Dexter Williams

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5 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at RBs

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It is a matter of concern when only one tested running back returns, but that concern is somewhat mitigated when that back has proven himself both durable and consistent over the last two seasons.

Josh Adams has not missed a game in his career, and last season the junior carried the ball at least 10 times in all but one game—the 17-10 loss to Stanford in which quarterback DeShone Kizer and running back Tarean Folston combined for 19 attempts. Adams finished with eight rushes. Expect that usage to only increase, especially without Folston around to provide Adams spells of rest.

Assuredly, running backs coach Autry Denson hopes junior Dexter Williams or sophomore Tony Jones can allow Adams to catch his breath, but neither has proven that ability yet. Jones spent last year on the sidelines, fourth on the depth chart and preserving a year of eligibility. Williams, meanwhile, tallied only 39 carries for 200 yards and three touchdowns, his most-prolific output coming in Notre Dame’s 50-33 win over Syracuse when he finished with eight attempts for 80 yards and a score.

In many respects, Williams could provide a better complement to Adams than Folston did last season. It should be noted here, Folston may not have been at his peak after tearing his ACL in 2015’s opener. Either way, he was not the bruising yet agile runner last year he shined as in 2014.

Williams, known for his speed, could force defenses to change gears whenever he steps in for Adams. At least, that is the theory.

Early enrollee C.J. Holmes, also a regarded blazer, will force Williams to perform in order to earn that dynamic role.

There will be carries available for whomever fills the position directly supporting Adams, but expect the starter to be the bell cow. Adams increased his rushing attempts by 41 last season in one fewer game and is already on pace to finish in the top three of Notre Dame’s career rushing yards leaders. The record-holder? None other than Denson with 4,318 yards. Adams currently stands at 1,768, including the 835 in 2015 that set the Irish freshman record.

Nothing would please Denson more than to see Adams enter his senior season with a viable chance at breaking his coach’s record. Doing so would likely also indicate an overall improvement on last season’s team rushing production. As noted in Wednesday’s look at the offensive line, Notre Dame finished with 2,123 rushing yards on 410 attempts for an average of 5.18 yards per carry when removing sacks and the yards lost from them—the NCAA counts sacks as rushes, despite how they can inappropriately distort rushing statistics.

Certainly, the offensive line’s performance will greatly affect the Irish rushing attack, but this quartet of running backs will inevitably receive the praise if the ground attack were to flourish. That will start with Adams. The question is, no matter how durable and consistent Adams may be, who will provide the needed influx in conjunction with him?


The primary impetus in determining the Notre Dame depth chart at running back will be production in the rushing game, but another factor should develop into a notable aspect this season.

When discussing the hiring of new offensive coordinator Chip Long, Irish coach Brian Kelly noted Long’s inclusion of the backfield in the passing game, in more than a blocking capacity.

“I wanted the offense to look a specific way,” Kelly said. “Chip gives me, clearly, something that I saw that will resemble what I see through his offense. It’s going to be the inclusion of the backs and the tight ends in the passing game.”

In his one year as Memphis’s offensive coordinator, Long’s running backs caught 51 passes for 477 yards and five touchdowns. Last year, Adams, Folston and Williams combined for 33 catches for 275 yards and one score.

Looking closer, though, one notices the snaps Long will reward a back with if the ball carrier has demonstrated a penchant for catching the ball. While Memphis’s leading rusher, Doroland Dorceus, caught 10 passes for 77 yards and a score, three other running backs caught as many or more passes:

Darrell Henderson – 20 catches – 237 yards – three touchdowns
Patrick Taylor, Jr. – 11 catches – 37 yards
Sam Craft – 10 catches – 126 yards – one touchdown

If, for instance, Jones establishes himself as a passing game threat but Williams is indeed the more dynamic runner, Jones very well may end up at quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s side on many third downs.


Josh Adams 2015: 117 rushes – 835 yards – 7.1 average – six touchdowns
Josh Adams 2016: 158 rushes – 933 yards – 5.9 average – five touchdowns

Dexter Williams 2015: 21 rushes – 81 yards – 3.9 average – one touchdown
Dexter Williams 2016: 39 rushes – 200 yards – 5.1 average – three touchdowns


Positional Group Spring Preview Schedule:
Wednesday: Offensive Linemen
Thursday: Tight Ends/Receivers
Today: Running Backs
Saturday: Quarterbacks
Sunday: Defensive Backs
Monday: Linebackers
Tuesday: Defensive Linemen
Wednesday, March 8: Spring practice begins

Redfield Moves on to Plan C

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When Max Redfield signed with Notre Dame four years ago, he figured he would spend January 2017 recovering from his rookie season in the NFL.

