Tarean Folston

Pregame Six Pack: At long last, the Longhorns arrive

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For all the grand plans on the horizon for Notre Dame’s most promising football team in a decade, none of them can materialize if Saturday goes haywire. So while the Fighting Irish have a team filled with depth, experience and talented playmakers as Texas is mid-renovation in Charlie Strong’s second season, all the magazine covers and preseason All-Americans in the world won’t help once the Irish kickoff at 7:42 on Saturday evening.

After a month of of training camp, the Irish are ready to take aim at somebody else. And as Charlie Strong returns to South Bend for the first time since his days as an assistant to Lou Holtz and Bob Davie, Notre Dame will face a young but proud football team with nothing to lose on Saturday evening.

With a hot and humid Saturday on tap, it isn’t hard to think back to the last time a former Irish assistant came into Notre Dame Stadium and threw a major wrench in the Irish’s plans. So while Kelly’s team doesn’t look like the one that turned over the football five times (and turned their head coach purple),  the Longhorns also have a lot more talent than Skip Holtz’s 2011 South Florida team.

Six years into the program, there’s no reason to believe that the Irish won’t step onto the field ready. But that’s the beauty of college football. Every Saturday, another mystery revealed.

At long last, another year of football. And a season opener held under the lights of Notre Dame Stadium. So open up the cooler, it’s time for a pregame six pack, as we prepare for a primetime showdown (7:30 p.m. ET) on NBC.

 

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl

All eyes will be on Malik Zaire. 

With a tip of the cap to the Solid Verbal’s Ty Hildenbrandt, the Malik Zai-era begins. (Clever, right?) And with that comes the eager anticipation to see what Notre Dame’s junior quarterback can do now that the team is unquestionably his.

You’re curious? Don’t worry, so is Brian Kelly.

“As much as we’d like to say Malik’s a veteran, he’s still not. He played really in one game for us last year and he didn’t play the whole game,” Kelly conceded after Thursday’s practice.

“I told him, ‘You don’t have to be the reason why we won. You just can’t be the reason why we lost.’ We’ve got 10 other guys around you that are really good playmakers. Get the ball to them, get it to the right play. If he does that, he’ll do very, very well for us.”

That certainly sounds like the role of “game manager” to me, so for those worried that Kelly forgot about the running game this preseason, this is a pretty stark reminder that Notre Dame’s head coach understands how to manage a first-time starter at quarterback.

So expect not just a lot of Tarean Folston and C.J. Prosise, but a heavy dose of Zaire running the football, a skill that comes naturally to the powerful quarterback.

 

 

Six freshmen are set to make their debut on Saturday evening. 

Usually, figuring out what freshman will see the field and who’ll be held back is a guessing game that takes a few weeks to figure out. But Kelly was kind enough to lay out the five* freshmen that’ll be participating on Saturday night, impressive work by young talent able to ascend a depth chart stacked full with returning contributors.

We all knew Justin Yoon would handle kicking duties. But joining Yoon on the field will be running back Josh Adams, cornerback Nick Coleman and wide receivers C.J. Sanders and Equanimeous St. Brown.

Something not quite sitting right? It’s probably because Kelly managed to forget about a guy who is nearly six-foot-seven and 305 pounds.

Kelly breezed right by freshman defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, who after spending spring football working exclusively with the first team, does act, play or have the expectations of a first-year player. Sharing duties with sophomore Daniel Cage, Tillery won’t be in the starting lineup, but will be in a more-than-regular rotation at both tackle positions.

 

North Carolina v Notre Dame

 

Where does Notre Dame have its most lopsided advantage? Experience. 

We just got done talking about the half-dozen freshmen who’ll contribute for Notre Dame on Saturday. Well Texas is in the middle of a youth movement, with the Longhorn’s week one depth chart featuring 24 true or redshirt freshmen, including four true freshmen starters.

That group includes true freshmen at left tackle and right guard, with Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe getting their first look at college football. That bodes well for Brian VanGorder’s chaos-based scheme and getting Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell off to a quick start. Also starting is true freshman wide receiver John Burt and middle linebacker (and former All-Everything recruit) Malik Jefferson.

Compare that to Notre Dame’s experience, with 10 returning starters on defense and 10 players having started at least 14 games on the Irish roster. You’ve got to think that this is a sizable advantage for Notre Dame.

 

 

For Harry Hiestand’s offensive line, it’s time to show that they’re capable of starting strong and dominating a talented unit. 

