Jeff Whittingham, Kyle Friend, Louis Nix III

Irish need to improve up the middle

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A baseball team is often judged by its strength up the middle. Look at any great ball club and you’ll usually find a strong catcher behind the plate, a shortstop with range and a centerfielder that can run down just about anything.

When you look at the uneven performance coming from the Irish football team through three games, my head wanders back to my baseball days, riding the pines and chewing bubble gum at Eck Stadium. Strength up the middle is paramount for an elite baseball team. And that’s where this football team needs to find its focus as well.

There’s no better anchor point to build from than Louis Nix. While it’s hard for a nose guard to fill a stat sheet, Nix has looked the part of everybody’s All-American this season, constantly double-teamed as he takes on the interior of an offensive line. But if you’re wondering why this defense doesn’t look like the one that was on the field last season, keep looking up the middle, where two position groups are still in the middle of getting sorted.

Inside linebacker seems to be improving, though many hoped Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox would flourish when given the chance to play next to each other. The jury is still out, but neither Fox nor Calabrese look like the player they were when playing next to Te’o last season. Joining them in the rotation has been Jarrett Grace, who has looked like a guy getting heavy snaps for the first time in his career.

A season after being dominant against screen passes and short underneath throws thanks to Manti Te’o’s instincts, this defense is getting beat underneath too often. Call it dinking and dunking, but more accurately it’s called moving the chains, and the Irish are having a hard time getting off the field. Add to that struggles in the red zone after being so dominant there a season ago, and that’s why this group sits at No. 57 in scoring defense after playing two teams ranked outside the Top 100 in scoring offense.

Part of that comes from the instability at safety. Many assumed Matthias Farley was ready to step in and be a dominant player in the back end of the defense. That hasn’t been the case, with the former wide receiver still looking like a player growing into his position. After hoping that Elijah Shumate was going to step in and use his athleticism to effect the game at safety, the sophomore hasn’t been heard from, except when getting beat in pass coverage. Austin Collinsworth seems to be a guy the coaching staff can trust, but he hasn’t been a game changer. And the Irish’s most dynamic option, freshman Max Redfield, seems to be in the middle of a learning curve that still hasn’t gotten him onto the field.

The up the middle struggles aren’t just on defense. After having two running backs that knew exactly what was asked of them, the Irish ground game seems to be stuck in neutral. How much of that is on the guys toting the rock remains to be seen, but if you watched Brian Kelly’s interactions with the running backs, there are cutback lanes and alleys that haven’t been hit in the Irish’s zone blocking scheme.

Up the middle of the field, just about everybody is new. A five-headed running back monster where guys are learning on the job. A quarterback that took reps as a situational reliever last season. A new center. A trio of linebackers trying to replace the national defensive player of the year. And two safeties, one who sat out all last season with an injury.

There’s a reason Kelly continues to preach patience, and with a four game stretch that’ll likely define the season, now is the time to make sure the pieces come together.

“We know there’s going to be an evolution of getting those players in the right position, developing them. That’s going to take a little time,” Kelly said.

Well with the No. 1 defensive in the country coming to town and ranked Oklahoma and Arizona State squads before USC, time is of the essence.

Restocking the roster: Running Backs

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs for a 26-yard gain against the USC Trojans in the first half 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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Notre Dame’s running back depth chart was tested to its max less than 10 minutes into the season opener. The projected two-deep, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant, were both lost for the year—Bryant out of school as an academic and disciplinary casualty by the start of fall camp and Folston because of a knee injury suffered on his third carry of the season.

Welcome back to Notre Dame, Autry Denson.

The school’s all-time leading rusher in his first season as a running back coach had to be feeling a little woozy. He had a converted wide receiver taking featured-back carries and a true freshman a little over a year removed from his own major knee injury serving as his primary backup.

That the Irish had their most prolific running season under Brian Kelly says quite a bit about the job that Denson did. It’s also a credit to the offensive line blocking, the adjusted scheme that also protected two new starting quarterbacks, and the talent that remained at the position.

Spring presents new challenges. Tarean Folston should be a little over seven months removed from ACL surgery, making him doubtful to do anything more than wear a red jersey. With C.J. Prosise‘s departure, Adams goes from record-setting rookie to spring starter, with Williams likely carrying a large load as well.

Tony Jones Jr. and Deon McIntosh arrive this summer, reinforcements on the way. But before we get there, let’s take a look at the pre-spring roster at running back.

 

DEPARTURES
C.J. Prosise (156 carries 1,032 yards, 11 TDs)
Greg Bryant (lost preseason 2015)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Josh Adams (117 carries, 835 yards, 6 TDs)
Dexter Williams (21 carries, 81 yards, 3 TDs)
Tony Jones Jr.
Deon McIntosh 

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Tarean Folston,* Sr.
Josh Adams, Soph.
Dexter Williams, Soph.
Justin Brent,* Junior

*Additional year of eligibility remaining.

