Alabama wide receiver Cooper celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter during the NCAA SEC college football championship in Atlanta.

And in that corner… The Alabama Crimson Tide

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Are we ready yet? After 40 days, there’s little to discuss that hasn’t already be covered for the past few weeks. But before we call no joy, it is worth at least discussing the very real difference that comes along with beach in South Florida right now. Just about every Alabama fan in town completely expects Notre Dame to get throttled.

Of course, on a night like tonight, optimism reigns supreme. When a guy like Mike Golic decides to cast away ESPN and play the role of Irish cheerleader, you know things are good. But for thousands of Irish fans,  being at the pep rally, listening to the Irish marching band, and hearing inspirational words from guys like actor Martin Short, Pat Terrell, Tony Rice, and Lou Holtz makes some sense.

Looking for the opposite perspective, I tracked down Don Kausler Jr., writer for the AL.com team of newspapers. Don and his crew have been spitting out stories just about on the hour since they arrived in Fort Lauderdale, so getting his perspective on the proceedings would be critical.

After pumping out a few thousand words, I asked questions and Don thankfully gave the answers.

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1. Most Notre Dame fans watched Alabama dismantle Michigan to open the season and slide by Georgia with a tremendous comeback in the SEC Championship. How good is this team? Could they be as good as the team that had five players drafted in the first 35 picks?

This is a very good team, maybe a great team, but it has a few flaws. The offense sometimes disappears in third quarters, but it has set a single-season school record with 500 points. The defense has four shutouts, and the first-team defense held two other opponents to no points, but LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia found ways to move the ball and score. It’s easier to throw than to run on this defense, and the Crimson Tide has been vulnerable to mobile quarterbacks. It contained the running of Michigan’s Denard Robinson, but he connected on two long passes. LSU’s Zach Mettenberger completed 24-35 passes for 298 yards and one touchdown. Georgia’s Aaron Murray completed 18-33 passes for 265 yards and one touchdown.

2. It appears that the Crimson Tide are battling a few injuries to some key players. How are Barrett Jones and Jesse Williams healing? How important are they to Alabama’s success?

Both have healed. Williams never missed practicing time. He has worn a brace on his sprained knee. Jones missed Alabama’s first nine postseason practices while recovering from a sprained foot. Both will start. Will either one play at 100 percent? That remains to be seen. Williams probably will be used only in situations where running is anticipated. Jones played essentially on one leg for three quarters in the SEC Championship Game, and he helped Alabama rush for 350 yards.

3. Notre Dame enters the national title game undefeated and ranked first in the nation, yet they’re decided underdogs. How does Nick Saban and the Alabama staff view Notre Dame’s personnel? Does it match-up to the SEC’s best?

 Saban and Alabama players have had nothing but great things to say about Notre Dame’s personnel. We’ve heard many comparisons between the Fighting Irish and SEC teams. Some Alabama players have said Notre Dame’s defense reminds them of Georgia’s star-studded unit that features three probable NFL first-round draft picks.

4. It looks like it’ll be strength vs. strength on January 7th when Alabama’s offensive line takes on Notre Dame’s front seven. Any individual match-up worth keeping a closer eye on?

Definitely keep an eye in the middle, where Alabama center Barrett Jones and Notre Dame nose guard Louis Nix III will battle. Alabama loves to run inside-zone plays, and if Jones can handle Nix solo, guards Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen will be able to block linebackers. If not, look for double teams, and Notre Dame linebackers might be able to clog running lanes.

5. Skill-wise, Notre Dame hasn’t faced a team with talent like Alabama. Irish fans know about the two-headed monster of Eddie Lacy and TJ Yeldon. Who else should they be worried about?

Freshman wide receiver Amari Cooper is dynamic and has emerged as a deep threat in recent games. Junior quarterback AJ McCarron is a savvy leader who seldom makes mistakes (26 TD passes vs. 3 interceptions). He is particularly dangerous on play-action passes that usually are set up by success on the ground. If Notre Dame pays too much attention to stopping Alabama’s running game, McCarron could make the Irish pay with passes. He will take what the defense gives up.

