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Mailbag: So many questions, so little time

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I’ve got to hand it to you guys for this batch of questions. Some really good ones. I don’t think I got to all of them, though this took me a few hours to blow through. (Feel free to ask again next time if I missed it.)

Happy weekend.

 

mtflsmitty: What’s your assessment of the parity (or lack thereof) among the Power 5 conferences heading into 2015?

There’s nothing that’s a bigger offseason story than the great reshuffling. Ohio State’s victory, paired with some high-profile struggles by SEC West teams — not to mention the Big Ten’s bowl season — really turns the tables of perception.

I wrote about it a bit already, but there’s no more assumption of greatness for the SEC. All that talk of two teams in the playoff? It’s tough to give anybody  the benefit of the doubt now, especially after seeing the eggs laid by teams we thought elite — like Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

That all bodes very well for Notre Dame. Because with the schedule the Irish are playing, there’s little doubt that if they win, they’ll get respect for those victories.

 

indyirish91: Any talk about BK’s coaching staff? Are we gaining or losing anyone? I still would like to see Jeff Quinn added to the staff.

I find it hard to think there’s going to be any changes, especially with all the assistants out recruiting and working hard. And while many have focused on Jeff Quinn and his connection with Kelly, do you get rid of Harry Hiestand or Mike Denbrock for him? That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

In many ways the bowl victory was just as important for the continuity of the coaching staff as it was for the team’s momentum into the offseason. Those guys badly needed a win — and doing so against a top SEC program certainly helped everybody sleep a little better at night.

Would I be shocked if something happened after Signing Day? No. But anything I’d write here would be unsubstantiated speculation, and that doesn’t do anybody any good.

 

andy44teg: Is ND in the mix for any 5th Year Seniors looking to transfer like a Cody Riggs??

Tom Loy over at Irish 247 said the staff was kicking the tires on a fifth-year transfer, but he didn’t speculate as to who it was. Some smoke began circling Cal’s Brennan Scarlett, but the defensive end has struggled with injuries after being a promising recruit.

With roster numbers being what they are, I think Kelly and his staff will make moves after they see who they finish the recruiting class with and how they handle their own fifth-years.

 

bernhtp: Notre Dame appears to be on a trajectory to have well over 85 scholarships this spring allocated to returning players, LOI/EE recruits, and fifth-year invites. If the numbers don’t come down to 85 by fall camp via normal attrition (transfers, medical hardships, academic fallout), Notre Dame would need to essentially cut players (likely from the fifth-year pool, e.g., Jarrett Grace if doesn’t progress sufficiently). While not SEC-type oversigning, it is still not traditional ND. What is your perspective?

This seems to be a topic we just start to discuss… and then massive attrition hits. As Bern alludes to, there’s a numbers crunch and some difficult decisions yet to be made. Last year, we saw those solved by mass exodus to the NFL Draft. This year, it looks like the Irish got lucky, with everybody coming back.

That said, I don’t think there’s any reason to be concerned about going over the 85-man limit, because there are so many things that still need to play out. Medical hardships are a big one — guys like Nicky Baratti, Jarrett Grace, Conor Hanratty (the last two also count as fifth-year questions).

Nobody is getting their scholarship ripped out of their hands and put out to pasture. But would I be surprised if there are a few transfers that take place between now and next summer? Not at all. Until then, let’s hold off on the alarm bells. This type of problem is one that comes with building proper depth on your roster.

 

c4evr: If safety is one of the thinnest positions on the roster, as I look at incoming recruits, why is it so hard to bring in studs at that position? There are currently 3 kids all ranked as 3 star players for the safety position – that seems a little out if balance and underwhelming. Why is that?

I’m pretty slow to classify these guys as underwhelming, if only because I don’t put a lot of stock in the star-rankings. Drue Tranquill was a guy nobody wanted. He played more snaps than anybody. I tend to think we’ll start liking Nicco Fertitta and Mykelti Williams, and a sleeper like Ashton While. And while some wonder about Prentice McKinney making it to campus, he’s a guy the staff really likes, and has for a long time.

Take a look at Urban Meyer’s Ohio State defense. While a few of those guys are high-profile recruits, more than a few were three-star recruits, too. The Irish staff knows they need to recruit the position and add some depth there. New offers are going out, relationships are being built. At this time last year we didn’t know who Daniel Cage or Pete Mokwuah were.

It’s definitely a position of need. But it doesn’t matter how long you’ve had them committed as long as they send in the fax that first Wednesday in February.

 

Ted Wheeler: Any word or guesses on possible position changes? Devin Butler to FS? James Onwualu back to blocking WR? There always seem to be a few.

