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 will approach Texas game thinking four arrested players will play

Notre Dame will approach Texas game thinking four arrested players will play

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — While Notre Dame’s four active players who were arrested in Fulton County, Ind. earlier this month still have to go through the university’s Office of Community Standards, all signs are pointing to linebacker Te’von Coney, running back Dexter Williams, cornerback Ashton White and receiver Kevin Stepherson being available against Texas. 

Those four players were all formally charged with possession of marijuana in Fulton County on Monday, and Coney and Stepherson appeared in court and entered not guilty pleas on Tuesday. Safety Max Redfield, who was dismissed from the program two days after his arrest, was formally charged with possession of a handgun without a license and possession of marijuana, and pleaded not guilty to both charges. 

When asked why Redfield’s punishment was different than the other four Irish players in the car, Kelly confirmed that it was because of the handgun allegedly in his possession. 

“That changed the whole situation, and that's what caused the dismissal,” Kelly said. “And as an upperclassman not really living up to the standards that I set. The other four guys, we're talking about possession of marijuana and me dealing with that situation. It was the handgun that was the game changer.”

Senior cornerback Devin Butler, who was charged with resisting arrest and battery to a police officer last week, remains indefinitely suspended, Kelly said. 

Coney, Williams, White and Stepherson still will have hearings in front of Notre Dame’s Office of Community Standards, which received reports on each today and will likely begin their review process shortly, Kelly said. It seems unlikely any of them would receive discipline from the university that would affect their status to play in the Texas game and beyond given all four were first-time offenders and only charged with possession of marijuana. 

Kelly said he didn’t consider suspending those four players given he never has gone that route for a first-time marijuana possession or use offense. All four will be subject to random drug testing in the future. 

“I think all drug testing programs need to be educational first,” Kelly said. “And if you find as though that that is not changing somebody through counseling and education, then I believe there needs to be a punitive component.”

So for now, Notre Dame will commence practice for Texas expecting Coney, Williams, White and Stepherson to play. Coney is listed on Notre Dame’s depth chart as its No. 2 Mike (middle) linebacker, while Stepherson is the No. 2 X (field) receiver behind Torii Hunter Jr. and Williams will split kickoff returns with C.J. Sanders and back up Tarean Folston and Josh Adams at running back. Those three guys are likely to play on Sunday, while White could see time on special teams or in a reserve cornerback role, too. 

“The university will work their process, and we'll continue to move forward,” Kelly said. “There's no deadline, per se. But we kind of work as if they're going to play, and if something changes, the university will let us know.”

Breaking down Notre Dame's Week 1 depth chart

Breaking down Notre Dame's Week 1 depth chart

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — We’ve finally reached game week after a long offseason, and with that, Notre Dame released its first unofficial two-deep depth chart of 2016 on Tuesday. A few notes and observations from it:

— Sixth-year graduate student Avery Sebastian is listed as Notre Dame’s starting free safety over freshman Devin Studstill. “Sebastian's had a good camp,” coach Brian Kelly said. “He's been really rock solid.” Kelly sees Sebastian as someone who won’t be prone to mistakes, and he’ll replace dismissed senior Max Redfield even though the more natural in-the-box safety will be playing out of position. 

— Junior Andrew Trumbetti jumped ahead of redshirt sophomore Jay Hayes after Hayes missed a few days of practice due to a high ankle sprain. Hayes had taken most of Notre Dame’s first team reps at weakside defensive end since the end of spring practice, but Kelly said “being out five or six days in a very competitive situation gave Andrew just enough opportunity to take more reps and put himself in a really good position.”

— Three of the four players who were arrested earlier this month but not suspended (RB Dexter Williams, WR Kevin Stepherson, LB Te’von Coney) appeared on the depth chart. Williams will split No. 1 kick return duties with receiver C.J. Sanders, while Stepherson is Torii Hunter’s backup and Coney will be behind Nyles Morgan at Mike linebacker (Kelly said Coney, a natural Will linebacker, has been cross-training at Mike). Ashton White didn’t earn a No. 2 cornerback nod, with those going to sophomore Nick Coleman and freshman Julian Love. All four players are expected to play this Sunday against Texas. 

