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Five things we’ll learn: The season is finally upon us

Aug 26, 2013, 2:49 AM EDT

Notre Dame team

Within ten minutes of reaching the top of the college football mountain, Notre Dame fans had to feel like Sisyphus. After watching their beloved Irish vanquish a boulder carrying the burdens of tradition, unfulfilled expectations, and the final shouts of irrelevancy at the BCS National Championship game, the honeymoon lasted just minutes before the Crimson Tide knocked a dream season back down to earth.

The greek tragedy didn’t stop after the embarrassing 42-14 pummeling. Brian Kelly nearly knocked the oxygen out of ND Nation when the Philadelphia Eagles interviewed him, going radio silent for three days before eventually returning to the fold. That was nothing compared to Manti Te’o’s ordeal, with America learning all about Catfishing and a fictional girlfriend named Lennay Kekua.

Spring practice led to the departure of five-star freshman Gunner Kiel. That was trumped by the academic exile of starting quarterback Everett Golson. Throw in the loss of prized recruits Alex Anzalone and Eddie Vanderdoes, and just making it to training camp was enough of an accomplishment.

A long summer of workouts and four days in a sleepy farm town of Marion, Indiana hopefully put all of that in the past. And just 236 eventful days after last taking the field, the Irish will kickoff the ’13 season against Temple.

Before we focus on that game, let’s take a look at five things we’ll learn during the 2013 season.


1. The final chapter in Tommy Rees’ career will determine his legacy. 

As NBC continues to try and regain the midas touch it once had developing television dramas, it could do worse than looking to its Saturday afternoon autumn time slot for inspiration. That’s where Tommy Rees has entranced Irish fans — with three seasons of football that have been anything but boring.

Defining Rees’ run in South Bend is complicated. It’s also something we’ve tried to do from almost the beginning, when the scrawny freshman that looked like he should’ve been played interhall was thrown into action against Tulsa and lost in spectacularly dramatic fashion. Rees may have lost that game — and a few others — but he’s certainly won his share as well.

After boos from the home crowd welcomed Rees during a late-game relief appearance against Purdue, Rees spent the ’12 season earning back the respect of just about every Notre Dame fan on the planet, proving to be the ultimate teammate while playing a critical role during the team’s undefeated regular season.

With the keys to the offense in Rees’ hands for one final season, even Kelly understands that this year will go a long way towards defining Tommy Rees and his legacy.

“I don’t think the story’s written,” Kelly said. “I think you write the story after he completes his journey here at Notre Dame. You know what, it could be a really interesting story.”


2. Can Brian Kelly’s most talented backfield find a way to turn into his most productive?

Gone are the Irish’s three most prolific rushers from last season, with Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood both battling to make NFL rosters while Everett Golson spends his forced sabbatical in San Diego training. Yet even with just 74 returning carries in the Irish backfield, Kelly feels extraordinarily upbeat about the prospects of his running attack — whoever ends up leading the way.

“We’re just really blessed to have such great talent at the running back position,” Kelly said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever had as much depth at the running back position in all my years of coaching. All of them can contribute to our success.”

If finding carries for three backs was difficult last season, thinking Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin can find touches for George Atkinson, Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle, Will Mahone, Greg Bryant, and Tarean Folston is all but impossible. While preseason camp went a long way towards getting positive sound bites out of the coaching staff about all the good work that was getting done, it brought us no closer to knowing who’s actually going to carry the load once the games start to count.

George Atkinson may be the best blend of size and speed in the country. Amir Carlisle might be the most dangerous playmaker on the team. Greg Bryant could be a freshman All-American while Cam McDaniel could be the best pure running back on the team. But can this coaching staff find the proper platoon to take advantage of everyone’s skill-sets?

There’s every reason to believe that the offensive line should be even better run blockers than they were last season. Who they’ll be blocking for is the big question.


3. Can the inside linebackers still play productive football without Manti Te’o?

For four seasons, Manti Te’o roamed the middle of the Irish defense, providing the heartbeat for a unit that improved every season. Anchoring the defense and calling the shots from his inside linebacker position, the unit took on his personality, as it became one of the school’s stingiest defenses in the modern era.

