Alabama center Jones gets much-anticipated green light

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Alabama center Jones gets much-anticipated green light

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Barrett Jones returned to Alabama's offensive line in practice this week, quelling fears the All-American center would miss the BCS Championship against Notre Dame on Monday.

Jones previously had not practiced with the Tide following the SEC Championship as he dealt with a sprained left foot. He's the best player on Alabama's vaunted offensive line, and without him the Tide certainly would've had a more difficult time going up against Notre Dame similarly-vaunted front seven.

"Im just happy for him being back," left guard Chance Warmack told reporters Wednesday upon Alabama arriving in Miami. "Hes practicing with us and hes doing a really good job right now."

Jones has been a stalwart on Alabama's offensive line since its 2009 championship season. Monday will mark his third championship game appearance in the last four years, but he doesn't see experience being a key point in Alabama's favor on Jan. 7.

I think that might be a little overplayed," Jones said. "Once you get on the field its going to be about not necessarily whos the best team, its going to be about who plays the better game that day. Certainly our coaches have been in these situations and have learned how to effectively prepare us for the National Championship game. I think if there is an advantage that might be it.

Brian Kelly, though, feels he's gone through all the necessary channels to prepare Notre Dame despite his inexperience in the championship field. The third-year Irish coach quickly reached out to coaches at LSU and Oregon to get their input on a preparation schedule, and feels he and his staff successfully navigated uncharted waters to get their players prepared for Jan. 7.

"We've used all the models out there at our disposal to make sure that happens," Kelly said.

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. Deon McIntosh (Freshman)
3B. 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

Notre Dame unit preview: DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and the quarterbacks

Notre Dame unit preview: DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and the quarterbacks

With the start of Notre Dame preseason camp fast approaching, 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. DeShone Kizer (Redshirt sophomore)
1B. Malik Zaire (Redshirt junior)
2. Brandon Wimbush (Sophomore)
3. Ian Book (Freshman)

All eyes will be on Notre Dame’s quarterback competition in August, with coach Brian Kelly saying after spring practice Kizer and Zaire were entering the summer on an even playing field. Zaire needed the spring to catch up to Kizer in terms of some of the offensive wrinkles installed after his season-ending ankle injury in the second week of the season. 

Both quarterbacks will get an opportunity to win the starting job during preseason camp, though the slight edge has to go to Kizer given his experience (11 starts) against that of Zaire (three starts). While Zaire’s potential remains high (he did, after all, quarterback Notre Dame’s best win of the season last year, that 38-3 shellacking of Texas), Kizer showed last fall plenty of the traits Kelly has wanted out of a quarterback since arriving in South Bend in December of 2009. Kizer takes coaching well and rarely made the same mistakes on a week-to-week basis, and he accounted for 31 touchdowns with some solid other numbers, too. 

That’s not to say Zaire can’t win the job next month, but he probably has more of an uphill climb to earn it than Kizer does. 

Biggest question: When will a starting QB be announced?

Kelly said during spring practice he wants his offense to form an identity around a starting quarterback, so don’t expect this decision to drag on until right before kickoff of the Texas game (Ohio State’s handling of the Cardale Jones-J.T. Barrett competition last year stands as a lesson in how to not make a quarterback and an offense comfortable). The preseason camp portion of Notre Dame’s August practices usually runs for about two weeks, so with a start date of Aug. 6, expect Kelly to announce a starter sometime after Aug. 20. 

Whether that announcement becomes public is another question, but Kizer, Zaire and Notre Dame’s offense likely will have have about two weeks of practice/meetings before the Texas game knowing who their starting quarterback is. 

Youthful impact

Wimbush appeared in two games last year, with Kelly, Mike Sanford & Co. seeing the necessity to burn his redshirt to get him in-game reps in case he needed to take meaningful snaps in a College Football Playoff race. Kelly in the spring walked back a comment he made in February about planning to redshirt Wimbush this fall, but if Kizer and Zaire both stay healthy, Notre Dame would probably prefer to keep the talented sophomore on the sidelines in 2016. 

Book enrolled in Notre Dame this summer with far less hype than his predecessors (he was only a three-star recruit), but Sanford raved about his skillset and fit in the Irish offense on signing day in February. He’ll likely take a redshirt year and begin his quest to move up the rungs of the depth chart in 2017. 

They said it

“They are both that good. I already know that. But there will be a day, and we're going to have to say: It's time to go, he's our quarterback, everybody's behind him and we need to go, and that's who the quarterback is.” — Brian Kelly