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And in that corner… The Ohio State Buckeyes

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Notre Dame isn’t playing in the College Football Playoff. But any worry that the Irish were headed to a meaningless bowl game this January was dismissed when Notre Dame matched up with Ohio State. Urban Meyer’s 11-1 team fell short of defending their title when they lost to Michigan State in November, tumbling to the three seed of the Big Ten with the Spartans in the playoff and Iowa getting the Rose Bowl bid.

That doesn’t mean the Buckeyes aren’t the class of the Big Ten. They’ve got a collection of talent that rivals any program in the country. Ohio State has the No. 2 scoring defense in the country, led by All-American Joey Bosa. They’ve got the Big Ten’s best running back in Ezekiel Elliott and J.T. Barrett starting at quarterback (finally). And with Meyer’s staff filled with three former Brian Kelly assistants, there’s no shortage of connectivity between two programs vying for Midwestern supremacy.

To get us ready for the Buckeyes, we welcome in Bleacher Report’s Ben Axelrod. Now the Big Ten lead writer for B/R, Ben is a prolific tweeter, a Columbus native and Ohio State graduate. It’s tough to find anybody who knows more about the Buckeyes. At a busy time of year, Ben brought his A-game.

Hope you enjoy.

 

Is it possible to have a disappointing 11-1 season? Or perhaps more to the point, is it possible for an 11-1 team to underperform?

When you return as many starters from a national title team as the Buckeyes did and are expected to be even better than the year before, I think it’s definitely fair to call this season a disappointing one for Ohio State. The Buckeyes schedule was very manageable and they lost one of the two games they couldn’t afford to lose — on their own home field to a backup quarterback no less.

I will caveat this by saying that if your program is in a place where an 11-1 season that ends with a New Year’s Day Six bowl game is considered a “disappointment,” then your program is in a pretty good place. But all things considered, Ohio State didn’t live up to its expectations this season.

 

Let’s start with the biggest news of the past few weeks—the suspension of Adolphus Washington. He’s played more snaps than any other defensive lineman. He’s a top-five DT per CFF. And his replacements up front are a pretty clear step behind him. How important is this in the grand scheme of things, and how do you see the new Buckeyes defensive brain trust replacing him?

Anytime you lose a first-round talent, you’re obviously losing something and Adolphus Washington is no different. Washington had one of the better years of any play on the Ohio State defense and is still a player who could hear his name called in the first round of the draft.
The good news for the Buckeyes is that if there’s anywhere on their roster they could afford a hit, it’s on the defensive line. Not only is Ohio State deep up front, but it’s versatile as well. I’d anticipate that you’ll see Joey Bosa sliding inside to replace Washington and freshman All-American Sam Hubbard replacing Bosa outside, at least for the better part of the game.
It won’t be as dominant as the “rushmen” lineup the Buckeyes have used featuring Washington, Bosa, Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis, but it should still give Ohio State plenty of pass rush ability without leaving itself susceptible against the run.

Offensively, this team seemed to grossly underperform. Is it as simple as putting it on the quarterbacks? Outside of Ezekiel Elliott, did this group reach expectations? And if not, what do you pin it on—quarterback choice, coaching turnover or something else?

The quarterbacks were definitely a big part of Ohio State’s struggles this season and the entire situation was something that seemed to hang over the entire team throughout the year. Between Urban Meyer’s indecisiveness and J.T. Barrett’s arrest, we were at a point where even heading into November, no one knew for sure who the full-time quarterback was.
An injury plagued wide receiver corps didn’t help either, nor did an offensive line that seemed to underperform compared to how it played in the playoff. But with the talent Meyer has recruited and the history these quarterbacks have already established, there’s no real excuse for the Buckeyes to have ranked 104th in the country this season.

 

Notre Dame’s offense is probably the best unit Ohio State will have faced this year—and it might not really be close. Is there an area you expect the Irish to attack?

It’d have to be up the middle. Ohio State’s secondary is good enough to hold its own and even without Washington, you would have to think the pass rush will be there. The Buckeyes have struggled against the run at times this season and the loss of Washington won’t help there. Even if Bosa is willing to do so, I can’t believe he’ll be Ohio State’s primary defensive tackle against the Fighting Irish.