It’s something I’m definitely keeping an eye on. But I don’t see Onwualu moving back to offense. Especially after the progress he made at linebacker — not to mention the depth chart backlog at receiver.

Butler to free safety? Will that stop him from getting beat over the top? People have ID’d guys like Justin Brent as an option to move, just because of his physicality and size. I’m not buying the move of a guy like C.J. Prosise to running back, just because he was such a weapon in the slot.

If Brian Kelly deserves the benefit of the doubt anywhere, it’s on position switches. He’s been pretty impressive when it comes to that, and I’m sure there’ll be a few rabbits up his sleeve soon, with safety and running back looking like two areas where things are pretty thin.

 

finishthefight1986: The Irish always seem to have an eventful offseason. What are you looking forward to the most for 2015? Any untoward events facing our Irish you hope to avoid 2015?

All of them? I could go for a scandal-free offseason if that’s okay with everybody else.

 

joewyoming: Has the stance of the Irish athletic department been swayed by watching what happened to the Big 12 with regard to the playoff? Would a one-loss Irish team ever have a chance for inclusion in the playoff in the absence of a conference championship game?

Both Kelly and Jack Swarbrick have mentioned this, and it’s a really good question. For the record, I don’t think an 11-1 Notre Dame team would’ve been held out of the playoff. (Not that it matters, or that we could prove it.)

Here’s what Swarbrick told Chris Goff of the Journal Gazette:

“The bottom line for Notre Dame is that while tiebreaker criteria can be expected to work against us in some years, that is not a given,” Swarbrick said. “We have the opportunity to avoid the application of those criteria, and one or more upsets in championship games may create opportunities for other teams, including Notre Dame, who might not have otherwise been selected.”

 

subalum: Keith, northern football programs seem to be dominant in every division except FBS. Examples being: Wisconsin whitewater, North Dakota State, Montana , Patriots, Packers etc. Why do northern teams only win FBS championships once every 12 or so years (OSU)? Is the answer as simple as a lack of a true playoff that takes southern teams to northern climates creating more of a level playing field? Or is it more complex than that? What are your thoughts?

Throw out the NFL teams and I think you might be onto something, especially at the FCS and lower levels. But the biggest part of that in my opinion? A lack of D-I programs in Northern States.

There is no D-I football in North or South Dakota. There’s only the Gophers in Minnesota and the Badgers in Wisconsin. There are a lot of good football players in those states, and that’s what fills the rosters of the teams that continue to make noise at the lower levels.

While I think Montana has the Western states to pull from, they all have the ability to offer and target some kids that get missed, as opposed to the recruits that tend to get seen in more talent-rich states.

Outside of geographical hubs like California, Texas and Florida, I can’t say I’m a big believer in blanket statements that claim football players are better in State X, Y or Z because of the weather. How do you explain that the Big Ten is now a premier basketball conference?

Again, I’m no Malcolm Gladwell, I’m just a guy who watches too much Notre Dame football and too many movies and TV shows. But that’s my take.

 

nateprez4irish: Who are your early leaders for captains next year?

Great question. I’m going with Joe Schmidt, Sheldon Day, Ronnie Stanley and Everett Golson. But there is a lot of leadership on this team and obviously if Golson leaves that changes everything.

 

bowser75: I worry about the chemistry of the team. Guys coming back from suspension, qb’s competing for no. 1, players picking sides on the qb debate, player x thinking he should get more reps than player z, etc., etc… These are the things that keep me awake at night. Well, that and black holes, nuclear war, and circus clowns.

Can’t help you with the black holes and circus clowns, but the football stuff should subside. Welcome to life inside a competitive football program. As we learned in the victory over LSU, there’s the perception we (I’ll include media in this) as fans have and the thought process inside the building.

To me, all those worries are what makes this program healthy. And a big reason why I’m super excited about 2015.

 

cbhoov144: Not sure if it’s been discussed here already, but if you haven’t seen it yet, ESPN has a nice 30 for 30 short about Reggie Ho.

This was pretty awesome. Very nicely done:

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Report: Justin Brent to transfer

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Justin Brent has not seen the playing field since Notre Dame faced LSU in the Music City Bowl back in December of 2014. That now looks like it will be the last time Irish fans see him in a Notre Dame uniform, as well. Reports indicate the rising senior running back will transfer.

Irish 247’s Tom Loy broke the news, soon confirmed by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.

A consensus top-100 pick out of Indianapolis (Ind.) Speedway High School, Brent arrived in South Bend with high expectations, but will depart without an official statistic aside from snaps in nine games his freshman season. He recorded no catches, carries or tackles.

