during the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Ohio State

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The end is here. If the Fiesta Bowl loss didn’t bring on that finality, then surely the quick decisions of C.J. Prosise, Will Fuller and KeiVarae Russell to move on to the NFL served as official notice.

For a season as thrilling as the 127th in Notre Dame history, the Fiesta Bowl wasn’t the type of lasting memory you’ll want to take with you. The Irish defense entered the game battered, bruised and suspended, never able to muster much of an opposition for an Ohio State attack that seemed to take what it wanted on the ground and threw just enough to keep things interesting.

After a shaky start, the Irish did find their footing. DeShone Kizer never looked fully comfortable after a month layoff, and the Irish running game was limited after C.J. Prosise tapped out after just three snaps. Throw in some uneven offensive line play and while the final offensive performance of the season wasn’t necessarily sterling, Notre Dame did put up the most yardage and score as many points as any other opponent the Buckeyes faced this season.

Recruiting continues, NFL decisions are still coming, and more unexpected changes are surely to come. But before we get there, let’s get one last good, bad and ugly in.

 

THE GOOD

Sheldon Day. Playing his final game at Notre Dame, Day showed the type of warrior that he’s become, battling through a foot the coaching staff believed was broken after a mid-week injury suffered in Scottsdale. It didn’t stop Day, who played another great game—13 total on the season.

Day added another TFL, forced a fumble and batted down two passes for the Irish, filling up the stat sheet and winning more battles than anyone else on the Irish defense. He did it at less than 100-percent, playing through an injury that he might not have been able to fight through in year’s past, putting a final exclamation point on a stellar senior season.

 

Josh Adams. His stat-line only included 78 rushing yards on 14 carries, but the freshman answered the bell, a critical piece to the offensive puzzle when C.J. Prosise exited after his ankle failed to respond from a severe sprain suffered against Boston College.

Adams’ freshman season now goes into the Notre Dame record books, a crazy thought when you consider he seemed like an absolute lock to redshirt this spring. He finishes the year with a school record 835 yards on just 117 attempts, a 7.1 yards per carry average that obliterates anything we’ve seen in recent years. More importantly, his solid play down the stretch is even more critical with Prosise’s decision to head to the NFL, leaving the freshman to carry the position group until Tarean Folston returns from his ACL injury.

 

Will Fuller. As I said in the Five Things, it was a fitting way for Fuller to end his Notre Dame career. The junior receiver will be remembered for the ridiculous amount of game-changing plays he was able to make, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons.

We’ll spend more time analyzing this in the offseason, but you can make quite an argument that Fuller may have had the best career of recent greats Michael Floyd, Golden Tate and Jeff Samardzija. That alone should quiet Irish fans down when they worry if Recruit X or Recruit Y has enough stars or good enough scholarship offers. Fuller committed to Notre Dame as a three-star nobody, picking the Irish over a Penn State program that had just been nuked.

 

Red Zone touchdowns. Let’s give the Irish credit for converting all three of their red zone opportunities into touchdowns. It was a point of emphasis during bowl preparation and the Irish executed near the goal line, not an easy thing to do against the Buckeyes.

The Irish got a key rushing touchdown from Adams near the goal line. They got a great effort from Kizer before the half and a perfectly thrown fade to Chris Brown, proof that Notre Dame can execute a finesse throw in tight quarters.

 

Joe Schmidt & Jarrett Grace. We got to see Schmidt and Grace play side-by-side for much of the game after injuries took Jaylon Smith and Te’von Coney from the game. And while it wasn’t all good, you couldn’t ask for much more from the two fifth-year seniors, with Schmidt leading the Irish in tackles with 13 (including a TFL) and making an interception and Grace adding nine stops of his own along with a TFL.

Grace played out of position at Will, asked to chase down receivers and play in space, not his strong suit. But the senior did it without complaint, just another selfless act for a veteran who battled back from a career-threatening leg injury.

While Schmidt has had enough coverage to last another four years, he held the Irish defense together, leading a M.A.S.H. unit with his acumen and toughness. The good news? There are better athletes to replace both veterans. But the leadership both exhibited will be sorely missed, and each player is a tremendous example of what you want out of a teammate and a Notre Dame student-athlete.

