CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 12: Quarterback Malik Zaire #8 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes past defensive end Mike Moore #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers in the third quarter at Scott Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won, 34-27. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Getty

Counting Down the Irish: 10-6

5 Comments

We enter the top ten in the middle of an eventful 24 hours that saw Notre Dame lose tight end Alizé Jones for the season, gain another 2018 recruit, and announce a social media partnership with Bleacher Report that’ll give Irish fans another inside look at the program. And Brian Kelly still hasn’t had his introductory fall press conference.

But as we get to the top of this list, the strength of this team continues to emerge. Four talented skill players and a gigantic defensive tackle who could all be among the best in the country.

What this panel still isn’t sure of is how to balance the considerable talent Brian Kelly has stockpiled. Last year’s opening day starters at running back and quarterback are now listed below their injury replacements. Their awards candidates at cornerback and nose guard return with lower expectations than we had for them last year.

Let’s get into our Top 10.

 

2016 Irish Top 25 Rankings: 
25. Equanimeous St. Brown (WR, Soph.)
24. Durham Smythe (TE, Sr.
23. Justin Yoon, (K, Soph.)
22. Tyler Newsome (P, Jr.)
21. Daniel Cage (DT, Jr.)
20. Sam Mustipher (C, Jr.)
19. Jerry Tillery (DT, Soph.)
18. Max Redfield (S, Sr.)
17. CJ Sanders (WR, Soph.)
16. Drue Tranquill (S, Jr.)
15. James Onwualu (OLB, Sr.)

14. Alex Bars (RT, Jr.)
13. Alizé Jones (TE, Soph.)
12. Shaun Crawford (DB, Soph.)
11. Nyles Morgan (LB, Jr.)

 

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl

10. Tarean Folston (RB, Senior): Folston might not even be in South Bend had 2015 gone according to plan. With C.J. Prosise exploding onto the scene and going in the third round and Josh Adams establishing a school record for a freshman running back, you’ve got to wonder what Folston would’ve done had he not gone down with a season-ending knee injury on just his third carry.

Notre Dame’s most talented and well-rounded back, we’ve yet to see if Folston is back at 100 percent. We’ll also see if he’s still the team’s preferred ball carrier, with Adams a bigger home run threat with breakaway speed that Folston just doesn’t have.

Still, Folston is a pure talent. He’s excellent in space, reading blocks and catching passes. There’s no reason not to believe he won’t step right back into the action, capable of a huge season if healthy and given the opportunity. This ranking might be too low.

Highest Ranking: 6th. Lowest Ranking: 16th.

North Carolina v Notre Dame

9. Jarron Jones (DT, Grad Student): Jones’ senior season was derailed before it ever started, another returner to the roster who likely would’ve been in the NFL had he not gone down with an August knee injury. That’s given the Irish one of college football’s most dominant interior players—when Jones is motivated and healthy.

The Syracuse native was already battling a lisfranc injury that made it tough to return to full speed even before his MCL injury last August. And after being cautious with the injury this spring, Jones will be asked to go full out, even if he’s on a pitch count. Brian Kelly hopes a 35- to 40-play limit will keep Jones fresh.

Tasked with wreaking havoc in the trenches and keeping offensive linemen off of Nyles Morgan, Jones has All-American ability if he can harness it.

Highest Ranking: 2nd. Lowest Ranking: 16th.

 

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 14: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes for a 98-yard touchdown against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on November 14, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

8. Josh Adams (RB, Sophomore): Expected to do little more than redshirt last season, Josh Adams’ record-breaking campaign leaves many wondering just how impressive the encore can be. With power and size—not to mention incredible long speed—Adams is the perfect Brian Kelly recruit, a three-star prospect that the staff stayed on even through a major knee injury.

He’s already surpassed Tarean Folston in the eyes of this panel. While seniority might rule when it comes to the starting lineup, expect both backs to get plenty of carries, with each having the chance to put together a very big season.

Highest Ranking: 4th. Lowest Ranking: 10th.

 

TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 08: Cornerback Cole Luke #36 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the college football game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium on November 8, 2014 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Fighting Irish 55-31. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

7. Cole Luke (CB, Senior): After a mostly anonymous junior season, Luke enters 2016 possibly underrated at the national level. Luke’s exceptional sophomore campaign saw him lock up some of the nation’s best receivers. With KeiVarae Russell gone and no experience at the other cornerback spot, it’ll be up to Luke to repeat that performance, not the so-so junior year.

