George Atkinson III, Vaughn Telemaque

Report: Blue-Gold game could be moving to Soldier Field

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With Notre Dame’s Campus Crossroads project well under way, a report has surfaced that the Blue and Gold game could be on the move. Irish 247 reports that the annual spring game could be relocated to the home of the Chicago Bears, with construction forcing the Irish into Soldier Field.

The 247 report says the move is probable and not finalized. I’ve heard separately that it is a potential location for the game, though the decision is far from finished.

With three new buildings being attached to the football stadium in Notre Dame’s most audacious building project the university has ever undertaken (Father Jenkins’ words, not mine), Notre Dame Stadium is being transformed, a construction project that’s projected to last 33 months. That likely means a football game inside the stadium this spring isn’t possible, with the next few seasons taking place amidst the transition.

The obvious questions arise. While logistically, a spring football game in Chicago shouldn’t be difficult, it could reshape the recruiting efforts of Brian Kelly’s coaching staff. Usually the Blue-Gold game is a flagship recruiting event in the spring, that could change if it’s off campus.

But even without that weekend in the spring, selling the new and improved facilities inside a football stadium is Recruiting 101 on the college circuit. The Irish staff will make a way to turn this $400 million building project into a positive as well.

Notre Dame last played in Soldier Field in 2012, when the Irish beat Miami 41-3.

 

The Golson transfer rumor mill gets started

Michigan v Notre Dame
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It took less than a week for the Everett Golson rumor mill to get going. After the ESPN broadcast during the Music City Bowl widely speculated about Golson’s role in the program, a Times-Picayune report claims Golson reached out to LSU about potentially playing out his eligibility for Les Miles and the Tigers.

After seeing LSU’s quarterback situation firsthand, you could hardly blame Golson for inquiring. But the Irish quarterback took to Twitter to quickly refute those rumors, which won’t likely stop from churning until early June, when Golson reports to somewhere for summer school.

Until then, Golson is Notre Dame’s quarterback. What role that means? Only Golson can truly determine that.

As we saw against LSU in the Music City Bowl, Malik Zaire offers an intriguing offensive option, especially as a running quarterback. With the chance that all five starting linemen from the bowl game return to their positions — Ronnie Stanley the wildcard with his NFL draft future still undetermined — the Irish should be able to ride a strong running game in 2015, especially with Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant continuing to emerge as a 1-2 punch.

Of course, the passing attack shouldn’t be anything to shrug at, either. Will Fuller is coming off a record-shattering sophomore season. Corey Robinson was an Academic All-American. Every reception from the receiving corps is back, with Chris Brown, C.J. Prosise, Amir Carlisle and Torii Hunter all returning. Golson is the team’s most gifted passer, even though Zaire showed promise against USC and LSU.

Before Golson can do anything, he needs to graduate. Though a degree in his hands doesn’t necessarily give him a green light to LSU, either. Conference guidelines passed in 2014 allow graduate student transfers immediate eligibility, but Golson’s academic suspension would likely require a waiver being approved.

On track to graduate this may means Golson will be on campus — and likely participating in spring practice. That’s where he’ll spend time with the offensive coaching staff and start to understand the plan for 2015 moving forward. After his head coach lived through growing pains throughout 12 starts, it’d be shocking to see Kelly move on now.

In the world of breaking news, this story is the ultimate irony. We won’t know until May what’s going to happen. Until then, Golson remains a huge piece of the puzzle for a 2015 football team with sky-high expectations.

Optimal Offseason: What Brian Kelly needs to address before spring

Jaylon Smith
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With a Music City Bowl victory in the rearview mirror, the Irish can head into the offseason without the stench of November’s woes still clinging to the team. For a bowl game that felt of minimal importance when most assumed a loss, the Irish’s 31-28 victory certainly turned the tides.

For the next month, Notre Dame’s coaching staff can loudly trumpet their victory over one of the SEC’s premier programs as they try to conclude the recruiting cycle with a few more strategic signings. With the Irish continually trying to make in-roads into Louisiana — defensive end commit Bo Wallace comes from powerhouse program John Curtis — Brian Kelly acknowledged what the victory could do moving forward.

“It certainly allows us to continue to recruit down in this area without having to apologize for who we are,” Kelly said after the December 30th win.

Recruiting is just one focus of the next few months. Improving this team before spring practice is critical. For the players, that means work with Paul Longo in the weight room. But for the coaching staff, it means evaluating the 2014 season in all facets before moving into a critical spring for on-field development.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to take a look at some of the big offseason questions and drill down. How should Kelly balance his two quarterbacks? Is the Will linebacker position the best home for Jaylon Smith? What’s the best starting five along the offensive line? Can we expect any spring position switches?

