Josh Adams

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Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game


There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)

Mailbag: Fact-checking & answering some reader comments

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The mailbag is a mainstay of any sportswriter’s inventory these days. The readers do the hardest work for the writer, delivering an idea to write about. In that respect, it is just this side of lazy. Call it efficient.

It nonetheless serves a few purposes. A properly-executed mailbag answers pertinent questions, encourages reader engagement and corrects a few inaccurate facts. Mailbags were fact-checking before “fact-checking” became a piece of politics and punditry.

Focusing on answering questions and demonstrating that all those comments are noticed, let’s do the modern version of a mailbag: Let’s respond to comments left in the depths of “Inside the Irish” from the last few weeks. Editor’s Note: These comments were edited for brevity and clarity, but their content and context was not adjusted.

Rbmat: Two tight ends used effectively would be music to many ears. Force defenses to bring the safety down to respect the run … and take away the pressure from your young quarterback. Please, Douglas, tell me our new OC hates the spread.

I cannot tell you that, Rbmat. If anything, look for new offensive coordinator Chip Long to use athletic tight ends in a way that somewhat increases the spread offense. Take junior Alizé Mack, for instance. His athleticism should allow him to line up not only on the line but also in the slot or perhaps even out wide, forcing the defense to either cover him with a linebacker in open space or with an undersized defensive back.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said Long will maintain an up-tempo offense. Matchup problems like Mack are best exploited in a spread environment.

That can still aid the run game. If Mack is lined up off the line in any manner and a linebacker remains with him in coverage, then one less linebacker is in the box keeping an eye on junior running back Josh Adams or whichever unproven back proves to be his stablemate.

To be clear, Mack is merely an example for these purposes. Who the tight end or two could be will begin to reveal itself March 8.

nudeman: No one will benefit more from a rejuvenated, overhauled strength and conditioning program than the offensive line. Unlike the defensive line, there is some real talent on the offensive line. ND’s offensive performance last year tailed off as the game progressed and I think the OL was just poorly conditioned. Do I recall correctly that they scored something like 22 points in the fourth quarter in the last games? That’s putrid.

That stat is correct, and certainly concerning, but there should be at least three notes added to it. One of those games was the 44-6 rout of Army. That was, in fact, the score entering the fourth quarter. Notre Dame did not need to fret about adding any points. Another of those was the 50-33 victory over Syracuse. The Irish led 47-27 entering the final frame. Again, no need to worry. Lastly, one of those eight games was played in a literal hurricane. Criticizing an offense for not scoring enough in those conditions falls somewhere in the category of missing the forest for the trees.

If looking at the other five games, the Irish scored a total of 125 points with 19 coming in the fourth quarter. Logically, one might expect about 25 percent of a team’s points to come in each quarter. (There are flaws to that logic, but it will hold well enough for this exercise.) In those five close, weather-appropriate games to close the 2016 season, Notre Dame scored 15.2 percent of its points in the fourth quarter. Should that number be higher? Yes. Is it abnormally low when factoring in the small sample size? Not necessarily.

ndnphx: Regarding that “win expectancy” stat: I tend to believe Kelly’s ND teams have underachieved in win expectancy every year but 2012. Is there a way to research previous years and see if that is the case? I’d wonder if it really is a matter of “luck and chance” or if a trend emerges.

Thanks to the good people over at, there is indeed a way to research previous years, and a trend does emerge. When Notre Dame wins nine or more games, luck and chance played a role in some of those victories. When the Irish lose five or more, luck and chance factored into some of those defeats. In other words, the exact trend one would expect to emerge, does emerge.

As a refresher, the “win expectancy” ndnphx references is second-order win totals, which reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In a season where seven losses come by one possession, a second-order win total higher than the actual win total should be expected.

The small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics like this. There is never a chance for things to balance out, and by the next season, the team’s makeup could be entirely different. Second-order win totals, however, can still present a broader view of a season, rather than focusing on each game’s one or two make-or-break, 50/50 plays.

