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IBG: Taking stock

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With bowl scenarios still shaking out, and a coaching search potentially under way, it’s a good time to take a look at some relatively big picture questions in this week’s IBG. As usual, the crew has supplied some topical questions.

Participate down below, where there’s been some “lively” discussion the past few days. And head over to the other blogs and check out some of their answers.

Her Loyal Sons
ND Nation
UHND
Strong and True

With that, I’ll hang up and listen:

Bayou Irish, Her Loyal Sons: Does this 8-4 feel any different to you than Brian Kelly’s previous 8-4′s under the Dome? What I mean by this question is this: did this team under-, or over-, perform in your eyes, or did you get what you expected from the 2013 Fighting Irish? Does the loss of Coach Martin change your outlook on 2014? Does the “gain” of Golson?

Not all 8-4 seasons are created equally. During the 2011 season, many Irish fans were thinking that perhaps nobody could fix this program. Between the ridiculous opening game against USF, the gutting against Michigan, laying an egg against USC and Stanford and the ugly stinker against Florida State in the bowl game, a lot felt left on the table. (Especially when you look at what the team did statistically… it was essentially a 10-win team.)

By the end of this season, it just felt like the roster was decimated. I think it’s safe to say that the Irish underperformed, but you can understand why they did. It also helps that Notre Dame is coming off an appearance in the National Championship game.

Martin’s move doesn’t change my big picture outlook on the season, though I do think he’ll be missed. But the gain of Golson is big. How big? Brian Kelly called Golson his best five-star recruit Tuesday on the media circuit.

Aaron Horvath, Strong & True: Now that the 12-game regular season is done, give me the player who surprised you the most this season and the player you are most excited about for next season?

I’ll give you one on each side of the ball. Defensively, it’s Kona Schwenke. I sincerely think Schwenke can end up having a nice career in the NFL, something that seemed fairly improbable when Brian Kelly targeted Schwenke late in the recruiting cycle. While he was hurt at the end of the season (who wasn’t?), Schwenke is a big bodied, active, combination defensive lineman.

Offensively, Tarean Folston has to get your vote. (Although maybe Ben Koyack secures runner-up.) Just about every Irish fan was dying to get a look at Greg Bryant, but Folston ended up looking like the running back of the future for the Irish.

(It’s worth mentioning that back around Signing Day, I hinted that the staff believed that Folston was the top back on the Irish board, and they believed he was a home run threat. Maybe he doesn’t have the long speed, but he certainly did have the explosiveness.)

As for next year, I can’t decide yet. Perhaps it’s DaVaris Daniels, reunited with Golson. (Heck, maybe it’s Golson.) If Stephon Tuitt is back, then that’s easy. Or getting a look at a healthy Greg Bryant.

Frank Vitovitch, UHND.com: What position where Notre Dame will be replacing starters in 2014 concerns you the most heading into the off-season.  Additionally, what position where Notre Dame returns starters in 2014 needs to see the most improvement for the Irish to get into the playoff conversation next year?

My biggest concern/question is inside linebacker. People liked to pick on Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese, but both guys have played a lot of football. And it’s not as if we saw tremendous things out of Jarrett Grace, though he did show some good improvement as the season went on before going down against Arizona State. While Joe Schmidt did a nice job taking advantage of his opportunities and Kendall Moore played himself back for a fifth year, it’ll be good to see what Michael Deeb can do.

As for returners needing to take the next step, let’s just look at every safety on the roster. It was a disappointing season almost across the board, with the Irish really missing the big game presence of Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter. While Eilar Hardy took a step forward, Matthias Farley took a step back. Austin Collinsworth seems to be closing out the season strong, but Elijah Shumate all but lost a year due to injuries.

The depth chart battle next year should be fun to watch, with Nicky Baratti healthy, Max Redfield up to speed, and a few big names still on the recruiting board.

Mike Coffey, NDNation.com: As Brian Kelly searches for a new offensive coordinator, what direction do you hope he’ll go?  Should he promote from within, or should he look outside?  Either way, what name is on top of your list?

 Hope? Well, I think most hope he goes and hires a guy that makes everybody happy. A name you’ve heard of, that scores points on the national stage, who runs the ball efficiently and effectively, but also throws the ball down the field and scores points in a hurry. Basically the offensive coordinator version of the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy rolled into one. (Or Jon Tenuta.)

Who do I think will get the job? Mike Denbrock. He’s been with Kelly a long time, knows just about every job on the offensive staff, and is a sneaky good Xs and Os coach that can run the room and quality control as needed.

While others have pointed to Tony Alford as the guy on staff to move up, I just don’t see it happening. Alford’s a great locker room guy, an excellent recruiter and a wonderful man, but putting him in that position isn’t necessarily the best thing for his skill-set.

We can all throw darts at the board and guess if Kelly will snipe an offensive coach from another program, but that doesn’t seem his style. Also, he’s already hired Ernest Jones in a non-coaching position, so it might be pretty easy to slide Jones in at running backs coach, a job he’s done under Kelly both at Cincinnati and Central Michigan, and then slide everybody back up the ladder.

***

And finally, my question to all of you:

With the Irish not playing in a top-tier bowl, how do you treat the practice and run-up to the game? Is it best served getting young players practice and game reps? Is winning the game most important? If you’re Brian Kelly, what are your priorities?

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)
Getty
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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.