Stephon Tuitt

Final thoughts before kickoff

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After two Saturdays away from the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish are back home and playing their third consecutive Big Ten opponent. The Michigan State Spartans have climbed into the bottom of the Top 25 in the Coaches Poll on the strength of their defense, a unit that’s statistically at the top of the heap at the quarter-turn of the season.

They’ll go head to head with an Irish offense that’s hoping to get on a roll after a strong second half against Purdue. Just as important, it looks like the Irish defense might have found its way after a struggle to start the season.

An ugly stat has floated around the past few days. Notre Dame has already given up 71 points this season. That didn’t happen until the Irish played Oklahoma last season, eight games into the season.

But after holding Purdue to just one rushing first down and under 300 yards, the defense gained some momentum in the second half as well. Add in some personnel tweaks during the week, and a Spartans offense that looked lost in its first two games, and some momentum could be building as the Irish enter the toughest stretch of their season.

Let’s run through some final thoughts before kickoff.

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Just how good is this Spartans defense? We’ll find out this afternoon. Many have poked a few holes in the Spartans’ No. 1 ranking, considering they’ve played a schedule that’s a collective 0-7 against FBS competition.

Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has referred to his unit’s performance as average, knowing that Saturday’s contest against the Irish will be their first true assessment.

“We’ll find out Saturday. We’re getting into the beef of our schedule,” Narduzzi told MLive.com. “We’ll find out, really, where we are. We’ve been average. We’ll find out, it’s hard to tell.

Underestimate this group at your own risk.

Another Saturday, another chess match for Tommy Rees. Among Narduzzi’s comments were some complimentary things said about Irish senior Tommy Rees. While some Irish fans grumble about the offense’s refusal to “call it and haul it,” Narduzzi talked about the challenges Rees’s ability to check at the line of scrimmage present.

“It’s give and take. They have an athletic quarterback a year ago, and now they have a quarterback who can maybe mentally get them in better plays,” Narduzzi said of Rees. “He does a lot of checking with one second to go, to get them in a perfect play, and that’s to their advantage if they can do that.

“It’s a big chess match. It’s a lot easier to check it on offense than it is on defense, I think. You can have one guy out of place on defense and it’s a big problem.”

Who wins the battle in the trenches? The interior of the Spartans defense is manned by two senior defensive tackles, sixth year player Tyler Hoover and fifth year senior Micajah Reynolds, who averaging 6-foot-6, 298-pounds between them, and eleven years in a college weight room. While the Spartans’ starting DEs aren’t mammoth, the front seven has upperclassmen starting everywhere, less Shilique Calhoun, who has been one of the breakout stars of the defense.

Finding a way to control the line of scrimmage, even if it means some tough sledding for a while, is going to be key if the Irish want to find some offensive balance. Still, it’s hard to see the Irish’s 91st ranked ground game make its breakout against this group.

Will the Irish live and die by the pass? 

When you hear the Irish head coach talk about “manufacturing runs” it leads you to believe that the Irish know it might be tough sledding up front. But controlling the football, and keeping on the positive ledger in the turnover department, is critical.

Not to mention throwing against this secondary. Tommy Rees will be challenged by some excellent personnel and this afternoon is a great test for TJ Jones, Davaris Daniels and company.

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Can Notre Dame win the battle on third down?

Something has to give. The Spartans have been playing elite third down defense, allowing just 16 percent of opponents third downs to be converted so far this season. The past two seasons, the Irish haven’t been much better, with Notre Dame beating the Spartans both times despite converting less that 25 percent of their chances (including a 1-for-14 effort last season).

Tommy Rees has done an excellent job on third down thus far, converting 24 of 44 tries. If he can convert at the same clip this afternoon, Notre Dame will be in very good shape.

Will the Irish defense dominate the Spartan’s offense? It should. Outside of the offensive explosion against Youngstown State, the Spartans offense scored just two touchdowns against Western Michigan and South Florida.

The Spartans hope they’ve found something with Connor Cook, who played very well last weekend against Youngstown State. But the Spartans offense has yet to score more than a touchdown in each of the Irish’s last two wins.

Running back Jeremy Langford has been the primary ball carrier, but Nick Hill has been more dangerous. They’re listed as co-starters with battering ram Riley Bullough.

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.