Tarean Folston

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‘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.

 

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

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In a game decided by a single point, when the two team’s offensive totals nearly duplicate themselves, the outcome is expected to hinge on one or two plays. And down the stretch, with the game on the line, it was Navy that made the plays, and Notre Dame that did not.

Because the afternoon played out to the script that Ken Niumatalolo needed. Quarterback Will Worth executed the offense flawlessly. The Midshipmen’s defense got the red zone field goals they needed. And the Irish—even if the letter of the law shouldn’t have allowed it—made a critical mistake with their 12-men on the field penalty, allowing Navy’s offense back onto the field and eventually into the end zone.

With another painful one-score loss in the books, let’s get on with the good, the bad and the ugly.

THE GOOD

Greer Martini. Back after a concussion last weekend, Martini led the Irish in tackles with 11, adding a TFL as well. It’s the type of production you come to expect from Martini, a highly intelligent football player who has become a bit of an option specialist for the Irish.

In his four games against option teams (three against Navy, one against Georgia Tech), Martini is now averaging more than nine tackles a game. That’s the type of play that’ll come in handy next weekend against Army and likely against Virginia Tech and USC as well.

 

Torii Hunter Jr. Notre Dame’s senior captain had a career high in catches (8) and yards (104) to go along with a touchdown in a losing effort. It was the first 100-yard game of his career and maybe more important than the statistical output was the fact that he bounced back after what looked like it could’ve been a serious knee injury.

Hunter hasn’t become the breakout performer we expected this season. A TJ Jones senior season has actually been more like Jones as a junior—steady, not spectacular, but usually reliable. That’s not enough. But you’ve got to give him credit for taking advantage of the matchup against Navy’s undermanned secondary.

 

Sam Mustipher. After putting up some ugly statistical games, Sam Mustipher was tied for the team’s highest grade along the offensive line with a +2.8. That’s a rebound after a tough few weeks for the Irish center, and his shotgun snaps all found their correct home as well.

 

Third Down Conversions. You wouldn’t know it, but the Irish actually out-converted Navy on third down, making nine of their 13 chances while the Mids only managed eight. And while there are still the third downs that got away, there was plenty of good on this crucial snap, like Equanimeous St. Brown‘s gritty catch and run along with DeShone Kizer’s shoulder-lowering scramble.

Good job, good effort.

 

THE BAD

The Safety Play. Drue Tranquill had built a reputation as one of the team’s top option defenders. But Tranquill had a poor game tackling in space, missing a handful of big tackle before he was taken out of the game for what looks to be a concussion.

Tranquill had been building on some strong play of late, so this step backwards was a surprise. Certainly more so than the challenges Devin Studstill had, the freshman safety struggling to react to the counter option and get quickly into his run responsibilities.

Put simply, Tranquill was a guy the Irish defense desperately needed to play well if they were going to get the stops they needed on defense. He didn’t and the entire Irish defense paid dearly.

 

Learning on the job. The play won’t hold a spot in the history of this rivalry like Ram Vela’s flying game-winning stop, but Troy Pride being flattened with a bone-crushing block as the Midshipmen converted a 3rd-and-long for a game-changing touchdown certainly is the lasting image from the game.

The freshman cornerback was knocked to eternity on a gigantic block right after fellow freshman Julian Love was also caught on a crack block. The two hits opened the sideline to Navy’s Calvin Cass who rumbled in for a gigantic, game-changing 37-yard touchdown.

The youth movement didn’t stop this week just because of the triple-option. And in a game that hinges on the Irish defense reading and reacting as quickly as possible, the freshmen seeing and doing things for the first time came up just a bit short, though did gain valuable in-game experience.

Donte Vaughn played 46 snaps, Studstill 39, Julian Love 36 (before he went into concussion protocol), Jalen Elliott 30, Pride 19, and redshirt freshman Asmar Bilal 12. All will hopefully carry that knowledge into the Army game next weekend.

