PALO ALTO, CA - SEPTEMBER 17:  Christian McCaffrey #5 of the Stanford Cardinal carries the ball against the USC Trojans during the first half of their NCAA football game at Stanford Stadium on September 17, 2016 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Recalibrating expectations for Irish

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The College Football Playoff isn’t in the cards. Not with two early-season losses. Not with the type of defense the Irish are playing. And certainly not with a young roster still learning on the job.

But the season is far from over.

So while some will continue to call for Brian VanGorder’s head or search the head coach’s Twitter likes for the next big off-field controversy, Brian Kelly and his young team have a season to play.

Nobody throws in the towel in mid-September. And there are plenty of ways to turn this season into a success—though it’ll require some recalibrated expectations. Consider this an exercise in that.

With three games of data in hand, let’s take a look at the rest of the Irish schedule, projecting how this season could break week by week.

 

CATEGORY ONE: GOTTA WINS

Duke (1-2): No, not just because it’s the next one. But because Duke’s season was derailed in late August when quarterback Thomas Sirk reinjured his achilles tendon, ending the senior’s year before it even started. That’s taken some punch out of Duke’s offense and put too much pressure on the team’s undermanned defense. It should be a good Saturday to get a bad taste from the Irish’s mouth.

 

Army (3-0): This is no cupcake, as Army has been in year’s past. Just look at the damage Army has done in its opening three games, laying it on Temple in the season opener, beating Rice handily and then waxing UTEP. That doesn’t mean that the Shamrock Series game isn’t a must-win, but after watching this defense, you can’t be sure that the Irish will have their option game on point just because they did last season. With a young defense still learning things on the fly, this game is far scarier than ever imagined.

 

CATEGORY TWO: SHOULD WINS

Syracuse (1-2): Dino Babers’ team isn’t ready for primetime. And they aren’t going to have a true home field advantage. Moving the game into the Meadowlands will take away any of the benefits of the Carrier Dome, though Babers’ hyper-speed offense might have found its footing by then and could make for a long weekend for the Irish.

Any other season and I’d have chalked this game into category one. But after watching the defensive performance against Texas and Michigan State, this one has me worried, especially with a noon start just announced.

 

Navy (3-0): Ken Niumatalolo is rolling along, even if he’s had to replace starting quarterback Tago Smith. The Midshipmen pulled off a huge upset of Bob Diaco’s UConn team and they keep winning, beating Tulane last weekend to move to 3-0 as well.

They’ll have a week off before playing Air Force, the first of five tough tests before playing the Irish. The game comes just a week after the Irish host Miami, and is a really-early 11:30 kickoff in Jacksonville. The first of back-to-back option games, Navy is almost a game that’ll put immense pressure on both the offense and defense, with the Midshipmen limiting possessions and forcing the Irish defense to take them off the field.

 

North Carolina State (2-1): I very nearly put this into the 50-50 category, but am keeping it here because of the Wolfpack’s suspect schedule strength. Boise State graduate transfer quarterback Ryan Finley looks like he’ll be a handful for the Irish, already sporting a shiny 6:0 TD:INT ratio. Throw in a big running game and the fact that Dave Doeren is still looking for a big win three years into his run at NC State, and you get the feeling that the Wolfpack faithful will have this one circled on the schedule.

 

 

CATEGORY THREE: COIN FLIP

Virginia Tech (2-1): New coach Justin Fuente has started life after Frank Beamer off quite nicely for the Hokies, winning twice in his first three games, including an absolute beat down of Boston College 49-0. It helps that he’s found his quarterback, junior Jerod Evans, a juco transfer who has shaken things up immediately. The Hokies defense seems to be doing good things, with holdover Bud Foster still in Blacksburg. And the mix of attacking defense and opportunistic offense hasn’t felt like a good matchup lately for the Irish.

 

USC (1-2) This only stays as a coin flip because the Trojans have been the biggest dumpster fire in the country this season. After opening up with an embarrassing stomping at the hands of Alabama, things haven’t gotten much better for Clay Helton. He’s dealt with off-field distractions both serious (sexual assault chargers) and self-inflicted (JuJu Smith-Schuster fighting his teammates), as well as terrible self-discipline on the field. At 1-2 with two lopsided losses already, the hiring of Helton instead of trying to get a fresh start is looking dumber and dumber.