— There weren’t any surprises on the offensive two-deep. As expected, the No. 1 QB is listed as DeShone Kizer or Malik Zaire, while top running back duties will be split between Tarean Folston and Josh Adams. 

— There are five true freshmen on the defensive two deep: weakside defensive end Daelin Hayes, Sam (outside) linebacker Jamir Jones, cornerback Julian Love, strong safety Jalen Elliott and free safety Devin Studstill. Expect more than just those five freshmen to see snaps this year, too (for example, Kelly said freshman defensive end Julian Okwara will travel with the team to Texas) which underscores how young a lot of Notre Dame’s defensive depth will be this fall. 

Notre Dame’s full depth chart is below (players with "OR" are listed in alphabetical order)

Quarterback
1. DeShone Kizer (RS sophomore) OR Malik Zaire (RS junior)

Running back
1. Josh Adams (sophomore) OR Tarean Folston (RS junior)

W (Boundary) receiver
1. Equanimeous St. Brown (sophomore)
2. Miles Boykin (RS freshman) 

Z (Slot) receiver
1. C.J. Sanders (sophomore)
2. Corey Holmes (RS sophomore)

X (Field) receiver
1. Torii Hunter Jr. (RS junior)
2. Kevin Stepherson (freshman)

Left tackle
1. Mike McGlinchey (RS junior)
2. Hunter Bivin (RS junior)

Left guard
1. Quenton Nelson (RS sophomore)
2. Trevor Ruhland (RS freshman)

Center
1. Sam Mustipher (RS sophomore)
2. Mark Harrell (Graduate student)

Right guard 
1. Colin McGovern (RS junior)
2. Tristen Hoge (RS freshman)

Right tackle
1. Alex Bars (RS sophomore)
2. Tommy Kraemer (freshman)

Weakside defensive end
1. Andrew Trumbetti (junior)
2. Jay Hayes (RS junior) OR Daelin Hayes (freshman)

Strongside defensive end
1. Isaac Rochell (senior)
2. Jonathan Bonner (RS sophomore)

Nose guard
1. Daniel Cage (junior) OR Jarron Jones (Graduate student)

Defensive tackle
1. Jerry Tillery (sophomore)
2. Elijah Taylor (RS freshman)

Sam (outside) linebacker
1. James Onwualu (senior)
2. Jamir Jones (freshman)

Will (inside) linebacker
1. Greer Martini (junior)
2. Asmar Bilal (RS freshman)

Mike (middle) linebacker
1. Nyles Morgan (junior)
2. Te’von Coney (sophomore)

Cornerback 
1. Shaun Crawford (RS freshman)
2. Nick Coleman (sophomore)

1. Cole Luke (senior)
2. Julian Love (freshman)

Strong safety
1. Drue Tranquill (junior)
2. Jalen Elliott (freshman)

Free safety
1. Avery Sebastian (6th-year graduate student)
2. Devin Studstill (freshman)

Kick returner
1. C.J. Sanders (sophomore) OR Dexter Williams (sophomore)

Punt returner 
1. C.J. Sanders (sophomore)
2. Chris Finke (RS freshman)

Holder
1. Montgomery VanGorder (RS sophomore)
2. DeShone Kizer (RS sophomore)

Placekicker
1. Justin Yoon (sophomore)
2. Tyler Newsome (RS sophomore)

Punter
1. Tyler Newsmen (RS sophomore)
2. Jeff Riney (RS freshman)

Long snapper
1. Scott Daly (graduate student)
2. John Shannon (freshman)

Kickoffs
1. Tyler Newsome (RS sophomore)
2. Justin Yoon (sophomore)

After 'year off,' Mike Denbrock ready to develop Notre Dame's next crop of WRs

After 'year off,' Mike Denbrock ready to develop Notre Dame's next crop of WRs

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame faced a similar question in 2014 it faces now: Who’s going to catch the ball?

Two years ago, Notre Dame entered the season having lost 70 percent of its receptions, 74 percent of its receiving yards and 78 percent of its receiving touchdowns from the 2013 season. The answer to the question turned out to be a guy who only had six catches as a freshman the previous year — Will Fuller.

Notre Dame might or might not have another breakout candidate like Fuller on its roster this year. But there’s a constant between 2014 and 2016: wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock.

