150608_MalikZaire

Mailbag: Hard Knocks, Navy hangover and OSU envy

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Thanks for a nice batch of mailbag questions. Other than the usual trolling (new usernames and IP addresses, clever!), it’s fun to see what’s on everybody’s mind in the final weeks before camp gets started.

(I am not ready for that. Are you guys?)

Anyway, we’ll split these up with a few answers coming over the weekend.

 

@qsvdoan: If there was a “Hard Knocks: Notre Dame”, what player/coach is the breakout star?

I love this question. And I’d love to see a Hard Knocks: ND, because I’ve seen enough team-building rope swing exercises from Culver Academy to last me a lifetime.

I can’t go with just one person, so here’s how I’d be producing Hard Knocks, and these are the three breakout stars that I’d focus my attention on.

MALIK ZAIRE: This is a no-brainer. There’s charisma and then there’s Zaire’s charisma. This kid just oozes confidence and just about any Hard Knocks deserves to have an episode or two focused on the quarterback that’s ascending to the top of the depth chart. (Wasn’t this like two entire seasons of Friday Night Lights and the entire plot of Varsity Blues and The Program?)

Can’t you just picture the episode where the camera crew goes in tight on Zaire, with new QB coach Mike Sanford watching closely, hands on his knees, behind him, as Zaire rips off a perfect spiral — sweat flying off his forehead in slo-mo — as the ball splashes into the catching net?

JERRY TILLERY: This kid had me when he talked about starting Yoga and Yogurt in his dorm. Talk about moxie from an early-enrollee freshman, who likely was surrounded by co-eds wearing Lululemon while his buddies were all scoffing at the idea, only to be secretly jealous and unfortunately unable to touch their toes. (If I had a Delorean, you can bet that Stanford Hall circa 1999 would have Yoga and Yogurt…not just Keystone Light and Nintendo games.)

And as interesting as Tillery is off the field, his place on the field is even more intriguing. I fully expect him to be the biggest impact freshman on the team, crazy when you consider he’ll be playing behind Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day.

AUTRY DENSON: I toyed with picking Todd Lyght, but Denson was “my running back” while I was a student at Notre Dame, and I always appreciated the work he put in off the field and the style of runner that he was on it.

Denson might not be the operator on the recruiting trail that Tony Alford is, but for as vital as Alford was on the Irish coaching staff, I think there’s an argument to be made that the new blood with be helpful to the running back depth chart.

With Greg Bryant’s reported suspension, two new young running backs, C.J. Prosise transitioning between two positions and Tarean Folston ready to launch, keeping the focus on Denson and his work with the backs would be fascinating.

 

@drewbrennan: 2007-2014, ND’s record week after NAVY is 2-6. This yr we play USC. Why do we do this to ourselves? Will this yr be different?

I get it. And I actually think there’s something to the “Navy Hangover effect,” a phenomenon I believe coined by buddy Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports. Sure, the game is physically taxing and the cut-blocks tend to probably do more damage to your defensive line than a standard blocking scheme. But I think the mental energy that comes with facing off against the Midshipmen is just as big of an issue — and the let down comes after the toughest mental challenge of the season.

That said, you really can’t complain much about Notre Dame’s scheduling for 2016. Consider that they had to take a stick of dynamite to plans that had been laid for close to a decade and figure a way out of some seriously sticky situations when Jack Swarbrick and Father Jenkins decided to join the ACC in all sports but football. (It was easily the best move for the university and Notre Dame sports, all while preserving independence in football.)

The first seven weeks of the season are tough ones, and they’ll likely power training camp and summer workouts, as getting out of the gate quickly will be vital. But stopping the option game this season will be the difference between a great year and a good one, considering Navy, Georgia Tech and Boston College all have power running attacks.

 

goirish0112: Can you give further insight/analysis to your comment in the last mailbag that ND’s offense has been too QB reliant in the recent past, perhaps in comparison to the Ohio State offense which you mentioned is not so much.

