Notre Dame notebook: Wrapping up the week in South Florida

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Notre Dame notebook: Wrapping up the week in South Florida

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- It's taken what feels like eons, but Notre Dame will play its first football game since Nov. 24 tonight. Wrapping up a few notes from the week in South Florida:
How much progress has Golson made?
Everett Golson has the respect of an Alabama defense that knows what it's like to be stung by a mobile quarterback. He's nowhere near the level of Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, but from a basic standpoint Alabama wants to do to him what they couldn't do against the eventual Heisman Trophy winner.
The unknown here, at least for those outside of Notre Dame's players and coaches, is how much Golson has improved in these last six weeks. After guiding Notre Dame to a win at Oklahoma in late October, Golson's confidence -- and his team's confidence in him -- took off. It didn't hurt, either, that he faced a string of below-average defenses after OU.
At the least, Golson's done a good job taking care of the football this year. But he'll have to do more than that against Alabama, and may even be tasked with winning the game for Notre Dame.
Whatever improvements Golson has made -- namely, in the ability to run an expanded playbook, with plenty of looks Alabama hasn't seen on tape -- may be key if Notre Dame has a shot at winning tonight.
A chance to show off for Wood
Cierre Wood's goal is to score a touchdown every time he touches the ball, since he hardly gets the consistent carries he's pined for all season. If this is Wood's final game in a Notre Dame uniform -- he said he'll decide whether to enter the NFL Draft after the BCS Championship -- he could certainly help his stock with a few gouging runs against Alabama's defense.
This is as prominent of a stage as he'll get. And not only could he show off for NFL teams, he could leave plenty of analysts scratching their heads as to why Wood didn't get more carries during the season.
Wood's a confident guy, whose swagger only grows every time he touches the ball. This is the same Wood who said of Manti Te'o earlier in the season: "He thinks he can guard me, but he cant. I dont care how good he is, he cant guard me."
Against Alabama, that same level of bravado could be a mental edge for whenever he touches the ball.
"I believe there isnt nobody out there that can tackle me, there isnt nobody out there that I havent faced that Im not better than," Wood previously boasted. "So with that being said, I go into every run that I get or every play, period, thinking that Im the baddest."
One last hurrah for Te'o
Te'o graduated last month and has one more game left in his collegiate career before his next journey begins. He's been as transcendent a player as Notre Dame has seen in a long time, someone whose tenure in South Bend will be remembered fondly whether or not the Irish win tonight.
Back in August on the outset of the 2012 season, coach Brian Kelly said Te'o "has unfinished business as it relates to this football team." Nobody figured that unfinished business would've been a trip to South Florida for the National Championship, but here we are. A Notre Dame win tonight would cement Te'o among the most legendary players in program history, a legacy few have had the chance to attain.
"I hope my legacy is just a guy who gave Notre Dame his all, a guy who really committed himself to the school, and I really feel fortunate to play under the Golden Dome and receive an education there," Te'o said Friday, selling himself short. "Just one who really gave everything he had."
A final thought
Notre Dame's secondary has done a fine job of limiting big plays this year, but it hasn't been all by their own doing. Consider this: The first -- and maybe only, save one deep ball to Marqise Lee -- team to really gouge Notre Dame's secondary was Miami. The problem was Philip Dorsett dropped two sure-fire touchdowns, setting the tone for a sloppy effort by the 'Canes in a 41-6 loss.
If A.J. McCarron and, say, Amari Cooper get the same chance Stephen Morris and Dorsett did, Notre Dame may not be so lucky. The Irish have successfully turned most every opposing offense they've faced into a one-dimensional unit, and this is a defense good enough to stop the run or pass as long as the threat of the other isn't there.
On the flip side, Alabama's defense looked beatable against two elite offenses in Georgia and Texas A&M. Those games have received plenty of focus in the last few weeks, but it's worth noting Alabama shut down two other solid offenses in Tennessee (13 points) and Michigan (14 points). Notre Dame is closer to those two offenses than Georgia and Texas A&M, although the Irish offense may need to play as well as the Bulldogs or Aggies to have a chance tonight.