 

ANALYSIS: This might be a position battle deferred to fall camp, especially if Folston is still in recovery mode. At this point, it doesn’t make sense to rush back from an ACL tear for 15 practices, so while the rising senior may be chomping at the bit to return, it’s better to save it until August.

Folston will likely be the team’s most versatile back, but keeping Adams off the field will be a hard chore. His breakaway speed was on display multiple times in 2015, with his record-setting run against Wake Forest the team’s longest play from scrimmage. Adams also likely added some mass and physicality to his game in the offseason weigh-training program, giving the Irish someone capable of hitting the big play and also moving the sticks in short yardage situations.

The staff believes that Dexter Williams is a talented back, so with three solid contributors on the roster before Jones or McIntosh hit campus, it’ll be fun to see how snaps get sorted. (From that perspective, you can only wonder how they’d have dealt with the champagne problem of having Prosise around…) Justin Brent remains an option as well, though the attrition from the receiving corps makes you think he’ll be back at receiver.

The wildcard in all of this is Folston. He’s a unique talent with natural ability you just can’t teach. If he’s fully recovered and ready to engage in a position battle, there won’t likely be a drop off even with the early departure of Prosise.

 

Notre Dame gets 10 invites to NFL Scouting Combine

2013 NFL Combine
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Notre Dame will send ten former players to the NFL Scouting Combine. The annual event in Indianapolis serves as the unofficial apex of draft season, a meat-market where the best professional prospects are poked, prodded, questioned and tested in a variety of on- and off-field drills.

Heading to the festivities from Notre Dame are:

Chris Brown, WR
Sheldon Day, DT
Will Fuller, WR
Nick Martin, C
Romeo Okwara, DE
C.J. Prosise, RB
KeiVarae Russell, CB
Elijah Shumate, S
Jaylon Smith, OLB
Ronnie Stanley, OT

For a prospect like Smith, it’ll be teams first opportunity to talk to the elite prospect and check his progress medically as he returns from a Fiesta Bowl knee injury. Russell will also be a non-participant in physical drills, waiting until Notre Dame’s Pro Day to go through testing.

Invites to Chris Brown, Romeo Okwara and Elijah Shumate are crucial in finding their way into the draft, as the three former Irish starters participated in the Shrine Bowl, where scouts had an early look at them. Likewise, Nick Martin and Sheldon Day continue their ascent, both coming off strong Senior Bowl weeks.

For Irish fans, it’ll be fun to watch early-enrollees Fuller and Prosise test. Both are expected to be some of the fastest players at their position. Brown may also have the ability to surprise teams, with his track background and leaping ability capable of earning him an extended look. Offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley will look to impress as well, hoping to check out as one of the draft’s most impressive athletes at offensive tackle.

Ohio State led all schools with 14 invites. National Champion Alabama had nine former players invited.

 

WR Corey Robinson named Notre Dame student body president

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On Wednesday, wide receiver Corey Robinson added another impressive title to his resume as a student-athlete at Notre Dame: Student Body President.

The junior, paired with classmate Becca Blais as his vice presidential running mate, won a majority of the votes cast by his fellow students, a runaway winner with 59.4% of the votes, nearly triple the next highest vote getter.

Robinson posted the following on Twitter, thankful for the opportunity to serve his fellow students:

Robinson’s time at Notre Dame has been filled with accomplishments both on and off the field. He was named an Academic All-American as a sophomore. He’s a six-time Dean’s List member in the prestigious Program of Liberal Studies and is also pursuing a sustainability minor. He’s won the team’s Rockne Student-Athlete Award as well.

That’s quite a bit on the plate of Notre Dame’s lone senior wide receiver. But as you might expect, Robinson is well prepared for the next challenge ahead.

“I’ve planned ahead, gotten all of my hard work out of the way this semester, and I’m finishing up my senior thesis,” Robinson told The Observer. “I’m doing all the hard stuff now so in the fall and the spring, I just have to take two classes pretty much.”

Robinson’s other contributions as a student-athlete at Notre Dame include One Shirt one Body, an opportunity for college athletes to donate their athletic apparel to local communities. Robinson has presented the plan to the ACC as well as the NCAA, earning immediate support from both organizations.

 

Mailbag: Now Open (scheduling input requested)

UNIVERSAL CITY, CA - JUNE 01:  Actors Mike Myers (L) and Dana Carvey as Wayne and Garth from "Wayne's World" onstage during the 17th annual MTV Movie Awards held at the Gibson Amphitheatre on June 1, 2008 in Universal City, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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Okay folks, we’ve had enough semi-positive encouragement to keep the video mailbag going for another week. With that said, I’ll need some reader participation to keep this thing rolling on.

As always, submit your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold. You can also ask your questions live via Facebook. You’ll need to LIKE THIS PAGE first, and then at the appropriate time, head on over to watch and participate.

To that point, let’s pick a time that works for everyone. Right now, here are the options that work at Inside the Irish HQ.  Weigh in and the best time wins. (How’s that for a democracy?)

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