I’m not sure this will give you exactly what you want, but my point was a fairly simple one. Ohio State managed to win a national title playing their third quarterback. They did so relying on a very strong running game and a defense that held firm against some of the country’s top competition in the CFB Playoffs.

There’s been a lot of Ohio State envy among Notre Dame fans these past two seasons. That comes with the still-lingering lust for Urban Meyer from a certain part of the Irish fanbase, but also from the results—Meyer gets more out of less than any coach in college football.

That’s not to say that Brian Kelly is an underachiever. This is a head coach who won at a very good clip at every stop he’s been. And he’s slowly rebuilt Notre Dame’s program depth to match-up with other elite programs, not the easiest after following the trio of Davie-Willingham-Weis.

But there’s a frustration after watching the Irish last year. Notre Dame’s offense was feast or famine, reliant on the performance of Everett Golson. Of course, the offense was fully leveraged after the defense lost some key contributors from a unit with zero margin for error. And once the defense failed to stop anybody for the final six games of the season after injuries took hold, it only put more pressure on Golson to perform. And he couldn’t do it.

In 2012, Notre Dame pulled off a near perfect mix/match of offense and defense, utilizing a stout defense and a conservative ground game to make sure that the Irish won football games, in any manner necessary. In 2014, the calculus of an offense that was Kelly’s most explosive–but also one of its most mistake-prone—and a defense that started strong and aggressive but failed to hold its own in either the red zone (or any zone after injuries took hold), made the formula to winning games very quarterback reliant. And as the turnovers on offense took hold and the floodgates opened on defense, Golson just couldn’t shake the mistakes.

Brian Kelly and his staff aren’t idiots. They ham-and-egged their way to a national title appearance just two seasons ago with a first-year starter at quarterback. So with the addition of Mike Sanford and new blood on Brian VanGorder’s defensive staff, expect a different recipe for victory in 2015. And it’ll likely be less about putting the game on Malik Zaire’s throwing arm and more about utilizing the best parts of the offense, some very strong playmaking personnel and a veteran and powerful offensive line.

 

 

 

 

Tommy Rees officially joins Kelly’s staff

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 28:  Head coach Brian Kelly talks to Tommy Rees #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the New Era Pinstripe Bowl against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Yankee Stadium on December 28, 2013 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame has made official what Keith Arnold first reported Jan. 2: Tommy Rees will join Brian Kelly’s staff as the Irish quarterbacks coach.

Or, to adhere to Notre Dame’s release, “Tom” Rees will join Kelly’s staff as the quarterbacks coach.

“When I finished my playing career and graduated from Notre Dame, I wanted to do two things,” Rees said in the statement. “First, I wanted to coach, and second, at some point in my career I hoped to get an opportunity to return and do it at my alma mater.”

Rees spent 2016 as an offensive assistant with the San Diego Chargers, working with coach Mike McCoy to keep afloat an offense plagued by injuries, beginning with receiver Keen Allen’s ACL tear in the first week. Nonetheless, the Chargers finished seventh in the NFL in passing, ninth in scoring and 14th in total offense.

Rees will need that experience working with rising junior Brandon Wimbush, the only quarterback on the roster with any college game experience, though not a single start under his belt.

“I’m very excited to have Tom join our staff,” Kelly said. “He possesses an understanding of the game, and most importantly the quarterback position, that’s unique. He’s a true student of the game and great communicator that will offer immediate dividends toward guiding our quarterback room.”

Rees should not need much time to get up to speed with Kelly’s playbook or system, having operated within it in 46 games over four seasons, including 31 starts. He finished with a 23-8 record as a starter, 7,670 career yards and 61 touchdowns, highlighted by 3,257 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2013 alone. Only Rees, Brady Quinn, Jimmy Clausen and Everett Golson have ever exceeded 3,000 passing yards in a single Notre Dame season.