Running quarterbacks in particular are something the Buckeyes have struggled with the season, so the more Notre Dame can get DeShone Kizer involved on the ground, the better its chances will be.

 

Even if the passing game is a bit of a work in progress, Ohio State’s running attack has been prolific. Do you see the Buckeyes trying to grind down Notre Dame’s front seven, or testing their secondary—a clear weakness for the Irish defense?

Meyer will always try to do a bit of both, but based on how Ohio State played against Michigan, I’d anticipate the ball being in either Elliott’s or Barrett’s hands for the majority of the game. That was definitely the best the Buckeyes offense has played all season and it probably wasn’t a coincidence Elliott and Barrett combined for 351 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
If Meyer can find some weaknesses in the secondary, he’ll definitely do his best to exploit them and Jalin Marshall has emerged as a quasi-deep threat, but regardless of what the Fighting Irish present, I’d expect Ohio State to rely on a heavy dose of its run game.

 

Urban Meyer is 49-4 in his time at Ohio State, doing historic things since showing up in Columbus. He’s done it against a watered down Big Ten and a conference with only Michigan State playing to its potential. But it’s still remarkable. How do you grade his performance this season?

In my opinion, it’s definitely the most disappointing of Meyer’s four seasons at Ohio State, which really doesn’t say much. The first year, he went 12-0 with a pretty lackluster roster by the Buckeyes standards, but wasn’t eligible to play in the postseason. In 2013, they went 12-0 in the regular season and were a win in the Big Ten title game away from playing in the BCS national title game. In 2014, he won the first College Football Playoff with a third-string quarterback. Even this year, heading into championship weekend, the Buckeyes felt like they had a chance with enough chaos to crash the playoff again.
This year, the quarterback situation was something Meyer had never dealt with before and even he’d admit he could’ve done better with it. I also think there’s something to the thought that a lot of these players already had their legacies established last winter and have been looking ahead to the NFL ever since. This may have been the most talented team Meyer has coached, but it also presented him with the most challenges. That Michigan State loss is going to sting him for a while, but through four years, Meyer’s track record in Columbus speaks for itself.

 

Fill in the blank:

If Ohio State beats Notre Dame, the key on offense is ______________ and the key on defense is ___________.

If Notre Dame beats Ohio State, the Buckeyes offense wasn’t able to ______________ and the defense failed to __________.

 If Ohio State beats Notre Dame, the key on offense is connecting on shots downfield and the key on defense is containing Deshone Kizer on the ground.

If Notre Dame beats Ohio State, the Buckeyes offense wasn’t able to establish Ezekiel Elliott and the defense failed to hold its own in the ground game.

Report: Tarean Folston won’t return for fifth year

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
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Tarean Folston will declare for the NFL Draft. The senior running back, who has a fifth-year of eligibility available after a medical redshirt in 2014, will instead turn his focus to preparing for the professional ranks. Irish Sports Daily’s Matt Freeman broke the news, confirming the decision with Folston.

The departure wasn’t totally unexpected, though Folston was also a candidate for a graduate transfer. But after running for 1,712 yards over four years, the 214-pound back will hope an NFL team takes a shot on him, likely looking at tape of Folston the underclassmen to make their evaluation.

The Cocoa, Florida native burst onto the scene as a freshman against Navy when he ran for 140 yards on 18 carries in the Irish’s 38-34 win. He was Notre Dame’s leading rusher in 2014, running for 889 yards and 5.1 yards per carry  and six scores in 2014.

Expected to do big things in 2015, Folston’s season lasted just three carries, a torn ACL suffered against Texas in the season opener. After Josh Adams emerged that season, Folston fell behind him in the depth chart, getting just 77 carries in 2016.

The move clarifies a depth chart that looked to be unchanged heading into next season. But with Folston’s exit, rising sophomore Tony Jones will join Adams and Dexter Williams in the rotation. Fellow sophomore Deon Macintosh and incoming freshman C.J. Holmes will also compete for playing time.

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)
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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

clark-lea
UND.com
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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

delvaughn
ASU Sports Information
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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. FootballScoop.com 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.