After splitting snaps playing next to Te’o, fifth-year seniors Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese will get the first chance to take over the inside, with junior Jarrett Grace working into the rotation as well. When asked about replacing an iconic player like Te’o, all three linebackers were smart enough to know that’s next to impossible.

“We have a bunch of leaders on our defense and instead of looking to one person we can look to several people,” Calabrese said. “It’s more of a team defense. We don’t have just one guy standing out this year. We have a bunch of guys that can play and can lead, which is going to make us successful.”

While replicating Te’o’s interception total might be impossible, his tackle productivity shouldn’t be as difficult. Splitting snaps next to Te’o, Fox and Calabrese combined for 112 tackles. Te’o’s award-winning campaign finished with 113.

Much of what Te’o brought to the defense wasn’t measured on a stat sheet. But with two of the team’s most experienced players anchoring the interior of the defense, Te’o’s legacy might be the pride that he instilled in the unit.

“I think our mentality would carry over more than anything,” Fox said. “The mentality that we don’t want anybody to score on us is something that we take pride in. We hold it close to us.”


4. Can Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix form the most dominant 1-2 punch on the defensive front in the country?

Spend your time worrying about the NFL Draft come December. Otherwise you’ll miss the most talented defensive front Notre Dame has had in a very long time. Anchored by nose tackle Louis Nix and defensive end Stephon Tuitt, the Irish have two All-American caliber defensive linemen that could also be first round NFL draft picks.

Less than five years after the Irish defensive line couldn’t stop a powder puff team, Brian Kelly has turned the Irish front into a must-see group for pro scouts, according to’s Bucky Brooks.

Studying Nix’s game tape, I was surprised by his savvy and skills as a pass rusher. Unlike most nose tackles of his stature, Nix is more than a pocket pusher. He effectively uses a “snatch and shed” maneuver to work past interior blockers on pressure attempts. Although his sack numbers are minimal, he reminds me of Vince Wilfork as an interior pass rusher.

Tuitt, who stands 6-foot-6, 322 pounds, is an ultra-talented five technique (defensive lineman who plays on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle) with a tremendous combination of size, speed and athleticism. He flashes extraordinary snap-count anticipation and first-step quickness, which makes him difficult to block on the interior on single blocks. Tuitt complements his superior movement skills with terrific hand skills and upper-body strength. His ability to play with strength, power and leverage not only makes him an effective run defender, but it also makes him a problematic pass rusher as a defensive end in a three- or four-man front.

Paired with Sheldon Day, a sophomore defensive end who Kelly raved about earlier in camp, the Irish’s base three-man front should be one of the most stout in the country. They’ll likely improve when they go to four-down as well, dropping All-American candidate Prince Shembo down to the line of scrimmage or hybrid player Ishaq Williams.

Question marks can be solved quickly with a dominant defensive front. And no duo looks to be more dominant than Nix and Tuitt.


5. Can Notre Dame adjust from being the hunter to the hunted?

Ask USC how it felt to start the season with a bullseye on their chest? The Trojans, who started last season as a favorite to win the national championship, ended the year losing five of six and embarrassing themselves in the Sun Bowl to a sub-.500 Georgia Tech squad.

One of the big reasons Brian Kelly shook up training camp was to forge a new identity for this football team. And he made it clear that “you don’t just begin this climb at the top of the mountain.” With fuel easy to find after a one-sided BCS Championship loss and the doubt that comes with losing your starting quarterback, the mission put to the team in January was clear.

“If we do it like we did last year, we’re going to be an 8-5 team because everybody has taken their motivation off what we did last year and have worked harder,” Kelly said. “We supplied motivation for the entire college football world that, if Notre Dame can do it, we can do it.

“So if you do it like you did last year, you’re an 8-5 football team.”

While we won’t know until the games starting counting for real if this team is up for the challenge of getting back to the top, but it appears clear that the group understands that last season’s success is in the rearview mirror.

“We left last year in the past. We are focusing on this year and focusing on today,” Calabrese said.  “We are focusing on this year and this team.”

  1. 25kgold - Aug 26, 2013 at 4:28 AM

    I’ll keep saying this (all season long,too)–our biggest X factor is coach Brian Kelly & Co.!! No matter who’s at QB, who’s on defense or offense, this coaching staff will end up being the best in ND history! How so, you ask? Because they learn from their mistakes! They’re not afraid to acknowledge that they don’t have it a together and/or that they got some aspect of the game wrong. Furthermore, they have the balls to go against tradition and do something different…Something different that will work!!! The only difference this year from last year will be going 12-0 won’t surprise us!

