William Fuller, Julian Whigham, Durell Eskridge

Spring solutions: Wide receivers

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A position that looked like a huge question mark entering the 2014 season ended the year with an embarrassment of riches. After watching Will Fuller emerge with a record-setting sophomore season, the loss of DaVaris Daniels and departure of TJ Jones didn’t do anything to slow the Irish passing game down.

Entering spring practice, Notre Dame’s wide receivers are no longer the emerging kids. They’re a position group that needs to take its place among the most talented in college football.

In Fuller, the Irish have an All-American candidate. In Corey Robinson, a matchup problem set to break loose after a trying season. CJ Prosise proved dangerous in the slot. Chris Brown stepped forward as well.

With Mike Denbrock doing a great job developing young talent, the next step is a competitive spring where the depth chart returns intact.

For all the focus on the running game heading out of the Music City Bowl victory, consider this your reminder that the Irish receiving corps is stacked.

 

WIDE RECEIVER DEPTH CHART

1. Will Fuller, Jr.
2. Corey Robinson, Jr.
3. Chris Brown, Sr.
4. C.J. Prosise, Sr.*
5. Amir Carlisle, Grad Student
6. Torii Hunter, Jr., Jr.*
7. Corey Holmes, Soph.*
8. Justin Brent, Soph.

*Denotes fifth-year of eligibility available.

 

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Will Fuller: For as impressive as Fuller’s season was, imagine if he just did a better job of making the ordinary play. Fuller had the most impressive sophomore season in school history, tying Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate’s single-season touchdown record while also setting marks for catches, yards and scores for a sophomore.

But Fuller still played with a level of inconsistency befitting of a young player coming off an nearly anonymous freshman campaign, not one of college football’s top playmakers.

Expect spring to mark the start of Fuller’s commitment to every-down excellence. You got the feeling Brian Kelly was demanding that from his rising star in 2014 (go listen to some of his postgame comments after the sophomore disappeared at times), and you know he’ll do the same next year.

The stakes are raised: No longer will Fuller catch opponents by surprise. So his game will need to elevate, and spring and offseason workouts is when that process begins in earnest.

Corey Robinson: Considering Robinson played the entire season with a fracture in his thumb, his sophomore campaign was plenty good. And while it’s hard to say an Academic All-American season with 40 catch and five touchdowns is off the radar, the attention paid to Fuller could open things up for Robinson.

Robinson made his share of clutch catches—even considering the game-winner that was taken away—converting a few heroic fourth downs while rising to the occasion. And as he’s continues learning how to become a complete receiver, expect Robinson’s junior year to be a breakout.

Chris Brown: After being highly touted after an impressive spring, Brown was invisible early last season. But after working with the coaching staff and utilizing some fancy GPS gizmos to diagnose part of the problem, Brown nearly matched Robinson’s production in every category but touchdowns.

Entering his final season in South Bend, Brown is still the type of freaky athlete who will run past defensive backs and make a play that’ll have you saying, “Wow.” But he’ll need to play 2015 with a sense of urgency that hasn’t existed in the past, as it’s a competitive depth chart and his professional future likely depends on a big season.

C.J. Prosise: That Notre Dame’s 220-pound converted safety was also the team’s leader in yards-per-catch tells you something about the unique athlete Notre Dame has in Prosise.

Also the team’s special teams player of the year as a gunner, Prosise could be unveiled in a number of different ways when Mike Sanford realizes the weapon he has in Prosise.

If there were more footballs to go around, Prosise would be my pick to click in 2015. For all the message board chatter thinking Prosise could help the safety depth chart, go back and look what he’s doing for the offense.

Nobody but Fuller made more big-chunk plays than Prosise. The best is yet to come.

Amir Carlisle: Considering he made the transition from running back, Carlisle’s season was a success, looking natural as a receiver and making some big plays throughout the year.

At his best (against Michigan and Arizona State), Carlisle was a handful in space, utilizing his speed and quickness to make big plays from the slot. But entering his final season of eligibility, Carlisle looks best suited for a complementary role, and could be a candidate for showing some positional flexibility with depth numbers low at running back heading into 2015.

Carlisle’s more than a useful player, and that versatility could pay off. And after battling hard-luck injuries for the better part of two years, it was good to see Carlisle make it through a season and contribute.

Torii Hunter Jr.: The fact that Hunter is spending time with the baseball team this spring shouldn’t surprise anybody. But it would be a surprise if it got in the way of his contributions to the football team.

Kelly needs to award players who excel in the class room and do what’s asked of them. Hunter has done that off the field. Expect that transition to begin to excelling on the field in 2015.

There’s nobody who needs to do more this spring to establish himself in the depth chart than Hunter, a versatile receiver who showed glimpses of being all the way back after a really difficult injury.

What the Irish have in Hunter remains to be seen. He’s capable of playing in the slot and outside. He’s showed nice speed and quickness. But a career-game of two catches and 24 yards means he’s got work to do, especially with the athletes both in front and behind him.

Corey Holmes: After serving as the opponent’s No. 1 receiver on the scout team, Holmes now enters a depth chart stacked with competition. After seeing the field twice early, Holmes saved eligibility, though found out what it takes to play.

Now we’ll see how that early lesson worked. Built like Fuller, Holmes has what we think is a perfect skill-set to take on a role in the Irish offense, but he’ll fight uphill to get his opportunity.

With a quarterbacking duel expected in the starting lineup, Holmes’ chemistry with DeShone Kizer might be the best thing he has going for him. If he can make plays against Brian VanGorder’s defense in practice, he’ll get the eyes of everybody needed, finding his way into the mix from there.

Justin Brent: It’s a critical time in Brent’s development. After making headlines for all of the wrong reasons, Brent has the opportunity to reboot his career this spring, or he’ll continue to find himself veering into territory that usually ends with a transfer.

A position shift also feels like something that deserves at the very least a tire kick. After playing in nine games last season on special teams, Brent’s physicality and ability to mix it up could have him getting a look on defense. With a safety depth chart still waiting for Avery Sebastian, Nicco Fertitta and Mykelti Williams, there’s a need for bodies and Brent might be the latest player under Kelly’s watch to switch sides of the ball.

(Brent should feel lucky if that’s to happen. It’s worked out well for everybody who has done it so far.)

 

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.”