Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back Atkinson III jumps into the arms of teammate Martin after a touchdown against Wake Forest Demon Deacons during their NCAA college football game in South Bend, Indiana

Final thoughts before kickoff

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With the Irish set to start the season, here are a few final thoughts before kickoff.

* What makes a good season? Listening to Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit on ESPN College GameDay this morning, you hear a familiar echo of what was being said this time last year. With Notre Dame’s schedule, a great season might be eight or nine wins.

While that sort of thing probably gets Irish fans angry, it’s just extra fuel in the tank of head coach Brian Kelly, who loves having that type of external motivation available for his team.

* Do we see tempo from this Irish offense early? And will it be dictated by a high-paced running attack? I think so.

I expect to see the Irish offense try and get the running game established quickly, while also trying to execute a few high percentage passes for Tommy Rees to get the veteran quarterback comfortable. This game has the opportunity to feel a lot like Navy did last year, where the Irish can physically push around a Temple team that’s really, really young up front on defense.

* How will Chuck Martin and Brian Kelly split the running back carries?  It might not be how they do it in Ann Arbor. You’ve almost got to expect a really big day from George Atkinson this afternoon, with the junior running back almost certain to break a long run from scrimmage eventually.

That said, it remains to be seen if Atkinson is the guy that Kelly and Martin trust to be the pounder between the tackles — a job that’ll come in handy against Michigan. This afternoon could be treated as another very important datapoint for how to distribute touches in the backfield, with guys like Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel and Greg Bryant all viable options for starting touches.

If this game gets out of control and the Irish go to the No. 2 offense, expect to see one of these running backs taking advantage.

* Can the Irish play a good game on special teams? It’ll be key for Nick Tausch to get off to a strong start kicking and Kyle Brindza needs to show some progress from when we last saw him punt in the Blue-Gold game.

While the return units appear to be in good shape, having place-kicking duties up in the air going into week one isn’t ideal, but we’ve seen both Brindza and Tausch do it when it matters.

* How dominant will the Irish defense be? We’ve heard a whole lot about just how good this Notre Dame defense can be all offseason, but now it’s a chance to finally show it. I don’t expect a Bob Diaco-coached unit to ever come into a game thinking too highly of itself, but this afternoon should be a perfect opportunity to dominate an opponent.

Watching the rotation along the defensive line will be interesting. Who is the first man off the bench for the Irish when Sheldon Day, Louis Nix or Stephon Tuitt come out? How does the inside linebacker split work with Jarrett Grace? And how will the safeties split snaps, with young players like Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield needing live reps to build comfort.

We’ll get our first look at freshmen Jaylon Smith, Isaac Rochelle, and Cole Luke, three youngsters that have already broken into the two-deep. Expect to see quite a bit of Smith, who could start his career with a bang today.

* Expect Temple to throw the kitchen sink at the Irish. Listening to first-year head coach Matt Rhule talk about the game against Notre Dame, you get the feeling that he’s genuinely excited… and admitted to being a little bit nervous as well. (He said he’s been nervous for every football game he’s been in since fifth grade.)

But Rhule and the Owls will hold nothing back this afternoon, with the 38-year-old head coach vowing to hold nothing back.

“This is why you play the game,” Rhule said. “For these kind of moments. I promised our players, I will not be tight. I refuse to be tight. Our coaches will not be tight. We’re going to go play this game the way it’s supposed to be played.”

 

 

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

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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.