Chris Milton, Will Fuller

Bye week snapshot: Wide Receivers


If you’re looking for an appropriate image to associate with the wide receiving corps from the “first half” of the season (I know it’s been seven games), take your pick:

  • There’s Will Fuller running by the Texas Longhorn secondary.
  • Or Will Fuller breaking Virginia fans’ hearts.
  • Or perhaps Fuller running three strides behind USC’s fastest man, Adoree Jackson.

One of the deepest and most athletic groups of wide receivers in school history hasn’t let Everett Golson’s transfer or Malik Zaire‘s injury slow them down. And that’s mostly because of the excellence from Fuller and the emergence of senior Chris Brown as a capable No. 2 receiver.

With five games remaining and DeShone Kizer getting more and more comfortable in the job, there’s plenty of opportunities for big games ahead. Let’s take a look at where the Irish sit and hand out some kudos.



Baddest dude on the block: Will Fuller

Any first-half All-American team without Fuller on it feels incomplete. It also doesn’t appreciate what makes Fuller the offensive weapon that he’s become. The junior isn’t sneaking up on anybody this season, not after 15 touchdowns in 2014. But even with chaos at quarterback and an offense more geared to the running game, Fuller is still impacting football games—on pace to better last year’s historic season, even if he’ll be doing it in 17 less touches.

The junior has cleaned up the major deficiencies in his game, and has significant cut his drops this season (though the rain at Clemson got the better of him). And his confidence against USC has to have Irish fans feeling even better—Fuller wanted the challenge against Adoree Jackson and relished the opportunity to make game-changing plays against a cornerback most expected to be his athletic superior.

There’s room for improvement still. The screen game—last year’s bread and butter—hasn’t taken off. There’s also more downfield opportunities, Kizer taking a shot on 50-50 balls deep is never a bad gamble.

Finding a way to slow down the Irish offense usually starts with defenses committed to stuffing the run. That means less defenders downfield, a conundrum that Brian Kelly knows how to exploit. Let’s see if Fuller can put some separation in the record books by continuing his consistency and doubling his touchdown total.


Most Improved: Chris Brown

That the Irish coaching staff has turned Chris Brown into a legit No. 2 wide receiver is a credit to Mike Denbrock’s coach and Brown’s ability to harness his skills. Long talked about as one of the best athletes at the position, Brown seemed to be giving his best performances on the practice field.

That’s turned this season with Brown showing good hands, the ability to move the chains and a ball magnet—his 27 catches are nearing his 2014 season total and he’s already doubled his touchdowns. The second half of the season could give Brown some downfield opportunities, too.


Area for Improvement: Holding on to the football. 

For all the playmakers on this team, one constant source of attention needs to be holding onto the football. We’ll give the drops a pass after the Clemson monsoon. But both Brown and Torii Hunter Jr. have lost fumbles inside the 10-yard line, turning scores into turnovers because they were trying to do too much.

Interestingly, we saw the reaction from the Irish players and coaching staff, thanks to behind-the-scenes footage on both Showtime and The staff was both firm (BK serving mostly as the bad cop) and encouraging (Denbrock acting as the good one), knowing that the psyche of this group needs to stay confident—because the personnel at this position has too much talent to go into a funk.

We saw Corey Robinson conquer his demons last week with a huge catch for the go-ahead touchdown. We’ll see Hunter and Brown get their shots in the coming weeks as well. But with quick screens and jet sweeps not going off the play sheet anytime soon, keeping the turnovers down, especially inside the scoring area, is critical.


Pay no attention: CJ Sanders and Equanimeous St. Brown

The two freshmen really haven’t made a dent in the stat sheet. But last week we saw their value on Notre Dame’s special teams pay immediate dividends. The most obvious was St. Brown’s block of a USC punt that Amir Carlisle scooped up for the score. St. Brown jumped so high he blocked the kick with his jersey number. In the coming weeks, expect to see St. Brown get another look at receiver, even if it means taking Brown or Corey Robinson off the field.

Sanders impact on special teams has been one of the below-the-radar successes of the season. On his 14 punt returns, Sanders is averaging 10.1 an attempt. Put that into context with these elite return men.

CJ Sanders – 14 punt returns, 142 yards, 10.14 yards per, 1 TD
Adoree Jackson – 11 returns, 112 yards, 10.18 yards per, 0 TDs
Jabrill Peppers – 14 returns, 144 yards, 10.29 yards per, 0 TDs

It’s only a matter of time before Sanders breaks a kickoff return, especially with some of the blocking wrinkles the Irish are displaying.

The tall and small combo of St. Brown and Sanders have been game-changers in special teams. They’ve also shown future freshman the best way to contribute, especially with a depth chart that’s as stacked as the receiving corps.


Quenton Nelson will return for his senior season

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly’s talked about the rare 6-star recruit: Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Michael Floyd, Zack Martin. Well, add Quenton Nelson to the list. Notre Dame’s starting left guard has made it official that he’ll return for his senior season.

The New Jersey native adds another key building block to the Irish offensive line, returning with Mike McGlinchey to anchor Harry Hiestand’s unit. Like McGlinchey, Nelson had an option to be selected high in next year’s NFL Draft, staying in school even after receiving a second-round grade from the NFL’s Advisory Board, per Irish Illustrated.

Nelson took to social media to make the news public, with the NFL’s declaration deadline set for January 16.

“Excited for this team to grow every day this offseason by putting in nothing but hard work and grinding together. When we reach our full potential, look out. I’m right behind you Coach.”

Nelson was named a team captain for 2017 at the year-end Echoes Awards Show. He earned second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated and was rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 1 offensive guard in the 2017 draft class, a grade he’ll likely carry into next season.

