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Spring mailbag: Rebuild or reload, Running Backs, OL and more

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With impressive postseason runs in the books for the winter sports, football—by default—now bumps back to the front burner. When the Irish return to practice on Wednesday, they’ll kickstart their final ten practices of spring, leading into the Blue-Gold game on Saturday, April 16.

We’ve gotten clues about a new-look team that’ll certainly have a new set of stars emerging. Today’s mailbag gets into some of the position battles that have caught your eye, and also asks about a proper calibration of expectations for the 2016 Irish football team. (Like that’s possible.)

 

indyirish91: Keith, with the amount of talent moving on from the Irish this year, either to the NFL or graduation, what do you think is a realistic goal for the 2016 team to define the season as a success?

I think the goal remains the same: The Playoffs. And I think it’s a realistic goal—maybe even more so than you might think.

No doubt the talent loss is sizable, especially All-American performers like Jaylon Smith, Will Fuller, Ronnie Stanley and Sheldon Day. But while a ton of experience departs, a rock-solid nucleus remains.

Perhaps more exciting (at least to me) is the new wave of athletes that’ll find the field for the first time. With Brian Kelly entering his seventh season in South Bend (say that five times), a new generation of talent is coming through the pipeline. Not to go too Sports Guy on you, but this feels a little bit like Coach Taylor and the East Dillon squad. Part of the excitement for me is that we’re watching players recruited by this staff after the machine was already rolling. And we get to watch a new wave of guys build on the efforts of the last.

Yes, I know about the defense. I’m not ignoring it. And obviously, staying healthy is important. But if I were to give you three reasons why I think it’s realistic to set the bar this high, I’ll go with:

A) Quarterback Depth and skill talent. (Two guys who can play “championship football” behind center and some talented skill players on both sides of the ball.)
B) Power in the trenches (I like the defensive line a lot, even without a true pass rusher.)
C) The Schedule (only three true road games, more manageable than it looks).

 

andy44teg: Let’s just say that Folston is 100% by fall camp. How do you think BK splits up the carries between Folston & Adams and yet keeps Dexter from transferring?

If—and it’s a big if—Tarean Folston is healthy and confident, I expect him to lead the team in carries. If that’s a bold statement, I’m fine with that.

There’s a reason Folston was the starter even with C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams on the depth chart, and I feel like Folston would’ve had a monster season in 2015 if his knee didn’t end his year three carries in.

Three running backs is pretty much the bare minimum for a depth chart, and I don’t get the feeling that Dexter Williams is going anywhere. Not when you consider that Folston is a senior and Williams is either going to get a handful of carries a game in South Bend, or none sitting out a transfer season.

What’ll be interesting to me is how these backs separate themselves. Adams is only going to get better. Williams has home-run speed as well. And Folston may be an elite back with the only trait he doesn’t possess is long-game speed.

With a group of brawlers on the offensive line and the strength of this roster two mobile quarterbacks and some very good running backs, there’ll be plenty of carries for everybody. But if Folston plays with the kind of immediacy I expect and fights his way back to the front of the line, he’ll be rewarded.

 

irishguy55: Keith do you you see Tristan Hoge starting at Centre and Alex Bars playing Tackle or Guard?

It looks like Sam Mustipher is the center. Brian Kelly has been fairly stedfast about Mustiper’s role on this line and it’s clear that he’s done enough to separate himself from the pack. Right now, Tristen Hoge is part of a four-man battle for two jobs. The others are seniors Colin McGovern and Hunter Bivin with junior Alex Bars also in the mix.

Without Bars at full strength, it’s hard to know how this will truly shake out. McGovern had done some good things in the first four practices before sitting out the final session before Easter with a concussion. Bivin seems to be earning trust from this staff, a true candidate at tackle when most thought he was just a depth-chart filler for Bars last year.

It’s hard to say exactly how this group ends up. If you like veterans, you might want to go with McGovern and Bivin. If you think going young and talented is the right angle, you could play Hoge and Bars, with Bars truly being the wildcard because I think the staff thinks he can play guard or tackle, and haven’t quite decided what’s best for him.

There’s no urgency to have this decided during spring practice. But the fact that Mustipher seems good enough to lock down the job at center is the headline.

 

irishsoccerfirst: Any chance Tillery moves to offensive tackle?

Nope.

The staff believes he’s got the chance to be an elite talent at defensive tackle. That seems more valuable than rebooting his career as an offensive lineman.

 

cfarri84: Which positions do you think will be sorted out before the end of the spring? Which ones do you expect to remain open heading into the fall?

I really don’t think any position will be sorted before the end of spring. Sure, there’ll be a pretty differentiated pecking order at some places. But from top to bottom, I’m not sure you can say any jobs will be locked in.

Here’s a quick rundown:

QB: Dream on.
RB: Covered it above, but this will go well into fall camp.
WR: With the emergence of Corey Homes and Equanimeous St. Brown, the staff will be mixing and matching around Torii Hunter all year.
OL: Covered it above
TE: Durham Smythe and Alizé Jones will both certainly play, but so will Nic Weishar and designated blocker Jacob Matuska.

DL: The starting four seems to be in place. But after that, who knows.
LB: Nobody is healthy yet. And even if they were, I think this goes into fall.
DB: An early-enrollee freshman (Devin Studstill) is mixing it up with a senior (Max Redfield). And that’s precisely how Kelly, VanGorder and Todd Lyght want it.

Wait, I take it back. Punter and Kicker are locked in. Another year of Tyler Newsome and Justin Yoon seems more than likely. After that? We’ve got five-plus months to figure it out.

 

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.”