2016 actual record: 4-8 – second-order record: 7.2-4.8
2015 actual record: 10-3 – second-order record: 10.0-3.0
2014 actual record: 8-5 – second-order record: 8.5-4.5
2013 actual record: 9-4 – second-order record: 7.8-5.2
2012 actual record: 12-1 – second-order record: 10.1-2.9
2011 actual record: 8-5 – second-order record: 8.1-4.9
2010 actual record: 8-5 – second-order record: 9.0-4.0

irishwilliamsport: I don’t know if it still holds true, but every five-star guy Nick Saban had at one point at Alabama turned into a first-round draft choice.

It never held true. Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in time for the 2007 recruiting class. Among the 24 signees that February, none were five-star recruits according to The following year, Saban netted three: receiver Julio Jones, athlete Burton Scott and offensive lineman Tyler Love.

Jones went on to be the sixth-overall pick in 2011 and dominates opposing secondaries like no other threat currently in the NFL.

Scott transferred to South Alabama after two seasons in Saban’s program. In his senior year with the Jaguars, the safety made 84 tackles with one sack, intercepted two passes and forced two fumbles. He was not a first-round draft choice.

Love, a 6-foot-7, 285-pound recruit, graduated from Alabama with two championship rings and a year of eligibility remaining. He played in 14 games over his career. He was not a first-round draft choice.

The point here is not to criticize irishwilliamsport, but rather to make it clear not everything stated in the comments is accurate.

rocknek9: Irish coming to California twice in one year in 2018, I don’t know if I ever remember that. Both in SoCal. Douglas, could you research that?

Two of 2007’s three victories came in California: A 20-6 victory over UCLA in Pasadena on Oct. 6, and a 21-14 win against Stanford in Palo Alto on Nov. 24.

As for two games in southern California, I researched as far back as through 1989 so I could simply yet definitively say, it has not happened in my lifetime.

bjc378: So long as we’re talking dream scenarios for next season, how about Notre Dame wins its first six games, then comes out against a top-five USC in the green jerseys? Brian Kelly has yet to use them, and I’d like to see those again. Mr. Farmer, do you like the green jerseys or what? It’s time for you to take a side.

As long as all parties are properly attired and the colors are easily distinguishable, I have no opinion whatsoever about the color of any team’s jerseys.

It should be noted, Notre Dame has worn a shade of green six times under Kelly. Five of those came in Shamrock Series games (’10, ’11, ’13, ’15 and ’16), and the sixth was a throwback version worn at Michigan in 2011.

Sure, those are different than the green jerseys bjc378 presumably references, but those occasions may have diminished the want, motivation or need for Kelly to trot out that version of an alternative.

irish1993: Is it April 22 yet?

No, not yet. There are only 184 days until Sept. 2, though.

Now then, this posted at 4 p.m. ET on a Friday. You should know what to do.

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

Notre Dame returns 15 starters in 2017; How many do its opponents?

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In six months—180 days, to be even more precise—college football will return. Sure, spring practice might be only eight days away in South Bend, but those sessions will have no tangible effect on the national championship chase.

On Aug. 25, Stanford will face Rice in Sydney. According to AP Style, one does not need to notate Australia there, but some thoroughness can’t hurt, right? For that matter, South Florida will take on San Jose State, and Hawai’i will travel all the way to Foxboro, Mass. to take on Massachusetts.

Six months ago—well, again, 180 days to be exact—No. 19 Louisville introduced America to quarterback Lamar Jackson in a 70-14 rout of Charlotte, kicking off the 2016 season with an eight-touchdown performance from the eventual Heisman winner. No. 9 Tennessee topped Appalachian State 20-13 in overtime, setting the stage for a Volunteers season full of dramatics.

A week after the Cardinal go down under to face the Owls, Notre Dame will open its season against Temple with 15 returning starters, eight on offense and seven on defense, pending any spring or summer departures or injuries. According to Phil Steele, 24 teams return more experience.