 

Miami (3-0): Entering the season, this felt like a game the Irish should win, with Mark Richt transitioning the Miami program after finally cutting bait on the Al Golden era.  But with Brad Kaaya throwing the football and the Hurricanes taking care of an admittedly cupcake-ish start, consider me a pessimist that the young Irish defense can find a pass rush and good coverage by then.

Again, things will reveal themselves over the next month. For the Irish, they can right the ship. For the Canes, their true talents will be revealed. But the Irish defense will be in the crosshairs that Saturday, with Kaaya the best quarterback on the Irish schedule.

 

CATEGORY FOUR: SPRING AN UPSET

 

Stanford (2-0): The Cardinal have been tested early this season and passed swimmingly, grinding out comfortable wins against Kansas State and USC. They feature college football’s best all-around running back and a defense that’s only getting better. They’ll bring a physical attack to South Bend, one that’s much better than the Spartans offense that bludgeoned the Irish in the trenches.

Of course, Notre Dame found a way to slow down Christian McCaffery last season, only to lose when Kevin Hogan lit them up through the air. The Cardinal have three Pac-12 opponents—at UCLA, at No. 9 Washington and Washington State—on the slate before the night kickoff in South Bend, giving us a chance to see just how good new quarterback Ryan Burns is. But the Cardinal defense looks like its back to its stingy ways, and the Irish will need to play a great football game to win this one.

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

delvaughn
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.

Chip Long in as Offensive Coordinator… and play-caller

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Notre Dame’s formal press release introducing Chip Long as the new offensive coordinator did more than confirm news that we’ve known for a few weeks. It let us in on Brian Kelly’s initial plans for his offense heading into a pivotal offseason.

After some struggles in 2016 with DeShone Kizer and an inexperienced wide receiving corps, most expected Kelly to rip back control of the offense after Mike Denbrock called the plays and Mike Sanford coordinated the offense. But Kelly is going to let Long call the plays next season, adding some intrigue to a press release that usually is vanilla.

“Chip will be given the full responsibility to call plays in 2017,” Kelly said in the release. “His offense at Memphis displayed a unique blend of physicality, athleticism, versatility and explosiveness. Chip’s play-calling created mismatches all over the field and did it in a number of different ways. He likes to use players who can fill numerous roles in an array of formations, whether that be two and three tight ends or multiple running backs.

“Chip has experience coaching at almost every position on the offensive side of the ball. He’s worked for and learned from some of the most respected offensive minds in college football — Bobby Petrino, Mike Norvell and Jeff Brohm — to name a few.”

That Kelly is handing over play-calling to Long, who called plays last year for Mike Norvell at Memphis, is a surprise on the surface. But if you listen to Kelly over the past few seasons, he’s always downplayed that responsibility. Most thought he was simply playing coy, though Kelly seems to value game plan and installation as something at least as important as calling the plays.

But after splitting the baby between Denbrock and Sanford these past two seasons (the three-man collaboration worked much better in 2015 than 2016–possibly explained by the personnel) perhaps Kelly sees a singular voice as a key to improving an Irish offense that’ll have to replace Kizer, but should welcome back the majority of offensive playmakers, as well as Alizé Jones. Giving that assignment to Long will also let Kelly dig in as a head coach, working with first-year starter Brandon Wimbush and staying connected to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko and his installation.

Long’s work on campus will likely take flight as soon as the recruiting dead period is over. Known for his tenacity on the trail, Notre Dame is in desperate need of getting back into living rooms, trying to get back some momentum as a few defections have spoiled the 2017 class, and a handful of spots are available in this upcoming signing class.

Long will also likely work with tight ends, a position he played as a D-II All-American and that he coached at Memphis last season. Scott Booker coached tight ends since 2012.

“It’s an honor and privilege to have the opportunity to serve as the offensive coordinator at the University of Notre Dame,” Long said in the statement. “The challenge to lead at a University with such high standards is incredibly motivating. I’m very grateful to Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for extending this opportunity.

“It’s Notre Dame: the values, the culture, and the leadership. My wife, Kari, and I are excited to move to South Bend and to join the Notre Dame family.”