Pregame Six Pack: Another tough goodbye

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Notre Dame will recognize the accomplishments of 27 seniors and graduate students on Saturday, the final home game for a group that has won a lot of games. Sitting at 37-11 since the recruiting class of 2012 arrived on campus, winning three more games this season will mean this group averaged 10 wins a season—no small feat.

When asked about this group’s legacy, Brian Kelly acknowledged the foundation they built, especially turning Notre Dame Stadium into a dominant home-field advantage.

“They can feel proud of a solid foundation and consistency of winning,” Kelly said Thursday evening.

That accomplishment is impressive, especially when you dig deeper into this group. Set aside the graduate students. The 2012 recruiting class still managed to pack a punch, especially considering the star-crossed group that emerged.

The Irish signed only 17 players on that first Wednesday in February of 2012, the biggest news the fax that never came, when four-star receiver Deontay Greenberry picked Houston over Notre Dame. So while the cornerstones of the No. 4 team in the country reside in this group, it’s also easily the most star-crossed recruiting class that Kelly signed.

Five of the 17 signees are gone. Transferred away are wide receivers Justin Ferguson and Davonte Neal. Running back Will Mahone exited Notre Dame after an off-field incident in his hometown. Crown jewels of the class, cornerback Tee Shepard and quarterback Gunner Kiel, never played a down for the Irish.

But 12 remain, and along with a handful of walk-ons and graduate students, they’ll be celebrated on Saturday. And rightfully so. In a game that should likely allow the benches to empty if Notre Dame handles their business, it could be a special day in South Bend.

So let’s get on to the Six Pack.

 

C.J. Prosise practiced Thursday. But if you’re playing hunches, expect to see Josh Adams in the starting lineup. 

Senior running back C.J. Prosise was back on the field today, taking part in football activities for the first time since leaving the Pitt game in the first half. And while he’s making progress in his return to the field, Kelly said Prosise’s status is still up in the air.

“We still haven’t made a decision,” Kelly said, while acknowledging that Prosise is still in the concussion protocol. “But he had a good day today…It’s not my decision to make really. It’s still in the hands of the doctors. But he looked good to me.”

For anybody that’s followed Kelly’s injury updates over the past few years, this seems like a dead giveaway that Prosise will only be available in an emergency situation, one that doesn’t necessarily exist this weekend.

So Josh Adams will likely carry the load this weekend, the freshman taking over for the senior who deserves a hug from mom and dad… and then a weekend off. We’ll also see fellow freshman Dexter Williams, who Kelly said had a nice week of practice.

 

Will Fuller may have declared his intention to return for his senior season. But that doesn’t mean Brian Kelly won’t go through the process with him. 

Wednesday’s big news that Will Fuller planned to return for his senior season sent shockwaves through the college football world. But Brian Kelly’s response was more measured.

Kelly has seen seniors return (Te’o, Eifert, Floyd and Martin) and seen them go (Rudolph, Tuitt and Niklas). But you can’t help but think the head coach learned from his offseason work last year with Ronnie Stanley and Sheldon Day, two seniors that evaluated the pros and cons and both ended up back in South Bend.

So while Fuller sounded emphatic that he’ll be terrorizing defensive backs in South Bend for another season, Kelly sounded like a coach who wasn’t taking any chances with any of his veterans with the option to head to the NFL after this year.

“I’ve told all the guys I’ll sit down with them. I’ve put together folders for each one of these guys and obviously each one of these kids have different circumstances and as to why they would come back or entertain looking at the draft,” Kelly explained. “I think Will’s got some factors we have to talk about relative to staying or going that I need to communicate with him. I’d love to see him come back, but we’ve got to see where it all shakes out at the end of the year.”

Not quite the reaction you were looking for? Me neither. But Kelly was quick to square things away after his initial comments.

“I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t want him back. Very pleased to have him back,” Kelly said with a large grin. “It’s just important that each one of these guys go through the process.”

Kelly’s message isn’t just for Fuller. But likely for Jaylon Smith, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise, three guys who could go either way.

 

Let’s tip a cap to one of the more impressive seniors in recent memory: Jarrett Grace. 

