Temple v Notre Dame

Irish A-to-Z: Jarrett Grace

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His long road back after a catastrophic injury has been well-discussed. Now Jarrett Grace gets to the fun part—finding his way back to the middle of the Irish defense.

The fifth-year linebacker looked primed to be the heir apparent to Manti Te’o entering 2013. But a shattered leg and Joe Schmidt’s ascent made that impossible. Now Grace will play a critical role in the Irish defense, regardless of if he’s on the field or off.

The Cincinnati product injected immediate enthusiasm into spring practice, his first work with the team after multiple surgeries and a grueling rehabilitation process. Now Grace is in the middle of a packed linebacker depth chart, with the veteran still working his way back to the new normal, running on a leg that should be attached to the Terminator, not a college linebacker.

When he takes the field against Texas, Grace will be proving so many wrong who thought his career ended that fateful evening against Arizona State in 2013. (And it very well should have.) But there’s more to accomplish for one of Notre Dame’s most impressive student-athletes.

Let’s dig in.

 

JARRETT GRACE
6’2.5″, 253 lbs.
Grad Student, No. 59, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Grace picked Notre Dame over Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Alabama and Stanford, a victory for a coach who desperately needed a big-bodied athlete like Grace to man the interior of Bob Diaco’s 3-4 system.

Grace may not have been a true blue-chipper by recruiting analysts’ standards, but his offer list certainly was elite.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2011): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2012): Played in all 13 games, serving as Manti Te’o’s backup while anchoring Notre Dame’s special teams. He made 12 tackles, 10 on special teams, including eight on kickoff coverage.

Junior Season (2013): Played in the season’s first six games, leading the team in tackles at the time of his injury against Arizona State. Had split starting duties with Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese.  Notre Dame’s Rockne Scholar Athlete.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Last spring, Grace underwent another surgery to help his leg—swapping out a steel rod that wasn’t quite taking. That all but meant the 2014 season was a goner, even if the official word out of Brian Kelly was hopeful.

Still, give credit to the athletic training staff that Grace is able to complete this comeback. I hinted at their role in this recovery last season, and Grace has publicly talked about the support he’s received as well.

There’s no player you should root for more to come back from injury than Grace. The team’s Rockne scholar-athlete of the year in 2013, Grace has all the leadership traits you could ask for in a football player, and has immense respect in the team’s locker room, earned while waiting his turn to play behind Manti Te’o for two seasons.

If this was five years ago, I suspect Grace would already be facing a medical hardship waiver and his football career in South Bend would be over. But the team’s enhanced medical staff and willingness to go above and beyond for its student-athletes with cutting edge rehabilitation techniques gives Grace the best chance he could possibly ask for to return from this injury.

While a return for the season opener against Rice is the goal, giving Grace a full calendar year to return isn’t unreasonable. If that means getting him back for the stretch run, it’s better than most should have expected. Notre Dame has a good experience on their side in the return of Torii Hunter from a freak bone break. But even that came after a setback in recovery, necessitating a redshirt 2013 season.

Grace is a senior with two years of competition remaining. So while the timing for the injury is unfortunate, getting anything out of the linebacker this season would be a huge bonus for Grace and the Irish.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

At this point, we just need to see how Grace looks when he’s back on the field. We’ve heard repeatedly from Brian Kelly how well Grace’s recovery is going, but at the same time we’ve also heard that there’s still work to be done before Grace is back to his full explosiveness.

It’s hard not to think of former Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich when you talk about Grace. Herzlich heroically returned from bone cancer in his leg and just recently signed a new two-year deal with the New York Giants.

Grace wasn’t the standout that Herzlich was when he got injured, but he had the potential to be that good. If Grace can fully recover and salvage an NFL career after some dark, dark days, it’d be a tremendous story and a credit to a very impressive kid.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Are you going to doubt Grace? Because I sure don’t want to. That being said, how he fits into the puzzle remains to be seen.