    Knuckle Up!

  2. 25kgold - Aug 26, 2013 at 4:37 AM

    Interesting read:

    • dmac4real - Aug 26, 2013 at 9:18 AM

      Poor journalism. He never mentions that Golson loses a year of eligibility in the process. That is a much higher price than MF3 got.

      Nothing worth while in that article. Move along.

      • 4horsemenrideagain - Aug 26, 2013 at 12:35 PM

        i won’t accuse the collegespun piece author of willful ignorance, so i’ll attribute it to him trying to generate hits to his site. apparently he isn’t relying on the quality of his site’s content to drive traffic, and instead is hoping that non-sensical inflammatory drivel will attract readership. who can blame him? it has shown to be a great business model for the huffington post.

    • papadec - Aug 26, 2013 at 11:21 PM

      Tyler is entitled to his opinion. I’m entitled to mine. He’s full of shit.

  3. yaketyyacc - Aug 26, 2013 at 5:29 AM

    Keith, you sure got it right. no paper tiger is this Notre Dame Football team. you have led us through an offseason, with visible writing of how this team, worked hard, became filled with lots of talent, and as 25gold says, freely admits its shortcomings.
    unlike the prognosticators, whose favorite phrase is, “well it depends…”, as a means of avoiding a determination, you have given us enough ammunition to proudly proclaim that we may be seeing one of the best Notre Dame Football teams to take the gridiron since Frank Leahy. nothing better then an Irishman leading the Irish. Hey, and with the luck of the Irish…

  4. jvsirish - Aug 26, 2013 at 5:50 AM

    Another continuing, classic example of the brilliant and infallible press passing judgement and couselling action based on total absence of factual knowledge: precisely what was the academic infraction? What was EG’s GPA? How many credit hours had he accumulated? What were the terms qualifying EG’s re-admittance to ND.? The humiliation and scholarship danger of a top foorball athlete being dismissed from school would have occurred in only a handful of educational institutions. Since we have no answers for these questions, whether EG ever returns to ND is the biggest question mark. But the pompous press that has readily shirked its journalistic responsibility in so many other areas just loves to pontificate moral judgement for others!

    • bernhtp - Aug 26, 2013 at 7:19 AM


      • notredameirish1980 - Aug 26, 2013 at 8:55 AM

        Looks like at least 2 people with axes to grind (the blogger and the commentator above). I think the take home message is that ND in the form of Res Life and the academic council that handles the honor code has finally learned a bit of Christian charity.

      • nudeman - Aug 26, 2013 at 10:16 AM


  5. c4evr - Aug 26, 2013 at 12:29 PM

    5 predictions that will come true:

    T Rees will have a better than expected year
    C McDaniel will be breakout back
    E Shumate will be breakout defensive back
    Punt return game will be non-existent
    CBK will make calls the cost 2 games… At least

    • nudeman - Aug 26, 2013 at 1:18 PM

      TRees … a definite “Maybe”. 50/50. or if pushed to get off the fence, I’ll say 45/55
      C McDaniel … “NFW” … not even close … 10/90; possibly 5/95, or 2/98
      EShumate … “Possible, maybe even probable” … 60/40
      Punt returns … Although they claim otherwise, it’s “Likely” … 80/20
      CBK … who doesn’t make a few bad ones? Don’t think he costs 2 games though … “Highly Unlikely” 10/90

      • tburke9601 - Aug 26, 2013 at 1:55 PM

        TRees-what kind of year are you expecting? Dont set your expectations to high and he will definately be better than expected.
        CMac-I think you meant to say will be taking a break out back. I think Cam is a great runningback but unless they reshirt both freshman and Carlisle has another injury, Cam will probably only see mop up duty.
        EShumate-Will certainly be someone to watch. Its amazing to see the difference in our defense from even 2 years ago.
        PuntReturns- DUH! Its not like it could be much worse. I would rather us go back to non-existent from 2 years ago then have what happened last year! Every punt my heart was in my throat, wandering what stupidity Neal was gonna try. I know he was trying to make something happen, but most of the time, he was trying way too hard.
        CBK-He is the head coach, he had made all the calls (on the staff, the players…etc) basically what your telling me is ND loses 2 games this year. I’m good with that.

