzle on the defensive side of the ball. That starts a mad rush that’ll keep Lea’s belongs in boxes until after the first Wednesday in February, as Elko and his reshuffled defensive staff open their recruiting board, finding replacements for a handful of de-commitments and pieces that’ll fit Elko’s scheme.

If there’s any reason for optimism after a tough few weeks in recruiting, it’s the young staff that Kelly has assembled. The youth movement includes not just Lea, but the 39-year-old Elko. New offensive coordinator Chip Long is just 33, moving to Notre Dame after one season at Memphis. Running backs coach Autry Denson just turned 40 while special teams coordinator Brian Polian is practically long in the tooth at 42. (All that comes before the expected announcement of 25-year-old Tommy Rees.)

Lea’s pedigree is rock solid, earning kudos in 2012 for his work as Linebackers coach at Bowling Green, Football Scoop’s Linebackers Coach of the Year.

“Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” Kelly said in the release. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system — having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”