PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 31: KeiVarae Russell #6 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish intercepts a pass intended for John Christopher #7 of the Temple Owls in the fourth quarter on October 31, 2015 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Temple Owls 24-20. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Last look: Secondary

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Notre Dame’s achilles heel looked like an area of strength heading into the season. That the Irish season would falter because the back end of the defense couldn’t hold up certainly didn’t seem like a possibility when accessing the personnel in first-year assistant Todd Lyght’s secondary.

KeiVarae Russell was back. Many assumed the Irish had an All-American-caliber cornerback returning from a year-long academic suspension. He’d join Cole Luke as one of the better (on paper) tandems in the country, with Luke coming off of a great 2014 season against a scheduled filled with NFL receivers.

At safety, the prognosticators were betting on Max Redfield, with Phil Steele naming him a preseason first-team All-American. Senior Elijah Shumate was a perfect battering ram at strong safety.

The depth was also there. Complementary parts like Drue Tranquill and graduate transfer Avery Sebastian looked like perfect pieces for Brian VanGorder’s sub-packages. Matthias Farley’s versatility was already well known, and now the Irish had freshmen Shaun Crawford and Nick Coleman making preseason noise as potential contributors.

On paper, the stats don’t show a disappointing season. The Irish finished 26th in the country giving up 195 yards per game in the air, while quarterbacks completed just 55 percent of their passes.

But as injuries stripped the depth chart, inconsistencies plagued the entire unit. And a group that started the season with high hopes saw their CFB Playoff chances go up in smoke when Stanford’s Kevin Hogan shredded the secondary in less than 30 seconds, allowing the Cardinal to kick a game-winning field goal that eliminated the Irish from consideration.

Shumate, Russell and Farley are gone, forcing the secondary will rebuild. So before we turn our focus to those efforts, let’s take a look at the final statistics and hand out some awards.

Secondary

 

 

MVP: KeiVarae Russell. Was it a great season? Probably not. Russell’s reputation—essentially hand-crafted by the loquacious cornerback—was that of a lock down coverman. That wasn’t the type of football he played, with Russell giving up completions at a far less stingy clip than Cole Luke.

But Russell was the rare playmaker in Notre Dame’s secondary. His clutch interceptions against USC and Temple were probably the two biggest plays made by the defense on the season. He was also an able tackler, unafraid to stick his nose in, as evidenced by his 60 tackles and two forced fumbles, the second the final play of his season when he suffered a fracture in his leg.

Would Russell have likely improved his draft stock had he stuck around for 2016? Yes. But with an NCAA appeal undetermined and a significant injury needing rehabilitation, Russell was ready to move on, accomplishing his goal of returning to Notre Dame for his degree and playing out his senior season with his classmates.

 

Biggest Disappointment: Drue Tranquill’s tough luck. Brian VanGorder might have a perfect weapon in safety Drue Tranquill. But we’ll never know because Tranquill’s bad injury luck keeps taking away one of the secondary’s best playmakers.

As a two-deep cover safety, Tranquill isn’t likely to be a huge asset. But as a third-down weapon and option specialist, Tranquill gives the Irish a versatile piece, capable of covering, blitzing or chasing down the pitch man, whatever his assignment may be.

The loss of Tranquill essentially robbed the Irish of any third-down flexibility, especially with their nickel back plan already foiled with the loss of Shaun Crawford in preseason camp. No Tranquill or Crawford meant keeping Joe Schmidt in the middle of the field on passing downs, a role that Jaylon Smith could’ve played had Tranquill been available after his freak knee injury.

With a second ACL injury in less than a year, the Indiana native is in the middle of another grueling rehabilitation. But Tranquill attacked the last detour with a conviction Brian Kelly had never seen. So expect to see Tranquill on the field pushing himself this spring again, even if they’ll keep him out of the action until fall camp.

 

Silver Lining: An energized Nick Watkins. Notre Dame’s last piece of injury bad luck hit just days before the Irish were set to take on Ohio State. And when junior backup Devin Butler suffered a broken foot that sidelined the Irish’s first two options at cornerback, sophomore Nick Watkins was thrown into action.

It was the first start for the once-highly touted cornerback recruit. And it was a matchup against one of the most talented teams in the country. Yet Watkins held his own in the Fiesta Bowl, playing all 86 snaps against the Buckeyes and possibly jump-starting his career at the same time.

Notre Dame needs Watkins to be a significant contributor in 2016. After competing his way into the mix last spring and during fall camp, Watkins suffered an August slide, falling behind Butler and spending his second straight season mostly relegated to special teams duty. Young cornerback Nick Coleman will do his best to challenge Watkins, as will Butler when he’s healed. But after holding up against a team filled with NFL talent, Watkins should understand the urgency of a career half finished and step into the spotlight.

 

 

Waiting for the Lightbulb: Max Redfield. An up-and-down season ended on a disappointing note for Redfield, with the junior starter sent home from Scottsdale after violating team rules. That type of mistake is understandable from a freshman like Jerry Tillery, but Redfield’s ouster left a lot of people inside the program scratching their head.

Physically, there’s no doubting Redfield’s impressive skill-set. But the Southern California native has never performed like a 5-star prospect, a recruiting designation that forced some considerable expectations on him. A thumb injury early this season might have contributed to some of this season’s highs and lows, but mental mistakes earned Redfield a few quick hooks, especially against run-heavy opponents.

With just a year left, Redfield’s most recent social media declaration has him intent on returning for his final season in South Bend. In a secondary badly needing a playmaking safety to emerge, its most obvious candidate needs to step forward before it’s too late.

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.”