      • c4evr - Aug 26, 2013 at 7:38 PM

        BK is already doomed to make at least one bad call with the QB situation. Rees will try a gunslinger move, get the yank, whereas Hendrix will undoubtedly get happy feet, throw an ill-timed INT, and then it’s back to Rees resulting in, most likely, a loss and two players with less confidence than when the game started. Once that is out of the way, surely he’ll try for a touchdown inside the 20 when a kick could win it… something. He won’t let me down. I’m still clinging to my CamMac prediction because he runs north – south and has shown more heart than any two backs combined, but I’m very open to being surprised by a freshman bursting on the scene. Carlisle, meanwhile, is a china doll – in a game situation he might actually break in 2.

  6. irishdog80 - Aug 26, 2013 at 1:49 PM

    I am ready to be done with all the speculation. This week’s game againt Temple should answer a lot of the questions and concerns we all have and any questions that remain after this week should be answered by after the Michigan game. We will know a lot more about the Irish and the opponents down the line. Rees needs to be a confident, efficient QB… not the star. If our defense stays healthy, it should be faster and more dominant than last year’s unit with a lot more big plays. One game at a time.

    Go Irish! Beat Temple!

  7. irishpuma - Aug 26, 2013 at 2:15 PM

    Agreed irish dog that is the beauty of this whole spectacle! 8 months to practice, recruit, theorize and prognosticate! Which makes all the bashing and personal attacks on this site moot! We all have our best guesses based on our own sliding logic scales and all will be revealed on the gridiron as it should be. Go Irish!

    Retraction nothing should be revealed by Temple, my old Stanford Hall team would have handled them!

    • irishdog80 - Aug 26, 2013 at 2:26 PM

      I agree that we should steamroll Temple, but we will still get a good idea about the running back situation, Rees’s level of improvement and how our defense looks compared to last year. We will likely have a pretty vanilla offensive and defensive game plan. The Michigan game will tell the true tale.

      • knuterocknesghost - Aug 29, 2013 at 9:31 PM

        My concern is that for Temple, our offense will possibly be under wraps so as to give no advantage to Michigan. Hopefully limiting the offensive scheme will not lead to a close game against Temple. I’d rather play the whole play book on the first game, and let Michigan worry about its defense executing against ND’s offense.

  8. nudeman - Aug 26, 2013 at 2:37 PM

    I think Rees will be better. No question.
    But … Will he be better against their best opponents? In the past he’s really been poor. This year that would be OK, USC, Stanford, ASU and UM.

    Here’s a great analysis by Steve Herring, friend to Inside The Irish. He ties ND’s success this year directly to Rees’s ability to limit the turnovers. Couldn’t agree more. A very good read.

    Keith, I hope you don’t mind my re-posting it.!/HerringBoneSports?hc_location=stream

  9. irishpuma - Aug 26, 2013 at 2:47 PM

    Irish i agree michigan will be huge. Nude you are more optimistic than me! You feeling ok bro? I agree Rees should be better but to guarantee it!!!! Ballsy everyone on this site thinks he will be good to great. I must be wrong.

    Great take and article the big games tell the tale and it has been a horror story. I like that everyone believes he can change and obtain different results but composure and natural talent rarely got what you got. Semi soft schedule and a great D can go along way if TR stops turning it over.

    • irishdog80 - Aug 26, 2013 at 3:19 PM

      I am by no means a big believer in Tommy Rees. That said, people forget that we were ahead of the future Sugar Bowl Champion Michigan Wolverines by 24-7 entering the 4th quarter and then sophomore Tommy Rees also lead us down the field to retake the lead later in the 4th. We only lost the game due to Gary Gray’s inability to locate the ball. Thus far, we have all seen Rees’s shortcomings on full display but he has also done some good things when he plays with confidence and we have a good gameplan.

