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.

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.