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Faced with adversity, Kelly turns offense over to Martin

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For the first two years of Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame, Charley Molnar was the offensive coordinator. That much, just about everybody knows. What we don’t know, is what kind of say Molnar had in actually, well — coordinating the offense.

As it tends to happen, many are speculating about Molnar’s departure from Notre Dame for the head coaching position at UMass. Logic dictates that just about any lifetime assistant coach would jump for the opportunity to run his own program, and after a career traversing the college football world, Molnar certainly fits the mold of a guy ready for his shot. Of course, rumblings coming from around the dome also could have you believe that Molnar was out of South Bend whether it was with a new job or not, something Tim Prister of IrishIllustrated.com wrote earlier this week.

As Lou Somogyi of Blue & Gold Illustrated notes, second year shake-ups are nothing new for Irish coaching staffs. Charlie Weis dropped Rick Minter for Corwin Brown. Bob Davie dropped Jim Colletto for Kevin Rogers. And Lou Holtz had the biggest turnover of any recent Irish coach, with outside linebackers coach Barry Alvarez taking over coordinator duties for Foge Fazio, Chuck Heater brought in to run the secondary, and Joe Yonto moved out at offensive line to bring in Joe Moore. So before Irish fans believe that the sky is falling, consider that Kelly knows what he has on his staff better than anyone, and promoting from within is one of the reasons there’s a statue of Barry Alvarez in Madison, and the path to the Rose Bowl know goes through Camp Randall.

That’s not to assume that Chuck Martin is the second coming of Alvarez, but the fact that Kelly turned to Martin after pledging to fix the offense after a disheartening loss to Florida State carries some weight. If you spend any time around the coaching staff, it won’t take you long to notice Martin, who carries himself like a second head coach and has the chops to prove it. When Martin joined the staff after leaving Grand Valley, those who knew him were surprised that he came without being tagged a coordinator, instead coaching the secondary and coordinating the team’s recruiting efforts. Two seasons later, Martin is getting that chance, moving to the offensive side of the ball and advancing his coaching resume at the same time.

Of course, what Martin’s tenure as offensive coordinator means still remains to be seen. As Molnar also did, Martin will coach quarterbacks, working day to day with a new position group after working with the secondary for his first two seasons. Almost immediately, we’ve seen Martin’s fingerprints on recruiting, with the Irish chasing quarterback Devin Fuller, an elite five-star athlete that’s been promised a chance to work at quarterback after previously being offered as a defensive back. (How good of an athlete is Fuller? Consider this Irish Sports Daily report that has him already working with the first unit wide receivers at the Army All-American bowl, after playing wideout for the first time in his life upon arriving in San Antonio.) Martin has also been instrumental in reaffirming the commitments of recruits Will Mahone and Taylor Decker, after both Tim Hinton and Ed Warinner, two coaches instrumental in their respective recruitment, joined Urban Meyer’s Ohio State staff.

Looking back at Martin’s recent Grand Valley team’s, you get an idea of how he likes to power an offense. Continuing with the system Kelly put in place, Martin evolved his spread attack into one that moved mostly by ground, with his last four teams running the ball at least sixty percent of the time.

2006: 538 runs, 355 passes (60.2%/39.8%)
2007: 541 runs, 329 passes (62.2%/37.8%)
2008: 464 runs, 280 passes (62.4%/37.6%)
2009: 599 runs, 397 passes (60%/40%)

To put that into context, here’s the run/pass splits for the Irish over the past two seasons.

2010: 414 runs, 481 passes (46.3%/53.7%)
2011: 433 runs, 473 passes (47.8%/52.2%)

Of course, the first question every Irish fan should be asking is what quarterback will be taking snaps next year, and what role  the quarterback will play in the running game. Recruiting a guy like Fuller gives you an idea that Martin likes to run the quarterback as well, and a deeper look at the numbers confirms that. Here’s a breakdown of quarterback carries from the four-year span at Grand Valley we just looked at.