      • nudeman - Aug 26, 2013 at 3:34 PM

        Hate it when people cite that game as a bright moment.
        He contributed to losing that game with a fumble and 2 INTs, one in the redzone.
        I’d like to be able to talk about a Tommy Rees signature win.
        That was a signature loss

      • irishdog80 - Aug 26, 2013 at 4:57 PM

        Rees was intercepted twice in the first half and we still had a 24-7 lead entering the 4th quarter. His fumble in the 4th quarter probably kept us from scoring 3 or 7 points. Not a good moment, but not the defining moment of the game by any means… Michigan did not convert the fumble into points.

        The 2011 Michigan game was not a “signature loss” for Rees. It was a debacle for Gary Gray. Denard is throwing toss ups in Gray’s direction for the whole 4th quarter and he can’t turn around even one time to locate the ball and knock it away? That loss hangs squarely on the shoulders of our defense… not Rees. Rees did his job… leading the Irish to 31 points… and completed 3-4 passes in ND’s final drive to get us to 31 points and what should have been the win.

      • nudeman - Aug 26, 2013 at 11:07 PM

        I’m sorry, I disagree. It’s as simple as that.

        How you can say his first half turnovers are meaningless is beyond me.
        And UM not scoring on his 4t qtr red zone whiff … sorry, that’s just stupid.

        Because of that ND didn’t score. That’s 7 pts right there. And that’s your game

        Sorry. Rees contributed to the loss

      • bernhtp - Aug 26, 2013 at 11:42 PM

        If you’re going to absolve Rees of the Michigan debacle, then don’t dare credit him with the USC win in the Coliseum. If you pin one on Gary Gray, you must pin the other solely on Mitch Mustain.

      • irishdog80 - Aug 27, 2013 at 1:12 AM

        We had a 24-7 lead going into the fourth quarter even with his two interceptions in the first half. All we had to do was stop Michigan on defense in the 4th quarter. We gave up 28 points in the 4th quarter. Our defense was the main problem… not Rees. I agree that, in the end, the team and the coaching staff lost the game to Michigan in 2011, but blaming Rees for the loss because of interceptions in the first half means that you ignore the success that he did have in getting the 24-7 lead and the touchdown in the 4th quarter. Rees is capable. His main problem is that he does not fit the profile for an ND quarterback… he has too many shortcomings and not enough strengths. My hope is that he will be our Trent Dilfer this year.

      • nudeman - Aug 27, 2013 at 12:46 PM

        First, bern’s point is exactly right about absolving him of credit for the UM loss but still giving him credit for the USC win. Rees’s supporters want it both ways: Cite his W/L record as proof that he’s a great QB, but when he starts a game they lose, blame someone else.

        Second, IrishDog, do you realize you wrote this: “he has too many shortcomings and not enough strengths.” ?


        Thank you

      • irishdog80 - Aug 27, 2013 at 1:46 PM

        I’m not sure what match you are playing, but you failed to see my “qualifier”… “he does not fit the profile for an ND quarterback”. And, I have also stated that I am not a Rees supporter. I would much rather have Zaire learn on the job in a similar fashion to what Golson did last year. That said, Rees, as a Senior, good soldier, and QB with the most experience, deserves the chance to show us what he has learned over the past three years. I hope he does well since that would be the easiest solution for the Quarterback issue.

        Now, back to the match that you seem to be playing… Rees is not a 5 star or even 4 star QB out of high school due to his lack of arm strength and speed. Thus, my statement that he does not fit the profile of your typical “ND Quarterback”. Does that mean that he can’t be successful? Of course not, he is a senior that has worked hard to improve his skill set.

        We will soon know if we will see a different Tommy Rees. Personally, I think it would be a great story if he rises to the occasion and leads ND to a BCS Bowl victory. If he doesn’t, we can still win with Zaire and possibly Hendrix–if he has also grown as a QB and a stout D.

  10. blackirish23 - Aug 26, 2013 at 3:46 PM

    Lost in all this is an Epic and Poetic introduction by our very own KA. I must say, either Keith really loved coming up with his introduction, or more likely, he’s like us and bored out of his mind and can hardly wait for the season to begin in order to have something more tangible and game related to report. Regardless of the reasoning, I give the opening sequence to the article two hearty thumbs up!!

    Now bring on the Owls!

    Go Irish!!

  11. seamus0317 - Aug 26, 2013 at 5:14 PM

    Here come The Irish!!!!!!!