You have to assume Joe Schmidt returns to the middle of the Irish defense. He was the mental hub of the unit in 2014, and his departure all but coincided with the demise of the unit. Throw in a promising young linebacker in Nyles Morgan, and Grace is competing for playing time with two very good linebackers.

Setting aside Grace’s recovery—which is the ultimate barometer—where Notre Dame uses Jaylon Smith will likely dictate how much time Grace gets in packages. If Smith is shifting in and out and being utilized in the pass rush, Grace can play in the middle. And if Schmidt can cross-train at will, Grace and his size/reach advantage can hold ground at the mike spot.

Even if Grace plays a role similar to the one Cam McDaniel did as a senior captain, he’ll help the defense improve by just being in uniform and filling a leadership role. But if he’s healthy, Grace’s ceiling is so much higher than just spot duty, so here’s hoping that he gets some of the spoils that he richly deserves.

 

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB
Jimmy Byrne, OL
Daniel Cage, DL
Amir Carlisle, RB
Nick Coleman, DB
Te’von Coney, LB
Shaun Crawford, DB
Scott Daly, LS
Sheldon Day, DL
Michael Deeb, LB
Micah Dew-Treadway, DL
Steve Elmer, RG
Matthias Farley, DB
Nicco Fertitta, DB
Tarean Folston, RB
Will Fuller, WR

 

Irish A-to-Z: Will Fuller

William Fuller, Kendell Beckwith
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Will Fuller had the best statistical season of any sophomore wide receiver in Notre Dame history. (Read that sentence again.)

After a largely anonymous freshman year where Fuller ran mostly “go” patterns, the Philadelphia native put together an All-American caliber campaign. His 15 touchdown catches tied the single-season record set by two guys named Tate and Samardzija (who were both decent baseball players).

Fuller scored touchdowns in just about every manner possible—deep routes, screens and everything in between. So while November’s swoon took the air out of the Irish, Fuller’s elite season was exactly that.

Now for the encore.

With a major change at quarterback and an offense that could switch preferred modes of transportation, Fuller besting his 2014 numbers might be a stretch. But there’s still plenty of room for improvement from Notre Dame’s best playmaker.

Let’s take a look at Will Fuller.

 

WILL FULLER
6’0″, 180 lbs.
Junior, No. 7, WR

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Fuller was a largely anonymous recruit when Notre Dame came on the scene, though they did beat out an offer—and brief commitment—from Penn State for the Philadelphia Catholic League standout.

Fuller’s star-rating went up after some big-time performances on the second-tier All-Star circuit. But outside of the Irish and Nittany Lions, only Boston College and Rutgers gave offers at the BCS level.

(So credit BK for some diamond-in-the-rough recruiting…)

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Played in all 13 games, starting against Oklahoma, USC and Air Force. Made six catches for 160 yards on the season, with a team-leading 26.7 yards per catch. Scored on a 47-yard completion against Air Force. Also chipped in eight yards on two rushing attempts.

Sophomore Season (2014): Honorable Mention All-American, Sports Illustrated. Notre Dame’s Offensive Player of the Year. Started all 13 games, leading the team in catches (76), yards (1,094) and touchdown catches (15). Had touchdowns in 11 of 13 games, with eight of his touchdown catches coming from 20 yards or more out.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Hear that? It’s me, patting myself on the back.

I’ve gone on the record saying that Fuller will go for 1,000 yards in 2014 and there’s no reason to back away from it now. While Fuller needs to prove he has the consistency — and durability — to play dominant football week in and week out, the Irish offense has too many weapons to cover.  Single-coverage over the top against Fuller could end up with the sophomore putting up big numbers in a hurry.

Again, what makes these kind of predictions difficult is the fact that there are other options at receiver. DaVaris Daniels should have a monster 2014. Corey Robinson looks poised to do so as well. Add in the options at slot receiver and a veteran like Chris Brown and this is hardly like the early years of Brian Kelly’s offense, desperately searching for a No. 2 to take the pressure off of Michael Floyd.