The strength of the Longhorn defense is up front. Defensive tackles Hassan Ridgeway and Poona Ford both have high upsides. Nose guard Desmond Jackson and strong-side defensive end Shiro Davis are rare seniors on a team filled with kids.

We spent nine long months talking up Notre Dame’s performance in the Music City Bowl, especially in the running game. But led by Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin, this offensive line has to prove from game one that they’re capable of dictating terms at the line of scrimmage.

That just hasn’t been the case in previous seasons. While I’m throwing out the Rice game and Notre Dame’s opening win against Temple the season before, when faced with a Power 5 opponent, September has been abysmally slow-rolling.

The Irish’s 31-0 shutout victory over Michigan? It masked the mediocrity Notre Dame displayed on the ground, running for just 54 yards on 31 carries. A week later, the Irish only averaged 3.7 yards per carry on 38 attempts against a Purdue team that won just three games and only beat Illinois in Big Ten play.

This wasn’t just a 2014 thing, but rather an evergreen problem for the Irish offensive line. In 2013, the Irish’s slow start forced Notre Dame to run only 19 times against Michigan in a disappointing loss, but a week later they managed to escape late against Purdue with three fourth-quarter touchdowns, only running for 91 yards on 37 carries.

Stacked box, sold-out defense, whatever. This football team is built to run the football.

And while Zaire’s solid performance against LSU will make just about every defensive coordinator in America show some difficult run looks up front, it’s time for one of Notre Dame’s best front fives in recent memory to dominate anyway.

 

 

In a flashy non-conference match-up, Notre Dame and Texas share some history, and are playing for a place in unique place in the record books. 

As you might expect when two of the traditional powers in college football match up, the historians sharpen their pencils and pay attention. And with 15 consensus national championships between the two programs, there’s plenty of glitz and glamor taking the field when Notre Dame and Texas sprint out of the tunnel.

Notre Dame holds a sizable edge in the series, leading 8-2, including a four-game winning streak that started with the Irish’s 1977 Cotton Bowl victory that clinched a national title. Texas beat the Irish in the 1969 Cotton Bowl and only once before in a 7-6 showdown way back in 1934.

But the 11th matchup between these two programs is also for a place in the record books. Notre Dame sits second in college football history at 882 all-time victories with Texas right behind at 881. So second place is on the line on Saturday night.

No, I didn’t forget Notre Dame’s edge on Michigan for winningest program in college football (by winning percentage) inched ahead after Jim Harbaugh lost his Wolverine coaching debut to Utah. But Notre Dame needs to hold serve with a victory or let Charlie Strong pull the Longhorns even.

 

Jarrett Grace

For both Jarrett Grace and KeiVarae Russell, the long road back ends on Saturday. 

Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace will return to the football field Saturday night, the end of a very long and difficult journey that started when Grace shattered his leg into multiple pieces in Notre Dame’s 2013 Shamrock Series victory over Arizona State. So when the fifth-year contributor takes the field, he’ll do so 700 days after his career was thrown into chaos. You can’t blame Kelly for putting the fifth-year leader on the Irish kick coverage team. Grace wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but running down the field on the very first play of the 2015 season.

Kelly talked about Grace’s return on Thursday, mentioning that he probably spent more time in the Cincinnati native’s hospital room than any other player in his 25 years as a coach. And while Grace finds himself in a different scheme and  place in the depth chart from where he was when he was Notre Dame’s leading tackler at the time of his injury, Kelly said that Grace is all the way back when it comes to speed and explosion, amazing considering the head coach acknowledged that he wasn’t sure if the linebacker would ever play again.

Switching places on the defense, Saturday marks KeiVarae Russell’s return to Notre Dame Stadium. Russell’s exodus was courtesy of a self-inflicted mistake, but the senior cornerback more than paid his dues, coming back a better person and player after a year home in Washington. And frankly, after watching Everett Golson and Greg Bryant take the first train out of town when things didn’t look to be going in their favor, there’s a lot of nobility in Russell owning up to the mistake he made.

But now the senior cornerback needs to do much more than that. He needs to dominate on the field like he has on the image-rehabilitation circuit. He needs to show that the box-jumping and weight-lifting he chronicled on social media last year will allow him to jump back into the world of college football and fulfill his destiny of potentially being a first-round NFL draft pick.

Two Notre Dame football players, two very different ways back to the field. Welcome back, boys.