6. One issue that seems to stay below the mainstream radar is Oversigning. From 2008-12, the Tide signed 32 + 27 + 26 + 22 + 26 players, making the management of 85 scholarships difficult. Saban spoke delicately about the issue last year. Has anything changed in the SEC? Can you attribute some of the SEC’s dominance to the conference’s propensity to sign oversized recruiting classes?

Saban has gotten some grief, and he’s sensitive to the criticism, but he plays within the rules. Those rules changed in 2011. The SEC reduced the number of players a school can sign in one year from 28 to 25. “Back counting” is allowed for early enrollees if the program is under the 85-scholarship limit. Saban has offered some players “grayshirts,” meaning they sit out the fall semester and enroll in the spring. Skeptics say Saban engages in “roster management.” He says players create their own exits. That is, some leave because they don’t want to sit on Alabama’s bench. Some leave because they aren’t making good grades. Some are offered medical scholarships if they no longer are healthy enough to play. Ultimately, room typically is made for a maximum number of signees each year.

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Special thanks to Don for getting me answers in a really busy week. For more, check out his Twitter feed and check out Al.com’s coverage of the national championship.

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)
Getty
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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.

Chip Long in as Offensive Coordinator… and play-caller

chip-long
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Notre Dame’s formal press release introducing Chip Long as the new offensive coordinator did more than confirm news that we’ve known for a few weeks. It let us in on Brian Kelly’s initial plans for his offense heading into a pivotal offseason.

After some struggles in 2016 with DeShone Kizer and an inexperienced wide receiving corps, most expected Kelly to rip back control of the offense after Mike Denbrock called the plays and Mike Sanford coordinated the offense. But Kelly is going to let Long call the plays next season, adding some intrigue to a press release that usually is vanilla.

“Chip will be given the full responsibility to call plays in 2017,” Kelly said in the release. “His offense at Memphis displayed a unique blend of physicality, athleticism, versatility and explosiveness. Chip’s play-calling created mismatches all over the field and did it in a number of different ways. He likes to use players who can fill numerous roles in an array of formations, whether that be two and three tight ends or multiple running backs.

“Chip has experience coaching at almost every position on the offensive side of the ball. He’s worked for and learned from some of the most respected offensive minds in college football — Bobby Petrino, Mike Norvell and Jeff Brohm — to name a few.”

That Kelly is handing over play-calling to Long, who called plays last year for Mike Norvell at Memphis, is a surprise on the surface. But if you listen to Kelly over the past few seasons, he’s always downplayed that responsibility. Most thought he was simply playing coy, though Kelly seems to value game plan and installation as something at least as important as calling the plays.

But after splitting the baby between Denbrock and Sanford these past two seasons (the three-man collaboration worked much better in 2015 than 2016–possibly explained by the personnel) perhaps Kelly sees a singular voice as a key to improving an Irish offense that’ll have to replace Kizer, but should welcome back the majority of offensive playmakers, as well as Alizé Jones. Giving that assignment to Long will also let Kelly dig in as a head coach, working with first-year starter Brandon Wimbush and staying connected to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko and his installation.

Long’s work on campus will likely take flight as soon as the recruiting dead period is over. Known for his tenacity on the trail, Notre Dame is in desperate need of getting back into living rooms, trying to get back some momentum as a few defections have spoiled the 2017 class, and a handful of spots are available in this upcoming signing class.

Long will also likely work with tight ends, a position he played as a D-II All-American and that he coached at Memphis last season. Scott Booker coached tight ends since 2012.

“It’s an honor and privilege to have the opportunity to serve as the offensive coordinator at the University of Notre Dame,” Long said in the statement. “The challenge to lead at a University with such high standards is incredibly motivating. I’m very grateful to Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for extending this opportunity.

“It’s Notre Dame: the values, the culture, and the leadership. My wife, Kari, and I are excited to move to South Bend and to join the Notre Dame family.”