Brian Kelly

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Texas

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Two days later, the shine is still on Notre Dame’s 38-3 victory. The Irish essentially put the college football world on notice that there’s good reason that people were pumping the preseason tires of a school that quite often gets a little too much fluff after a long offseason.

But behind Malik Zaire and a punishing Irish defense, Notre Dame sprinted out to an early lead, made it through a short bit of malaise, and then stepped on the gas to run away from the Longhorns. So with a quick turnaround on a lovely holiday weekend, let’s get to the weekend’s good, bad and ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Malik Zaire. He was wonderful. Zaire threw the football accurately, handled the big stage and seemed to fully grasp the role of offensive leader as he treated the postgame like some ambassador or elder statesman. But if you want a look at Zaire’s energy, this still has me laughing.

Zaire’s accuracy was a pleasant surprise. His fastball was impressive. And while he’ll learn that bouncing it outside against a fleet group of young Texas defenders might not be the best idea as a runner, he more than held his own in the ground game.

Now, it’s time to take coaching. Brian Kelly talked about some reads Zaire could’ve made better and he’ll constantly be challenged by defenses trying to catch the Irish in the wrong protection, which you can assume will happen with Jon Tenuta’s blitz parade on tap for next weekend.

But one week in, Zaire was among the best quarterbacks in the nation and looked like a three-year starter, not the guy playing in essentially his second game. And that’s good enough for now.

 

The Defense. Collectively, this group played like it had something to prove. And it did. After last season’s collapse, it was fair for most to take a wait-and-see approach on Brian VanGorder. The Irish started strong in 2014, but once injuries hit Notre Dame was unable to hang their hat on anything.

Well this group made up for lost time on Saturday night. The pass rush was swarming. The point of attack was dominant. And outside of one deep ball, the Irish were up to the coverage challenges all night long.

Texas didn’t make it inside the Irish red zone. Of all the defenses in the country that played a Power 5 opponent, Notre Dame was the best from a total defense perspective. So while we’ll still need to see how this group does against a talented team—and that’s coming in two weeks against Georgia Tech—this group looked swarming, nasty and nothing like the group that finished the year at USC.

 

Will FullerThere’s no deadlier weapon in space than Fuller, who finds new ways to dominate football game. And he also made sure that he made every play, not allowing a drop or a mental mistake spoil a perfect evening at the office.

Fuller’s two touchdowns pushes him to 17 in his last 14 games. While he might not be the physically dominant player that Michael Floyd was, he’s quickly making a case to be considered the most dangerous receiver in Irish history, and has established a chemistry with Zaire that should have opposing coaches worrying.

 

The ground game. No, the final numbers didn’t come out overly impressive, with the Irish running for just over four yards a carry. But the Irish racked up 214 total yards against Texas with the team’s best running back sidelined after his third carry. Gotta tip your cap to Harry Hiestand and the boys there, especially when Texas expected to be very tough against the run.

This group will need to clean up some sloppy penalties, with Nick Martin called for a snap infraction on a critical 4th-and-1, and Ronnie Stanley and Steve Elmer also caught for false starts. But in the second half the Irish had Texas on the ropes and they buried them. That’s what you want from your offensive line and backs.

 

Josh AdamsA lot of people are claiming to have said nice things about Adams now that he’s run for two touchdowns and looks like the No. 2 back on the depth chart. (Check out the A-to-Z, I said nice things!) But after one week, Adams has solidified the coaching staff’s belief in him, and has quieted any skeptics who wondered about recruiting a three-star back coming off a major knee injury.

More important, Adams seems to have found a very big supporter in his head coach, and there’s no better ally to have than that. Adams will be giving all the work he can handle, and deserves it after his deadly efficiency with his chances on Saturday, scoring twice on his five carries.

Adams has a mix of size and speed that’s intriguing. He also seems to have grasped the mental objectives needed to reach the field. He’ll be up for a test next weekend when Tenuta sends seven different kinds of smoke. But so far, Adams has exceeded all expectations.

 

 

QUICK HITS. 

Hey there DeShone Kizer. No, I’m not going to ride you about the missed throw. (You know you could make that one in your sleep.) But I am going to give you some credit for showing great leadership and not letting something bigger start when the young Longhorns tried to get scrappy at the end of the game. Gotta love a quarterback stepping in and standing up for his teammates. That didn’t go unnoticed.

Max Redfield may have only made three tackles in the box score, but I thought he was everywhere on Saturday night. When Redfield flies up into the box, that’s a very good thing.

Jaylon Smith looked like the guy who had everybody excited this offseason. He looks stronger at the point of attack, and it sure was fun to see him put a hand on the ground and come flying off the edge. I don’t think we saw even a fraction of what we can expect from him. And he’s going to have a very, very big year.

Front Four. Man, they looked good. (As they probably should against a young offensive line with two freshmen starters.) But Sheldon Day dominated just about every snap he took and it’s great reassurance to see Romeo Okwara, Day, and Jerry Tillery get sacks, with Andrew Trumbetti coming mighty close, too.

I like the sight of Nick Coleman blazing down the field on special teams. Running with veterans like Matthias Farley, Jarrett Grace and KeiVarae Russell, the Notre Dame coverage teams looked really good.

Garbage Time! Who doesn’t love letting the benches clear and getting the young guys on the field. Playing in an environment like Saturday night is crucial for young guys taking their first snaps, and it was great to give players like Te’von Coney, Jonathan Bonner, Dexter Williams and Equanimeous St. Brown their first looks.

 

THE BAD

Tarean Folston‘s injury. You can’t feel anything but terrible for Folston, who tore his ACL on his third carry of the season. In just about every way you can look at it, this stinks. For Folston, who was ready to carry the load for an Irish offense that looked poised to explode with him in the backfield. For Notre Dame’s depth chart, which has now lost Folston and Greg Bryant from the spring roster. And for the Irish offense in general, who’ll lose a veteran who understood the nuances of the game.

If there’s an upside, it’s that Folston’s injury comes early in the year. That means he’ll have at least seven months of rehab and rest before the Irish begin spring practice and a full calendar year to get back to 100 percent before the 2016 season.

Testing the depth chart. Brian Kelly said this was his deepest team. I just don’t think he wanted to have to prove that so quickly. The losses of Folston and Jarron Jones put stress on two positions that aren’t necessarily the best equipped to handle it. And while there was no noticing a drop in performance when the next men in got their chances, eventually you can’t help but wonder if this will catch up with Notre Dame.

(It’s worth pointing out, Notre Dame isn’t the only team to have bad luck. UCLA just lost star defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes for the season with a torn ACL. Pitt star James Connor is lost for the year with a knee injury. Virginia just lost two starters to season-ending injuries. Clemson’s leading returning receiver, Mike Williams, broke his neck in the season-opener against Wofford, with his recovery time still unknown.)

That’s football. And Kelly made it clear that he didn’t expect anybody to feel sorry for him. But the injuries certainly chip away at the team’s biggest strength.

 

THE UGLY

Staying empty. 38-3 keeps this one clear.

 

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.”