 

 

 

Where to watch: Notre Dame vs. Duke

Josh Adams Nevada
AP
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It’s another Saturday of football at Notre Dame. And if you’re unable to tune in on NBC at 3:30 p.m., or you want more than our afternoon broadcast with Mike Tirico, Doug Flutie and Kathryn Tappen, we’ve got you covered.

 

For the PREGAME SHOW AT 3:00PM ON NBCSN, CLICK HERE.

For the BROADCAST FEED OF NOTRE DAME VS. DUKE, CLICK HERE.

For the BANDS AT HALFTIME, CLICK HERE.

And your POSTGAME COACHES PRESS CONFERENCES, CLICK HERE.

Here’s to a great Saturday, the first one of autumn.

 

Pregame Six Pack: Back to the grind

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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Enough has been made about the fate of Brian Kelly’s football team. Now it’s time to play. Because for the young team that takes the field each week, Saturday is an opportunity to improve, a chance to win a football game, and one of 12 Saturdays that serve as a reward for the hard work that goes in all year round.

At 1-2, nothing is served by looking at the big picture. Conversely, it’s Kelly’s job to drill down, making sure his players and coaches understand that the details are what will be critical on this third-straight home weekend.

With the team focusing on the little things, let’s do the same in the Pregame Six Pack. With the Irish and the Blue Devils meeting for the first time since 2007 on Saturday afternoon, let’s focus on six key position groups that will ensure the Irish leave the game at a level 2-2.

 

The defensive backs. Players young and old need to take a step forward. That means Cole Luke needs to rebound from his worst week wearing an Irish uniform and Devin Studstill needs to keep improving. That means the Irish need to hold up not just in pass coverage, but in run fits as well—the focus as much on youngsters as it is on Drue Tranquill and Avery Sebastian.

Without Max Redfield, Shaun Crawford, Devin Butler and Nick Watkins, this group has no reinforcements other than the youth on the roster. And Kelly sounded fairly clear that with the Irish out of the picture for a big postseason spot, he may be inclined to save Watkins’ year of eligibility and let him forearm heal with time.

“We’re at a point right now where we have to make a decision whether we want to get him in,” Kelly said.  “I would say standing here in front of you right now, based upon my conversation with Dr. Ratigan, he thinks it’s still two more weeks, and if that’s the case, I would lean toward not playing him this year. Not to use up a half-year on him.”

That means Nick Coleman’s going to keep playing. Donte Vaughn will get his chances, too. And it’s up to everybody to step their games up—because this is the group that needs to get the job done.

 

The Offensive Line. The Irish front didn’t have a strong Saturday last weekend. And so you can guess that Harry Hiestand let his unit know this week that those results wouldn’t be good enough.

Expect to see a new attitude this week. That means a commitment to sustaining blocks. It means a diligence in spotting pressures. And it means getting the ground game—and the line of scrimmage—moving.

“It comes down to what we do and that’s the way football is, especially on the offensive side of the ball, it’s executing what you need to do and what your job is,” Mike McGlinchey said this week. “Doing that against a look that is in front of you, that’s the great thing about playing offense, especially offensive line, is a lot of it is in your control. You just have to be able to see what’s happening in front of you and trust the guys next to you to get the job done and that’s what’s going to happen.”

Expects Duke’s defense to challenge Notre Dame’s front with varied looks and a multitude of different pressures. But after struggling against the Spartans, expect a very motivated Irish offensive line to set the tone on Saturday.

 

 

The Pass Rush. Brian Kelly called Duke quarterback Daniel Jones “as good as anyone in the country as far as running their offense.” That’s high praise for a young player just getting started, but it’s likely a credit to a smart quarterback and a very good offensive coaching staff. So as the Irish defense tries to find its footing, expect the Blue Devils staff to see some opportunities after watching three games of tape from Notre Dame’s defense.

But a developing set of receivers and a struggling offensive line should give Notre Dame’s woeful pass rush some opportunities to establish themselves. It should also help protect a secondary that found itself in position to make plays last week, but just didn’t get the job done.

The Blue Devils short passing game has had success. But if Duke tries to extend those throws down the field, the Irish defense better be ready. You can only do so much in the secondary. Against a Duke offensive line that hasn’t been at its best, the Irish front should be able to pin its ears back and get after the quarterback, with veterans like Isaac Rochell or a rookie like Daelin Hayes. The door is open to get a sack or two from a position group that’s been missing in action through the season’s first quarter.

