TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 08:  Cornerback Cole Luke #36 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the college football game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium on November 8, 2014 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Fighting Irish 55-31.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Competition, self-scout key to secondary’s improvement

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Notre Dame’s coaching staff spent the winter months evaluating their shaky play in the secondary. And it likely didn’t take a spot on Brian Kelly’s staff to understand some of the deficiencies that plagued the unit.

Just as Brian VanGorder discussed on Wednesday, explosive plays, blown assignments and underperforming personnel added up to the mixed bag we saw on the field last season. And it’s a big reason secondary coach Todd Lyght enters his second season coaching at his alma mater with an open competition at every position.

That’s why we’ve heard about Devin Studstill challenging Max Redfield. That’s why Lyght revealed that rising senior Cole Luke—the most experienced player on the field next season for Notre Dame’s defense—is cross-training at nickel back. Lyght seems focused on taking the lessons learned from season one and applying them to a secondary that’ll be reloaded and more versatile, even after saying goodbye to KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate.

Lyght talked a bit about the open competition, perhaps giving us a clue at the expanded rotation on the back end in 2016 while doing it.

“I think the open competition is great,” Lyght said. “Everybody is still challenging for the starting spots and we know that we’re probably going to have to play eight guys deep across the board, especially with our nickel and dime packages. Everybody is going to have a hand in making this team successful on the back end.”

An eight-man rotation wasn’t possible last season, not after losing Shaun Crawford, Avery Sebastian and Drue Tranquill by mid-October. But as Lyght’s secondary looks to bounce back, those injured players—especially Crawford and Tranquill—seem to have made themselves indispensable.

“Last year, we lost our nickel package. Shaun Crawford we knew in training camp was our best nickel and we lost him,” VanGorder acknowledged yesterday. “We lost our speed package, too, when Tranquill got hurt. That was really important to us. That’s just the way it went.”

Maybe it was the lack of versatility that accentuated some of the deficiencies. With a top-heavy snap count in the secondary—only Luke, Shumate, Russell, Redfield and Matthias Farley played more than 150 snaps—there were times the Irish must’ve felt like they were defending with one arm tied behind their backs.

But a self-scout also revealed some schematic weaknesses that opponents exploited, with Lyght acknowledging some of the adjustments that’ll be made. IrishSportsDaily.com’s Matt Freeman pulled this interesting nugget from Lyght’s comments, acknowledging the soft middle that too often was exploited in the defense.

“We played a lot of split safety defense, an of middle open defense, quarter/quarter half and half coverage. I think this year with our self-scouting, we might close the middle a little bit more and challenge the outside of the perimeter more. We did a great job on third-down and I want to improve on that success.”

It’s a lot easier to close the middle of the field with competent play from a free safety, or sticking with your preferred Cover 1 scheme. But with injuries and personnel struggles, the tendency to protect the secondary might have opened up the defense to some other vulnerabilities.

Recruiting is the best solution for those ills. We’ve seen Studstill come in and give the Irish what they want at free safety, even as he’s learning on the job. They’ve also seen it from Redfield, if only in flashes.

With young talent like Spencer Perry, Crawford, Nick Coleman and Nick Watkins, there are competitive bodies ready to challenge for snaps. Even better, there’s more versatility coming to campus this summer. It won’t be long before we hear this staff rave about Jalen Elliott, the team’s strong safety of the future or jumbo cornerback Donte Vaughn. The efforts in the 2016 recruiting class made it clear that Brian Kelly and the Irish staff are unwilling to be caught shorthanded again.

Until then, Lyght’s job is to learn from an eventful debut season. More importantly, to take those lessons into 2016 as a rebuilt secondary faces great expectations.

 

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.