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Irish face stiffest test thus far in Sooner skill players

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A coach’s weekly pressure conference is usually an exercise in platitudes. But as Brian Kelly took to the podium to discuss the Oklahoma Sooners, it wasn’t hard to hear the genuine respect in his voice, especially when talking about the offense Bob Stoops’ team brings to town.

“We’re going against an extremely skilled and talented football team,” Kelly said. “Their offensive depth at the skill position is as good as I’ve seen across the country.  Their wide receiving corps in particular, they can roll out as many as six to seven wide receivers… Depth at the running back, veteran offensive line, top two running backs returning.  I could probably go on and on.”

A year after allowing Landry Jones to throw for 356 yards, but still manage to hold the Sooners to just 13 points, Kelly’s Irish are facing an even steeper challenge for their defense, a group that showed signs of improvement last week against Michigan State. But there’s no mistaking the Sooners offense for that of the Spartans, a group that’s ranked 106th in the country. Oklahoma, after struggling against West Virginia and replacing redshirt freshman Trevor Knight at quarterback, exploded for 607 yards in Blake Bell’s first start, likely ending any quarterback controversy right before the Sooners’ bye week and first trip to South Bend since 1999.

Kelly talked about Bell’s success last week and what type of challenges a gigantic quarterback who can both run and throw presents to the Irish defense.

“He’s got a nice touch on the ball, a good presence about him,” Kelly said of Bell. “He looked like a thrower, not a runner.  I know he’s a big, physical strong kid, and I think he was used last year more in the goal line offense.

“He’s much more than a goal line offense quarterback. He’s a skilled passer of the football, and I think he maybe got a reputation that is not really fitting of who he is. I think he was a five‑star quarterback, and he can throw the football.”

The Irish defense will be facing a dual-threat quarterback for the fifth straight game they’ve played this season. With proper respect given to Temple’s Connor Reilly, Purdue’s Rob Henry, and Michigan State’s Connor Cook, Bell creates challenges that rival those of Devin Gardner, only a super-sized version at 6-6, 250-pounds.

“Somebody has got to have the quarterback within what you do defensively,” Kelly said. “I think that’s probably the biggest thing.  And you certainly just have to make sure that you’re solid in your tackling. But the biggest challenge is him having runs and passes built into the same play. That’s where it really becomes a challenge, because the kid can throw the football.”

The Irish have tweaked their secondary in the past few weeks, giving opportunities to safety Elijah Shumate, who Kelly says has worked into a three-for-two rotation with Austin Collinsworth and Matthias Farley, as well as freshman Devin Butler, who played some in nickel coverage last week along with fellow freshman Cole Luke.

Of course a big element in coverage will also come from the front seven, with linebackers like Jaylon Smith and Jarrett Grace needing to do a better job in coverage, and a defensive line needing to get to Bell with as few blitzers as possible, to keep this dangerous Sooners offense contained.

That was a formula that worked magic last season, getting off the field on third down and turning the Sooners offense one-dimensional. To win on Saturday, they’ll need to be able to do the same thing, something that’s proven difficult in life after Te’o.

“I thought defensively our game plan was to keep the ball in front of us, minimize the big plays.  I think that’s going to have to be the case again,” Kelly said when asked about his defense’s effort last season. “I think you’re going to have to see a similar kind of effort.  It’s going to have to be our best game of the year in all phases, including special teams.”

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For more on Kelly’s press conference, read the transcript at IrishIllustrated.com:

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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