Do you have a big-picture question that you think the Irish coaching staff needs to address or a position battle you think will be crucial to Notre Dame playing up to its potential in 2015? Drop it below in the comments.

With the transition to 2015 officially started, the games on the field are finished. But with Signing Day just weeks away and spring practice just around the corner, there’s still plenty to talk about.

Counting down the Irish: Final grades, Top 5

Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt
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To read the rationale for our final rankings, see 25-2120-16, 15-11 and 10-6.  To see our preseason rankings, check out the Top 25

With an unexpected eighth win in the Music City Bowl, we can officially close the book on 2014. While injuries and the Irish’s November spiral cost them the opportunity to be a great team, the victory pushes Brian Kelly’s team into 2015 on a high note, with even bigger expectations ahead.

Before shifting our focus, let’s finish off our final grades for the 2014 season.

 

2014 IRISH TOP 25 FINAL GRADES

25. Christian Lombard (RT, GS)
24. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.)
23. Romeo Okwara (DE, Jr.)
22. Drue Tranquill (S, Fr.)
21. Nyles Morgan (LB, Fr.)
20. Max Redfield (S, Soph.)
19. Steve Elmer (RG, Soph.)
18. Ben Koyack (TE, Sr.)
17. Elijah Shumate (S, Jr.)
16. Greg Bryant (RB, Soph.)
15. C.J. Prosise (WR, Jr.)
14. Isaac Rochell (DL, Soph.)
13. Nick Martin (C/LG, Sr.)
12. Cody Riggs (CB, GS)
11. Jarron Jones (DT, Jr.)
10. Matthias Farley (DB, Sr.)
9. Corey Robinson (WR, Soph.)
8. Sheldon Day (DT, Jr.)
7. Everett Golson (QB, Sr.)
6. Cole Luke (CB, Soph.)

 

Notre Dame v Syracuse
Notre Dame v SyracuseChris Chambers/Getty Images

 

5. Ronnie Stanley (LT, Jr.): Perhaps the toughest grade I had to give, slotting Stanley at fifth almost feels like a disappointment, especially considering his flavor of the month status by NFL draftniks everywhere who have decided that Stanley deserves to be perhaps the first offensive tackle in the 2015 NFL Draft. And to think, this spring we wondered if he was good enough to start at left tackle.

But for as good as Stanley could be, it’s hard to say he’s there yet. While he’s a natural in pass protection and put together an excellent final two games with his work against USC and LSU, there’s a strength component that’s not there in his game. And while his athleticism is spectacular and will be catnip for NFL evaluators, just two seasons into his playing career, the body of work isn’t.

After seeing how Harry Hiestand whipped the Irish offensive line into shape during their month off, Irish fans have to hope Stanley returns, if only to see how good this front five could be with him anchoring the left side. An unexpected leadership role that Stanley took before the bowl game surprised Kelly. Maybe that’s a sign he expects to lead the team in 2015.

But if this is it for Stanley, he had a nice, emerging 2014. While he didn’t receive a first-round grade, an impressive testing season could push him up draft boards before beginning what should be rock solid professional career ahead.

Preseason: 6th. Final: 5th.

 

Purdue v Notre Dame
Purdue v Notre DameMichael Hickey/Getty Images

 

4. Joe Schmidt (MLB, Sr.): We know the story. We love the story. But it still completely detracts from the football player that Joe Schmidt is. Notre Dame’s MVP was exactly that this season, the heart, nerve center and soul of the Irish roster.

Schmidt is an undersized middle linebacker, but has the athleticism and instincts needed to play the game at a high level. That he’s no longer buried behind players like Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox is a bright spot to Brian VanGorder’s debut season in South Bend, giving us a good first look at what this team can be with a healthy middle of the defense.

While Jaylon Smith (deservedly) earned All-American honors, he has Schmidt to thank for them. And it’s not unrealistic to see a monster 2015 season from Schmidt, who has the skills to be ridiculously productive in this system, especially if he’s properly protected by his defensive line.

Assuredly back for a fifth year, Schmidt’s recovery time is the only question left in his game. But what the Irish linebacking corps looks like with everybody healthy is a fun scenario to ponder. Does Nyles Morgan shift positions? Can the Irish get anything from Jarrett Grace? Is Smith going to play inside again in 2015?

All of these scenarios are made possible by Schmidt as the defense’s unequivocal leader.

Preseason: 24th. Final: 4th.

 

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Franklin American Mortgage Music City BowlAndy Lyons/Getty Images

 

3. Tarean Folston (RB, Soph.): There’s no smoother operator on the Irish football team than Tarean Folston. The sophomore led the Irish in rushing, running for 889 yards and six touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Folston also gave the Irish an option in the passing game, catching 18 balls for 190 yards and one more touchdown.

