William Fuller, Julian Whigham, Durell Eskridge

Mailbag: Special teams, depth, dark clouds and more

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Let’s get the rest of the mailbag finished off so we can concentrate on game week. (Feels really good to type that sentence.) Thanks again for some great questions.

 

jommy995: Punt returns. Fixed for good?

Not sure, but you’ve gotta like Notre Dame’s chances if Will Fuller is back there.

It’s worth pointing out that the Irish had their best punt returning season since Golden Tate’s 2009 year, and the Irish led the FBS in blocked kicks. So all that hammering on the Notre Dame special teams isn’t necessarily an updated opinion.

(Also, just a PSA, even though I’m not sure this group needs it. Everybody realizes the rules in college are different than the rules in the NFL on punts, right? It’s much harder to break returns in the CFB than the NFL because of coverage rules. Back to the program…)

With Fuller, Notre Dame has a really dynamic option. And if they choose to go in another direction—even walk-on Chris Finke, as Kelly mentioned earlier in camp—it’ll be a long way from the days of John Goodman giving the one-armed salute before fair catching another one.

 

@jekyllandhyde12: Our recruiting class is not as highly ranked (lots of three stars) this year. Is Alford’s move the main reason for the slip?

Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts needed a reboot when the Irish needed to replace not just Tony Alford, but also quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur (who was recruiting California) and Bob Elliott, who was essentially replaced by Keith Gilmore. Add to that the turnover behind the scenes, with the Irish losing some key help in the recruiting office, and there was definitely some time lost to get situated.

Mike Elston, Notre Dame’s new recruiting coordinator, is doing his best to make up for lost time. And the good news? The Irish are, with offers—especially in the 2017 class—coming fast and furious, and on-campus visits and interest to match.

But I want to challenge your “lots of three stars” comment there, Doc. Because Notre Dame has made an absolute killing recruiting under-the-radar guys under Brian Kelly and this staff believes in its ability to recruit players and stick with their convictions, not worry about a star-rating next to their name.

This year’s class is going to be on the smaller side. It’s also one that’ll be position specific, looking to fill holes at certain spots. But looking at last year’s class, a group that Irish fans thought was just okay, this group looks much, much better than that.

And of course, one last important statement: There’s a lot of time between now and February.

 

ncdomer: With a full roster, why are we still perilously thin and inexperienced at key positions like QB, RB, and S?

c4evr: why, after 5 years, are the Irish still one injury away from disaster at a number of positions?

Ah, I love you guys.

While I don’t feel like we need to go through every transfer or injury to get everybody up to speed, needless to say the quarterback issues have been well covered and Greg Bryant’s transfer has earned more headlines than anything he’s done on the field thus far.

But this football team is one of the deepest in college football and certainly the deepest of the last 15-20 years in South Bend. So if that’s “perilously thin” or “one injury away from disaster,” well that’s just college football.

Nobody follows every team like the one they like the most, but have you checked out what’s going on at Alabama with their quarterbacks? Or how about Stanford, often applauded as one of the elite defensive stockpiles on the West Coast? It might as well be a line change in hockey.

In an era of 85 scholarships, free fifth-year transfers and at a school where the academics ain’t exactly a walk in the park, there’s going to be attrition. But Notre Dame has approximately 83 planned scholarships out there, and however you want to split those up, sometimes it’s going to get a little thin.

 

@mejanaf: What is your biggest concern on this team that could derail the Irish from reaching their goal?

Injuries.

Secondarily, I’d have to say special teams (kicker and punter are first-time performers) and then (very far behind that) Malik Zaire and his inexperience.

 

irishdodger: Based on all the comments by BK & media on current team, is there any excuses for this team to not at least win ten regular season games?

I’ll give you four really good excuses:

Georgia Tech
at Clemson
USC
at Stanford.

So if the baseline is 10 regular season wins, that’s a pretty steep baseline. That said, in an earlier question someone asked what the O/U for wins this year should be. I’d say 10.5.

I just don’t like the “excuse” word, I think that’s too disrespectful to the schedule. But I have high expectations for this team.

 

alsatiannd: KA: Rooting for or against Golson this year? Or, if he’s not Irish, who cares?

Oddly apathetic. For Everett’s sake, I hope the kid at least wins the starting job, otherwise the decision is a complete miscalculation and will really hurt his professional propsects. I also hope his offensive line is better than the nine total returning starts that’s currently projected, because that could be an absolute nightmare, too.

 

whodabigdog: I was lucky enough to get tickets for Fenway and was wondering if you are going? It would be fun to get together for a Samuel Adams or 12. I’m sure we can find a dive like the Boat Club.

I’m still TBD for the second-half of the season, but that Fenway game should be awesome (as long as the weather moderately cooperates). As for a Sam Adams? Twist my arm.

And yes, The Boat Club? If there’s an establishment that’s as disgusting as that place in Boston, I can’t help but think I should at least check it out. Do they serve all-you-can drink light beer for six dollars?

 

@maximumham: odds ND ends undefeated?

Every year, I spend all of August thinking about how Notre Dame can pull that off. So far, my conclusions have been correct just once.

I have no idea what the odds are. But I do think you’ve got to approach it in an incremental process. So let’s see them beat Texas. And then Virginia. And win a dog-fight with Georgia Tech, the scariest game on the schedule in my opinion.

I used to say, “Talk to me in October.” But I certainly think this team has the best shot of any that I’ve covered/watched.

 

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.”