Fuller has great hands and the ability to do more than run vertically. We should see that and expect him to sneak up on opponents, a sophomore surge that should put Fuller on the map.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Throw me in the contingency that just doesn’t get why Fuller isn’t getting more love on a national level. This kid sliced and diced just about every defense he faced, with only Fuller capable of slowing himself down—drops and mental miscues seemingly the only thing plaguing his game.

He doesn’t have a freaky, NFL No. 1 receiver body, but he sure does a lot of things that separate him from the pack. And while Brian Kelly was slow to call Fuller a “No. 1 receiver,” it didn’t take too long for him to change his tune, all but saying that Fuller can do what he wants when he wants to, as long as he keeps developing as a player and keeps his head in the game.

Of course, Fuller snuck up on people last season. A marked man in 2015, we’ll see how he does with a safety over the top and a new quarterback throwing to him. But if he puts together another season close to his last, there’s a real question whether Fuller finishes his four seasons or just heads to the NFL after 2015.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Fuller’s trajectory is eerily similar to that of Golden Tate, though Fuller is probably a better vertical player than Tate, while the current Lions standout does better in traffic and as a playmaker with the ball in his hands.

In many ways, Fuller reminds me of a super-charged TJ Jones, a smooth receiver who has an extra gear that Jones didn’t possess—telling, considering Jones logged a 4.4 during his combine 40-yard dash.

All the comparisons in the world don’t replace a prediction for 2015, an educated guess with a lot of variables at play now that Malik Zaire is running the offense and Mike Sanford was brought in to recharge the playbook. The biggest question will be opportunity—will Fuller get the chances to make plays that he did with Everett Golson at quarterback?

I’m saying yes. Not just because Zaire and Fuller connected for the biggest play of the Blue-Gold game on a perfect deep ball by Zaire, but also because of the play they didn’t connect on, a sure touchdown that hit Fuller’s hands against USC in a lopsided contest.

Fuller will be expected to pull down those throws in 2015. And he likely will with another season of focus and maturity taking his game to the next level. So while the receiving depth chart is deeper than it’s ever been and the running game will take precedent, Brian Kelly is still the same guy running the program.

So if you think he’s forgetting about one of the nation’s most dangerous receivers, I’ve got some natural grass from Notre Dame Stadium to sell you.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB
Jimmy Byrne, OL
Daniel Cage, DL
Amir Carlisle, RB
Nick Coleman, DB
Te’von Coney, LB
Shaun Crawford, DB
Scott Daly, LS
Sheldon Day, DL
Michael Deeb, LB
Micah Dew-Treadway, DL
Steve Elmer, RG
Matthias Farley, DB
Nicco Fertitta, DB
Tarean Folston, RB

Offseason Mailbag: The ides of July

New Mailbox
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Long time, no mailbag. Let’s change that.

Have a question about the 2015 Irish? Or maybe about the insanity that comes with writing Irish A-to-Z? Or anything else?

Drop it below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.

Offseason Q&A: Temple

Matt Rhule
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After a rough opening stretch to begin the season, Notre Dame takes a well deserved week off after playing USC. They return on Halloween in the City of Brotherly Love to face Temple in Lincoln Financial Stadium, where the Temple Owls await.

Last the Irish saw Temple, first-year head coach Matt Rhule was rebooting a program Steve Addazio left for Boston College and Tommy Rees was going long and throwing deep balls for touchdowns. But since then, the Owls have made steady progress, turning a game that seems to be a mismatch into one that actually deserves some attention.

To help us with that, Mike Gibson of Rant Sports and Temple Football Forever joins us. We chat about the job Rhule’s done, a defensive that might be the best one nobody’s heard of, and the hopes for an on-campus stadium.

 

At first glance, it’s really amazing the turnaround job that’s taking place at Temple under Matt Rhule. At just 40 years old, Rhule is a rising star in the profession. What’s the state of the program heading into 2015 and being one of the better teams in the AAC?