 

Three Losses. No, it doesn’t make sense to put three losses in the good section. But when you consider that Notre Dame will finish the season with a 10-3 record with their three losses to Top 5 teams by a total of 20 points, this season starts to compare to some of those Lou Holtz squads that Irish fans keep wanting Brian Kelly to replicate.

Certainly, a lot of you will want to put up a “10-3 is not good enough” banner in the weight room. And I think Kelly appropriately rejected any notion that this year was as good as it gets.

But with the insane body count that tested this team’s depth to no end, it’s pretty miraculous that the Irish nearly pulled off a win against Stanford in the regular season finale and battled back from two early uppercuts that the Buckeyes threw at them. Match up the Irish with Iowa in the Fiesta Bowl instead of Ohio State and it’s likely the Irish are sitting here as an 11-win team and a top-five ranking.

 

THE BAD

DeShone Kizer. If we’re going to spend time each week praising the sophomores maturity and poise, we need to point out when he doesn’t play his best. Kizer completed 22 of 37 throws for 284 yards, a completely solid stat-line taken at face value. But Notre Dame needed Kizer to play better, and too often the young quarterback was flustered in the pocket, unable to make a quick decision or fully comprehend what the defense was doing to him until it was too late. He was also oddly inaccurate with some deep balls, showing a rare lack of touch on throws he looked great on all season.

Kizer threw an ugly interception when he didn’t notice a linebacker drop underneath his intended target. He threw another bad one that was nullified by Joey Bosa’s targeting penalty. His poor accuracy stemmed from sloppy fundamentals, short-hopping some quick throws like he did early in the season before smoothing out his mechanics.

Unequivocally, Kizer’s season was a resounding success. (Just look at how Oregon played with their backup quarterback in the Alamo Bowl.) As a redshirt freshman he went from a spring spent as the No. 3 quarterback to a starter who looks like a building block of the program. He’ll face a huge fight this spring when Malik Zaire is fully cleared to participate and Brandon Wimbush returns. Kizer just didn’t play as well as was needed in the Fiesta Bowl, and it’s a reminder that a starting job in 2016 is far from secure.

 

The battered front seven. Jaylon Smith was lost after 11 plays. Coney lost after just seven. Greer Martini battling through a broken hand, playing just four snaps as the linebacking corps was decimated.

Up front, no Jerry Tillery compounded the issues that limited Daniel Cage to just six snaps on a badly sprained ankle. Jarron Jones impacted the game—his deflection and pocket push led to Joe Schmidt’s interception—but he was limited to just 14 plays.

With no defensive tackle opposite a severely wounded Sheldon Day, the Irish were forced to slide Isaac Rochell inside and play Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti at defensive end. It was a recipe made for disaster. Jonathan Bonner took up the extra snaps at defensive tackle, nearly doubling his season-high for snaps. Trumbetti did the same, on the field for 80 of 86 total plays.

The cumulative effect of these changes were a killer. While Trumbetti flashed a few times and made some impactful plays, he’s a poor run defender, especially against an offensive line like Ohio State’s. Okwara, usually a weakside defensive end, was neutralized playing the strongside. Asking Bonner to do more than hold his own isn’t fair. Nor is Rochell anywhere near as impactful in the trenches.

Taking away Jaylon made J.T. Barrett’s job much easier. As a scrambler, Grace and Schmidt were no match. As a thrower, the underneath routes were now being covered by a 250-pound linebacker who taught himself to run again last year, not a linebacker who plays like a gazelle.

At full strength could this defense have held up? We can’t be sure. But this was closer to the personnel the Irish played against USC with last year than the full-strength group the Irish needed, and once the totality of the injuries showed itself, the Irish defense was pretty much always fighting an unwinnable fight.

 

The Offensive Line. This starting five will be remembered as one of Notre Dame’s best since Joe Moore was coaching the guys in the trenches. With Ronnie Stanley likely a first-rounder and Nick Martin sure to get drafted as well, the Irish also have future building blocks in Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, while Steve Elmer has another year to play up to his potential and Alex Bars will certainly benefit from the snaps he took this year as he likely moves into the left tackle job.

