Tarean Folston

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A possible Notre Dame three-back attack fits with Long’s past

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Irish coach Brian Kelly was not referring to the Canadian Football League when he said three of Notre Dame’s running backs had “futures to play past this level.” He was instead implying juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones could all have NFL careers ahead of them.

Call it a bounty of backfield riches.

“When you have three outstanding backs, they all have to fit in what you’re doing in some fashion,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I think each one of them has a little bit of a different style.”

Dexter Williams (Getty Images)

With only one football in play at a time, though, it would seem difficult to utilize all three, even if they have varied skillsets. In years past, specifically last season, Notre Dame has certainly struggled with that task. Last year senior Tarean Folston gained only 334 yards on 77 attempts while Williams took 39 carries for 200 yards. Neither became a genuine part of the rushing attack focused around Adams (158 attempts, 933 yards, 5.9 yards per carry average). Nonetheless, Kelly said he expects all three of his alleged future pros to contribute this season.

“It would surprise me if all three of them weren’t actively involved in the game,” he said. “As you know, we’re going to play more than one back. They’re all going to be actively involved in the game plan.”

Some of that confidence may derive from new Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long — as of Saturday that initial three-letter adjective will no longer be either applicable or used. In his one season as offensive coordinator at Memphis, Long showed an ability to utilize multiple backs to greater effect, a tendency he presumably picked up from Tigers head coach Mike Norvell, who Long also coached under at Arizona State when Norvell was the offensive coordinator and Long the receivers coach.

Bringing that predilection with him now should allow Long to maintain the up-tempo pace his scheme desires.

“Definitely play a guy that has a hot hand,” Kelly said, “but you have two other guys that if they’re fresh, we’re not going to run a guy where he’s not at 100 percent.”

Last season at Memphis, Long very clearly avoided wearing any one back out. Despite relying on the ground game, a strong run game at that, no back ever had more than 17 carries in a game, that high being reached only once. For comparison’s sake, Adams reached 17 and 20 carries in two separate games and Folston touted the ball 18 times in the 2016 season opener at Texas.

No Tiger back came within 25 carries of Adams’ season total, even with an extra game, yet the top-three Memphis rushers ran 38 more times than Notre Dame’s did. All three of those Tigers, including two Tigers, had more chances than Folston, let alone Williams’ limited 39.

Even with that lack of a reliance on a workhorse, Memphis never attempted fewer than 31 rushes in a game, once reaching as high as 53. In nine of their 13 games, they ran for at least 146 yards. Notre Dame fell short of 30 carries three times last season, and twice failed to clear even 60 yards gained. However, aside from those two games, the Irish always rushed for at least 147 yards.

The theoretical moral of this story: Combining Long’s multi-back habit with Notre Dame’s trio of talented backs could quickly turn a strong but inconsistent rushing attack into a game-defining mainstay.

Note the usage of could.


2016 Memphis:
Then-senior Doroland Dorceus: 13 games, 132 rush attempts, 810 yards, nine touchdowns, 6.1 yards per carry.
Freshman Patrick Taylor: 13 games, 93 rush attempts, 546 yards, two touchdowns, 5.9 yards per carry.
Freshman Darrell Henderson: 13 games, 87 rush attempts, 482 yards, five touchdowns, 5.5 yards per carry.

2015 Arizona State:
Then-sophomore Demario Richard: 11 games, 198 rush attempts, 1,050 yards, seven touchdowns, 5.3 yards per carry.
Sophomore Kalen Ballage: 10 games, 125 rush attempts, 653 yards, four touchdowns, 5.2 yards per carry.
Senior D.J. Foster: 13 games, 55 carries, 280 yards, one touchdown, 5.1 yards per carry.
The Sun Devils never had fewer than 28 rush attempts in a game, topping out at 55. In nine of their 13 games, they ran for at least 144 yards.

2014 Arizona State:
Foster: 13 games, 194 rush attempts, 1,081 yards, nine touchdowns, 5.6 yards per carry.
Richard: 12 games, 84 rush attempts, 478 yards, four touchdowns, 5.7 yards per carry.
Ballage: 11 games, 42 rush attempts, 126 yards, three touchdowns, 3.0 yards per carry.
Arizona State ran fewer than 31 times in only one game, a 38-34 shootout victory at USC. The Sun Devils cleared 200 yards four times.

2016 Notre Dame:
Adams: 12 games, 158 rush attempts, 933 yards, five touchdowns, 5.9 yards per carry.
Folston: 10 games, 77 rush attempts, 334 yards, two touchdowns, 4.3 yards per carry.
Williams: 12 games, 39 rush attempts, 200 yards, three touchdowns, 5.1 yards per carry.


Admittedly, some of this has been covered before in this space, but a refresher just before the season actually begins will not hurt anyone, and it may even serve to educate those wise few who spent their springs and summers not worrying about college football.

And to them, welcome back. Kickoff is in three days.

‘Anywhere from 5 to 15’

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Five of Notre Dame’s nine current assistant coaches had only weeks to recruit this cycle. Factor in quarterbacks coach Thomas Rees’s pending promotion from graduate assistant to assistant coach and that makes six new Irish coaches chasing recruits for a full year by the time National Signing Day 2018 rolls around. That is Feb. 7, 2018, for those of you already bypassing an entire football season.

