Belk Bowl - Cincinnati v North Carolina

Spring update: North Carolina

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Notre Dame enters the teeth of October with North Carolina sandwiched between Stanford and Florida State, two likely Top 10 teams. But overlooking the Tar Heels is the last thing the Irish should do, with Larry Fedora’s team coming off a strong finish to 2013.

Fedora enters his third season as the head of the North Carolina program, on his way to turning around a program that was in disarray when Butch Davis was relieved of his duties after an academic scandal shook Chapel Hill.

With the Tar Heels back on the Notre Dame schedule for the first time since 2008, we reached out to Brian Barbour of SBNation’s Tar Heel Blog to get up to speed on what to expect from North Carolina next season.

 

After losing five of their first six games, the Tar Heels looked like a different team, winning six of their last seven games, including the Belk Bowl over Cincinnati. What changed? Is the late season push one of the biggest reasons for the optimism heading into 2014?

The schedule in 2013 was frontloaded. UNC played South Carolina, Georgia Tech(an offense UNC struggles against), an ECU team that ended up winning ten games, Virginia Tech on the road then Miami. Compare that to the back half where the best team UNC saw was Duke. The 1-5 start was not necessarily shock with the loss to ECU at home being the notable exception. Of course winning a bowl game and returning most of your personnel always sets a team up to “have momentum” going into the next season.

 

Larry Fedora is one of the more intriguing coaches in college football. Can you assess the work Fedora has done in his two seasons in Chapel Hill? Considering the circumstances he inherited, has his short tenure been a success?

Fedora’s tenure has been on course for the most part. There is a sense he has done a better job putting together a solid coaching staff and the recruiting is rolling along. He isn’t bringing the same quantity of Butch Davis-type talent but doing well enough in his own right. At this point much of the talent from the Davis years is gone so the next season or two offer a true test of his tenure. What can Fedora do with “his guys” who have been recruited for and played from the first day in his system. The transition to that period will be worth watching.

 

Seth Littrell comes in from Indiana to replace Blake Anderson as offensive coordinator, after Anderson took the Arkansas State head job. After spring practice, does it look any changes will be implemented to the offense?

Despite the change in offensive coordinator this is still Larry Fedora’s offense system. I would expect there could be some subtle changes in what UNC does, perhaps even more attention to passing downfield and stretching the defense out. Otherwise nothing jumped off the page during the spring game other than a fairly healthy competition at quarterback.

 

How is the quarterback position shaking out? Is the job Marqise Williams’? On paper he looks ready, though he seems to have struggled against Duke? Who do you think is behind center when the Tar Heels come to South Bend?

There is really no way of knowing. Mitch Trubisky played well in the spring game and rumor has it that he is Fedora’s preference since he was recruited by Fedora specifically to play in this offense. At the same time, Marquise Williams brings experience to the table and brings that mobility dynamic that can be so effective at the college level. The knock on Williams is the passing game simply isn’t as refined whereas Trubisky is probably more accurate. There is also that element of keeping everyone happy, especially Trubisky who could transfer and still have two seasons left whereever he goes. At this stage there is the possibility Fedora uses both quarterbacks in a game. This happened with Williams and Bryn Renner last season after Renner missed a game. The issue with the dual QB system is there were times when the rotation seemed haphazard and counter intuitive to the flow of the game. If they can iron that out, using both players could be effective.

 

Defensively, Vic Koenning and Ron West’s unit seemed to have found their stride around midseason. While they need to replace Kareem Martin, there’s a lot of talent back. Are there a few defensive players Notre Dame fans need to keep an eye out for?

Cornerback Dominque Green showed some chops as a walk-on freshman last year. Green had five pass break-ups and three interceptions in thirteen games. Norkeithus Otis and Darius Lipford, both linebackers, are expected to be solid contributors. Otis had 8.5 sacks last season and 14 tackles for loss which was second behind NFL draftee Kareem Martin. Lipford has 2.5 sacks and six TFLs.

 

How did Elijah Hood look this spring? Between he and Gio Bernard, the Irish have had a tough time holding onto running backs against the Tar Heels. (But then again, Kelly poached Everett Golson late in the game from the Tar Heels.)

Will Hood be an immediate contributor in the North Carolina backfield?

Elijah Hood didn’t do much in the spring game collecting just 15 yards on nine attempts. T.J. Logan did the bulk of the rushing for the Blue Team with 108 yards. Hood will face some stiff comeptition for carries. Logan returned from injury last season to produce in the last half of the schedule and Khris Francis, a small but quick back, will get this share of carries but also be used in quick throws to the sideline. Hood certainly has the talent and with Fedora pressing the tempo, there will be plenty of carries to go around not to mention opportunities to catch passes out of the backfield.

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For more coverage of North Carolina before the Irish and Tar Heels do battle on October 11th, check out the Tar Heel Blog or follow on Twitter @TarHeelBlog.

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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