  12. sinister23 - Aug 26, 2013 at 6:44 PM

    We will also learn just how overrated u guys were last season.

    • irishdog80 - Aug 26, 2013 at 8:54 PM


    • papadec - Aug 26, 2013 at 11:27 PM

      sinister dawg where ya been? I hope you brought food for the season under the bridge. Saved you a choice spot as a returning troll. Welcome home dawg, welcome home. GO IRISH!!!!!!!!!!

  13. seadomer - Aug 27, 2013 at 12:56 AM

    Well, been reading at other sites (no, I don’t comment there) … it seems to that many are high on the wolverines and their own fans are worried abt theOSU and some other team. They write off ND cos we lost Gholstonsan, Teo and Eifert. Really?? ,,, are they that good this year?? I don’t think so, we contained Denard, new QB Gardiner may throw better but our secondary has upgraded so I don’t see their optimism??

    I have no rational explanation except a gut feeling, we are going to have a close game with BYU.

    We must beat SC convincingly this year. This is my most hated rival … the ketchup and mustard.

  14. whitdog23 - Aug 27, 2013 at 9:35 AM

    8 wins at best

    • seadomer - Aug 27, 2013 at 1:00 PM

      by end of Oct? …. agreed cheers!!

  15. Seamus - Aug 27, 2013 at 11:59 AM

    I don’t think there are many question on the defensive side of the ball…the big question that needs to be answered is whether the offense can click consistently. Diaco has done great with the D, it’s time for BK’s offense to start clicking. I’m ready for some up tempo, spread the ball around, 60 minutes of 2 minute offense that help to land BK in South Bend. There is a plethora of talent on offense, but can it or will it be able to get it done? We’ll see come Saturday, GO IRISH!!!

  16. wisner74 - Aug 27, 2013 at 7:42 PM

    Wish I had signed on yesterday to participate in this. Nudeman and Bern, you guys are obsessed about Rees, and you two alone can form the echo chamber: “Nude’s right!” “Bern’s right!”

    For the 97th time: no one is saying that Rees is great. But he was probably 19 when he started at Michigan in ’11. He was a sophomore with 4-5 starts under his belt. He goes into the “Big House,” first night game in Michigan’s long and storied history, national TV audience. Guess what? He made a lot of mistakes that a sophomore QB might be prone to make under those circumstance. But how much moxie does this kid have to show before you guys give him any credit?

    How about this: he was probably chewing on all of those mistakes he had made earlier in the game, but he was tough enough to put all of that aside and throw what should have been the game-winning pass to Riddick with less than a minute left. What more does this kid need to show you?

    Sorry, but I’ve tuned both of you guys out about that game. How can you two, who tend to be quite insightful, be so off about that game? I’ll tell you how: It’s your two-man echo chamber!

  17. bearcatirishfan - Aug 28, 2013 at 11:51 AM

    Okay looking at this season, and fueled by last night’s college football live, which featured Colin cowturd and herbstreit. Turd stated that the Irish winning 8 games is max herbie said 9. This was largely based on the strength of schedule and loss of GOLSON.

    In turd’s case he’s a hater who’s ratings are going down so he needs some I hate nd support. Herbie after last season I’ve come to respect as not completely biased but he still paid to promote an agenda and match ups Featured on espn and abc.

    But for the,love of everything can someone tell me why everyone is so big on Michigan this year? They lost 80% of their offense in one player. Only have two starters returning on the o-line, and don’t have any receivers with a lot of experience. Oh, but Hoke is a great recruiter so that points to at least three wins apparently.

    I say all this because the way these two jamooks speak this and Oklahoma are sure losses for the Irish. I know they are selling as much as they a reporting, I just don’t get this love affair with Michigan and the big 10 really. Was hoping someone could shed some light. And don’t get me wrong Michigan is always a looseable game, I guess to me they have just as many question marks as nd, so how come they don’t get saddled with doubt? I could say the same of Oklahoma, what do they have returning this year that’s so special.

  18. ihatemistate - Aug 31, 2013 at 2:41 PM

    Sad that Golson is gone, GLAD that Gary Gray is gone. Rees will be the same limp noodle he always was. Golson saved us last year so many times by running the ball. Just beat Mich & Mich St. Please.

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