That said, this line struggled against ultra-aggressive fronts. We saw it against Clemson and again against Temple. Boston College limited what the Irish were able to do on the ground as well, following a similar blueprint to those that had success before them.

Even without three starters—including Joey Bosa, whose targeting ejection made life easier for the offensive line—Kizer was under siege for most of the afternoon. Perhaps asking for the living-room comfort that Kizer has had in the pocket for much of the season was too much, but winning in the trenches wasn’t. Notre Dame’s running game wasn’t able to get going, less about in-game circumstances and more about the one-on-one battles. And the passing rhythm was off, taking away some of the big-play opportunities.

Again, this was a tremendous offensive line. They allowed both C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams to put up incredible seasons. But in short yardage and red zone situations, this group struggled. That’ll be a point of emphasis this offseason as Harry Hiestand, who also needs to find a replacement at center.

 

THE UGLY

Jaylon Smith’s injury. Nothing seems less fair than Smith going down with a major knee injury. While we don’t have the specifics yet, a few reports point to both ACL and MCL injuries. That means considerable rehab ahead for Smith, and it could impact his decision to head to the NFL, which seemed like a certainty beforehand.

That said, it appears Smith was protected. ESPN’s Darren Rovell reported over the weekend that Smith has a $5 million insurance policy that protects him if he slides out of the first round. It’s a similar policy to the one UCLA’s Myles Jack has, another star junior linebacker who decided to declare for the draft even as he recovers from surgery.

In all likelihood, Smith will be just fine. The NFL was well aware of his prodigious skill-set, something he won’t have to prove at the scouting combine, but rather just have teams turn on game tape. And if the injury allows Smith to come back to Notre Dame and play out his eligibility while he earns his degree, he’ll likely be protected by an insurance policy as well. That’s a choice Smith very well could make, if he believes he’s capable of returning to Top 5 status, not Top 20.

It’s hard not to wonder if seeing Smith go down impacted the decision made by C.J. Prosise or Will Fuller. For all of us, it was a stark reminder that football is a dangerous game, where one snap can alter a career.

We saw that all too often this season. Notre Dame needs to—and likely has already started—a full-scale investigation into why the injury bug has now decimated two-straight teams. Nothing should be off limits as this group tries to find a formula to limit the season-ruining injuries that capped this team’s ceiling at 10-wins.

From preseason camp to the bowl game, the Irish were faced with key injuries that required the team to pick up and move on without some of their key personnel. Ultimately, that did the Irish in. Not just in the Fiesta Bowl, but against Stanford and Clemson as well.

But that’s football.

 

 

 

Tommy Rees officially joins Kelly’s staff

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 28:  Head coach Brian Kelly talks to Tommy Rees #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the New Era Pinstripe Bowl against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Yankee Stadium on December 28, 2013 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame has made official what Keith Arnold first reported Jan. 2: Tommy Rees will join Brian Kelly’s staff as the Irish quarterbacks coach.

Or, to adhere to Notre Dame’s release, “Tom” Rees will join Kelly’s staff as the quarterbacks coach.

“When I finished my playing career and graduated from Notre Dame, I wanted to do two things,” Rees said in the statement. “First, I wanted to coach, and second, at some point in my career I hoped to get an opportunity to return and do it at my alma mater.”

Rees spent 2016 as an offensive assistant with the San Diego Chargers, working with coach Mike McCoy to keep afloat an offense plagued by injuries, beginning with receiver Keen Allen’s ACL tear in the first week. Nonetheless, the Chargers finished seventh in the NFL in passing, ninth in scoring and 14th in total offense.

Rees will need that experience working with rising junior Brandon Wimbush, the only quarterback on the roster with any college game experience, though not a single start under his belt.

“I’m very excited to have Tom join our staff,” Kelly said. “He possesses an understanding of the game, and most importantly the quarterback position, that’s unique. He’s a true student of the game and great communicator that will offer immediate dividends toward guiding our quarterback room.”