When he opted not to enter the NFL Draft last spring, Redfield figured he would play in a bowl game the first week of this month and then prep for an eventual pro day.

Instead, the former Irish safety has spent the month attending rehab sessions in the mornings before heading to class at Cal State Fullerton or an internship at a real estate firm.

“I believe everything happens for a reason, and I’ve learned so much from this,” Redfield said Wednesday. “I’ve grown so much from this. I’m extremely thankful for that, but I would obviously have loved to finish my last year at Notre Dame and have the impact on my team that I think would have been profound.”

PLAN A

Redfield, a class of 2013 five-star recruit, originally verbally committed to USC. During the Under Armour All-America Game, however, he changed that commitment to Notre Dame. For context: Two days later the Irish faced Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami. Notre Dame’s upcoming contest played a part in Redfield’s change of heart.

“Notre Dame was No. 1 in the country at the time, the academics are incredible, and the alumni are international, which is something I really valued,” he said.

“You hear various stories about how not ideal the weather is, location, all that kind of stuff. Being from California, obviously that is something that is on your mind, but for me it was, I’m going to go out and really experience this and go for it.”

Not because of the weather or location, Redfield intended to leave Notre Dame for the NFL as quickly as he could, hopefully with both a national championship and a degree—perhaps complemented by a minor or two—in hand. Looking to graduate in three years, Redfield took 17 or 18 credits (compared to a normal undergraduate load of 15) more semesters than not, including Mandarin Chinese from the outset.

“The coaches did not like that,” Redfield said. “I had to put a decent amount of time into that field of study, but it was something I was extremely passionate in and very determined to do.”

Before his dismissal from the University this fall, Redfield was on pace to graduate with a philosophy degree and minors in Mandarin Chinese and business economics.

“I made it clear I wanted to get my degree as fast as possible in three years flat … and potentially get drafted after my junior year because I thought I had that ability and that potential. I felt my junior year we had a team that could win a national championship, so my plan was to end on a high note, win a national championship, and do everything that I needed to do, including getting my degree.

“Often [the coaches] would make it very explicit they didn’t think it was best for me, even if it was maybe. It obviously wasn’t the best for their agenda and what they wanted for me. It wasn’t something that made us have an adversarial relationship, but I would be surprised if it wasn’t in the back of their heads at all times.”

PLAN B

Notre Dame did indeed come tantalizingly close to a College Football Playoff berth in 2015, losing only two games by a combined four points, both on the road. The 10-2 regular season yielded a Fiesta Bowl date with Ohio State. Redfield licked his chops at the chance to match up with Buckeyes running back Ezekiel Elliott, now a favorite for NFL Rookie of the Year honors.

“It was the biggest game of my life,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited for a football game. Obviously, the hype around Ohio State was incredible. Playing Ezekiel Elliott was something I was looking forward to for a while. I thought he was overhyped to a certain extent, although he was a great running back.”

One missed curfew later and Redfield’s junior season ended a game earlier than expected. Despite friction with the coaching staff long before that 2 a.m. bed check, Redfield opted to stray from his original itinerary, ambitious as it was, and return for his senior year.

“[The NFL Draft] was something that was on my mind, but it wasn’t a hard decision to make,” he said. “My heart was in coming back for another year. At that point, I felt like I would be leaving my teammates and leaving unfinished business behind.”

REALITY

That business would remain unfinished. Redfield and four teammates—sophomores running back Dexter Williams, defensive back Ashton White and linebacker Te’von Coney, and freshman receiver Kevin Stepherson—were arrested Aug. 19. Redfield was charged with possession of a handgun without a license and possession of marijuana.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly dismissed the senior two days later, saying Redfield was “expected to provide leadership and a positive example to the other members of the team” and “failed in that regard.”

This response caught Redfield off-guard. He expected a suspension for all five rather than being singled out and sent packing.

“That blindsided me. It definitely broke my heart.”

Though he may have disagreed with the severity of Kelly’s actions, he did not disagree with the sentiment. For this misstep, Redfield takes full responsibility.

“It was decision-making that was terrible on my part,” he said. “At that point, I was a leader on the team, and needed to act like a leader in everything I did. Falling into a situation like that, I wasn’t being a leader … That’s something I probably regret most.”

