Keith Arnold

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Will Fuller announces he’ll return for senior season

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Brian Kelly has talked about the rare six-star recruit. He landed one this offseason in left tackle Ronnie Stanley. His others include Michael Floyd, Tyler Eifert and Manti Te’o. Now add to the list Will Fuller, who said Wednesday that he plans on returning for his senior season.

Fuller was available to local media on Wednesday, not all that unusual, especially as the junior continues to score touchdowns by the bushel. But as WNDU’s Angelo Di Carlo tiptoed his way into asking Fuller if Senior Day could also be his final game in Notre Dame Stadium as well, the junior made it clear he will be back in 2016—emphatic after Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister put him on the spot.

“Yes. I need to graduate,” Fuller said. “That’s what I came here for.”

You can see the exchange below, courtesy of Irish Illustrated.

It’s been that kind of year, folks. One of the biggest questions of the offseason answered—and in the way Notre Dame fans hoped—in November.

Talking to people behind the scenes at Notre Dame, Fuller’s announcement was something he’s weighed and considered. That makes it much different than when Stephon Tuitt declared to The Observer that he was going to return for his senior season and graduate, only to backpedal from the comments a few days later before ultimately deciding to leave after his junior year.

With Fuller back in 2016, Notre Dame’s offense is bringing back college football’s most prolific scoring wide receiver over the past two seasons. Fuller has scored 27 touchdowns in the 22 games since the start of his sophomore season, 12 touchdowns and 900 yards with four games to go this season.

Fuller plans on earning his degree in psychology next year.

And in that corner… The Wake Forest Demon Deacons

during their game at BB&T Field on October 30, 2015 in Winston Salem, North Carolina.
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It’s a special Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium, as the senior class will play their final football game on campus. A group that’s put together a tremendous home field advantage will have to reclaim their winning ways on Senior Day, a streak tarnished during last season’s loss to Louisville.

The Demon Deacons come into Saturday as heavy underdogs. Nearly four touchdowns separate the two teams, the gulf a product of a gut-job renovation undertaken by second-year head coach Dave Clawson.

Clawson has worked his way up the coaching ranks, managing to gain experience as a head coach at smaller programs like Fordham and Richmond before landing a MAC job at Bowling Green. Four good seasons there led him to Winston-Salem, where he took over the Wake Forest program from Jim Grobe.

Joining us from Blogger So Dear is Griffin Kurzius. We traded Q&As (so head over there), and Griffin did a great job getting us up to speed on the state of the program as Dave Clawson rebuilds.

Hope you enjoy.

 

When we had a discussion this summer, concerns about a young roster and a difficult schedule existed. So sitting at 3-6, can you assess this season against the expectations? Any struggles more disappointing than expected? Any progress feel ahead of schedule?

Before the season, many of us at BSD asserted that Wake would be improved in every department except wins. Last season, Wake limped its way to three wins. With remaining games against Notre Dame, Clemson and Duke, getting three wins again is highly likely. This season, however, youthful mistakes thwarted the Deacs from a fourth. As such, the Demon Deacons are lightyears ahead of last year’s team and right on schedule. Last season, Dave Clawson + Co tore down the house.

This year, with 75 percent of the team comprised of freshmen and sophomores, the foundation for the house is being built. Clawson + Co are building the walls and have the roof in place, so to speak. The pieces are on the roster to turn bring Wake back to a bowl game for the first time since 2011. Some fans believe that this will occur as soon as next season, but they will assuredly be back in the bowl conversation by 2017.

As for right now, the fanbase understands where the program is and the current expectations. They are thrilled with Clawson’s recruiting and that he progressed one of the worst offenses in the last twenty years (in 2014) to respectability. This offense actually (believe it or not) moves the ball. Right now, the fanbase isn’t concerned with the color of the front door or the living room fireplace, Deacs fans are content with building a brick foundation with a slate roof.

 

One look at the advanced stats for the Deacs and it’s pretty clear that the offensive line is a mess. Is it just youth? Is that the spot that feels like a game-wrecker, especially with Sheldon Day so disruptive at defensive tackle for Notre Dame?

The starting left and right tackles are both freshmen, which, uh… doesn’t bode too well for our quarterbacks and running backs. Remarkably, this line is STILL better than the revolving doors on the line in 2014. Last season, the Deacs led the nation in sacks allowed. So any improvement is improvement, right?

But in all seriousness, this is a good question. Both Justin Herron (LT) and Phil Haynes (RT) were sought after three-star recruits, Wake’s bread and butter to consistently return to bowl eligibility. With more experience and time in the weight room, the team should be fine. But until then, I sit on the edge of my couch with my fingers crossed for the safety of our dear and running backs.