A talented cover cornerback with good ball skills, Luke will likely handle the job of covering an opponents No. 1 receiver. If he can find a way to impact the game and make more big plays, the Irish defense has a chance to improve, even after saying goodbye to some elite talent.

Highest Ranking: 3rd. Lowest Ranking: 19th.

 

Malik Zaire

6. Malik Zaire (QB, Senior): Our panel clearly respects Zaire and views him as one of the team’s top players. But he’s No. 2 behind DeShone Kizer, who ranks inside the team’s Top Five. Start Kizer? Start Zaire? Play them both? Let’s just say they don’t pay us enough to make that decision.

Zaire’s entering his fourth season in South Bend and has only made an impact in four games over that period. Still, he’s done just that in every chance he’s been given, a standout against USC after taking over for Everett Golson, an emotional win over LSU in the bowl game, near perfection against Texas and then a nice performance before ending his season with an ankle injury against Virginia.

Entering a training camp battle that not many expect him to win, Zaire’s a key part of this Irish football team, with a still to be determined role.

Highest Ranking: 3rd. Lowest Ranking 11th.

Bleacher Report partnership gives fans another inside look at Notre Dame football

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly speaks during media day for the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football game, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Notre Dame plays Ohio State on New Year's Day. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
4 Comments

Apparently it was a little bit too quiet around the Notre Dame football offices this summer.

A year after having their every move documented by Showtime’s army of filmmakers for the heralded “A Season With” series, the Irish are opening their doors to a slightly younger, hipper audience.

Notre Dame announced a social media partnership with Bleacher Report on Thursday, believed to be the the first of its kind. B/R will have a team embedded in South Bend, producing a wide array of social media—all to be distributed across the wide variety of outlets on both Notre Dame and B/R’s different social platforms.

“Jack Swarbrick and Brian Kelly have been forward thinkers the past few years. They’re just continuing to push the envelope on what a college football program can become,” Bleacher Report co-founder and CEO Dave Finocchio told me Wednesday. “It’s a huge honor that we get to be a part of the next step in their evolution.”

Viewed as a pilot program, the joint venture allows B/R exclusive access to Notre Dame’s football team—telling a variety of stories that’ll be jointly distributed through Notre Dame’s social media platforms as well as Bleacher Report’s Team Stream app and widely-followed accounts on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Bleacher Report reports more engagement across those three platforms than any other publisher in the U.S.

That reach was one of the many things that appealed to Notre Dame’s head football coach.

“It’s accessibility. Showtime certainly from a production standpoint, and what they put on television is an incredible product, but this reaches so many more people,” Kelly said Thursday. “And our fanbase is so linked in to following us on a day to day basis, this gives them that daily dose of Notre Dame football.”

The content, distributed in a variety of shapes and sizes, will have less of a long-form, narrative focus than last season’s Showtime series. It’ll also capitalize on B/R’s success at connecting with a younger generation of sports fan, something that helps the Irish football program tell their story—to fans and recruits alike.

“We just had this hunch that the way the players’ generation of sports fans sees the game of football, and sports in general, is really different than how their parents and grandparents see sports,” Finocchio said. “We’re trying to create sports video content and experiences for sports fans that do justice to the way they see sports.”

Kelly thinks it’s a partnership that won’t just come in handy with B/R’s younger demographic, but from the traditional segment (don’t you dare call them parents or grandparents) of Irish fans who are spending more and more of their time consuming the internet on their cell phones.

“More people that I run into are starting to understand how easy it is to stay connected to Notre Dame football through their phone,” Kelly said. “Bleacher Report can reach that so called ‘older generation’ through their phone, and by doing so they’ve reached an audience that may not have gotten on their computer, but are now following even moreso on their phone.

The partnership came from a series of conversations, some between Finocchio—a Notre Dame grad—and athletic director Jack Swarbrick. The head of Irish athletics had seen B/R’s handiwork producing Daelin Hayes’s “Dark Knight” inspired commitment video, and that started the wheels turning.