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.”

Chip Long will have 'full responsibility' to call plays as Notre Dame's offensive coordinator

Chip Long will have 'full responsibility' to call plays as Notre Dame's offensive coordinator

Notre Dame on Monday officially announced the hiring of Chip Long as its next offensive coordinator, with coach Brian Kelly clearing any speculation about who will be calling plays in 2017.

"Chip will be given the full responsibility to call plays in 2017,” Kelly said. “His offense at Memphis displayed a unique blend of physicality, athleticism, versatility and explosiveness. Chip’s play-calling created mismatches all over the field and did it in a number of different ways. He likes to use players who can fill numerous roles in an array of formations, whether that be two and three tight ends or multiple running backs.

“Chip has experience coaching at almost every position on the offensive side of the ball. He’s worked for and learned from some of the most respected offensive minds in college football -- Bobby Petrino, Mike Norvell and Jeff Brohm -- to name a few.”

The 33-year-old Long spent the 2016 season as Memphis’ offensive coordinator, and despite the losses of coach Justin Fuente and quarterback Paxton Lynch, the Tigers’ offense remained productive. Memphis ranked 16th in scoring offense (38.8 points per game) and 34th in yards per play (6.25), and by S&P+ had the 37th-best offensive at the FBS level. 

"It’s an honor and privilege to have the opportunity to serve as the offensive coordinator at the University of Notre Dame,” Long said. “The challenge to lead at a university with such high standards is incredibly motivating. I’m very grateful to Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for extending this opportunity.

“It’s Notre Dame: the values, the culture, and the leadership. My wife, Kari, and I are excited to move to South Bend and to join the Notre Dame family.”

How Long adapts to coaching at a higher level than the American Athletic Conference — which, to be fair, is the best Group of Five conference — remains to be seen, though it's likely both he and Notre Dame will run the ball more than they did in 2016. Memphis ran the ball only 47.2 percent of the time on standard downs (first and 10, second and seven or fewer, third/fourth and four or fewer), which ranked 119th out of 128 FBS programs. Notre Dame’s lack of commitment to the run (55.7 percent standard down run rate, 86th) frequently put too much pressure on quarterback DeShone Kizer; with a first-time starter in Brandon Wimbush lined up for 2017, Notre Dame will have to rely on the run far more than it did in 2016. 

There was plenty of speculation Kelly would take over playcalling duties this fall, especially given the departures of associate head coach Mike Denbrock to Cincinnati and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford to Western Kentucky. Denbrock called plays the last two seasons. 

Other brief Notre Dame notes:

-- Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel reported Monday morning that Notre Dame will hire Wake Forest linebackers coach Clark Lea for the same position under newly-hired defensive coordinator Mike Elko, who worked with Lea in 2016. Prior to becoming Wake Forest's linebackers coach last year, the 35-year-old Lea spent three seasons as Syracuse's linebackers coach. Lea will take over the role filled by Mike Elston from 2015 to 2016, though Elston (who's also Notre Dame's recruiting coordinator) is expected to remain on staff in some capacity. 

-- Former Notre Dame linebacker Bob Crable, who played for the Irish from 1978-1981, was among the 13 former players and coaches elected to the College Football Hall of Fame's class of 2017 on Monday. He's the 46th former Notre Dame player or coach to be elected to the College Football Hall of Fame and first since Thom Gatewood in 2015. Former Irish kick returner/receiver Raghib Ismail and offensive lineman Aaron Taylor were both on the 2017 ballot but were not elected. 

-- While Notre Dame unveiled a new part of its 2017 identidy in Long, it lost the verbal pledge of a blue-chip recruit. According to Irish Illustrated, four-star athlete Paulson Adebo (Mansfield, Texas) backed off his verbal commitment to Notre Dame on Monday, a move which dropped the Irish out of Scout's top 10 class rankings. With the NCAA-mandated recruiting dead period being lifted on Wednesday, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 12th on Scout. Coaches not only will have to work to add to it in the coming weeks, but will have to push to keep what was a strong class together as the aftershocks of last fall's 4-8 season continue.