Yes, like with most of our ACC foes already, Notre Dame’s overall size and experience up front will cause more problems than Mike Myers on Halloween night. With absolutely no wiggle room for the running backs and no time for the quarterbacks, Wake is cornered into calling short-to-intermediate passing plays. Wide receivers KJ Brent and Cortez Lewis both possess impressive speed, size and catching prowess. The question always remains: will they have enough time to get open before the quarterback feels the pressure?

 

On the flip side of that, Wake Forest’s defense is really good. Brandon Chubb is having a monster season. Marquel Lee is disruptive. The Deacs have seen some good offensive personnel—Florida State, North Carolina to name two. What worries you about the matchup this weekend against the balanced Irish attack? Stopping the run? Will Fuller in the deep passing game? (All of the above?)

Like you alluded to with Brandon Chubb and Marquel Lee, Wake boasts arguably the best linebacking core in the ACC. They hit the gaps like a battering ram and have a great sense for which hole the running back wants to attack.

Overall, Wake’s front seven does a great job at eating up run plays and keeping the quarterback in the pocket. The biggest concern this season is big plays in the passing game. Speedy receivers have had success getting behind the defense and striking on home-run plays. DeShone Kizer clearly has a rocket arm and has the confidence to swing for the fences. With Will Fuller, averaging 20.5 yards per reception, the secondary will have more than their hands full.

In Saturday’s game, I expect the Demon Deacons to be stout against the run for three quarters, but allow several big plays to Irish wide receivers. In the fourth quarter, the front seven will wear down and the running backs will close the game out.

 

Talk me through what’s happening at quarterback with John Wolford and Kendall Hinton. Does the adage, “If you have two quarterbacks, you really have none” apply? What’s the difference in Wolford and Hinton’s games? And if you had your druthers, who would be taking most of the snaps on Saturday?

After observing this situation unfold, the adage is absolutely correct. To quickly provide a back story, sophomore John Wolford entered the season as the starter. Wolford is adept at reading defenses and has pinpoint accuracy on short-to-intermediate routes. He got injured and true freshman Kendall Hinton quickly proved his worth.

Trying to contain the elusive Hinton is like trying to put a cat in a cage. He has a huge arm but has suspect accuracy and makes some freshmen reads. They both offer vastly different looks and finally are both healthy. What has been dumbfounding is how they are rotating playing time. Let’s be clear: this isn’t Florida in 2006 where Chris Leak ran the offense and Tim Tebow played near the goal line.

Wolford will get three drives, then Hinton will sub in for three, then Wolford will take two and then Hinton will get his turn. Given their different skill sets, the offense and the playcalling depend on the quarterback. With the frequent rotations, the quarterbacks don’t have enough time to get into a rhythm. Meanwhile, this constant change prevents the other 10 players on the field to feel comfortable.

Against a Notre Dame team that will get frequent pressure on the quarterback, Wake should start a player who will get outside the pocket and make plays out of thin air. This is Kendall Hinton. Does he give Wake the best chance to win every week? No. But against the No. 4 team in the country, he can extend plays and keep the Irish off balance. Overall, it’s an awkward situation and Clawson doesn’t want to isolate either player and facilitate a transfer. This controversy likely won’t get handled until Summer 2016.

 

Everybody knew it’d be a renovation for Dave Clawson. There was optimism during the offseason, even after a 3-9 season. Wake Forest hung tough with Indiana, Florida State, and are coming off a really tough loss to Louisville. The home stretch looks brutal for this team, with ND, Clemson and Duke. But does it still feel like there’s light at the end of the tunnel?

I spoke about this above, but absolutely. As they say in Batman “The night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you, the dawn is coming.” Last season was the darkest point of the night. This season, there is a semblance of talent. It will take time for them to blossom, but there are clear flashes of raw talent on this roster. The same couldn’t be said last year. As I said above, many fans believe next year-with an easier schedule (no Notre Dame in a non-conference game)- that Wake has a good chance to reach a bowl. If not next year, the Demon Deacons will return in 2017. There is too much athleticism, youth and development for a turnaround to not take place.

 

Vegas has this a pretty lopsided game with the Irish a 27-point favorite on Senior Day. That feels like a lot of points to lay against a defense that’s pretty stingy. How do you feel heading into Saturday? Is there a morale victory out there to be had?

Our basketball coach Danny Manning doesn’t believe in morale victories. Me? At 3-6. In South Bend. Against the No. 4 team in the nation? Absolutely. Ideally, the Demon Deacons put up an admirable fight and keep the game within striking distance in the first half. But more than that, this is a huge opportunity on NBC and I just hope the Deacs don’t put up an embarrassing goose egg on national TV. Finally, I hope our team gets out of South Bend alive, spirits high, and healthy.