Clark Lea formally named Linebackers Coach


Notre Dame formally introduced new linebackers coach Clark Lea on Thursday. The press release for the 35-year-old  included the following quote from the new assistant who has worked at Bowling Green, UCLA and Wake Forest, and rejoins Mike Elko in South Bend.

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said in a statement. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”

That work has already begun, with Lea on the prowl as the recruiting dead period ended and the rebuilt Irish staff hit the road. Yesterday, Lea was with defensive coordinator Mike Elko visiting commit David Adams, a key piece of the Irish puzzle on the defensive side of the ball. That starts a mad rush that’ll keep Lea’s belongs in boxes until after the first Wednesday in February, as Elko and his reshuffled defensive staff open their recruiting board, finding replacements for a handful of de-commitments and pieces that’ll fit Elko’s scheme.

If there’s any reason for optimism after a tough few weeks in recruiting, it’s the young staff that Kelly has assembled. The youth movement includes not just Lea, but the 39-year-old Elko. New offensive coordinator Chip Long is just 33, moving to Notre Dame after one season at Memphis. Running backs coach Autry Denson just turned 40 while special teams coordinator Brian Polian is practically long in the tooth at 42. (All that comes before the expected announcement of 25-year-old Tommy Rees.)

Lea’s pedigree is rock solid, earning kudos in 2012 for his work as Linebackers coach at Bowling Green, Football Scoop’s Linebackers Coach of the Year.

“Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” Kelly said in the release. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system — having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”




Reports: Lea, Alexander added to Irish coaching staff

ASU Sports Information

Brian Kelly is adding to his rebuilt coaching staff, reportedly finalizing deals with Wake Forest linebackers coach Clark Lea and Arizona State assistant DelVaughn Alexander. Lea will reunite with Mike Elko and coach linebackers and Alexander will coach wide receivers. While both hires are still going through formal university vetting, the Lea hire has long been rumored before being reported by SI’s Pete Thamel. broke the news on Alexander, before multiple outlets confirmed the report.

In Lea, Elko brings a piece of his coaching staff with him to South Bend. The 35-year-old spent last season working in Winston-Salem and spent three seasons at Syracuse before that. He worked with Elko and Demon Deacons head coach Dave Clawson at Bowling Green and has spent time as an assistant at UCLA as well. He earned three letters at Vanderbilt, a 2004 graduate.

Alexander is a veteran presence to help replace Mike Denbrock and fill his void coaching receivers. He’s also a coach with first-hand knowledge of new coordinator Chip Long, having worked alongside him in Tempe under Mike Norvell. The move also comes in time for the reopen of the recruiting season’s home stretch, bringing a capable West Coast recruiter to the staff at a time when Notre Dame’s 2017 class is leaking a bit of oil.

Alexander played wide receiver at USC, playing for Larry Smith and John Robinson, before breaking into the coaching ranks there as a graduate assistant. He’s also had stops at UNLV, coached for Jim Harbaugh at San Diego, and spent significant time at Wisconsin and Arizona State where he coached multiple positions, taking over tight ends after Long left for Memphis.

Chip Long in as Offensive Coordinator… and play-caller


Notre Dame’s formal press release introducing Chip Long as the new offensive coordinator did more than confirm news that we’ve known for a few weeks. It let us in on Brian Kelly’s initial plans for his offense heading into a pivotal offseason.

After some struggles in 2016 with DeShone Kizer and an inexperienced wide receiving corps, most expected Kelly to rip back control of the offense after Mike Denbrock called the plays and Mike Sanford coordinated the offense. But Kelly is going to let Long call the plays next season, adding some intrigue to a press release that usually is vanilla.

“Chip will be given the full responsibility to call plays in 2017,” Kelly said in the release. “His offense at Memphis displayed a unique blend of physicality, athleticism, versatility and explosiveness. Chip’s play-calling created mismatches all over the field and did it in a number of different ways. He likes to use players who can fill numerous roles in an array of formations, whether that be two and three tight ends or multiple running backs.

“Chip has experience coaching at almost every position on the offensive side of the ball. He’s worked for and learned from some of the most respected offensive minds in college football — Bobby Petrino, Mike Norvell and Jeff Brohm — to name a few.”

That Kelly is handing over play-calling to Long, who called plays last year for Mike Norvell at Memphis, is a surprise on the surface. But if you listen to Kelly over the past few seasons, he’s always downplayed that responsibility. Most thought he was simply playing coy, though Kelly seems to value game plan and installation as something at least as important as calling the plays.

But after splitting the baby between Denbrock and Sanford these past two seasons (the three-man collaboration worked much better in 2015 than 2016–possibly explained by the personnel) perhaps Kelly sees a singular voice as a key to improving an Irish offense that’ll have to replace Kizer, but should welcome back the majority of offensive playmakers, as well as Alizé Jones. Giving that assignment to Long will also let Kelly dig in as a head coach, working with first-year starter Brandon Wimbush and staying connected to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko and his installation.

Long’s work on campus will likely take flight as soon as the recruiting dead period is over. Known for his tenacity on the trail, Notre Dame is in desperate need of getting back into living rooms, trying to get back some momentum as a few defections have spoiled the 2017 class, and a handful of spots are available in this upcoming signing class.

Long will also likely work with tight ends, a position he played as a D-II All-American and that he coached at Memphis last season. Scott Booker coached tight ends since 2012.

“It’s an honor and privilege to have the opportunity to serve as the offensive coordinator at the University of Notre Dame,” Long said in the statement. “The challenge to lead at a University with such high standards is incredibly motivating. I’m very grateful to Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for extending this opportunity.

“It’s Notre Dame: the values, the culture, and the leadership. My wife, Kari, and I are excited to move to South Bend and to join the Notre Dame family.”