While his statistical impact doesn’t knock you over, that’s hardly on Folston. His 175 rushing attempts check in at 70th in the country and his 68.4 yards per game is just as pedestrian, coming in at 84th. If there’s a referendum to be held on the offensive distribution, Folston’s underuse might be the leading vote-getter.

When given the opportunity, Folston took games over. He broke 100 yards in four out of five games, nearly missing a fifth when he ran for 98 yards on 18 carries against North Carolina. Only against LSU did Folston run for less than 5.3 yards per carry when he got more than a dozen attempts.

A natural talent who seized control of the team’s starting job, Folston also started to show the leadership needed to become an alpha dog. With Cam McDaniel graduated and right now only three scholarship running backs slated for next season (expect the Irish to pick up at least one more before Signing Day), Folston will be given every chance to lead this team in 2015.

Preseason: 5th. Final: 3rd.

 

Rice v Notre Dame
Rice v Notre DameJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

 

2. Jaylon Smith (LB, Soph.): In his first season playing on the inside, Smith was the defensive bell cow of the Irish. He led the team with 112 tackles, his nine tackles for loss were also a team best. His 3.5 sacks were just a half sack behind Romeo Okwara. And he did all of this while still learning what he’s doing.

Named a second-team All-American by the AP, Smith’s sophomore season was a indisputable success, though it was still one that featured some growing pains. For every play Smith showcased his incredible athleticism, he took another snap where he exposed his youth. In the games after Joe Schmidt was injured, Smith’s play suffered, a step slow mentally more so than physically.

The good news? Smith was still Notre Dame’s best defensive player, with a close second lost for the season after a broken ankle suffered against Navy. And while Brian Kelly has joked about Smith’s baby steps towards handling the presnap responsibilities of diagnosing opposing offense’s schemes, Smith has another nine months of learning in VanGorder’s laboratory before he takes another snap.

This spring, it’ll be interesting to watch where Smith goes. He very easily could be the team’s best edge rusher if the Irish staff desires, with a combination of Joe Schmidt and Nyles Morgan playing the interior allowing Smith screaming off the edge if the Irish need to get to the passer. That’s likely his NFL destination, though surviving on the inside will only help his skillset.

Preseason: 1st. Final: 2nd.

 

William Fuller, Kendell Beckwith
William Fuller, Kendell BeckwithAP Photo/Mark Humphrey

 

1. Will Fuller (WR, Soph.): Fuller’s season was a historic one at Notre Dame. He set records for catches, yards and touchdowns for a sophomore, emerging as one of the most electric pass-catchers in college football. Fuller’s touchdown against LSU on the opening drive tied Golden Tate and Jeff Samardzija’s single-season record with 15.

After winning a tiebreaker in voting to even crack our Top 25 in the preseason, Fuller took advantage of his opportunities when DaVaris Daniels was suspended, emerging as a clear-cut No. 1 receiver for the Irish. He more than doubled Corey Robinson’s yardage output, while tripling Robinson’s touchdown catches, with Fuller emerging as a bonafide scorer and playmaker.

The best part of Fuller’s game is that he’s only scratching the surface. Similar to Jaylon Smith, for every mesmerizing play Fuller made in 2014, he provided a dozen more opportunities where mental lapses and youthful mistakes left you scratching your head. The drops and bobbles of easy passes show just how much higher Fuller’s ceiling is, especially when you see the sophomore attack a deep ball or come down with a tremendous catch.

Among the biggest home run threats in the country, Fuller also provided an electric option in the quick game, capable of taking a screen pass to the house. With the entire receiving corps set to return in 2015, Fuller will likely be the frontman to the best Irish receiving corps in history. Expect to see Fuller on most preseason All-American teams come the summer, with the opportunity to rewrite Michael Floyd’s records if he stays on campus long enough.

Preseason: 25th. Final: 1st.

Irish recruits taking part in All-American games

Cleveland Plain Dealer
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Just because the Irish finished their season with a victorious Music City Bowl doesn’t mean the football is over. A large contingency from the 2015 signing class is taking part in various All-Star games over the holiday weekend, including the two flagship events: the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and the Under Armour All-American game.

Let’s walk through the participants and get everybody up to speed:

 

Under Armour All-American Game
Friday, Jan. 2 — 4 p.m. ET on ESPN2

LB Tevon Coney (Early Enrollee)
CB Shaun Crawford
QB Brandon Wimbush
K Justin Yoon

It appears that all four Irish commitments are doing well for themselves in Orlando. While rumors are continually popping up on social media that Coney is still sniffing around Florida, the linebacker has called himself 100-percent Notre Dame multiple times.