Rees should not need much time to get up to speed with Kelly’s playbook or system, having operated within it in 46 games over four seasons, including 31 starts. He finished with a 23-8 record as a starter, 7,670 career yards and 61 touchdowns, highlighted by 3,257 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2013 alone. Only Rees, Brady Quinn, Jimmy Clausen and Everett Golson have ever exceeded 3,000 passing yards in a single Notre Dame season.

With this hire, Kelly completes his retooling of his coaching staff. The newcomers include:
Defensive coordinator: Mike Elko
Offensive coordinator: Chip Long
Special teams coordinator: Brian Polian
Linebackers coach: Clark Lea
Wide receivers coach: Del Alexander
Quarterbacks coach: Tom(my) Rees

Brent’s transfer makes sense for both sides

Justin Brent, Devin Butler
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Justin Brent’s pending transfer makes sense on the surface if for no other reason than his complete lack of game action in the last two seasons. A slightly-deeper look, however, explains the move even further.

The rising senior running back had no logical path to playing time at Notre Dame given the performances of some of his peers. Both in the backfield and at receiver, younger players shined this past season while Brent rode the bench.

RUNNING BACKS

– It may have taken four games for rising junior Josh Adams to find the end zone, but he finished the season with 933 yards on 158 rushing attempts, carrying the ball at least eight times in all 12 games. Most notably, Adams finished the season with 350 yards and three rushing touchdowns over the last three weeks. That strong close shows Adams was not worn down in his second season of consistent use (2015: 13 games, 117 carries, 869 rushing yards, six touchdowns) and can be expected to provide the same bellwether output next season.

– Adams’s classmate, Dexter Williams, has not had the same success, but he did provide some relief throughout the season – most notably against Nevada (eight carries for 59 yards) and Syracuse (eight for 80 and a score) – on his way to 212 yards and three touchdowns on 39 carries.

Between Adams and Williams, combined with NFL-bound Tarean Folston’s steady output and quarterback DeShone Kizer’s mobility in the past and the possibility of Brandon Wimbush’s in the future, there were not carries for Brent to showcase his potential. This is before even factoring in rising sophomores Deon McIntosh and Tony Jones, both of whom preserved a year of eligibility in 2016, or any incoming recruits.

WIDE RECEIVERS

– Rising junior Equanimeous St. Brown proved worthy of learning to spell his first name in 2016, catching 58 passes for 961 yards and nine scores, but St. Brown looks to be far from alone in the receiving corps moving forward. Classmates C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin each found the end zone this past season, despite competing with senior Torii Hunter, Jr., for both snaps and targets. Sanders finished with 24 receptions for 293 yards and two touchdowns while Boykin caught six passes for 81 yards and a score.

– Rising sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Chris Finke and Chase Claypool add to the depth at the position. Stepherson scored on an even 20 percent of his 25 receptions for 462 yards. On a personal note, he did not actually reach the end zone on his 53-yard catch-and-dash against Miami, but I will still never forget that particular play because the accompanying roar convinced my nine-year-old niece it was well past time to leave Notre Dame Stadium to watch the game on a television where the noise would not be so surprising.

Finke chipped in 10 catches for 122 yards and two scores, and Claypool caught five passes for 81 yards.

– Again, this listing does not account for players such as rising sophomore Javon McKinley who saw action in seven games but has not yet contributed to the passing game or any incoming recruits. (We’ll get to the recruits later in the week, and even more so next week when, you know, they have signed.)

It should also be noted: Brent enrolled early at Notre Dame, and thus, he has already completed six academic semesters, not to mention time spent in class each summer as is typical of most, if not all, of the football roster. If he does indeed graduate from the University this spring, he will be eligible to play elsewhere immediately thanks to the NCAA’s stance on graduate student transfers. More than that, though, he will have two years of eligibility remaining.

Admittedly, such a confluence is rare and certainly adds reasoning to Brent’s maneuver, whether it result in him playing at UCLA, Miami, Arizona State, Indiana, Purdue or Ohio State, as he indicated to the South Bend Tribune were his top choices. Notre Dame does face Miami on Nov. 11.

Lament Brent’s decision if you must, but it was a logical decision by him, and Notre Dame’s shortcomings last season were rarely where Brent would have aided. Nor will the Irish appear to be wanting in those spots in 2017.

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.