The Irish are without Fuller (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 touchdowns), who became a first-round pick of the Houston Texans after turning pro earlier this year, along with Chris Brown (48 catches, 597 yards, four touchdowns), Amir Carlisle (32 catches, 355 yards, one touchdown) and Corey Robinson (16 catches, 200 yards, one touchdown) at the receiver position.

Add in the losses of running back C.J. Prosise (26 catches, 308 yards, one touchdown) and tight ends Alize Jones (13 catches, 190 yards) and Chase Hounshell (one catch, six yards), and Notre Dame has to replace 82 percent of its 2015 receptions, 87 percent of its receiving yards and 84 percent of its receiving touchdowns this fall.

“It’s like starting over,” Denbrock said. “Last year was kind of a little bit of a year off for me, quite frankly. I mean, I had guys that had heard me say the same things for three years and had kind of got used to being out there in the fray and doing it. Now it kind of regenerates itself and we start all over again, which for me is kind of exciting.

“I love the challenge, I love the dynamic of the group. I love their attention to trying to do things the right way, we’re just a little bit inexperienced and we’re learning how to do things the right way.”

Denbrock is in his fifth year coaching Notre Dame’s wide receivers (he spent 2010 and 2011 as the Irish tight ends coach and helped develop Tyler Eifert there, too) and has overseen that regeneration of a receiving corps after the losses of three go-to options in Michael Floyd, T.J. Jones and Fuller. And while an offense requires all its units — quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, tight ends and offensive linemen — working together to succeed, it’s worth noting Notre Dame’s passing S&P+ rankings since Denbrock took over the Irish receivers:

2012: fifth

2013: 15th

2014: 13th

2015: eighth

Even if you might view some of those rankings as a bit bullish — like 2012’s, which seems high for a year in which Notre Dame deployed a conservative run-first offense — they’re solid evidence of Denbrock’s success in developing reliable pass-catchers.

“He's someone that doesn’t take anything less than what you can give,” redshirt junior receiver and captain Torii Hunter Jr. said. “He expects you to give 100 percent all the time. He just wants you to max out your potential, whatever it may be. And I’m grateful for the type of coach that he is because he never lets us get away with half-done.”

Of course, it helps that Notre Dame has recruited exceedingly well at the receiver position over the last few years. Jones, DaVaris Daniels, Corey Robinson, Fuller, Hunter, Corey Holmes, Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin, C.J. Sanders, Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley were all Rivals four-star recruits, while three-star recruit Chris Brown developed into a rock-solid player and fellow three-star prospect Kevin Stepherson impressed during spring and preseason camp (he's expected to play against Texas despite his arrest earlier this month).

While coach Brian Kelly said he’s “concerned” and that all those inexperienced receivers — St. Brown, Sanders, Boykin, Holmes, Claypool, McKinley, Stepherson and ex-walk-on Chris Finke — are “suspects,” he has an immense amount of trust in Denbrock. The two have coached together for 16 non-consecutive seasons, with Denbrock serving as both an offensive and defensive coordinator, a tight ends coach, a wide receivers coach and an associate head coach. Denbrock, too, has coached offensive line and linebackers at various stops in his 30-year coaching career.

“He knows the offense and the system and he knows what I look for and what I'm trying to do, and so it's a great relationship because I don't have to micromanage him,” Kelly said. “All I have to do is kind of say, this is the direction I would like to go, and he's off and running.

“So any time you have that, and a longstanding relationship with somebody that knows exactly where you want to go, it allows to you do so many other things and it allows me to help coach some of the players at a level, a grass roots level that sometimes the head coach doesn't get a chance to do.”

There’s been some inconsistency with players during practice in August, but that’s to be expected with such a green group.

“He’s on us hard,” St. Brown said. “He knows he has to be harder than ever because we have a young group of receivers.”

But why should 2016, even with all the uncertainty surrounding that position, be any different? There’s that saying that you should never bet against a streak. And Denbrock is on a pretty good streak.

“I just think you gotta be very consistent and very demanding with what you ask them to do and not let their youthfulness be an excuse for not playing at the level they should play at,” Denbrock said. “They get it, they understand it, and they’re growing.”