 

Special Teams. Scott Booker’s unit has to want to get that bad taste from their mouth. Jalen Elliott’s penalty took a score off the board. Miles Boykin’s mistake gave the football to the Spartans. And Nicco Fertitta took a stupid penalty, getting himself noticed for all the wrong reasons.

CJ Sanders is due for a bounce back. And Duke’s specialists have been struggling, too. If the Irish want to win this game convincingly, they can dominate the third phase of the football game, helping the defense with field position and setting up the offense with a short field or two.

 

Wide Receivers. I noticed Chase Claypool attacking the football. Notre Dame’s coaching staff did, too. Now it’s time to add the talented freshman to the mix, another downfield weapon who can exploit mismatches and bring a physicality to a unit that already features Equanimeous St. Brown.

Duke’s defense isn’t bad. But they’ll be asked to do a lot, committing bodies to stop the running game and hold up the Blue Devils if the offense can’t get rolling. But for as good as DeShone Kizer has been this season, he’s due a few big plays from the guys catching passes. A season after Will Fuller served as a home run hitter, it’s time for an Irish pass catcher to take a long ball to the house.

 

The Head Coach. Yes, I know this is cheating. The head coach isn’t a position group.

But this is Brian Kelly’s team. That means that he’s ultimately in charge of Brian VanGorder’s besieged defense, the special teams that struggled last week and the offense that went missing for two quarters.

Kelly’s been under the bright lights before. And after seven seasons, a little external heat isn’t anything that’s going to come as a surprise—no matter how successful he’s been turning this program around.

 

“It comes with the territory. I know what the expectations are for the football program at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “When you build expectations you’re going to be criticized. I have no problem with that. I get that. As I said, I’m a 1-2 football coach. If you’re not criticizing a 1-2 football coach, your fan base is pretty soft.”

So it’s up to Kelly to have his team avoid the noise. It’s up to the coaches and players inside the Gug to find the motivation. And it’s up to the team to play with an internal motivation that doesn’t take into account the team’s postseason destination.

The message has been sent, at least if you listen to one of the team’s captains.

“It’s got to be self and team pride,” McGlinchey said this week. “It’s the constant battle to become the best person and player you can be each and every day. And along with that, become the best team we can be every day. That’s the motivation, just become better and do better and continue to work for that, and everything that we do is about.”

The message is clear. Now delivering on it is essential.

Behind the Irish: Gameday traditions

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With Notre Dame ready to welcome Duke to South Bend for a third-straight home weekend, our Behind the Irish feature takes a look at some of the unique home traditions of football Saturdays at Notre Dame.

Brian Kelly and players Nyles Morgan, Josh Adams, Torii Hunter, DeShone Kizer, Isaac Rochell and Mike McGlinchey give us a look at their favorite gameday traditions.

Talking Irish: Moving on after Michigan State

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Chase Claypool #83 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass over Vayante Copeland #13 of the Michigan State Spartans during a game at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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As we have the past few weeks, JJ Stankevitz and I break things down after a tough week for Notre Dame football.

***

KA: First off — congrats on the pick. What made you think that was going to happen? (A Spartans’ win)

JJ: It was mostly a distrust of the Brian VanGorder defense. It didn’t come through last year against Stanford and it didn’t come through against Texas. And until further notice, you never bet against a streak, right? Though I guess I didn’t get MSU enough credit. (I went with 27-26 MSU)

But the loss wasn’t all on the defense. How would you evaluate the offense going forward?

KA: I’m pretty down on the offensive line play. I thought the front five has been underwhelming, I think we got WAY too excited about McGlinchey and Nelson as some type of wrecking crew, and I think, in general, these guys look a lot like a group with four new starters (at least positionally) working together for the first time.

JJ: Bingo. It’s certainly not for a lack of talent, but sometimes O-lines need time to come together. We’re seeing that now. I mean, last year, ND was 4th in opportunity rate. This year, they’re 79th. There are problems on O, no doubt.

KA:  But I think we owe it to the people with pitchforks and torches to circle back to the D.
So let me ask you this: Give me your odds (%wise) on Brian VanGorder being the team’s defensive coordinator come spring practice?

(too hot?)😎

JJ: I guess I don’t want to speculate about a guy losing his job, but I’ll say this, that just because Brian Kelly is defending him now doesn’t mean his job is safe.

KA: That’s fair. I just think it’s amazing that we’ve all essentially called the guy GONE, when BK is saying the exact opposite thing.

JJ: Giving up on a coach after three games and publicly putting him on the hot seat probably is counter-productive for a season that still has 10 weeks left in it.