It’ll be an emotional day at Notre Dame Stadium for Jarrett Grace and his family. The senior linebacker is in all likelihood playing his final college football game (a petition for a sixth year is still up in the air). And while these five seasons haven’t gone the way he planned them, the one-time heir to Manti Te’o’s inside linebacker job has much to be proud of, especially making it all the way back from a devastating leg injury that required multiple surgeries.

“To even be able to make it back was really my goal,” Grace said. “I didn’t know if I could play at all. I didn’t know how my body was going hold up and if I would be able to play in every single game.

“I have been able to contribute and I am more than happy with that. I am preparing each and every week…. I have embraced it and enjoyed every second of it.”

Grace joined the Jack Swarbrick radio show, and Swarbrick and his co-host, linebacker Joe Schmidt, had a tremendous conversation. Schmidt and Grace, two very close friends, talk about basically everything—and what you can’t help but take away is how much they love Notre Dame, and how great they are as shining examples of the university’s student-athletes.

 

The difficult task of slowing down Notre Dame’s offense just got tougher for the Demon Deacons. 

Already a 27-point underdog, Wake Forest didn’t need any additional handicaps. Yet Josh Banks, the Demon Deacon’s top defensive tackle, was suspended for the final three games of the season this week, taking one of the defense’s most important players off the field this weekend.

Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson wasn’t clear about the issue, only stating that Banks violated team rules.

“I am disappointed this has occured,” Clawson said in a statement. “Hopefully this becomes a teachable moment for Josh and the other players in our program who will  benefit  in the long run.

That turns his job over to a redshirt freshman, with Willie Yarbary stepping into the lineup. And while the strength of Dave Clawson’s roster is a front seven that features some of the best linebackers in the ACC, losing a guy who was supposed to eat up blockers and had started 21-straight games isn’t what this defense needs.

 

With the hype train at full steam, DeShone Kizer continues to be the calming presence this offense needs. 

DeShone Kizer… Heisman Trophy candidate?

Sounds silly, but ESPN’s Mike Wilbon went out and said it on Sportscenter Thursday, bunching Kizer with LSU’s Leonard Fournette in the front pack of the Heisman race. It may be an unofficial ballot, and isn’t anything more than a talking point, but Kizer is picking up fans everywhere he goes. College Football Playoff committee chair Jeff Long pointed out the stellar play of the young quarterback as well.

Don’t expect it to impact Kizer, though. Wonder if Kizer’s busy comparing stats as he awaits his invite to New York? Think again.

“I couldn’t tell you how many touchdowns I even have on the season. I have no idea where I’m at,” Kizer said Wednesday.

Kizer’s ability to stay in the moment will likely be tested in a different way this weekend. With the Irish understanding the benefit of a beauty pageant win, the need to be flashy could bring some unforced errors to an offense that did a nice job eradicating them against Pitt.

The young quarterback credited his position coach and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford. He also talked about the evolution of the offense. But most impressively, any wonder how he’s staying grounded can be answered by his response to the same question.

“Just watch my film. There’s way too many opportunities that I don’t come up successful that keep me down there,” Kizer said. “There are way too many mistakes that I’ve made from week to week. Last week was a pretty successful game for the offense, but there’s still a couple balls that need to be caught. There are a couple passes that were caught that were spectacular catches that should have been pitch and catches.

“I believe that as a quarterback, the only way to ground yourself is to evaluate your performance. I’m not even near where I should be, and there is still so much room to develop and so much room to get better and mature.”

 

Take the time and tip your cap not just to the senior class, but to the wonderful profiles written by The Observer. 

You know Sheldon Day, Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin and Joe Schmidt. But how about Travis Allen, Josh Anderson, Eamon McOsker and Nick Ossello?

Every senior class member got a profile in The Observer, with Notre Dame’s excellent student newspaper putting together a staggering amount of work in anticipation of the final home game. Do yourself a favor and read them all.

Youcan enjoy the great profile on the decision Ronnie Stanley made to return. But you can also take the time to read about Cam Bryan, a walk-on who dreamed of going to Notre Dame, got in after being wait-listed, then taught himself how to play football after beginning his life on the gridiron on Stanford’s interhall football team—and stuck around for a graduate semester because he knew this football team was going to be good.

(That’s dedication.)

It’ll be a special Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium. And even if it’s expected to be a lopsided Senior Day, it could be a wonderful salute to a group that’s battled through quite a journey to get here—and has an important mission still to be accomplished.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.”