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 unit preview: Searching for the next go-to WR

Notre Dame unit preview: Searching for the next go-to WR

With the start of Notre Dame preseason camp approaching fast, we’re looking at what to expect from each unit that’ll take the field in primetime Sept. 4 against Texas at Darrell K. Royal Stadium. 

Depth Chart

W (Boundary)

1. Torii Hunter Jr. (Redshirt junior)
2A. Miles Boykin (Redshirt freshman)
2B. Alize Jones (Sophomore)
3. Chase Claypool (Freshman)

Z (Slot)

1A. C.J. Sanders (Sophomore)
1B. Corey Holmes (Redshirt sophomore)
2. Torii Hunter Jr. (Redshirt junior)

X (Field)

1. Equanimeous St. Brown (Sophomore)
2A. Torii Hunter Jr. (Redshirt junior)
2B. Kevin Stepherson (Freshman)
3. Javon McKinley (Freshman)

Hunter has the ability to play all three receiver positions, which is why he’s listed as the “backup” at the Z and X. He’ll probably take most of his reps, though, at the W, where Corey Robinson was in line to play before he retired due to suffering multiple concussions. 

Despite only catching 28 passes for 363 yards last year, Hunter is Notre Dame’s leading returning receiver, which is more a nod to the production lost from Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle. But Hunter took command of Notre Dame’s wide receivers during spring practice — despite barely getting any sleep due to his football, baseball and academic workload — and emerged as an offensive leader in March and April. 

Outside of Hunter, there’s plenty of young, untapped potential in this group. Coach Brian Kelly has raved about St. Brown from the day he set foot on campus, and Notre Dame believes his combination of blazing speed and good size (6-foot-4, 205) will make his a dynamic receiving threat as soon as this fall. Sanders flashed his playmaking ability by returning a kick and a punt for a touchdown last year, though surgery on his hip flexor knocked him out of spring practice and could slow him during preseason camp. 

Holmes and Stepherson both impressed at times during spring practice, too, and are set up to carve out roles in the Irish offense. And Jones is the wild card here — he worked a bit at the W during spring practice and his athletic 6-foot-4, 240 pound frame could create some matchup nightmares if he slides over from tight end. 

Biggest question: Who becomes DeShone Kizer/Malik Zaire’s go-to target?

Fuller became a get-out-of-jail free card almost immediately for Kizer last year, with that 39-yard game-winning heave at Virginia sparking a rock-solid season for the new Irish quarterback. Brown, too, used his savvy skills to make some big catches, like his touchdown at Fenway Park against Boston College. 

But with both of those guys gone, Kizer or Zaire will need to figure out who that reliable pass-catcher is. The good news is Notre Dame has had one every year of the Kelly era, from Michael Floyd to Tyler Eifert to T.J. Jones to Fuller. 

Hunter is the most experienced one of the bunch, though St. Brown or Jones could very well emerge as that guy, too. But given Notre Dame’s track record, wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock deserves the benefit of the doubt here. 

Youthful impact

McKinley and Claypool both were four-star members of Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class. There are some questions about whether or not Claypool, who was listed at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds on signing day, could someday move to tight end, but for now, he’ll get a shot as a receiver, probably on the boundary. 

Stepherson, a three-star recruit, was roundly praised by coaches and teammates for how quickly he picked up the Irish route concepts and offense during spring practice, and his ability to catch the ball at a full sprint over the middle makes him a candidate to contribute as a freshman. 

Notre Dame hasn’t shied away form playing freshmen receivers in the past, and without much experience in this group, there could be opportunities for all three first-year players to get on the field this fall. 

They said it

“There’s a lot to be gained from playing baseball, but you have to be a special individual, especially at this level. I think the gains are competitiveness, discipline and the maturity that he shows and his ability to handle it.” — Brian Kelly on Torii Hunter Jr., who was drafted and signed by the Los Angeles Angels this summer

Notre Dame unit preview: Is Alize Jones primed for a breakout at tight end?

Notre Dame unit preview: Is Alize Jones primed for a breakout at tight end?

With the start of Notre Dame preseason camp approaching fast, we’re looking at what to expect from each unit that’ll take the field in primetime Sept. 4 against Texas at Darrell K. Royal Stadium. 

Depth Chart

1A. Durham Smythe (Redshirt junior)
1B. Alize Jones (Sophomore)
2A. Tyler Luatua (Junior)
2B. Nic Weishar (Redshirt sophomore)
3. Jacob Matuska (Redshirt junior)

Smythe’s Week 2 injury against Virginia thinned this group quite a bit last year. As a group, Notre Dame’s tight ends only totaled 20 receptions for 233 yards and one touchdown (which came when Smythe scored on a fake field goal against Virginia). 

But with Smythe healthy, Jones feeling more comfortable and a dearth of experience at receiver, Scott Booker’s group should be relied on more in Notre Dame’s passing game this fall. The return of Luatua, who was welcomed back to the team this summer after initially deciding to transfer prior to spring practice, will help Notre Dame’s running efforts behind the physical 255-pound California native. 

