DENVER - APRIL 12:  The Notre Dame Fighting Irish salute as they leave the ice after being defeated by the Boston College Golden Eagles in the 2008 NCAA Frozen Four Men's Ice Hockey National Championship at the Pepsi Center on April 12, 2008 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s Big Ten move a hockey only proposition

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Last week, Notre Dame’s hockey program made some national news when it was announced that the Irish would join the Big Ten in hockey as an affiliate member. The move will come in the 2017-18 season, meaning one more year playing in the Hockey East, Notre Dame’s conference since the CCHA dissolved before the 2013 season.

In a statement provided by the athletic department, Jack Swarbrick cited the following reasons for the move:

“While we have enjoyed our affiliation with Hockey East, the opportunity to participate in Big Ten hockey is a compelling one from the perspective of our student-athletes. The move will significantly reduce the time our team spends traveling, increase the broadcast exposure for our program and allow us to take advantage of the natural rivalries that exist with the Big Ten schools that participate in hockey,” Swarbrick said.

The move raised some eyebrows on the national level. After decades of discussions about joining the Big Ten—but only as a full member participating in football—it was Notre Dame’s hockey team that was allowed to join the conference as an affiliate member.

Was there more to this? (Count the South Bend Tribune’s Al Lesar as one of the loudest voices asking the silly question.) Could this be the first step in a relationship that seemed all but dead?

Don’t count on it.

Swarbrick joined the Big Ten Network to discuss the move, and in doing so made it pretty clear that the Irish were plenty happy with their current partnership with the ACC and the hockey-only affiliate membership that is set to begin after next season.

“I think hockey is very different. Different in terms of the Big Ten needs, the Big Ten’s own assessment of the hockey conference arrangement, and ours as well,” Swarbrick told the B1G Network’s Dave Revsine.

“When you extend beyond hockey you’re in a situation where, of course, the Big Ten is very pleased with its conference alignment and the structure of its conference and we’re very pleased with both our ACC relationship and our ability to maintain independence with football.”

Unpacking that statement requires a look at the hockey conference the Big Ten has struggled to build and a general understanding of today’s college hockey. After essentially destroying the WCHA and CCHA by forming its own league, the Big Ten hasn’t turned into the hockey juggernaut many expected, mostly because of downturns in historically strong programs like Minnesota and Wisconsin.

That’s likely exacerbated a problem that college hockey has been struggling with as a whole—getting people to watch a sport that relies heavily on geographic rivalries. Just look at some of the scary photos that came from NCAA regionals, played in historic hockey hotbeds like Minnesota and Boston.

 

While most look at Notre Dame as a school with a gold-plated checkbook, travel challenges and logistics are a real factor in a decision like this. So is finding the right institutional match for the conference.

Swarbrick mentioned a natural rivalry with Boston College. But a run down the 12-team conference shows few matches, especially when you consider that most Hockey East programs build their roster through experienced junior hockey players, putting the Irish in a situation where even their oldest senior is often times one of the youngest of the ten skaters on the rink.

The Big Ten is a supporter of legislation that’ll set an age limit for incoming recruits, moving the threshold from 21 down to 20-years-old, or two years removed from a player’s expected high school graduation. That’s the type of player that Notre Dame recruits, and it’s the type of player that Big Ten programs build around as well.

The move isn’t unprecedented for the Big Ten. In lacrosse, Johns Hopkins became an affiliate member of the conference in 2015. Swarbrick revealed that the move wasn’t out of the blue, but rather the product of discussions that started with a scheduling alignment and ultimately resulted in joining the conference on the ice.

 

You can watch Swarbrick’s entire interview with the Big Ten network below. But for those worried that the Irish are considering uprooting an athletic department that’s found a very comfortable home in the ACC, fear not.

Report: Tarean Folston won’t return for fifth year

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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

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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

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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.