 

Jarron Jones. A week after playing the game of his career, Jones played just 12 snaps. It’s a decision that made little sense on Saturday and not much more after Kelly explained the rationale on Sunday afternoon during his conference call.

“It really is a whole different animal relative to option. He’s got a job to do, and you know, he can’t be the kind of force he was in a traditional offensive set because, you know, he’s got to play gap and he has a responsibility,” Kelly explained. “If they choose to run triple option, even if he’s a force and he’s destroying his guy and he’s getting upfield, they are going to pull the ball and work the ball out to the perimeter. So you could take a Jarron Jones out of the game, even if he’s being disruptive, and so it really neutralizes players like him and when you play a team like Navy.”

 

Nick Coleman. I was a fan of utilizing Coleman more against the option, the aggressive sophomore cornerback capable of playing run support better than coverage. But with the game on the line and a critical third-down passing play dialed up, Coleman ran through the back of the Navy receiver and handed the Midshipmen a free first down.

Coleman was expected to be the team’s third cornerback, a key piece of the puzzle especially after Devin Butler went down and then was suspended. His season has been a disaster.

 

A Misinterpreted Replay Ruling. 

Brian Kelly expanded on what he said postgame, namely that the replay officials shouldn’t have gotten involved in the call for 12-men, nor should they have made it.

A photo of the snap shows Devin Studstill within a step of the sideline, close enough that Kelly believes a flag shouldn’t have been thrown—let alone replay called in to reverse things.

“The rule clearly states that if he is one step from the sideline, then it is not a reviewable play,” Kelly said Sunday. “Very similar to when I had asked earlier in the game for a review on a Tarean Folston run, I was told by the official on the field that it was not reviewable because his forward progress was deemed stopped, so it could not be reviewed. This would be a similar situation where the play could not have been reviewed if he was within one step of the sideline after the ball being snapped.”

With an American Athletic Conference on-field crew and an ACC replay crew, there was obviously some miscommunication. And Kelly hopes that there can be a national standard set so this type of thing doesn’t happen moving forward.

“[There’s] really a need for uniform and nationalized replay when you have different conferences with different ways of looking at specific plays,” Kelly said. “We’re the only sport that doesn’t have that, so I hope that affect the some form of conversation that we can get to a nationalized replay situation.”

 

Having too many players on the field. Mechanics and blown calls aside, that this is even an issue is ridiculous. As I mentioned in the Pregame Six Pack, a special teams blunder would be catastrophic. Especially against Navy.

And sure enough, this time it was because the Irish didn’t have enough time to go from their regular defense to their punt safe team.

“They are a team that obviously goes for it quite a bit on fourth down. So we had our base defense. We were in a safe punt situation,” Kelly explained. “So you’re keeping your defense out there till the very last second and they raced their team out there quickly and we should have obviously not cut it as close as we did.”

 

THE UGLY

Never getting the ball back. Kelly better explained his rationale for taking the three points off of Justin Yoon’s foot rather than attempting to get the first down on 4th-and-4.

“Look, here is my way of thinking. I kicked into the wind in the third quarter for a reason, and that was to take the wind in the fourth quarter with a thought that the field goal would win the game in the fourth quarter.

“We had many chances to get off the field. We had 3rd-and-9s, 3rd-and-7s, 4th-and 6. We had our own chance to pick up a first down on the offensive side of the ball. They are easily disputed, but I think it was the right call to make it 28-27 with a field goal and the wind to your back to win the game in the kind of game that we played.”

The defense didn’t get off the field, with all those conversions—and all three of Notre Dame’s timeouts—still not getting the ball back with 7:30 of game remaining. So even if you can understandably argue Kelly’s point of view, it doesn’t make it any better.

Two games this season, Kelly has bet on his defense getting a stop and lost. And at this point, it’s hard not to notice the trend of the head coach’s 50-50 decisions going against him and the Irish. That’s likely to happen when you see a team find so many different ways to lose close games, but if this team is going to learn how to win their head coach needs to coach to win, too.