ND notebook: Irish set for 'business trip' to South Florida

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ND notebook: Irish set for 'business trip' to South Florida

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Notre Dame arrives in South Florida Wednesday afternoon, less than a week from the team's date with Alabama in the BCS Championship. For the trip, coach Brian Kelly instilled an 11 p.m. curfew -- about three hours earlier than what he set last year for Notre Dame's appearance in the Champs Sports Bowl.

"You kinda get that feel for we're here for something bigger than just going out to Disney World and playing in a nice game," offensive lineman Chris Watt said. "We're here to win a national title for the school."

MORE: 'All hands on deck' for lagging Irish special teams

That's not to say Notre Dame went to Orlando in December of 2011 to goof off and then play in a football game, which they ultimately lost to Florida State. But Kelly said he's always wanted to reward his players for making a bowl game by letting them enjoy themselves a bit early in the trip.

"Of course you want to enjoy yourself," wide receiver DaVaris Daniels said. "And being at the Champs Sports Bowl, it's not the National Championship so of course you enjoy yourself, hang out with friends, do whatever."

That's not the case this time around. Nobody needs to remind Notre Dame players of the stakes on Monday, but the 11 p.m. curfew and constant focus on Alabama

"We're there on a business trip," Kelly said. "That's how we approach it they all understand what it's about going down to Miami. It's not enjoy South Beach. This is about preparing for a National Championship."

Watt 'wouldn't mind' move to center

Even with the biggest game Notre Dame has seen in the last 24 years looming, there's been plenty of talk about next year's Irish squad over the last month or so. On Saturday, Kelly singled out a few players who looked good in the first few weeks of December practice -- specifically, quarterback Gunner Kiel, linebacker Jarrett Grace, offensive lineman Conor Hanratty, defensive end Jarron Jones and running back Will Mahone.

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Notre Dame will have to replace Braxston Cave and Mike Golic, Jr. on its offensive line next year, and replacing Cave could mean breaking up Chris Watt and Zack Martin, who paved the way for plenty of Notre Dame's rushing success on the left side of its line.

"Whatever the team needs," Watt said of a potential move to center. "I know Nick Martin's done a great job coming in and playing some center this year, as well as Mark Harrell. It'll be interesting to see during spring ball. I wouldn't mind, but it's another skillset to learn."

While Martin's decision to return was met with plenty of fanfare, Watt -- who has one more year of eligibility left -- didn't get a grand announcement. But in plenty of reports about Martin's return, Watt's name was mentioned next to his in discussing the strength of Notre Dame's 2013 line.

"I think I heard something that Zack and Chris Watt were coming back, so I hope that was my invitation," Watt quipped.

Martin's decision to return wasn't a slam dunk, either -- he was projected as roughly a second-round pick -- but Watt knew before almost everyone else, thanks to Martin signing a lease on an apartment with him for next year.

"He really didn't tell anyone," Watt laughed. "I was like 'I'm pretty sure you're coming back, right?' and he was 'oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you."

Tune-in plug: Notre Dame Bowl Preview show Tuesday at 9 on CSN

Comcast SportsNet will air the debut of our Notre Dame National Championship Bowl Preview program Wednesday at 9 p.m., hosted by Chuck Garfien with Tony Rice -- the last Notre Dame quarterback to win a title -- providing analysis on the 30-minute show. It features a pretty neat segment with Rice walking from the locker room to the field, reminiscing about his playing days at Notre Dame, and features in-depth breakdowns of the Jan. 7 BCS 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.”