The state of the program is good as far as the talent level. All 11 starters return from the No. 4 scoring defense in the country, led by All-American Linebacker candidate Tyler Matakevich. Nobody is safe as at least three of those positions could be upgraded by newcomers (redshirts and incoming freshmen).

The coaching staff, though, is pretty inexperienced, with no guys having been a head coach anywhere. The offensive coordinator, Marcus Satterfield, is from Tennessee-Chattanooga. The defensive coordinator (Phil Snow) last coached at Eastern Michigan.

 

It’s hard to look at Temple without noticing their defense. One of the best statistical units in the country returns all 11 starters. Tyler Matakevich has had 100 tackles in each of his first three seasons — and looks like a lock to do so again in 2015. What makes him so good? And is it fair to call him the star of this Temple team?

What makes this group so good and what do you expect to see in 2015?

Yes, it is fair to call Tyler the star of this team. He’s always around the ball, a heat-seeking missile who always seems to avoid getting blocked. He’s extremely tough.

It’s more than just Matakevich. The defensive line is much more active and a pass-rushing force than it was against Notre Dame two years ago. Nate D. Smith is almost as good a LB as Matakevich and Tavon Young and Sean Chandler are outstanding cornerbacks. There are no more Anthony Robeys, who got lit up at ND two years ago.

 

It seems like the Temple offense is the counterpoint to the defense. And P.J. Walker’s struggles down the stretch last season had to be frustrating to watch. Is he the answer at quarterback? Is there another option? Or was last year just the growing pains that come with being a sophomore?

P.J. lost his comfort zone when Robbie Anderson flunked out of school (he was accepted back into school and the program in late June). Anderson is the best receiver in my opinion in Temple history and that includes Steve Watson (Denver Broncos) and Leslie Shepherd (Redskins) and Rob Streater (Raiders).

P.J. had a great year (20 touchdowns, 8 int) as a true freshman and nine of those touchdowns were to Anderson over the last 5 games. Compound that with Temple failing to devise a scheme to protect him in the pocket (no blocking backs, plenty of empty backfields) and P.J. looked shell-shocked back there at times.

Rhule promises those protection schemes will change. He is the answer at quarterback. He reminds me very much of Teddy Bridgewater. He can be that good.

 

You’ve been vocal on the need for Temple to build its own on-campus stadium. While Notre Dame coming to the Linc might actually help sell the place out, it looks like the opposite of a home field advantage. What would a stadium do for the Temple program and what’s the progress report on the quest to build one?

At the latest BOT meeting, there was no discussion (none) of a new stadium and the next meeting is July 14. I doubt they will discuss it even then. (Mike talked about the importance of yesterday’s meeting on his blog.)

I’m neutral on a stadium. I like Notre Dame and Penn State coming to Philadelphia and I don’t think that will ever happen if Temple built a 30K on-campus stadium. I think Jeff Lurie would probably lock Temple out if that happened. He’s not as civic-minded as, say, Mr. Rooney is with Pitt in Pittsburgh. The only people who are talking about it are Temple fans on message boards.

 

There will be 35K Temple fans there and 35K Notre Dame fans. It will be like an old-fashioned Big 5 basketball game at the Palestra. From 2009-2011, Temple was 14-4 at the Linc. Not a bad home record.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Tarean Folston

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
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Entering 2015, there’s no denying Tarean Folston is Notre Dame’s starting running back. We can talk about C.J. Prosise’s successful spring. We can wonder when Greg Bryant is going to reach his 5-star potential. Or we can maybe just appreciate the best Irish running back since—when, Julius Jones?

Folston is coming off an impressive sophomore season, running for close to 900 yards and chipping in 190 more yards via the pass. After averaging just eight carries a game through early October, Folston took over the ground game, carrying the load the rest of the way — just like he did during his freshman season.