 

Thanks Keith, Now Dear Readers…

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 19: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish takes a hand off from DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on November 19, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Virginia Tech defeated Notre Dame 34-31.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Dear “Inside the Irish” fans, “Inside the Irish” foes and, of course, my parents –
Dear curious purveyors, my stand-alone predecessor and Tim Raines –
Mostly, dear Notre Dame fans, Notre Dame spectators and college students enjoying any and all hallowed traditions –

Yes, unfortunately for you and fortunately for me, Keith tossed me the keys to this 1971 Volkswagen Beetle known as NBC Sports’ “Inside the Irish” blog. Don’t worry, I know how to drive stick shift.

If I were feeling corny, I would tell you I first reported on Notre Dame football in the fall of 1996, shouting out the garage window to my father as Allen Rossum returned Purdue’s opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. If we are ignoring sentimental childhood stories, however, then it would be more accurate to call 2009’s home-opener against Colin Kaepernick’s Nevada my beginning on the beat.

Over the last few days I reached out to a few of you readers whom I know, asking why you enjoyed Keith Arnold’s coverage. So as to keep them honest, I neglected to tell them I would be stepping into this spotlight today.

Repeatedly, I heard buzz words such as readable, reasonable and realistic. Those will be my goals, as well. My predecessor at The Observer no longer dabbles in journalism, but I still trust his view on most things. His response strikes me as an admirable objective.

“We are smart, informed sports fans with an irrational passion for ND football, and appreciate writers who share those traits but are professional enough to step back from the irrationality and put things in perspective… We like a realistic take, not a knee-jerk reaction.”

On that note, you will not see me give a recruiting update with my every breath. You will also not see me dispense as much cinema advice as Keith did. I am simply not the film-nik he is, though I am listening to the “La La Land” soundtrack as I write this. You will find jazz increases your words per minute rate.

I will often speak of gambling terms, but not to encourage the vice. Rather, I find those odds to be a thought-provoking and informing means of evaluating things. Today, various books strongly expected President Trump’s inauguration speech to last longer than 15 minutes. Thus, I figured it would last longer than 15, but not by all that much since such was the over/under mark set. I could step away from the computer and watch it without losing too much of my day. It lasted 16:18.

I will try to be conversational, especially in these Friday letters/news-dumps/updates/recaps, should they become a recurring piece.

I intend to keep many, but not all, of Keith’s recurring features, as daunting as many of them seem. If I am to make this place my own, some will have to change. It’s okay, we’ll get through that together.

So ask questions, state your wonderings and pitch story ideas. This very format was a seed watered by one of you early this morning. Admittedly, prior to suggesting this he referred to me in terms I refuse to post publicly, but old drinking buddies have earned that right.

It’s late Friday afternoon. Grab a drink, and don’t you dare leave it unfinished.

– Douglas.

And in that corner… Introducing Douglas Farmer

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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It’s time to turn over the keys. On a day where our great nation makes a peaceful transition, so does our humble blog.

I’d love to say I was smart enough to time my departure for the same day as inauguration, but as they say, it’s better to be lucky than good. And I was lucky to get the gig, and happy to turn it over to someone who I believe is a better-than-good writer: Douglas Farmer.

Douglas was Editor-in-Chief of The Observer when he was a student at Notre Dame. He’s worked for old media—earning a byline at the Los Angeles Times and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He’s worked the ND beat, not just at the school paper, but at Blue & Gold. And now, I’m very happy to say, he’s taking over Inside the Irish, a transition that I think will go wonderfully.

To give you an idea of who Douglas is, I milked one last column gave him the And in this Corner treatment.

Hope you enjoy. And, one last request—Be Nice.

 

Douglas, you graduated from Notre Dame in 2012, and last covered the Irish on a day-to-day basis in the 2014 season. What has you excited to come back to the beat?

Douglas Farmer: Given Notre Dame’s past season, I would say I am most excited to take an in-depth look at how the Irish respond — and perhaps rebound — in 2017. It has been awhile (nearly a decade, more accurately) since Notre Dame has needed to do that, so it is one area of football there is not much institutional knowledge to rely upon.

Aside from that, the general engagement with a fan base so devotedly-interested in its topic is always something to look forward to. Even during a 4-8 season, that fan base does not waver in its curiosity and thirst for information.

 

A nice perk is also getting paid for the addiction that is Notre Dame Football, no?

DF: I prefer to subscribe to Hurricane Carter’s opinion on addictions: Do not be addicted to anything “they” can take away from you.

 

Well put. As I thought about the decision to move on, I came to the conclusion that there’s no perfect time to ever do so. That said, other than the head coach, this is as close to a reboot as you can ask for. Do these next few months get you excited, especially as an almost entirely new staff take charge?