Weishar could develop into a factor, too, as he enters his third year in the program. The Marist alum has solid receiving skills that could play well this fall, especially in the red zone. 

Biggest question: Is Alize Jones ready to break out? 

Jones accounted for most of Notre Dame’s tight end production last year (13 catches and 190 yards) but wasn’t satisfied with his first year on campus. It was an eye-opening experience for him: “I didn’t take enough time and I don’t think I took it too serious last year,” Jones said during spring practice. 

But even through some of that first-year turbulence, Jones showed glimpses of the outstanding athleticism and receiving skills that made him a sought-after recruit out of Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas. His 45-yard catch in the fourth quarter against Temple set up DeShone Kizer’s game-winning toss to Will Fuller, and he also had a 37-yard reception against UMass an a 35-yarder against USC. 

Whether Jones stays at tight end is another question. Notre Dame tried him out at its “W” receiver position this spring, and if he winds up sticking there, he could follow the Devin Funchess-like career arc plenty of Notre Dame fans prophesied when he signed with the Irish in February of 2015. But however the 6-foot-4, 240 pound Jones is used, he’s primed to develop into a key part of Notre Dame’s offense this fall. 

Youthful impact

Notre Dame didn’t sign a tight end in its 2016 recruiting class, but has two highly-touted players verbally committed to its class of 2017. Both Brock Wright (Cypress, Texas) and Cole Kmet (Arlington Heights, Ill.) are rated by Rivals as four-star recruits. 

They said it

“I know what it’s like to play Clemson and Ohio State and teams like that, playing against elite guys. Now going into my sophomore year, I’ve already done it. It’s just getting comfortable with everything, which I am. So I really feel like all the pieces are coming together.” — Alize Jones

Notre Dame unit preview: Tarean Folston, Josh Adams a strong 1-2 punch at RB

Notre Dame unit preview: Tarean Folston, Josh Adams a strong 1-2 punch at RB

With the start of Notre Dame preseason camp approaching fast, we’re looking at what to expect from each unit that’ll take the field in primetime Sept. 4 against Texas at Darrell K. Royal Stadium. Today: The running backs. 

Depth Chart

1A. Tarean Folston (Redshirt junior)
1B. Josh Adams (Sophomore)
2. Dexter Williams (Sophomore)
3A. Justin Brent (Junior)
3B. Deon McIntosh (Freshman)
3C. Tony Jones (Freshman)

In Adams and Folston, Notre Dame should have a dynamic 1-2 punch out of its backfield this fall. Adams broke Autry Denson’s freshman rushing record with 838 yards last year. The lightly-recruited Pennsylvania native showed excellent speed, vision and running back instincts — the latter of which were even more apparent in comparison to those of greenhorn back C.J. Prosise, who nonetheless rushed for over 1,000 yards last year. 

Folston suffered a torn ACL on his third carry of the season against Texas, which robbed him on a chance to build on his 889-yard sophomore season. He developed into a well-rounded running back in 2014, answering Brian Kelly’s challenge to improve his pass protection skills and catching 18 passes out of the backfield that year. 

While Adams and Folston are clearly atop the depth chart, Williams impressed coaches during the spring not so much for his burst and agility, but for his ability to grind out an extra yard or two after contact in the trenches. Kelly said Williams could be utilized as a short-yardage back this fall, though the former four-star recruit should have a few opportunities to showcase his explosive playmaking skills, too. 

Biggest question: Can Tarean Folston improve off 2013 and 2014?

Folston was the first offensive player to go down with a serious injury last year (defensive lineman Jarron Jones and defensive back Shaun Crawford both were hurt during preseason camp) and only had three carries for 19 yards. It wasn’t in the least bit the kind of season Folston hoped for.

The Cocoa, Fla. native thought a big 2015 season could vault him into NFL Draft consideration following his junior season. After putting together solid freshman and sophomore campaigns, Folston’s hope was to cement himself as Notre Dame’s feature running back and be a big part of a successful offense. 

Those efforts were delayed a year when Folston blew up his knee trying to bounce outside against Texas. The fact that Folston even participated in spring practice — even though he wore a non-contact jersey during March and April — was a positive sign, and Notre Dame expects him to be 100 percent for the start of preseason camp. If Folston can finally build off his first two seasons, it’ll provide a nice boost to the Irish offense, even if it’s a year behind schedule. 

Youthful impact

Jones and McIntosh were both rated as three-star recruits by Rivals coming from Bradenton and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., respectively. Ideally, Notre Dame won’t have to force either into action with three players ahead of them on the depth chart, but given the attrition that happened at this position last year, Jones and McIntosh aren’t guaranteed to redshirt this fall. 

The most important thing either player can do to get on the field quickly is pick up Notre Dame’s pass protection responsibilities. That’s a big part of why Adams, not the more highly touted Williams, played as a freshman in 2015. 

They said it

“Just going into practice with that appreciation — not saying I never had it, but you know, day in and day out knowing that I’m getting the opportunity to do what I love and not sitting at a table rehabbing just watching or on the sideline, freezing, just watching.” — Tarean Folston on returning to practice during the spring