That social media is a focus for the Irish football program should be no surprise. Notre Dame has ramped up the team’s presence across a variety of platforms, connecting with recruits and fans through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and every other place you can think of. And bringing in Bleacher Report fits the vision of Swarbrick’s athletic department, another key partnership to go along with relationships with Under Armour and NBC.

“We’re covering all the mediums that are important to keeping your brand out there amongst all of the people that it matters to,” Kelly said. “With Bleacher Report and the credibility they have with millions of followers, it’s another great partnership that Notre Dame has entered into and I think that we continue to look for those partnerships.”

For Finocchio and the Bleacher Report team, the work begins now. With a production team settling in to follow the Irish’s every move, they’ll begin chronicling this Notre Dame season in a way we’ve never seen.

“We’re really going to be in the business of celebrating the moments of what matter most during the season, whether they happen on game days or on the practice field,” Finocchio said, before allowing himself a moment to hint at the fandom he developed as a student living in Alumni Hall.

“We want people to feel as emotionally invested in the good things that happen as possible. And also hopefully the team has 80-percent less injuries this year than last year.”

 

Irish get commitment from 2018 linebacker Matthew Bauer

Matt Bauer 247
Tom Loy / Irish247
3 Comments

Notre Dame’s recruiting machine keeps rolling along. The Irish’s most recent pick up is another elite 2018 recruit, Pennsylvania linebacker Matthew “Bo” Bauer, who announced his commitment via social media on Wednesday afternoon.

At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, Bauer is a prototype middle linebacker who camped in South Bend at the Irish Invasion. He’s entering his junior season at Cathedral Prep in Erie where he made 104 tackles last season as a sophomore.

Bauer spoke with the South Bend Tribune’s Tyler James to break down the decision.

“Everything about it is just so great,” Bauer told the Tribune. “Between the academics, the athletics, the social life of the campus and the alumni base, you can’t get much better than it. It’s perfect for me. It was just a great fit.”

The fit works both ways. With Notre Dame needing to reload at linebacker, the Irish will have a strong incoming group these next two recruiting cycles, hitting on David Adams, Drew White and Pete Werner in the 2017 cycle and landing linebackers Ovie Oghoufo and Justin Ademilola already for 2018. Bauer looks and plays like a middle linebacker, a key piece of the puzzle in Brian VanGorder’s defense.

Notre Dame’s dominance in the Keystone State continues. Three recruits in the 2017 class hail from Pennsylvania. There’s two more in 2018—all hold offers from Penn State.

Bauer is a long way from the college game, but his highlight reel shows a young player who is already clearly dominant at the high school level. And once the Irish staff made a formal offer, Bauer jumped on it—closing his recruitment in his latest visit to South Bend.

Bauer’s already a two-year starter at Cathedral Prep. He’ll have a chance to spend four seasons in the starting lineup. He chose the Irish over Penn State, Pitt, West Virginia, Michigan State and a handful of others.

Alizé Jones declared ineligible for the season

Alize Jones Temple
28 Comments

One of Notre Dame’s candidates for a breakout season won’t see the field this year. Rising sophomore Alizé Jones has been declared ineligible, an assumed academic casualty just days before training camp is set to begin.

The news comes from Notre Dame’s sports information department, who released the following via social media:

Jones released the following statement via Twitter:

“Notre Dame is a special place and playing football for the Irish is a privilege. With this opportunity comes academic responsibility, and unfortunately, I didn’t meet that responsibility.

“I love Notre Dame and everything about it. Obviously, I’m disappointed at myself, but I’m going to make the best of this situation. I’m going to remain a student at Notre Dame and work even harder. I’m going to grow from this. I’m going to be a better student, teammate, player and man. While I won’t be able to help my brothers on Saturdays, I’ll do whatever I can to help this team achieve its goal of winning a national championship.

It’s a surprising jolt to a very ho-hum offseason, especially after Brian Kelly’s last update stated that all seemed quiet on the academic front. But the loss of Jones forces the staff to pivot and look for a replacement to the sophomore presumed productivity, either at tight end or the boundary receiver position.

Brian Kelly will address the media on Friday to kick off fall camp, when we’ll likely hear more about Jones’ suspension. The Irish welcome back tight end Tyler Luatua to go along with Durham Smythe and Nic Weishar and newly converted tight end Jacob Matuska, but cross-trained Jones at Corey Robinson‘s spot at the boundary receiver position after Robinson retired due to concussions.