Irish jump to No. 4 in CFB Playoff rankings

of the Pittsburgh Panthers of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
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If the regular season ended today, Notre Dame would be in the College Football Playoff. The Irish ranked No. 4 in the second released rankings, trailing Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State respectively.

Notre Dame’s strength of schedule continues to be an asset. Temple is ranked at 21st. Navy checks in at No. 20, both programs only loss coming to the Irish.

“If they win out, how is anybody going to get by Notre Dame?” Kirk Herbstreit said during the ESPN broadcast. “With Stanford sitting there at the end of the year, this is not necessarily great news for the Big 12.”

Notre Dame sits ahead of undefeated Iowa and Baylor, with the Hawkeyes making a huge leap to No. 5 after another less than impressive win over Indiana. Baylor has three straight ranked opponents coming up with Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU before finishing the year with Texas. All part of the many cards yet to be played.

Committee chairman Jeff Long pointed to Notre Dame’s position at four being fairly safe, saying that the committee spent more time discussing No. 5 through No. 8 and less on the top four. That could obviously change in the weeks to come.

Notre Dame plays Wake Forest this weekend before heading to Boston to take on Boston College in Fenway Park. They finish the season with one of the season’s biggest games, a Top 10 matchup with Stanford in Palo Alto.

 

Kelly keeps focus on Wake Forest

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Notre Dame may be zeroing in on what could be a play-in playoff game against Stanford in the season finale. But don’t expect anybody inside the Irish football program to be looking that far ahead. At least not if Brian Kelly has his say.

Notre Dame welcomes Wake Forest to South Bend on Saturday, an opponent familiar with the assignment after serving as the program’s piñata in a 38-point blowout in 2012 during a celebratory Senior Day. With the Demon Deacons sitting at 3-6 and nearly a four-touchdown underdog, a look-ahead opportunity stares the Irish in the face. But Kelly is doing everything he can to make sure his team isn’t stepping back to smell the roses, especially not with so much left to accomplish.

“We’re in the process, that’s what we talk about as coaches,” Kelly explained in his opening comments on Tuesday. “Right now in that process, it’s kind of like being on the treadmill where you just kind of just keep your eyes in front of you and you just keep moving forward. And moving forward to the next challenge in front of us, and that challenge is Wake Forest.”

Dave Clawson’s team is in Year Two of a rebuild that ripped the program down to the foundation and hopes to return bigger and stronger. And while the offense is still a bit of a mess, Clawson’s defense should challenge the Irish in both the run and passing game.

“Defensively, they’ve got some very good players. This is a very good defense, a top 40 defense in the country. I think they rank as high as in the 30s in a number of categories,” Kelly said, understandably pointing out the positives to one of the ACC’s youngest teams.

But more than anything that Wake Forest might do, this week feels like a battle with the team in the mirror. As the College Football Playoff looms and programs get into the meat of their schedule, the Irish face two teams that shouldn’t pose much of a problem to them. Yet winning those games in convincing fashion may be more important than ever. So after six years of coaching and program building, Kelly is confident that this team understands the type of effort and energy they need to bring all week, not just before kickoff on Saturday

“This group understands regardless of who the opponent is, it’s still going to come down to how they prepare this week,” Kelly said. “If they prepare the right way and take care of what they’ve done over the last nine weeks, then when whether they’re a two-point favorite or ten-point underdog, they stand a great chance at winning…

“The rest of that stuff, we haven’t focused on any of that during the year, so they don’t really know any of that.”

Jarron Jones could be ready for postseason play

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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When Jarron Jones went down during fall camp, it looked like the senior nose guard’s season was over. But during his Tuesday press conference, head coach Brian Kelly revealed that Jones’ rehabilitation has him on track to potentially play during the postseason. That’d be a huge lift to an Irish defensive front that was supposed to be built around Jones and fellow senior Sheldon Day.

Kelly estimated that Jones was four to six weeks away from playing football, putting him on schedule to be available to practice with the Irish as they prepare for postseason play—whether that be a playoff game or bowl appearance. Right now, the senior is working to strengthen the area around his injured knee, focusing on rebuilding quad and hamstring muscles.

In place of Jones, Notre Dame has used sophomore Daniel Cage and freshman Jerry Tillery. The duo has combined to make 26 tackles, five TFLs, and a sack. Last season, Jones had 40 tackles, 7.5 TFLs and 1.5 sacks and was expected to be one of the Irish’s standouts in 2015. Jones sat out as a freshman, preserving his eligibility for 2016. That won’t be impacted if he takes the field this season.

Last week, Kelly quipped that he put Torii Hunter into the nickel role because he couldn’t make a trade. This week, Jones feels like a potential trade deadline move that could bolster a defense that could use a potential impact player up front.