 

 

Meanwhile, cornerback Shaun Crawford is looking better and better. While the diminutive cornerback can’t do anything about his height, he certainly doesn’t lack for game. If I’m making any silly predictions, it’s that Crawford is going to see the field early and often next season, especially against teams that like to spread it out.

 

 

Conventional recruiting wisdom is that Brandon Wimbush is competing to earn a fifth-star. While it’s all essentially meaningless come Signing Day, Wimbush’s ascent after a very impressive senior season should have Irish fans excited. (This is a cool video.)

 

 

In the specialist category, Kyle Brindza’s career at Notre Dame came to a fitting conclusion on Tuesday afternoon. So that means Justin Yoon likely steps foot on campus as the team’s starting placekicker. Even as he recovers from a back injury that short-circuited his senior season, he doesn’t look short of any range as a kicker.

 

 

Other Recruits ND is in the mix for:

One of the elite players in the country, Iman “Biggie” Marshall is looking the part in Orlando. Notre Dame got an official visit from the Long Beach star, but this one is going until Signing Day, with Michigan now getting a visit with Jim Harbaugh’s hiring.

Conventional wisdom has Notre Dame No. 2 for Soso Jamabo, the big back out of Texas. But Jamabo told BlueandGold.com’s Andrew Ivins that wasn’t necessarily the case.

“Notre Dame is definitely one of the top schools, still is, and always will be,” Jamabo told Rivals. “They have been there since day one, and I’m still high on Notre Dame, as well as UCLA. Texas is moving in a little bit. But I wouldn’t say there is a UCLA lock. No, not at all.”

Notre Dame wants to land a back, and would prefer to do that sooner than later. They’re in for a potential commitment as soon as game time with Ronald Jones II reportedly picking between Notre Dame and USC. Rivals’ Mike Farrell thinks ND lands him. 247 Sports’ Crystal Ball predictions have USC in the lead with the Irish trailing (including both Tom Loy and Steve Wiltfong.)

Finally, Equanimeous St. Brown seems to have returned to the elite prospect many thought he was all along. After a rollercoaster season from a “recruitnik” perspective, IrishSportsDaily.com’s Bryan Driskell likes what he sees.

 

 

U.S. Army All-American Bowl
Saturday Jan. 3 — 1 p.m. ET on NBC

LB Josh Barajas
LB Asmar Bilal
S Nicco Fertitta
C Tristen Hoge 
(Early Enrollee)
OT Jerry Tillery 
(Early Enrollee)

The early word on Barajas is good, though at 215 pounds he’s got some heft to add before he’s ready to play linebacker in the box. (His official height is just shy of 6’2″.) But in his first national spotlight, Barajas is intent on making an impact.

“I want to prove that I can hang with these guys,” Barajas told IrishSportsDaily.com. “I’ve never been to a camp or anything like that, so I never really competed against competition like this. I want to show that I can hang with these kids.”

As the nation’s top center recruit, Tristen Hoge is holding his own. He’s also getting a jump start on what to expect on Saturdays, matching up with the best DT in the country in Kahlil McKenzie. Hoge seems to be holding his own, though McKenzie going to Tennessee looks like an immediate impact player for the Vols.

 

 

Another linebacker a little shy on heft is Indianapolis’ Asmar Bilal. Athletically, he seems to fit the mold of what Brian VanGorder is looking for, and the experience in San Antonio will be a good one. Bilal measured 6’2″, but weighed just 204 pounds at check in.

The same goes for Nicco Fertitta, who is participating even with a broken hand. Fertitta delivers a punch that you wouldn’t expect from a 175-pounder who is a shade under 5’9″. I’m excited to see how quickly he wreaks havoc on special teams.

Then there’s Jerry Tillery. If you’re looking for a guy to get you excited, Tillery looks the part. He’s a legit 6’6″. He weighed in at 308 pounds. And while he’s playing right tackle right now, Tillery hinted that the coaching staff will kick the tires on him as a defensive lineman, too.

 

Other Recruits ND is in the mix for:

Notre Dame is after running back Jordan Cronkrite, who is another option if the Irish don’t land Jamabo or Jones. They’re also after Fertitta’s teammate, Alize Jones, who looks every bit the part of a freak athlete we’ve heard about.

Per 247’s Steve Wiltfong, both Jones and Cronkrite chatted with Notre Dame’s coaching staff after the big Music City Bowl win.

 

Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl
Sunday, Jan. 4 — 9 p.m. ET on FS1

WR Miles Boykin
DT Micah Dew-Treadway (Early Enrollee)
S Pretince McKinney
WR CJ Sanders
DT Brandon Tiassum