Redfield went home to Mission Viejo, Calif., returning to Indiana for necessary court appearances. To show the court he is moving forward with his life, he joined a rehab program about three weeks ago. His next appearance is scheduled for mid-February.

Redfield enrolled in two philosophy courses at Cal State Fullerton with the understanding they will satisfy his remaining requirements to complete his Notre Dame degree. The Mandarin Chinese minor will come with it, but he will end up two courses short for the corresponding business economics honor.

Presuming he graduates, he should be eligible to play football this fall thanks to the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule.

“I considered declaring for the Draft this year, but I felt it was the best decision for me to come back for another year and prove how consistent I can be on and off the field. Give it a year to put it behind me.”

Redfield would not go so far as to name schools he has been in contact with, deeming it “really premature,” but he did indicate he expects to play at the FBS level in the fall and should know where within a few weeks.

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN

By no means does Redfield regret attending Notre Dame. Throughout a 30-minute conversation, he alternates between bluntly criticizing the Irish coaching staff and taking some responsibility for the “adversarial relationship.” More than anything, he praises the people he met at the University.

“I love my brothers, and most of the people I came into contact with at Notre Dame were incredible people, as well. I really do cherish all the experiences I had and all the connections I made as well.”

Nonetheless, Redfield entertains the thought maybe he should not have been so enticed by Notre Dame’s undefeated 2012 regular season. Maybe the Midwest location should have been a red flag not because of the weather, but because of the thousands of miles of separation from home.

“I wish I did make a decision closer to my heart and maybe stayed closer to my family,” he said. “Maybe that would have given me more opportunity to stay focused, but I definitely don’t regret it.”

Brent’s transfer makes sense for both sides

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Justin Brent’s pending transfer makes sense on the surface if for no other reason than his complete lack of game action in the last two seasons. A slightly-deeper look, however, explains the move even further.

The rising senior running back had no logical path to playing time at Notre Dame given the performances of some of his peers. Both in the backfield and at receiver, younger players shined this past season while Brent rode the bench.

RUNNING BACKS

– It may have taken four games for rising junior Josh Adams to find the end zone, but he finished the season with 933 yards on 158 rushing attempts, carrying the ball at least eight times in all 12 games. Most notably, Adams finished the season with 350 yards and three rushing touchdowns over the last three weeks. That strong close shows Adams was not worn down in his second season of consistent use (2015: 13 games, 117 carries, 869 rushing yards, six touchdowns) and can be expected to provide the same bellwether output next season.

– Adams’s classmate, Dexter Williams, has not had the same success, but he did provide some relief throughout the season – most notably against Nevada (eight carries for 59 yards) and Syracuse (eight for 80 and a score) – on his way to 212 yards and three touchdowns on 39 carries.

Between Adams and Williams, combined with NFL-bound Tarean Folston’s steady output and quarterback DeShone Kizer’s mobility in the past and the possibility of Brandon Wimbush’s in the future, there were not carries for Brent to showcase his potential. This is before even factoring in rising sophomores Deon McIntosh and Tony Jones, both of whom preserved a year of eligibility in 2016, or any incoming recruits.

WIDE RECEIVERS

– Rising junior Equanimeous St. Brown proved worthy of learning to spell his first name in 2016, catching 58 passes for 961 yards and nine scores, but St. Brown looks to be far from alone in the receiving corps moving forward. Classmates C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin each found the end zone this past season, despite competing with senior Torii Hunter, Jr., for both snaps and targets. Sanders finished with 24 receptions for 293 yards and two touchdowns while Boykin caught six passes for 81 yards and a score.

– Rising sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Chris Finke and Chase Claypool add to the depth at the position. Stepherson scored on an even 20 percent of his 25 receptions for 462 yards. On a personal note, he did not actually reach the end zone on his 53-yard catch-and-dash against Miami, but I will still never forget that particular play because the accompanying roar convinced my nine-year-old niece it was well past time to leave Notre Dame Stadium to watch the game on a television where the noise would not be so surprising.

Finke chipped in 10 catches for 122 yards and two scores, and Claypool caught five passes for 81 yards.

– Again, this listing does not account for players such as rising sophomore Javon McKinley who saw action in seven games but has not yet contributed to the passing game or any incoming recruits. (We’ll get to the recruits later in the week, and even more so next week when, you know, they have signed.)

