South Carolina v Clemson

Offseason Q&A: Clemson

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When you look at Notre Dame’s 2015 schedule, it’s hard to skip past the Irish’s trip to Clemson. Returning to Death Valley for the first time since Joe Montana led a comeback victory in 1977, Brian Kelly’s squad will take on Dabo Swinney’s impressive team, the makings of a football game with College Football Playoff implications.

There’s a rising star at quarterback, but a new offensive brain trust. A year after putting together the finest statistical defense in the country, there’s a renovation taking place there as well.

To get us up to speed on the offseason comings and goings of the Tigers is Shakin the Southland‘s Brian Lewis.

Hope you enjoy.

 

 

Perhaps one best parts of the move into the ACC was the chance to play a program like Clemson. This will only be the third time the two programs have played, with Joe Montana pulling out a comeback victory in Death Valley during their 1977 national title season and the Tigers winning in South Bend two years later.

What should Notre Dame expect from the home crowd in early October? Is this game a special one on the schedule for Clemson fans as well?

While it isn’t an ACC game, this is easily one of the biggest games on Clemson’s schedule this year. Though there isn’t a lot of history between both schools, Clemson fans always enjoy playing the bigger names in college football, and this will be an excellent opportunity for a statement win. As for the crowd, Clemson fans will definitely be up for this one. Even if the Tigers are not undefeated they will be excited to get a victory against what could be a top 10 team by that point. If things fall right this will hopefully be a night game adding a special intensity to it like the Clemson – UGA game in 2013.

 

On paper, there seem to be two gigantic departures from the Clemson program. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris and… basically the majority of the nation’s top statistical defense.

Let’s start with Morris. Will the Clemson offense look any different? And how will a two-headed co-coordinator approach work in replacing a guy many think is one of the top minds in college football?

The assumption right now is the Clemson offense is going to be pretty similar under Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott. Both continued Morris’ HUNH offense in our Russell Athletic Bowl victory over Oklahoma, and spring practice indicates they will keep that HUNH approach as well. The one area I’m going to be interested in seeing is playcalling.

While we all love Morris and what he did here, his playcalling could be a little suspect at times. There were several games where Clemson got behind by 7-10 points and Morris stopped running the ball. This led to Tajh Boyd, in previous seasons, to press throws and feel like he had to make plays. Unsurprisingly this led to turnovers and the game falling further out of reach. Despite a lackluster OL I home both coordinators will stick with the running game to keep defenses honest.

 

Not watching a ton of Clemson last year, the stat that sticks out to me about the defense was the fact that six guys from the unit were invited to the NFL Combine. That’s a lot of talent. Brent Venables was pretty candid with SI.com when talking about rebuilding his defense, saying, “It wasn’t odd, it was depressing.”

How big of a step back do you expect this unit to take? And is it more of a reload than a rebuild?

Early on this is definitely going to be a rebuilding year for the defense. Clemson had the #1 ranked defense in the country last year and we lost too much talent. I’m not even sure an Alabama or LSU would be able to reload after what we lost. That said, there is definitely some potential. We have one of the top cornerbacks in college returning in Mackenzie Alexander, and enough pieces in spots to have a solid starting XI.

The problem is going to be depth. Last year on the DL we had 8 guys that would start at most schools, now we are down to a starting 4 that has potential but not a lot of experience. I think the defense gets better as the year goes on, but it might be frustrating for Clemson fans. The 2 early season cupcake games are going to be crucial here to build confidence and ability.

 

Let’s talk about Dabo Swinney. He didn’t get out to the quickest start after taking over the program, but Clemson has won at least 10 games in four straight seasons. He seems like a guy that players love and he certainly has recruited well.

Help Notre Dame fans understand who Swinney is as a coach, and why he’s had the success he’s had at Clemson.

I liken Dabo to the loveable but slightly nuts uncle every family has. He’s a lot of fun to be around despite some of the odd things he does. Dabo has done pretty well at Clemson because he is first and foremost a recruiter. Kids want to come play at Clemson and Dabo has done a tremendous job of selling Clemson as well as the family atmosphere around the team.

Coach Swinney is never going to be a big X’s and O’s nut like other coaches, but he’s done a good job of learning from his mistakes and bringing in talented coordinators. Clemson is experiencing its most successful stretch of results since the 1980’s and it is hard to argue with what Dabo’s done. But there are questions about if he can take the next step and deliver a national title to Clemson. If he does that he will easily be considered one of the two best coaches in Clemson history alongside Danny Ford.

 

Deshaun Watson sure seems like a star in the making. A tremendous freshman season seems to have been derailed by injuries, the most serious an ACL tear late in the year.

How is his recovery coming along? And with the supporting cast surrounding him, just how good do you expect him to be in 2015?

Everything points to Deshaun Watson being ready for the start of the season and hopefully the start of Fall Camp. It is not an exaggeration to say that Clemson’s season lives and dies based on the health of Watson. Behind Watson we have Nick Schuessler, originally a walk on, and two freshman in Tucker Israel and Kelly Bryant. Needless to say I’m not exactly excited about what happens if Watson gets hurt.

Around Watson there is a lot of talent at the skill positions. We have a nice group of RBs that while lacking a breakout star should provide some relief in the running game. At wide receiver Clemson is loaded once again with Mike Williams and Artavis Scott. Really almost all of Clemson’s top 6 receivers can play and do some damage to opposing defenses. The real problem comes on the OL. The unit can pass block to a decent level, but the run blocking is atrocious. If our OL can approach competent then this could be a special year for Clemson

As for Watson’s season, if he stays healthy I think he becomes a darkhorse Heisman candidate. He has excellent poise in the pocket and has shown an ability to make some beautiful throws. He is also a threat when he’s running the ball. There will definitely be some times he’ll struggle during the season, but I think he’s going to be fine and emerge as one of the top QBs in the nation. Of course all of this comes with the qualifier of staying healthy. He’s had 3 significant injuries in the past 12 months and durability is definitely a question.

 

News broke last week that Clemson’s starting left tackle Isaiah Battle would be leaving the program and going into the Supplemental Draft. What does that departure do to the offensive line? 

It definitely doesn’t help Clemson. While Battle has never reached the first round potential he showed his freshman year, he was an experienced OL that was at least average in the passing game. With his departure Clemson is likely to start freshman Mitch Hyatt at LT.

Thankfully Hyatt enrolled early and had an excellent spring, but it is always a big ask when you need a freshman to play a critical role on the OL, especially with the injury woes Deshaun Watson has. At this point any injury, suspension, or dismissal along the OL is going to be critical to Clemson.

 

What’s the best case / worst case scenario for Clemson in 2015? Is this a game that you expect the Tigers to win?

I think this year’s Clemson team is not as talented as last year’s team, but could have a better record. Clemson finished last year 9-3 and with how our schedule sets up the team could easily be 10-2. Games against Florida State, South Carolina, and Notre Dame are the big three and we should win at least 1 of those three if not 2. Helping us is the fact that we have Notre Dame and FSU at home this year, same with Georgia Tech who always gives us trouble.

A Thursday night visit to Louisville is also a concern, but Clemson should win that one and FSU-Clemson in Novemeber will likely determine the ACC Atlantic Division Champion once again. Of course if Deshaun Watson gets hurt I’m going to just sit in the corner and cry.

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.”