KA: Couldn’t agree more. And I thought one of the big things BK had to say last week that struck me was his commentary on the personnel and the players that they recruited.

If I have a big revelation — I’m just kind of coming to the conclusion that it’s just as much about the Jimmys and the Joes as it is about the Xs and the Os. Which scares me a bit, but also explains things from a coaching POV.

JJ: Right, but it’s not an excuse.

KA: But why isn’t it an excuse? This team lost: The Butkus Award winner, their leading sacker, their leading TFL DT, a captain at MLB, a 3rd round CB, their starting free safety and starting SS. Why are we surprised they’re worse?

JJ: Because the players ultimately were recruited by the coaching staff. If the personnel isn’t there, it first and foremost falls on the guys who brought them in, which is sort of what Kelly was getting at.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, based on that. But this is college football, where every roster cycles through players on a four-year cycle. You have to be able to replace them.
Indeed.

JJ: At other schools, a down year is fine. But the expectations at Notre Dame don’t allow for that.

KA: It’s kind of maddening. The Tenuta era was a long time ago—and I don’t think this is THAT bad — but it’s now in a similar conversation.

(Palette cleanser)

So is Duke just a perfect slump buster? Or is there something about this game that scares you, too?

JJ: Duke’s efficient passing offense is a bit troublesome. But they only scored 27 combined points against Wake Forest and Northwestern, which, meh. And Notre Dame hasn’t scored fewer than 28 points at home since Oct. 4, 2014 vs. Stanford.

Are you worried about anything for this one?

KA: I’m now in “worried about everything” mode. So yes, to be candid. And mostly because I’ve done a 180 on just about every defender NOT named James Onwualu, Isaac Rochell and Nyles Morgan. I’d bet Duke and take the 17 points, and then it’d be the first time ever I lost money on ND and they ended up winning convincingly.

(Strictly from a hypothetical gambling POV, of course…)

JJ: At this juncture, style points don’t matter. Notre Dame isn’t making the playoff, but just winning games is the most important thing. So even if it’s a sloppy win…hey, it’s a win, and ND will take it.

KA: That’s a really important point. And one that I really struggled to get across in my writing post-Michigan State loss. We spent a solid DECADE as ND people watching the Irish get out of September with multiple losses. Never once did it feel like the season was “lost,” at least not with nine games to go.

JJ: And it’s certainly not lost for the 80+ players inside the Gug. Torii Hunter said this week that getting to 10 wins still would be a good accomplishment, and James Onwualu basically said that playing for personal pride should count for a lot.

KA: 10 wins would be an incredible season — no matter the year. It doesn’t happen all that often around here.

I’ll have you do the same thought-exercise I did this week: How much have you changed your expectations for the remaining schedule after seeing how straight-up bad this D is?

JJ: So I predicted 10 wins before the season, either through a 9-3 regular season + bowl win of 10-2 regular season + bowl loss. I think now, the 2013 team is about my expectation, probably 9-4.

KA: So a loss to Stanford and Miami and a win against USC?

JJ: And if Notre Dame is competitive with Stanford and beats Miami, I’ll be more willing to go back to my preseason prediction.

KA: At least Irish fans can enjoy the schadenfreude with USC.

JJ:  Miami is weird. Maybe that win that game and lose to NC State or Navy or Army or something.

KA: It’s nuts. Army looks downright terrifying. I actually think Syracuse’s up-tempo attack looks pretty scary, too.

JJ: Yeah, that’s a topic for next week. Fear the Babers.

KA:  Okay – let’s get positive here! Give me 3 things areas or players who’ll take a big step forward this weekend?

JJ: The O-line, the D-Line and DeShone Kizer. I think this O-line coalesces at some point — you have to trust the talent and Hiestand. The D-line has individually played well but not consistently as a unit. But I like what I’ve seen in spurts from Cage/Jones, Tillery and Rochell. And DeShone Kizer is very good and will only continue to grow on being very good.

KA:  I’ll give you mine: Big day on Special Teams (gonna get crazy and call for a block or 40+ yard return), the TRUE freshmen, and the pass rush. (First sack coming!)

JJ: It has to, right?

I’ll give you my projection: Notre Dame 42, Duke 27

KA: I’ll give you, ND 37, Duke 21.No cover. ND win.

Looks like a summer day this weekend in South Bend — don’t get too crazy drinking Tim O’Malley’s free Cherry Coke.