2006: 538 carries: 139 from QBs (25.8%)
2007: 541 carries: 117 from QBs (21.6%)
2008: 464 carries: 50 from QBs (10.7%)
2009: 599 carries: 66 from QBs (11.0%)

Adding more context to those numbers, Martin’s offense evolved as his quarterback changed. In 2006, Cullen Finnerty was the starter, throwing for 41 touchdown passes while also running 132 times for 8 touchdowns, averaging 4.4 yards a carry as the team’s second leading ball carrier for a team that averaged 35.5 points a game. In 2007, Brad Iciek took over the quarterbacking position, and while he did run the ball, he was spelled by Central Florida transfer Marquel Neasman, who worked in primarily as a running quarterback. The quarterbacks still ran the ball over 20 percent of the time for an offense that averaged 7.1 yards a play and put up 38.2 points a game.

Digging deeper, a quick look at Brian Kelly’s last two teams at Cincinnati shows similarities to Martin when he’s playing a mobile quarterback. Obviously, Kelly wasn’t responsible for the depth chart he inherited, and didn’t have a running quarterback until Andrew Hendrix emerged late this season. Here’s a look at the percentage of quarterback rushes as a percentage of overall carries, including the leading QB ball carrier (minimum 10 carries).

2008: 347 rushing, 100 from QBs (28.8%) – Collaros 6.0 ypc
2009: 444 rushing, 111 from QBs (25.0%) – Collaros 4.8 ypc
2010: 414 rushes, 73 rushes (17.6%) – Crist 1.4 ypc
2011: 433 rushes, 61 rushes (14.1%) – Hendrix 6.5 ypc

Kelly and Martin have two quarterbacks on campus, Hendrix and rising sophomore Everett Golson, that’ll immediately solve the quarterback running game problem. Of course, one of those two will need to win the starting job before we can see if the Irish will break out a rushing attack, though you’d have to expect it with no clear No. 1 wide receiver behind tight end Tyler Eifert, and Tommy Rees seeming to stagnate down the stretch.

Maybe more important than just about any schematic change to the offense is having Martin’s confidence and moxie on the offensive side of the ball. Martin’s edge, quick humor, and style are polar opposites of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. With both coaches on the defensive side of the ball, you had two very different styles of teaching the same thing, while Diaco’s heightened intensity and earnestness the opposite side of the dial from where Martin lives. Perhaps Martin’s fearlessness, his ability to motivate and coach hard (without turning purple and upping the decibels) will be good for an offense that needs a little swagger after getting mighty vanilla as the season played out. Martin’s confidence — both in his abilities and his players — will be a godsend for a unit that didn’t hold up its end of the bargain down the stretch.

Two summers ago, I spent time with Kelly’s coaching staff, and got an up-close look at how the staff interacted. Still in the infancy of their time together, it was clear there was a corp group of guys that formed a quick bond. It’s amazing that the three coaches that seemed the most detached, are the first three coaches out the door. Charley Molnar had worked for Kelly since 2006, but you got the feeling he didn’t fit completely with the rest of the group. The same can be said for Tim Hinton, who Kelly inherited from Mark Dantonio at Cincinnati, and Ed Warinner, who was a stranger to everyone, coming over from Kansas after pursuing a job on Kelly’s staff. It didn’t take long to identify Martin as a leader among the assistant coaches, even if his title didn’t say it after ascending to the D-I level.

Of course, none of that matters until we see what the offense looks like this coming spring, and learn more about how much input Martin will have in a system where the head coach will likely continue to call the plays. But facing his first bit of macro-level adversity, Kelly turned to Martin to help right the ship. How it works out, only time will tell. But the decision means quite a bit.

 

Notre Dame makes Alexander and Balis hires official

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Notre Dame confirmed the news that Del Alexander and Matt Balis are joining Brian Kelly’s staff. As expected, Alexander will coach wide receivers while Balis was named director of football performance.

The program announced both hires on Thursday.

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

Alexander, who’ll lean on his West Coast roots and familiarity with new offensive coordinator Chip Long, said the following:

“I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country. Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

Balis comes to Notre Dame from UConn, with an impressive pedigree that counts jobs at Mississippi State, Florida, Virginia and Utah. He takes over for Paul Longo, who is taking a leave of absence from the football program, per the official release.

“Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh,” Kelly said. “He’s already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn’t be more excited to have him in place moving forward.”

 

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.