While there were some games where Folston disappeared, that shouldn’t be possible in 2015, with Greg Bryant reportedly suspended for four games and Prosise still likely having some pass-catching responsibilities.

So looking for a breakout star to emerge? Folston is a solid bet.

 

TAREAN FOLSTON
5’9.5″, 214 lbs.
Junior, No. 25, RB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Notre Dame sweat out a late visit to Auburn and Gus Malzahn applying serious pressure on Signing Day to land the four-star prospect. Folston was Florida’s 4A first-team All-State running back, a do-everything high school player.

Had offers from Oregon, Florida, Florida State and a few dozen other programs before picking Notre Dame in early January. He was an Under Armour All-American.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Played in 12 games, starting two as a true freshman. Nearly set a single-game freshman rushing record when he ran for 140 yards against Navy, the most since 1999. Named Offensive Newcomer of the Year.

Sophomore Season (2014): Ran for 889 yards and caught 190 yards worth of passes as the team’s leading rusher. Averaged over 5.0 yards per carry for the second-straight season. Broke 100 yards in four out of five games, coming two yards shy against North Carolina of making it five out of six.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

If Folston would’ve gotten some more carries earlier in the season—or if Brian Kelly would’ve used Folston more—he’d have broken 1,000 yards. Funnily enough, I had his number of carries pegged exactly right, meaning that I expected more from not just the young back, but the offensive line.

It might sound silly, but I expect Folston to run for 1,000 yards, the first back to do that for the Irish since Cierre Wood in 2011. He’d need to get around 175 carries to do so, but that number seems reasonable with a more dynamic running game and saving some touches for Bryant (who could get 150 as well) with McDaniel picking up around 75.

For as excited as Irish fans are for Bryant’s breakout season, 2014 could be all about Folston, providing he stays healthy. With the Irish capable of moving at tempo and utilizing Everett Golson’s skills in the zone read, the Irish running game could become a very deadly weapon, especially with the depth to stay fresh.

Ultimately, it’ll be interesting to see what Folston’s ceiling is. He’s smooth enough to contribute as both a runner and receiver. He’s strong enough to be used around the goal line. But it’s hard to know what his ceiling is athletically, though he’s one of the most versatile football players on the Irish roster right now.

Ripping carries away from McDaniel and Bryant won’t be easy. But feeding the ball to a talented back like Folston will be too tempting, even for a head coach that loves throwing the ball around.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Folston will learn a ton from new running backs coach Autry Denson. In many ways, he’s got a lot in common with the Denson, the former player. Neither are a burner, though Folston has more than adequate speed. And there’s a smoothness to his game that didn’t exist in Denson’s, a grinder that was a max effort back that extended his career to Sundays. If that rubs off of Folston, all the better.

This is an NFL running back. He’ll need to continue making strides and eliminate the games where he goes hiding. But that’ll happen in a more run-oriented offense, especially if Folston gets off to the quick start Notre Dame will need from him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I’m doubling down on Folston. I expect the biggest season from a running back in the Kelly era — and I’m pegging Folston for a 1,200 yard, double-digit touchdown 2015.

Part of this confidence comes from seeing what Mike Sanford did riding a running QB and top-shelf back at Boise State. The other part comes from seeing Notre Dame’s offensive line figure itself out this spring instead of mixing and matching into fall camp.

But mostly it comes from the natural talent I see with Folston, a back who’ll get better as he collects touches. There’s nobody to steal them from Folston to begin the season. And after he establishes himself, there’s nobody who should take them away from him, either.

So stay healthy and Notre Dame will have a running back to showcase.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB
Jimmy Byrne, OL
Daniel Cage, DL
Amir Carlisle, RB
Nick Coleman, DB
Te’von Coney, LB
Shaun Crawford, DB
Scott Daly, LS
Sheldon Day, DL
Michael Deeb, LB
Micah Dew-Treadway, DL
Steve Elmer, RG
Matthias Farley, DB
Nicco Fertitta, DB