Offense: Offensive linemen Mike McGlinchey (12 starts in 2016), Quenton Nelson (12), Sam Mustipher (12) and Alex Bars (12); tight end Durham Smythe (12); receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (12); running back Josh Adams (nine) and C.J. Sanders (seven)
Defense: Safeties Drue Tranquill (12) and Devin Studstill (nine); cornerback Julian Love (eight); linebackers Nyles Morgan (12) and Te’von Coney (nine); and defensive linemen Jerry Tillery (11) and Andrew Trumbetti (seven)

How does this Irish listing compare to Notre Dame’s opponents? Right about middle of the pack. (If a quarterback is not specifically mentioned, the team does not return a starter at that position.)

Sept. 2 — v. Temple, returns 10 starters; six on offense and four on defense
Sept. 9 — v. Georgia, returns 17 starters; seven on offense, including quarterback Jacob Eason, and 10 on defense
Sept. 16 — at Boston College, returns 15 starters; eight on offense and seven on defense
Sept. 23 — at Michigan State, returns nine starters; four on offense and five on defense
Sept. 30 — v. Miami (Ohio), returns 16 starters; eight on offense, including quarterback Gus Ragland, and eight on defense
Oct. 7 — at North Carolina, returns 12 starters; five on offense and seven on defense
Oct. 21 — v. USC, returns 12 starters; five on offense, including quarterback and Heisman-threat Sam Darnold, and seven on defense
Oct. 28 — v. North Carolina State, returns 17 starters; nine on offense, including quarterback Ryan Finley, and eight on defense
Nov. 4 — v. Wake Forest, returns 15 starters; nine on offense, including quarterback John Wolford, and six on defense
Nov. 11 — at Miami (Fla.), returns 15 starters; seven on offense and eight on defense
Nov. 18 — v. Navy, returns 13 starters; five on offense and eight on defense
Nov. 25 — at Stanford, returns 16 starters; eight on offense, including quarterback Ryan Burns, and eight on defense

Naturally, the number of returning starters is cyclical, and some might argue teams with lackluster records one season should not want to return many starters the next. Then again, those players started over others for a presumed reason in the first place

Acknowledging that cycle, it seems innate to take a look at how many starters Notre Dame might return in 2018. By no means is the intent here to look past 2017. Rather, consider this something of a scholarship chart cliff notes. As always, this does not factor in the inevitable injuries, transfers and departures otherwise inherent to the coming six months.

Of the above eight offensive returnees, McGlinchey and Smythe will both be out of eligibility following 2017, and Nelson will nearly-certainly depart for the first round of the NFL Draft. The other five, though, could all be back in blue-and-gold. One would think quarterback Brandon Wimbush—2017’s assumed starter—will return, as would whoever the third receiver is in 2017, considering there is no senior at the position aside from graduate transfer Freddy Canteen who has two years of eligibility remaining anyways. If a tight end such as freshman early enrollee Brock Wright or junior Alizé Mack were to usurp Smythe, then the Irish may have eight returning offensive starters again in 2018.

Of the above seven defensive returnees, only Morgan and Trumbetti will finish their eligibility this season. If Tranquill does indeed end up manning the rover position in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme, that will open a starting spot for another safety. Whoever that is, he will have eligibility remaining, as will whatever cornerback lines up opposite Love. The defensive line remains a quandary, but it is distinctly possible Notre Dame returns eight defensive starters, as well, in 2018.

Fortunately, spring practice begins March 8, and some light can begin to shine on those questions regarding the defensive line and the overall defensive alignment. In addition to garnering excitement for 2017, they can also shed some insights into the seasons to come.

Oh, and in case you are curious, Stanford will fly 7,434 miles to get to Sydney while Hawai’i will travel a mere 5,083 to get to Gillette Stadium.

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.


– 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.


– 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.