Underdog Irish arrive in South Florida for BCS Championship

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Underdog Irish arrive in South Florida for BCS Championship

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Notre Dame touched down in South Florida Wednesday afternoon to a water cannon salute and plenty of fanfare. Following the team from South Bend to South Beach is an underdog status that has lingered for months, and won't go away unless the Irish find a way to beat Alabama on Monday at Sun Life Stadium.
"We've been underdogs before, and it didn't really change our preparation," coach Brian Kelly said. "And they haven't changed the way they've done their work."
That may be the case, but there's no question Notre Dame has drawn from an underdog mentality all season. After beating Oklahoma, a few players hinted there was a little added burn given so few expected them to win. And after clinching a berth in the BCS Championship with a win over USC, defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore was quick -- like, right when he got in the locker room -- to gloat at ESPN's Rick Reilly, who wrote plenty of scathing words regarding the Irish.
But for all those previous us-against-the-world games, that mentality only had a week to fester. It's been just over a month since the BCS Championship was set, and in that month most analysis has pointed to Alabama beating Notre Dame on Jan. 7.
"Certainly they've read all of the papers and all the pundits that have us as underdogs, they don't think much about that," Kelly said.
But there is at least some thought on the team, some motivation being drawn from Alabama's status as a heavy favorite. It'd be weird if there wasn't -- why not take a little extra swagger into Monday with an us-against-the-world mentality?
This is a Notre Dame team, though, that's good at being tactful with the media. There won't be any Jordan Lynch-esque bulletin board material coming from these guys in the next few days, something a loaded Alabama team could latch on to leading up to Monday.
"We've played a lot of games as underdogs this year, and a lot of people doubted us," wide receiver Robby Toma said. "Nothing's going to change. We're going to compete for four quarters, we're not going to guarantee a win but we're just going to go out there and play."
Temperature acclimation next up for Irish
While Notre Dame has practice indoors for most of its December workouts, adjusting to the humidity of South Florida is something the team will have to do in the next few days. Kelly said he wants his team to "feel the weather tomorrow" with a strenuous workout, and then adjust from there.
It's not that big of an issue, especially with plenty of time to prepare. But it's one that certainly merited a bit of consideration from Kelly and Notre Dame's coaching staff.
"Our guys are in great condition, great shape," Kelly said. "A couple of days outside, I think we'll be fine."
Kelly earns another award
Notre Dame picked up another individual honor Wednesday, with Brian Kelly receiving the Walter Camp National Coach of the Year Award -- his fourth major coaching honor stemming from the 2012 season. Kelly previously received the Home Depot Coach of the Year (ESPNABC), Eddie Robinson Award (FWAA) and AP Coach of the Year.
Kelly is the first Notre Dame coach to win the award, which dates back to 1967.
Notre Dame Bowl Preview Show tonight at 9 p.m.
A little tune-in plug: Comcast SportsNet will air a special 30-minute program looking back at Notre Dame's season and previewing the BCS Championship tonight at 9 p.m. It's hosted by Chuck Garfien and features Tony Rice, the last Notre Dame quarterback to win a National Championship.

Notre Dame announces new WR, strength coaches

Notre Dame announces new WR, strength coaches

Notre Dame on Thursday announced the formal hiring of two new assistant coaches, one of which featured a somewhat surprising postscript. 

The program's new wide receivers coach will be DelVaughn Alexander, who joins the Irish from Arizona State. Alexander coached tight ends for the Sun Devils in 2016 and spent 2012-2015 as ASU's wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator.

Prior to his stint in Tempe, Washington was Wisconsin's receivers coach from 2007-2011 and also spent time at UNLV, Oregon State and San Diego State. 

"I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country,” Alexander said. “Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” coach Brian Kelly said “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

In addition to Washington, Notre Dame announced the hiring of Matt Balis as strength and conditioning coach, with Balis replacing longtime Brian Kelly lieutenant Paul Longo in that position. Longo has "taken a leave of absence" from the Irish, according to the program's press release. 

Balis has served in strength coach roles at Houston (2001-2002), Utah (2004), (Florida 2005-2006), Virginia (2007-2008), Mississippi State (2009-2013) and UConn (2014-2016). At UConn, Balis worked under former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco; while at Utah and Florida, Balis worked with current Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. 

Whatever changes Balis brings to Notre Dame strength and conditioning will be necessary, as the Irish frequently ran out of gas late in games in 2016. By S&P+, Notre Dame had the second-best first quarter offense in college football last year, but ranked 90th in the fourth quarter. Similarly, Notre Dame's defense had its lowest ranking (61st) in the fourth quarter. 

Granted, some of those struggles were due to poor playcalling and gameplanning, but far too often did Notre Dame's players hit a metaphorical brick wall in the final 15 minutes. Perhaps an infusion of new energy into the weight room will help reverse that trend. 

"It's an honor and dream come true to be part of the Notre Dame football program," Balis said. "I'm humbled by this opportunity and I'll work hard everyday to give our players and program my absolute best."

"Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh," Kelly said. "He's already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn't be more excited to have him in place moving forward."

Notre Dame officially hires Clark Lea as linebackers coach

Notre Dame officially hires Clark Lea as linebackers coach

Mike Elko's first coaching staff as Notre Dame defensive coordinator is beginning to take shape, with the Irish announcing Thursday the hiring of Clark Lea as linebackers coach. 

Lea spent 2016 as Wake Forest's linebackers coach -- under Elko -- and previously held positions on coaching staffs at Bowling Green, Syracuse and UCLA. 

"Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” coach Brian Kelly said. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system -- having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”

In 2016, Lea coached Demon Deacons linebacker Marquel Lee, who was the only FBS player with 100 or more tackles, 20 or more tackles for a loss and 7 1/2 or more sacks last fall. Nationally, Lee ranked 62nd in tackles (105), 10th in tackles for a loss (20) and 53rd in sacks (7 1/2).

Lea also worked with former All-American linebacker Akeem Ayers at UCLA. 

The Nashville native and Vanderbilt alum (he earned both Bachelors and Masters degrees in political science) was also nominated by FootballScoop for its linebackers coach of the year award in 2012 while working with Elko at Bowling Green. 

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”