With this hire, Kelly completes his retooling of his coaching staff. The newcomers include:
Defensive coordinator: Mike Elko
Offensive coordinator: Chip Long
Special teams coordinator: Brian Polian
Linebackers coach: Clark Lea
Wide receivers coach: Del Alexander
Quarterbacks coach: Tom(my) Rees

Brent’s transfer makes sense for both sides

Justin Brent, Devin Butler
AP Photo/Joe Raymond
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Justin Brent’s pending transfer makes sense on the surface if for no other reason than his complete lack of game action in the last two seasons. A slightly-deeper look, however, explains the move even further.

The rising senior running back had no logical path to playing time at Notre Dame given the performances of some of his peers. Both in the backfield and at receiver, younger players shined this past season while Brent rode the bench.

RUNNING BACKS

– It may have taken four games for rising junior Josh Adams to find the end zone, but he finished the season with 933 yards on 158 rushing attempts, carrying the ball at least eight times in all 12 games. Most notably, Adams finished the season with 350 yards and three rushing touchdowns over the last three weeks. That strong close shows Adams was not worn down in his second season of consistent use (2015: 13 games, 117 carries, 869 rushing yards, six touchdowns) and can be expected to provide the same bellwether output next season.

– Adams’s classmate, Dexter Williams, has not had the same success, but he did provide some relief throughout the season – most notably against Nevada (eight carries for 59 yards) and Syracuse (eight for 80 and a score) – on his way to 212 yards and three touchdowns on 39 carries.

Between Adams and Williams, combined with NFL-bound Tarean Folston’s steady output and quarterback DeShone Kizer’s mobility in the past and the possibility of Brandon Wimbush’s in the future, there were not carries for Brent to showcase his potential. This is before even factoring in rising sophomores Deon McIntosh and Tony Jones, both of whom preserved a year of eligibility in 2016, or any incoming recruits.

WIDE RECEIVERS

– Rising junior Equanimeous St. Brown proved worthy of learning to spell his first name in 2016, catching 58 passes for 961 yards and nine scores, but St. Brown looks to be far from alone in the receiving corps moving forward. Classmates C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin each found the end zone this past season, despite competing with senior Torii Hunter, Jr., for both snaps and targets. Sanders finished with 24 receptions for 293 yards and two touchdowns while Boykin caught six passes for 81 yards and a score.

– Rising sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Chris Finke and Chase Claypool add to the depth at the position. Stepherson scored on an even 20 percent of his 25 receptions for 462 yards. On a personal note, he did not actually reach the end zone on his 53-yard catch-and-dash against Miami, but I will still never forget that particular play because the accompanying roar convinced my nine-year-old niece it was well past time to leave Notre Dame Stadium to watch the game on a television where the noise would not be so surprising.

Finke chipped in 10 catches for 122 yards and two scores, and Claypool caught five passes for 81 yards.

– Again, this listing does not account for players such as rising sophomore Javon McKinley who saw action in seven games but has not yet contributed to the passing game or any incoming recruits. (We’ll get to the recruits later in the week, and even more so next week when, you know, they have signed.)

It should also be noted: Brent enrolled early at Notre Dame, and thus, he has already completed six academic semesters, not to mention time spent in class each summer as is typical of most, if not all, of the football roster. If he does indeed graduate from the University this spring, he will be eligible to play elsewhere immediately thanks to the NCAA’s stance on graduate student transfers. More than that, though, he will have two years of eligibility remaining.

Admittedly, such a confluence is rare and certainly adds reasoning to Brent’s maneuver, whether it result in him playing at UCLA, Miami, Arizona State, Indiana, Purdue or Ohio State, as he indicated to the South Bend Tribune were his top choices. Notre Dame does face Miami on Nov. 11.

Lament Brent’s decision if you must, but it was a logical decision by him, and Notre Dame’s shortcomings last season were rarely where Brent would have aided. Nor will the Irish appear to be wanting in those spots in 2017.

Report: Justin Brent to transfer

Justin Brent twitter
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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.