It should also be noted: Brent enrolled early at Notre Dame, and thus, he has already completed six academic semesters, not to mention time spent in class each summer as is typical of most, if not all, of the football roster. If he does indeed graduate from the University this spring, he will be eligible to play elsewhere immediately thanks to the NCAA’s stance on graduate student transfers. More than that, though, he will have two years of eligibility remaining.

Admittedly, such a confluence is rare and certainly adds reasoning to Brent’s maneuver, whether it result in him playing at UCLA, Miami, Arizona State, Indiana, Purdue or Ohio State, as he indicated to the South Bend Tribune were his top choices. Notre Dame does face Miami on Nov. 11.

Lament Brent’s decision if you must, but it was a logical decision by him, and Notre Dame’s shortcomings last season were rarely where Brent would have aided. Nor will the Irish appear to be wanting in those spots in 2017.

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.

Pregame Six Pack: Into the storm

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As Hurricane Matthew hits the Southeast, the Irish head to Raleigh. And after a week of contingency plans and storm tracking, the focus now changes decidedly—winning a football game that’ll present a new set of challenges for the Irish.

We’ve seen monsoon conditions. We’ve seen must-win weekends. And we’ve seen the Irish try and play good football in hostile environments. And even if nobody is going to confuse Carter-Finley Stadium with Clemson’s Memorial Stadium, the 50-year anniversary of the home of the Wolf Pack will have the NC State faithful ready to make things difficult.

A week after moving on from Brian VanGorder and emergency installing a game plan for Syracuse, Brian Kelly and his young team face another big challenge. Finding a way to even their record to 3-3 on the road against a team with plenty of talent.

Let’s get to the pregame sick pack.

 

Can the young Irish secondary play mistake free and still challenge Ryan Finley and the NC State passing game? 

Notre Dame’s secondary made some sweeping changes last week, a relative youth movement in effect with Troy Pride, Julian Love and Donte Vaughn sliding in at cornerback. And after a tough start against Syracuse, the unit settled in and played solid football, re-emerging as a basic-concept unit that went back to the basics to beat an offense that moved quickly and challenged vertically.

But that type of tweak won’t be enough against NC State. Not with Ryan Finley completing 72 percent of his passes and the Boise State transfer still to throw an interception. Not with Eli Drinkwitz’s tweaked scheme.

So after making it out of intro-level installation, the big question will be Notre Dame’s ability to make progress while also guarding against mental mistakes—not to mention an advanced offensive scheme.

“They’re a spot-passing team. They’re really good at getting into open spaces. They have really good concepts that stress your defense,” Kelly explained this week.

“You can’t be a vanilla coverage team. You have to show them different looks. Or they’ll just wear you out. You can’t get off the field. You can’t just line up like ducks or you’re going to be on the field all day.”

Last week the Irish were pressed into a tight situation when freshman Devin Studstill was ejected for a controversial targeting call. That forced Nicco Fertitta onto the field for his first substantial playing time, the diminutive sophomore holding up as a two-deep safety.

But if the Irish want to take their next step forward defensively, they’ll need to incorporate a few strategic wrinkles while also protecting the freshmen that’ll inhabit just about every high-leverage position on the field.

Julian Love thinks they’re ready.

“I think our confidence is growing each day,” Love told CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz. “At first we were nervous but now when we step on the field, we feel natural and it’s something that we’ve all worked for and we’re building off each other.”

 

Don’t tell Brian Kelly that his offensive line is struggling. 

While Notre Dame’s struggle in the trenches against Syracuse was noticeable, the results were never in doubt. That’s because the Irish posted 50-points, moving the ball at will through the air as DeShaun Kizer had the school record for passing yards in his sights before taking his foot off the gas.

It was easy to ignore some inconsistency in the ground game when Josh Adams and Dexter Williams broke long runs. So when Kelly was asked what’s ailing a running game that most expect to be more dominant, Kelly didn’t just look at the five starters up front, he looked at the massive roster turnover on the offensive side of the ball.

“We got seven new starters. There’s a lot of new pieces,” Kelly said.”I guess there’s definitely inconsistencies, but I wouldn’t throw it on the offensive line. I’d throw it on perimeter blocking, I’d throw it on decision making; coaching. There’s a lot of factors there.

“The right side is evolving. Half or two-thirds there are still coming together. They’re getting better. Those are two really good players on the left side, I think everybody knows that. One guy or two guys don’t make an offensive line.”