It was with this increased time—and theoretically the chance for stronger relationships with fickle high school personalities—in mind a reporter asked Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly about a potential shift in recruiting strategy. Kelly’s response began by focusing on 15 of the 21 recruits the Irish had signed earlier that day. Quickly, though, Kelly pivoted to discussing recruiting rankings.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” he said Wednesday. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Kelly then returned to the line of questioning, regarding the value of long-term relationships in recruiting compared to making offers late in the cycle. Versions of the latter strategy bolstered Notre Dame’s class this year, but it innately comes with a high risk :: reward ratio.

His comments regarding “anywhere from 5 to 15” could be considered as an attempt to temper future expectations. More likely, Kelly was acknowledging realities he has come to know intimately after seven full recruiting cycles as the head of Irish program (and an eighth abridged cycle when he had only 55 days to recruit between accepting the job and National Signing Day in 2010).

Are those comments accurate? In Kelly’s time, largely.

For this exercise, let’s rely on the subsidiary of an NBC Sports partner: rivals.com. Yes, some recruiting services rank Notre Dame higher some years than other services do. The same goes for individual recruits. Over an eight-year stretch, that should trend toward evening out. If nothing else, this allows for something of a standard of comparison.

2012: No. 20
In Kelly’s time, Notre Dame has fallen below that range only once, the class of 2012. Rivals ranked that class of 17 recruits No. 20 in the country. Part of that low ranking undoubtedly ties to the size of the class, the smallest of Kelly’s tenure, as Rivals focuses its rankings on a class’s top 20 commitments. (This year’s 21 is the next smallest.)

Five-star quarterback Gunner Kiel and four-star defensive back Tee Shepard never took a snap for the Irish, and four-star athlete DaVonte’ Neal transferred after his freshman season. Neal played in 13 games, finishing with one rush for seven yards, one reception for a loss of five and 21 punt returns for a total of 46 yards.

Removing those players from that class would have dropped Notre Dame to somewhere around No. 32 in the rankings*. This revisionist history, however, fails to account for the exceeded expectations of:
– Four-star offensive lineman, first-round draft pick and current NFL starter Ronnie Stanley
– Four-star defensive lineman and current Jacksonville Jaguar Sheldon Day
– Three-star defensive lineman and current New York Giant Romeo Okwara
– Three-star defensive back, eventual Notre Dame running back and current Seattle Seahawk C.J. Prosise
– Four-star defensive lineman Jarron Jones
– Three-star receiver and current Dallas Cowboy Chris Brown

A thorough retroactive recruiting rankings would also need to include these disappointments and surprises at other schools.

2013: No. 3
The Irish rode the momentum of appearing in the BCS National Championship Game following an undefeated regular season to the peak of Kelly’s recruiting in South Bend. Four five-star recruits highlighted the 24 signees, though defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes never made it to Notre Dame Stadium. Even factoring in Vanderdoes’s departure, the Irish class would have ranked fourth according to rivals, with Florida advancing a position by a slim margin.

Again, if accounting for an abrupt, premature departure, one must look at the other end of the spectrum and acknowledge those who possibly outperformed recruiting expectations:
– Four-star defensive lineman Isaac Rochell
– Four-star running back Tarean Folston
– Four star athlete, eventual Notre Dame linebacker James Onwualu
– Four-star offensive lineman and 2017 captain Mike McGlinchey

Only Eight Average Better
Over Kelly’s eight years signing recruits at Notre Dame, only eight schools have averaged a better finish than his 11.875, per rivals.com. The list includes five SEC programs, alongside traditional powers Florida State, USC and Ohio State.

Alabama: 1.625 (with six No. 1 finishes)
Florida State: 5.25
USC: 6.875 (with one No. 1 finish)
LSU: 7.375
Ohio State: 7.5
Auburn: 8.625
Georgia: 9
Florida: 9.375

Perhaps Kelly’s Signing Day range projections do not sit well with some. They do appear to be consistent with results, though.

*Rivals changed its recruiting points formula heading into the class of 2013. The previous formula was more obscure than the current version, thus this altered ranking is only an estimate.

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.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Army

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The Shamrock Series was a snoozer. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t refreshing. After all, that’s what a good nap does. Recharge the batteries, unplug for a moment, and wake-up refreshed and ready to tackle what’s ahead.

Let’s hope that’s what Army does for this Irish team. Because what’s ahead looks daunting, even if Virginia Tech had its own problems with the triple option.

With two weeks left in the regular season and Notre Dame needing to sweep weekends with the Hokies and that scrappy upstart in South-Central Los Angeles, a postseason bowl berth may only get the Irish an extra handful of practices before a tier-two destination, but the reward will be much greater.

Because in a year like this, that’s enough to feel good about the season—at least from a momentum perspective. (Relax, everyone—just from a momentum perspective.)

So with the Hokies preparing for South Bend and Senior Day ahead, let’s take a look at the good, bad and ugly from Notre Dame vs. Army.

