Brian Kelly podium

Five things we learned: Brian Kelly’s opening press conference

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No more reading the tea leaves. No more educated guesses. Finally, a real opportunity to hear from Notre Dame’s head coach as Brian Kelly discussed his expectations for the 2015 season.

On Thursday morning, Kelly strolled to the podium running a few minutes behind his scheduled start time. But he made up for it by owning the microphone for over an hour, including a lengthy, Charlie Weisian opening statement that took many questions away from a waiting group of local media.

 

There’s plenty to cover, especially as camp gets started tomorrow at the Culver Academies. But here are five things I learned as the Irish head into a season with great expectations.

 

Make no mistake, Notre Dame’s head coach believes he’s got a team capable of winning a national title. 

The optimism relayed in Kelly’s press conference was striking. And more than just the two College Football Playoff games included on the auditorium’s schedule or the newly hung Sports Illustrated cover featuring Jaylon Smith and Ronnie Stanley. Put simply, there’s no ducking the expectations.

“Our team knows where they are. They read the clippings. They know that preseason that a lot of teams are getting accolades. They know that they are,” Kelly said. “They also know it’s not going to help them beat Texas.”

But as Kelly rattled through his opening statements, confidently talking about the many strengths on this team’s roster, he made it clear that nobody inside The Gug was ducking the ultimate goal.

“Everybody knows the mission, and the fact is we don’t play for conference championships,” Kelly said. “They know how difficult it is to complete the mission. And the only way to complete that mission is to stay focused and stay on task and stay incredibly disciplined day to day or they can’t accomplish that.”

 

An offseason dedicated to establishing better leadership and internal motivation seems to have taken hold. 

Last offseason, you wondered who would be worthy of being named a captain. This summer, it’s hard not to come up with ten names.

Returning captains Nick Martin and Sheldon Day will once again lead their respective units. Kelly called Joe Schmidt one of the best leaders he’s had, and he appears to be the singular leader of the defense. Kelly ticked off name after name after name, players you’d expect—Jarrett Grace, KeiVarae Russell, Ronnie Stanley and Matthias Farley—and some you wouldn’t.

Among that second group is safety Max Redfield. While Kelly acknowledged that just about everybody has a great offseason, he sounded genuine when he talked about the leap forward that his junior safety took.

“I think Max has realized how important football is to him,” Kelly said. “Academics is very important to him. It’s always been important to him. I think he’s seeing how important football is to him as well.”

Kelly praised Redfield for his ability to lead from the front as a vocal communicator, shown these past few days as the Irish completed some unorthodox workouts, including some military training exercises aimed at team building and leadership training.

“He has a gift,” Kelly said of Redfield. “That gift is he’s a great communicator, if given the chance. We gave him a chance the last couple of days to lead and get in front of his peers, and it was well received.”

 

It’s nothing but great news on the medical front, including clean bills of health for both Jarron Jones and Joe Schmidt. 

While we found out earlier this week about the retirements of Mike Heuerman and Michael Deeb, the rest of the medical news was really upbeat. Almost to a man, Kelly reported good news on the rehabilitations of several players.

Nicky Baratti’s shoulder has healed and he’ll be a full participant in camp. Jonathan Bonner, after ending his spring because of a turf toe injury, will be 100 percent as well. Drue Tranquill continues to amaze coming off a late-season ACL tear.

“He’s attacked rehab like no other player that we’ve had here in quite some time,” Kelly said.

Jarrett Grace continues to make progress, looking capable of impacting this defense come Texas. James Onwualu has fully recovered from a January wrist surgery as well.

But the two best pieces of news came when Kelly gave rave reviews to the health of Joe Schmidt and Jarron Jones. Both critical pieces of the defense underwent major surgical procedures, and both will open camp working with the first team.

Credit goes to a hardworking group of players, along with Rob Hunt and Notre Dame’s medical team.

 

 

For KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams, the plight of the Frozen Five isn’t quite finished.

There is still work to be done with the NCAA before KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams are fully eligible to play. Perhaps telling, Russell will practice with the Irish from the get go. Williams will await word from the NCAA, likely awaiting an appeal decision.

“They’re separate and different and distinctly different cases. So KeiVarae will practice, Ishaq will not, because the cases are different and both of them are going through the process right now,” Kelly explained.

It’s never the most comfortable situation when you’re dealing with the bureaucratic wheels of justice in Indianapolis, but Kelly seems confident that Russell’s time in purgatory is nearly complete.

“We feel confident in the information that we have submitted to the NCAA, and we feel very strong about his eligibility,” Kelly said. “We certainly were guided through this process in terms of what he needed to do. He went out and did that, but it’s now out of our hands. But we feel strong about we feel strongly about checking the boxes and doing the things that we were required to do along the way.”

Williams situation is a different one. And while Kelly is confident that the timeline won’t be drawn out, regardless of his fate with the NCAA, Kelly sounds committed to assisting Williams in any way possible, especially as he continues to pursue a career in football and earning his degree at Notre Dame.

 

C.J. Prosise’s move to running back is a permanent one. And Justin Brent will be joining him in the backfield. 

If there was a domino to fall after Greg Bryant’s ineligibility, it was that the receiving career of C.J. Prosise is now put on hold. After an impressive spring in the backfield, Prosise will now be the team’s No. 2 running back, no longer cross-training with the wide receivers.

Joining him at running back will be Justin Brent. Up to 220 pounds, Brent is a logical move, after an impressive senior season in high school running the football and a stacked wide receiver depth chart.

Kelly made the decision recently, talking candidly about his conversation with Brent.

“I told him is if he takes the ball and runs downhill north and south, doesn’t bounce it outside—because I’m sure I’ve got two freshmen who are going to want to bounce it outside every time they touch it—if he takes it and he goes downhill and he plays physical, I’ll find some carries for him and I’ll get him on every special team,” Kelly said. “If he wants to do that, then I think I can get him some playing time.”

If you’re reading between the lines, it’s still clear that Brent’s role on this team still feels a bit on edge. That’s to be expected after the off-field headlines the Indianapolis native made last year, with Kelly pulling off any filter when discussing him.

“I think it’s going to be hard for him to get on the field because we have such great depth at the wide receiver position,” Kelly said. “Will it work? I don’t know. But he is a very gifted athlete. He’s big, he’s strong, so we’ll give it a shot and see if it does anything for us

 

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.”