DF: Just had to slip in a reference to removing the head coach, didn’t you?

Bouncing back from a rough season is the most appealing story line in sports, in anything really. Take a look at any movie you have ever watched (or, in your case, perhaps even been involved in). The hero experiences conflict just before redemption. Now, I am not saying Notre Dame is the hero. I am saying watching the team, the program, try to rebound has me very interested.

The staff turnover is an added wrinkle, and will only increase the work ahead for the program. Before the players can learn the plays, they have to learn the staff. Before that, the staff has to learn about each other.

 

So what’s the plan with the blog? You plan on getting to know the characters below the fold in the comments? Keep the A-to-Z series rolling? Do a better job proof-reading?

DF: I do not intend to outright abandon any institution or established series you have devoted years to. Thus, I would expect A-to-Z to continue in some form. But we will see. That is an easy thing to say when I have not yet reached the misery that must be “Q, R, S, …”

I would like to engage with the readers, but only so far as logic and rational conversation will allow. I have no interest in devolving to who knows what depths. Proof-reading, well, I want to say I will excel at that, but that just sets me up to eat a lot of crow when I miss a letter in April.

 

Smart. Will tell you about the A-to-Z… This roster is a front-loaded one, alphabetically, at least.

DF: All of high school I had a locker next to a Favre. (Not really related.) I understand the luxuries the alphabet can provide.

 

Let’s go rapid fire for a second: Favorite game you saw in person at Notre Dame?

DF: Either the 2012 Stanford game or the 2011 South Florida game. I realize how absurd that latter answer sounds, but that is part of why it stands the test of time. It was such a unique experience. Plus, being allowed to go back to the dorm for an hour at halftime made the whole day more entertaining.

 

Best road game experience?

DF: 2010 Army in Yankee Stadium jumps to the top of the heap, though I suppose technically not a road game. Go ahead and score against me for this, but I am a lifelong Yankees fan. That was a big one for me.

(KA note: The Observer must not have had the $$ to send the editor to Dublin…)

(DF note to KA’s note: I graduated in May 2012. The Observer did manage to send four staffers to Dublin the following September. Sometimes I wonder if I would not have been better off if I had taken two years to get through fifth grade.)

 

Favorite player to watch during your time as a student?

DF: Golden Tate could have walked around the football field as Maximus, for all I’m concerned, given how entertaining he often was. Though Lou Nix also holds a lofty place in my regard.
I lived a door down from Lou for two years, part of the reasoning there.

 

Favorite villain of the Irish from your time watching/following Notre Dame football?

DF: Pete Carroll runs away with the award. His candidacy is enhanced by my Wisconsin-bred Packer fandom.I do not like disliking Pete Carroll. I very much wish I could be indifferent toward him. The Falcons granted me that luxury for nine months.

 

Part of what has me excited about this transition is that I actually thought you’d be a good person to turn the keys over to, as I enjoyed reading your stuff when you were at The Observer and covering the Irish in your post-graduation years. What’s the most exciting part for you about taking over the blog? And what do you look forward to doing with it?

DF: I am most excited for the chance to write, and the chance to write about something on which I consider myself relatively knowledgeable. I look forward to seeing where the blog environment takes me. The open-ended aspect of it presents all sorts of possibilities.

Theoretically, I can be more freewheeling than elsewhere, get in-and-out quicker of some pieces, spend more time on others. I know Notre Dame fans of all varieties — the obsessed, the apathetic, pessimistic, optimistic, etc. — including some who have yet to decide how they feel about Tommy Rees. (Feel positively about him. It’s that simple.)

My sample size is certainly representative of the fan base as a whole. That wide swath is what makes covering Notre Dame enjoyable, and very well may provide the blog some direction and material on its own.

Oh, and I appreciate those kind words, Keith. I’ll Venmo you $20 later tonight.

 

Sliding a final question into my lightning round. What’s your handle on NDNation? (Kidding!)

DF: I will take my right to not incriminate myself, otherwise known as the Fifth.

Notre Dame makes Alexander and Balis hires official

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Notre Dame confirmed the news that Del Alexander and Matt Balis are joining Brian Kelly’s staff. As expected, Alexander will coach wide receivers while Balis was named director of football performance.

The program announced both hires on Thursday.

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

Alexander, who’ll lean on his West Coast roots and familiarity with new offensive coordinator Chip Long, said the following:

“I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country. Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

Balis comes to Notre Dame from UConn, with an impressive pedigree that counts jobs at Mississippi State, Florida, Virginia and Utah. He takes over for Paul Longo, who is taking a leave of absence from the football program, per the official release.

“Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh,” Kelly said. “He’s already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn’t be more excited to have him in place moving forward.”