Colin McGovern will be back in the starting lineup, his high ankle sprain healthy enough. And while there’s certainly credence to the moving pieces that Kelly references, a tough war in the trenches will be on display as the Wolf Pack’s defensive front is the most disruptive the Irish have faced this season.

 

DeShone Kizer, from an opponent’s perspective. 

Mike McGlinchey has pledged to return for 2017. DeShone Kizer has made no such declaration, an NFL evaluation still evolving, and a choice that might be too hard to turn down.

But as we sort out the superlatives that have come from the mock draft community and an echo chamber that sometime’s runs away from reality, Wolf Pack head coach Dave Doeren had this appraisal of the Irish’s third-year quarterback.

“Well, he’s got really good talent around him, to start,” Doeren said. “They protect him well. He’s only been sacked twice. He’s got an offensive system that is well run. They give him a lot of opportunities to throw the ball down the field and guys make plays for him.

“As far as him personally, I think he’s a very accurate deep ball thrower. He’s tough, he takes some shots, but puts the ball right on the money. And he’s competed on a big stage for a long time, so I think he’s got good poise.”

 

 

The defensive basics will start by slowing down running back Matt Dayes

If beating Syracuse felt like scheming against an option attack, stopping NC State may sound easier, but it presents a bigger challenge. Namely, Wolf Pack running back Matt Dayes.

After having a big 2015 season derailed by injuries, Dayes is back. He’s gone over 100 yards in three of four starts and is the focal point of Kelly’s as his defense tries to master its musts.

“They’ve got a really diversified offensive scheme. I think, number one, you can’t give up big play runs,” Kelly said. “I think Matt Dayes is a game breaker. I think he can definitely be a difference maker in this game.”

That means the focus is on Notre Dame’s front seven, and the work we’ll see from Daniel Cage, Jarron Jones, Nyles Morgan and Isaac Rochell will set the tone.

Because slowing down Dayes is the start. The Irish also need to find a way to limit Stephen Louis in the passing game. The 6-foot-2 sophomore has made some big plays, averaging more than 25 yards a touch against East Carolina and Wake Forest and is very difficult to tackle.

“I think those two guys are really key to their offense,” Kelly said. “Finley is very smart and a very good quarterback. But Dayes and Louis are the guys that we have to focus on.”

 

 

Can the Irish defense shut down a competent quarterback?

All respect given to Dayes and Louis, but Notre Dame’s defense has made a lot of mediocre quarterbacks look like All-Americans. And Ryan Finley is no mediocre quarterback.

The Boise State transfer came east with offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz, both leaving the Broncos to join Dave Doeren. And after both his freshman and sophomore seasons were ruined by injuries, Finley—who graduated in three years from Boise State—now has three years of eligibility in Raleigh.

“He is a great manager,” Doeren said last week, according to Blue & Gold. “He knows Coach [Drinkwitz], he understands why he does what he does and does a good job managing that part of the offense.

“He puts us in the right place a lot of times. I’ve said it many times. He throws a very catchable ball and he gets it out quick and allows his players to make plays. That’s the best thing a quarterback can do is get the ball to the right people quickly and let them do their thing. He’s done that repetitively and he’ll continue to get better because he’s a critic of himself and he works out it.”

Irish offensive coordinator Mike Sanford knows both Finley and Drinkwitz from his year in Boise, though Kelly downplayed any help that might give the Irish staff. But winning might require the Irish defense to make Finley play down this weekend, something we haven’t seen from an opposing quarterback too often these past two seasons under Brian VanGorder.

 

Rain + Special Teams + Turnovers = All causes for concern. 

No, that’s not an exact equation. But any time rain—and multiple inches are forecasted—is part of a football game, it’s time to restate the obvious. Mainly, the Irish need to make sure that the weather doesn’t impact their game.

That means taking great care of the football. That means being clean on special teams. And it means making sure that any huge game-changing plays are forced, not suffered.

Rewind back to last year at Clemson and the Irish didn’t get out clean. The Irish had four turnovers, with three fumbles lost, in a game where only two points made the difference.

With Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome off to a slow start, with CJ Sanders making some big plays but Scott Booker’s coverage unit giving up a few as well, the basics are going to be a big part of the story.

Even if Hurricane Matthew’s impact isn’t going to be as bad as first feared, heavy rain is almost guaranteed. And on natural Bermuda grass, expect a sloppy track.

So the Irish, a 2-3 team that has struggled to do the ordinary things well, needs to play cleaner than the Wolf Pack to win.