 

THE GOOD

James Onwualu. This might be one of those seasons that gets overlooked because of the performance of the team as a whole. But Onwualu’s senior year is everything you could’ve asked for from the captain, leading the defense in TFLs and just a single pass break up behind the team leader, his diversity on display both on the stat sheet as well as on the field.

On Saturday, Onwualu led the Irish in tackles with 13 stops and also made a few key plays behind the line of scrimmage. He was comfortable in coverage and chasing down the quarterback. He played like a natural at a position that was hardly his first stop.

Onwualu came into Notre Dame as a wide receiver after playing everywhere on the high school field. After starting games as a freshman (mostly for his blocking), he moved across the line of scrimmage and immediately found his way onto the field, starts in all four seasons in one of the more impressive developmental trajectories we’ve seen in the Kelly era.

 

Durham SmytheLooks who’s getting at home in the opponent’s end zone? Smythe, a senior we’ve waited to see break loose for the better part of his four seasons, did so against Army, two catches and two touchdowns.

End zone safety valve is a much better place to be than thanking quarterback DeShone Kizer for saving his rear end after his goal line fumble against Miami very nearly put the game at risk. And after two-straight games with scores, Smythe is on his way to getting some of that missing tight end production back.

Smythe had his big game a few hours from his hometown, scoring twice in front of family and friends. And while he won’t become the next Tyler Effect or Kyle Rudolph, Brian Kelly praised the veteran for carrying the load this season, especially after losing Alizé Jones before the season.

“Durham is a veteran. He’s seen a lot of things, played a lot of football,” Kelly said. “I’ll tell you his biggest contribution is he’s a guy that has to do a lot for us, whether he’s blocking or running vertical routes or option routes. He’s asked to do a lot. He’s a committed player. He’s high character and well-respected by his teammates.”

 

Julian Love. Notre Dame’s freshman earned himself a heap of praise postgame and I was ready to anoint him the next big thing in the Irish secondary, too. Even if his stat-line didn’t wow you—three tackles (half a TFL) and an interception—his ability to step in at safety and play strong in support gives you a taste of just how cerebral Love is as a football player.

Love led the Irish defense from a PFF grading perspective, a credit to his job in coverage as well as his steady run support. And after the game, he earned a whole lot of praise from his teammates.

“If he can keep it up and still have the off-the-field traits and still work hard, I think he definitely has the potential to be a captain,” fellow cornerback Cole Luke told Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.

“To a lot of people football is important but it’s not everything. To Julian football is important and it’s damn near everything. It’s very close. He shows it in practice, he shows it on the field too.”

There isn’t anything that Love does that jumps out at you. He’s not the biggest, fastest, or freakiest guy on the field. But as this secondary looks for a new foundation next season, Love might be a key piece, capable of playing just about anywhere.

 

Quick Hits: 

Another option opponent, another monster game by Greer Martini. His two-play sequence essentially shut down an Army red zone appearance, with Martini stuffing back-to-back plays for the Black Knights in scoring range.

Let’s thankfully put to rest the Jarron Jones doesn’t like playing against the option. (What defensive lineman does?) The fifth-year senior played 20 snaps—a handful of them with the game well out of reach and he was productive in run support. He only made two tackles, but he graded out as the team’s second-best front seven player in run support.

The postgame, he won with this tweet.

DeShone Kizer‘s completion percentage was only a shade above 60 percent, but he seemed better on the possession throws and once again was rock-solid on third down. Watching Kizer work through his reads and get to both sides of the field was a nice benefit to the offensive line holding its own.

He certainly doesn’t have that next gear, but Tarean Folston sure looks smooth running the football. He’ll be an interesting fifth-year candidate, a year of eligibility remaining but uncertain to win any more carries.

What we see from Folston these next two weeks is anybody’s guess. But it’d be great to see him pick up some critical carries, and even better if he’s able to add a spark.

It was very good to see Malik Zaire out there running around with the football. Well deserved, even if he didn’t get a chance to air it out.

Welcome to the starting lineup, Mark Harrell. The fifth-year senior finally earned a start and backed it up with a strong performance in the trenches. At this point, you almost have to think that Harrell will get the chance to do it again against Virginia Tech, the right guard job up for grabs it appears.

C.J. Sanders. Can’t ask to start a football game any better.

 

THE BAD

For the first time this year, nobody stands out for solo billing. But let’s run through a few (mostly ticky-tacky) issues I spotted:

Center Sam Mustipher had another clean game snapping the football. But he had his hands full with nose tackle Andrew McLean. Mustipher graded out really poorly per PFF, giving McLean his best game on the season by a multiple of four.

Kevin Stepherson looks like the real deal on the outside. But if he wants to emulate Will Fuller, letting sure touchdowns slide through his hands is the one part of Fuller’s game he could ignore.

I liked the fact that Jon Bonner got a ton of snaps on the interior of the defensive line. I’d have liked it better if he played a little bit better against the run.

 

UGLY

Glad to leave this empty for a week. Especially glad not to include those Shamrock Series uniforms. They might have been my favorite of the group.