Offensive Line

Game day: No. 11 Notre Dame vs. No. 18 Michigan

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It’s a big day for the Fighting Irish.

We’ll be with you every step of the way tonight, hosting the live blog with some special guests from The Observer (Notre Dame’s school newspaper) sports team. Until then, let’s go over some final questions I’ve been thinking about as the No. 11 Irish go through final preparations before taking on No. 18 Michigan tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC (and NBCSports.com).

Will the field hold up?

There’s been rain in South Bend already today and it’s cold and windy. Will the much debated natural turf inside Notre Dame Stadium hold up under these conditions? A quick look at the Stadium Cam doesn’t show you much, but the field looks in good enough shape from the top of the press box. Whether we see divots flying while the Irish defenders chase Denard Robinson remains to be seen.

Can Notre Dame play well in back-to-back big games against premiere opponents?

Forgetting the first seven seconds, the Irish handled their business and played solid football against Michigan State last week. It was a stern test and the Irish passed it with all eyes on them. Can Notre Dame do it again? It’s been a full calendar year since the Irish played well at home (against a good team). With a hyped up crowd will the Irish play up to the hype of the game?

Will Notre Dame limit Michigan’s big play capability?

The Wolverines rely on the big play to power their offense. Last year was a perfect example, with the Wolverines rallying back in the fourth quarter thanks to defensive breakdowns and big plays down the field. Of course, the Irish can’t give up 31 yards a reception again. But can they limit what the Wolverines want to do down field with Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess? Can they contain Denard Robinson and keep him from ripping off 20+ yard runs?

If the Irish defense can do that, Notre Dame will walk out of the stadium 4-0.

Will the Irish offensive line dominate the line of scrimmage?

It’s been a slow start for the right side of the Notre Dame offensive line, with new starters Mike Golic and Christian Lombard playing some uneven football. But against the undermanned front four of Michigan, the offensive line needs to dominate the line of scrimmage. There’s no need to put this game on quarterback Everett Golson. It should be won on the backs of Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick and George Atkinson. After putting together a clutch drive at the end of the game to ice it, the Irish need to build on that momentum and seize control of the game early up front.

Can Greg Mattison force Everett Golson to turn the football over?

Notre Dame fans have seen plenty of Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. And while his defense has been slow to start, don’t expect the Wolverines to sit back and play reactive defense. It’s not a matter of if Mattison will blitz Golson, but how much. Can the veteran coach trick the Irish’s young quarterback into making some bad decisions with the football and forcing some throws into coverage?

So far, Golson has been strong with his decision making. Tonight, if he can stay clean in the passing game, the Irish should be just fine.

Can the Irish front seven collapse the pocket and suffocate Denard Robinson?

It’ll be hard for Denard Robinson to beat Notre Dame if he can’t find anywhere to run. Can Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, and Kapron Lewis-Moore collapse the pocket and make it hard on Robinson to find daylight? With Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams fly off the edge and wreak havoc? Will Manti Te’o, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese finish tackles like last week?

It’s going to take relentless pursuit to bring down Robinson and the Irish will have their chances. If Notre Dame can blow up the line of scrimmage and beat Michigan up front, it could be a long day for Robinson.

 

Report: Tarean Folston won’t return for fifth year

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
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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

clark-lea
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.”

 

 

 

Reports: Lea, Alexander added to Irish coaching staff

delvaughn
ASU Sports Information
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Brian Kelly is adding to his rebuilt coaching staff, reportedly finalizing deals with Wake Forest linebackers coach Clark Lea and Arizona State assistant DelVaughn Alexander. Lea will reunite with Mike Elko and coach linebackers and Alexander will coach wide receivers. While both hires are still going through formal university vetting, the Lea hire has long been rumored before being reported by SI’s Pete Thamel. FootballScoop.com broke the news on Alexander, before multiple outlets confirmed the report.

In Lea, Elko brings a piece of his coaching staff with him to South Bend. The 35-year-old spent last season working in Winston-Salem and spent three seasons at Syracuse before that. He worked with Elko and Demon Deacons head coach Dave Clawson at Bowling Green and has spent time as an assistant at UCLA as well. He earned three letters at Vanderbilt, a 2004 graduate.

Alexander is a veteran presence to help replace Mike Denbrock and fill his void coaching receivers. He’s also a coach with first-hand knowledge of new coordinator Chip Long, having worked alongside him in Tempe under Mike Norvell. The move also comes in time for the reopen of the recruiting season’s home stretch, bringing a capable West Coast recruiter to the staff at a time when Notre Dame’s 2017 class is leaking a bit of oil.

Alexander played wide receiver at USC, playing for Larry Smith and John Robinson, before breaking into the coaching ranks there as a graduate assistant. He’s also had stops at UNLV, coached for Jim Harbaugh at San Diego, and spent significant time at Wisconsin and Arizona State where he coached multiple positions, taking over tight ends after Long left for Memphis.