Jones led all of Notre Dame’s returning pass catchers in yards per reception in 2015, catching 13 passes for 190 yards. He was one of the nation’s top tight end recruits when he picked Notre Dame after being committed to UCLA.

Irish A-to-Z: James Onwualu

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Blake Frohnapfel #7 of the Massachusetts Minutemen is sacked by James Onwualu #17 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish
at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
1 Comment

After quietly putting together a strong junior season, James Onwualu is ready to step to the front. Gone are captains and fellow linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt. So are front-seven companions Romeo Okwara and Sheldon Day.

One of the few veterans with any considerable experience on the defense, it’s up to Onwualu to lead now, making an impact both by the example he sets on field and by the work he puts in off of it. With the chance to play full-time at outside linebacker, Onwualu should add nickel and dime snaps to his repertoire, allowing the former receiver to excel when the opposing team drops back to pass, as either a pass rusher or coverman.

 

JAMES ONWUALU
6’1″, 232 lbs.
Senior, No. 17, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit who Notre Dame offered before any of the other major programs, Onwualu picked the Irish over Michigan and Ohio State, enrolling early out of Cretin-Derham Hall.

A big-bodied wide receiver without elite speed, Onwualu’s transition to defense was always something that was a possibility, made even more impressive by the fact that he found a way to start four games at wideout as a freshman.

 

PLAYING CAREER 

Freshman Season (2013): Played in all 12 regular season games, making four starts. Caught two passes for 34 yards, while contributing on special teams making six tackles. Served mainly as a blocker at wide receiver, taking Daniel Smith’s job.

Sophomore Season (2014): Played in all 13 games while starting eight at linebacker. Made 24 tackles from his outside linebacker position, including two TFLs. Onwualu had seven stops against Navy, including his two TFLs on the season.

Junior Season (2015): Played in 11 games, starting nine at outside linebacker.  Made 38 tackles including six TFLs and three sacks, also breaking up two passes and forcing one fumble. Missed time with an MCL sprain in November.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Smith stayed at Will and Onwualu spent his time at SAM, though it was Greer Martini who made most of the impact against option teams, not Onwualu.

I think Jaylon Smith spends a lot of time on the outside of this defense, making me wonder where Onwualu plays. But I also think that the more opponents move quickly and try to spread Notre Dame out, the more likely Onwualu is a piece of the defensive puzzle.

It’s worth noting that Onwualu’s most productive game was against Navy. You don’t expect an undersized linebacker to be great against the option, especially after Brian Kelly and Brian VanGorder talked about utilizing Greer Martini as a jumbo-sized OLB against more rugged opponents.

Still, it’s a telling indicator that Onwualu has the Football IQ to make tackles in the backfield against Navy. And after an unlikely ascent into the starting lineup in each of his first two seasons in South Bend, you’d be wise not to bet against a football player who has shown himself to be a productive piece of the puzzle.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s room to grow this season for Onwualu, likely very comfortable in his third season under Brian VanGorder. As the only returning starter at linebacker, how much this defense leans on him will be telling. A knee injury limited him down the stretch, but he still platooned, especially against the more physical offenses.

Adding some mass to his frame is important. We’ll see how well he did when the roster is released later this week, with Onwualu ideally in the 235-pound range, up from the 220 he played last year at.

The Irish coaching staff believes Onwualu is underrated, mostly because of off-the-radar skills like rerouting receivers. If this senior season is going to be impactful—and if Onwualu wants a chance to play at the next level—he’s going to have to build on the sneaky-solid numbers he put up, making more plays behind the line of scrimmage and in coverage.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

One of my hunch picks for team captain, Onwualu is one of my breakout candidates this season—if he can stay healthy. With added strength this offseason and a better understanding of everything Brian VanGorder wants, Onwualu should be one of the team’s top-three tacklers by season’s end.

A better pass rusher than given credit for, Onwualu might be a sleeper candidate for a half-dozen sacks, a big number to be sure, but maybe not unattainable when you consider he had three last season in limited opportunities. Add in a few interceptions and filling up the stat sheet would be a great way to finish a career.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuqh
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara