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Irish eyes will be on the quarterbacks

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Anyone that expected a tidy conclusion to the open four-man quarterbacking battle taking place under the close watch of Brian Kelly and new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin should’ve thought twice before making that assumption. With Kelly entering his third year in South Bend, a season that’s largely been a sink-or-swim proposition for Irish head coaches, Notre Dame will exit spring practice without having a starting quarterback.

It’s not lip service when Kelly says he’s giving every quarterback a chance to win the job. Whether that’s returning starter Tommy Rees, fellow junior-to-be Andrew Hendrix, redshirt freshman Everett Golson, or early-enrollee Gunner Kiel, the job is truly up for grabs. While many fans had hoped to see the stars align, it was never a battle the Irish staff expected to be resolve after 15 practices. Besides, you can’t blame the head coach for taking as much time as possible to make a decision that could likely have an impact on his fate as the face of the Fighting Irish.

“I need all those practices,” Kelly said, acknowledging that this race will bleed into August camp. “Now let’s go see who takes that and runs with it.”

Each quarterback isn’t without his own virtues. All four player bring something tangibly different to the table, and a logical argument can be made for every scholarship quarterback on the roster taking over the offense — an oddity that hasn’t existed in South Bend in over a decade. With talented players stocking the depth chart, spring wasn’t designed to be a competition, but rather a crash course on the fundamentals, this time applied by Kelly’s most trusted lieutenant.

“Each one of them has improved in the areas we’re looking for,” Kelly said. “The biggest point of emphasis was taking care of the football and not turning it over. We tracked all our throws, all of our decision-making, and I feel really good after the spring that our quarterbacks are well on their way to being the quarterbacks that we need, and that is very efficient, takes great care of the football, and can make the throws when necessary.”

There’s no exaggeration when Kelly claims the staff tracked every throw, and the progress made by a team that was a dreadful 118th in the country in turnover margin has been immediate. After throwing seventeen interceptions in 473 attempts last season, Irish quarterbacks have only thrown nine interceptions in 502 spring attempts.

We’ve spent thousands of words over the past few months looking at the candidates. Looking to get another perspective on things, I reached out to someone that’s probably been closer to these quarterbacks than just about anyone. Former Irish quarterback Matt Mulvey, the one-time captain of the Red Army, and Brian Kelly’s right-hand man on the sidelines, broke down the four quarterbacks with me, helping to give another look at the four-way battle that’ll likely continue until the Irish board a plane for Dublin.

TOMMY REES

The Skinny: Presumptive favorite to win the starting job after starting 12 games last season. Limited as a runner, and possessing the smallest arm of the four candidates, he’s got the best knowledge base of the offense, but needs to cut down a turnover rate.

Mulvey says: “He knows his job inside and out. Ninety-nine percent of those plays he made the right changes at the line. He’s got such a quick release and he protects himself so well that it’s hard to get to him. Right now, his knowledge of the playbook is far above the other three guys.”

My hunch: It’s Rees’ job to lose and Brian Kelly has all but said as much. While that might cause some bellyaching among the Irish faithful looking to break out one of the three shiny new cars in the garage, Kelly stated his opinion as candidly as possible: “Tommy’s thing was turnovers. If Tommy didn’t turn the football over at the rate he did last year, we’d be talking about this kid at the highest level. He did though, so that’s why it’s open competition.”

ANDREW HENDRIX

The Skinny: Possesses everything needed to be a top-flight collegiate quarterback. The best mix of runner and passer on the roster, Hendrix is a physically impressive athlete that is still a bit too mechanical as he finishes his third spring practice.

Mulvey says: “He’s capable of doing everything. He’s one of those Brady Quinn-type guys that’s a freak in the weight room. He’s a strong kid with an absolute cannon arm. That and his mobility are strengths. It comes down to knowing the playbook inside and out like it’s second nature. I think he’ll get more confidence with experience.”

My hunch: On paper, there’s nothing not to like about Hendrix. He tackles quarterbacking like he does his work in the classroom, with a tireless work ethic and diligence. But there’s an art to being a quarterback and the next evolutionary step for Hendrix is to find comfort in the uncertainty of the position. After missing out on the back-up quarterback reps last season with Dayne Crist still on the roster, he’ll benefit the most just by getting more time and comfort behind center.

EVERETT GOLSON

The Skinny: The people’s champ, Golson’s skill-set is unrivaled. A natural athlete with preternatural instincts for the game, he’s got the athleticism of a point guard and an arm to make every throw on the field. Now the mental game needs to catch up to his abilities.

Mulvey says: “He’s so naturally gifted, he just grabs the ball and it comes out of his hands like a laser. It’s like watching Robert Griffin throw the football, just a flick of the wrist and it flies out of his hands. Sometimes you don’t know what’s going on in his head. He’ll run the right play, make the right read, and the right everything, but when you ask him about what his read and progression was he’ll hesitate. He’s come a long way with the playbook, and if he can instill some confidence in the coaches they will give him a shot.”

My hunch: A starting quarterback is in many ways an equity partner with the head coach. Golson has the biggest market cap of any of the competitors, but he’s also got the most risk. For a coach that just went through a season where erratic quarterback play sunk the offense, putting his team on the shoulders of a guy still learning is a big risk. He’s a true boom or bust candidate, but is the most intriguing player on the roster.

GUNNER KIEL

The Skinny: Early enrolled freshman is the first blue-chip quarterback Brian Kelly has every worked with. Swimming in the deep end for the first time, Kiel has an NFL set of talents that are just waiting to be developed.

Mulvey says: “He’s getting his fair chance and all the necessary reps. He’s coming in at the right time. They’ll give him his shot. Physically he’s got all the necessary tools, but high school is so much different than college. He needs to understand that he’s behind and he needs to catch up. Hopefully he’ll have a chip on his shoulder and work twice as hard as the other guys.”

My hunch: Kiel very well might be the quarterback of the future, but this spring as been a crash course in football, and Gunner’s head is probably still spinning. If Kiel emerges as a viable starting quarterback option, something has likely gone very wrong this season. There have been questions asked about Kiel’s potential by some analysts questioning his star rating. Those questions don’t exist on the Irish coaching staff, who know they’ve got a big-time prospect on their hands.

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.