Chicago Colleges: Justin Ferguson

Notre Dame mailblog

January, 24, 2014
Jan 24
9:00
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It has been a while. What's on your minds?

Scott from St. Joseph, Mich., writes: Matt, disagree about Michigan State easily being the highlight of the season. The game was marred with questionable penalties and calling by MSU's staff. To me the highlight of the season was the second-half defense against USC. Being able to beat your biggest rival basically without a functional QB and on the hands of a defensive performance remnant of '12 was the highlight of the year for me.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame Celebration
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesPulling out a victory over Rose Bowl champion Michigan State was the biggest achievement for Notre Dame in 2013.
Matt Fortuna: I think both performances, to be fair, were far from aesthetically pleasing. And yes, we have to give Notre Dame's defense plenty of credit for its play in both games. But the circumstances are too big to ignore here. By beating Michigan State, Notre Dame helped reshape the national title picture. It was the only team to beat a very good Spartans squad, one that ended up winning the Rose Bowl. While it's always big to beat your archrival, let's also remember that USC was without Marqise Lee for the second half, committed 11 penalties and missed two field goals (from 40 and 46 yards), too. And I just can't erase the memory of the Fighting Irish offense coming to a standstill once Tommy Rees went down. No points from either team in the final 30 minutes of a primetime game? No thank you.

Matt from Pittsburgh writes: Matt, O-line starting 5 from LT-RT: Elmer, Hanratty, Martin, Lombard, Stanley? Also how do you see the D-line and linebackers forming out?

Matt Fortuna: That would probably be my early guess, though I'll keep a close eye on that group this spring since Martin will still be out. Matt Hegarty started at center in his place but provides plenty of flexibility, too, so it will be interesting to see where he fits into the picture next fall. My guess for defensive line would be Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, only because I don't know how ready Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) is. If he's 100 percent, it's easy to see him starting. And I'm anxious to watch Chase Hounshell, who saw the field as a true freshman in 2011 but has missed the last two seasons with shoulder injuries. Same with Jarrett Grace at the mike linebacker position (probably not this spring), with possibly Kendall Moore starting next to him. Jaylon Smith (dog) and Ishaq Williams (cat) will be expected to start if and when Brian VanGorder employs a 3-4 scheme, though he said last week he had not delved into schematics yet. Could we see Williams and/or Romeo Okwara play on the line some more? And where will Ben Councell fit into the picture once he's back from his ACL tear?

Jim from Chicago writes: Matt, What role do you see Torii Hunter Jr. having next year? Seemed to be the most athletic freshman WR before the injury. Can he work his way into the rotation with Daniels out in spring ball?

Matt Fortuna: He's the guy on offense, outside of Everett Golson, whom I most want to see this spring. The opportunities will be there for the taking with Daniels gone until the fall, and Hunter was able to battle back from that nasty leg injury to win offensive scout team player of the year. I'm also curious to see what kind of improvements Corey Robinson can make, given his size and potential. In limited practice viewings he seemed to be always making plays, but in games this season there were times where he looked like he could've used a couple of extra pounds.

Chris Kosiak (@C_K_42) writes: Justin Brent going to push for playing time next year? Or does he RS?

Matt Fortuna: It's probably too early to say, though, like Hunter, he'll have a great opportunity to showcase himself this spring with Daniels out. Last year Robinson and James Onwualu enrolled early and ended up taking advantage of the spring transfers of Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson, resulting in playing time during the 2013 season. Notre Dame's receiving corps was young then and is young again now, so playing time will likely be there for the taking.

Michael Hughes (@designwithmike) writes: More important to ND success in '14: Red-zone execution or finding good to great defensive leadership?

Matt Fortuna: Good question. I'll go with red-zone execution, since I expect this Notre Dame team to rely much more on its offense than it has so far in the Brian Kelly era. And that means the Irish will have to capitalize on more red-zone opportunities and score more points. With Golson back at the helm after a semester spent training with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. and an improving backfield, I think you'll see the Irish take more chances offensively. None of this is to minimize the importance of defensive leadership, but that's just such an unknown factor at this point, especially since we have yet to see these players get coached by and respond to VanGorder, who seems nothing like Bob Diaco from a personality standpoint.

Notre Dame first-year players to watch

June, 12, 2013
6/12/13
11:07
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Notre Dame has landed consecutive top-10 recruiting classes. Which players from those groups have the best chances of making an impact as first-year players this fall?

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's C.J. Prosise
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsC.J. Prosise had a 35-yard touchdown reception during the Blue-Gold Game this spring.
C.J. Prosise, WR: The 6-foot-2, 208-pound Prosise redshirted a safety last season. He switched to the offensive side of the ball before spring practices this year, and the early returns have been positive. The Petersburg, Va., native had a long touchdown catch in the open field during an open scrimmage this spring, and his 35-yard touchdown reception in the Blue-Gold game marked the only time the Irish offense reached the end zone in the spring contest. With the spring transfers of second-year receivers Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson, the opportunity is wide open for Prosise to seize the vacant slot position. He will likely enter camp as the leading candidate to bolster Notre Dame's struggling punt return unit, too.

Greg Bryant, RB: Bryant will not officially enroll at Notre Dame until June 17, but he has the potential to become an immediate contributor to the Irish offense. The ESPN150 prospect form Delray Beach, Fla., was ranked second nationally among running backs, making him one of the top running back recruits Notre Dame has landed in recent memory. The 5-foot-11, 197-pound Oklahoma de-commit should get a chance to compete in a deep but untested backfield after the departures of Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood.

Malik Zaire, QB: The early enrollee drew rave reviews from the staff this spring and figures to have a shot to play this fall after the suspension of Everett Golson. The southpaw is a dual-threat signal caller from Archbishop Alter in Kettering, Ohio. ESPN rated Zaire No. 6 among quarterbacks from the Class of 2013, and coach Brian Kelly said that he will get an opportunity to compete like everyone else in camp for the starting spot.

Corey Robinson/James Onwualu, WR: Both players enrolled this spring and found themselves getting plenty of time all over the field after Neal and Ferguson left the program. The 6-foot-4.5, 197-pound Robinson, the son of hoops Hall of Famer David, has the size and speed to go up and get anything in sight on the outside, as evidenced by a deep, diving, juggling catch he made during an open scrimmage. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Onwualu should also get a chance to contribute inside immediately after displaying flashes of athleticism early.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish spring wrap

May, 9, 2013
5/09/13
9:00
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2012 record: 12-1

2012 conference record: N/A

Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 8; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

QB Everett Golson, WR TJ Jones, WR DaVaris Daniels, LT Zack Martin, LG Chris Watt, RT Christian Lombard, DE Stephon Tuitt, NG Louis Nix, LB Dan Fox, LB Carlo Calabrese, LB Danny Spond, LB Prince Shembo, CB Bennett Jackson, CB KeiVarae Russell, S Matthias Farley

Key losses

RB Theo Riddick, RB Cierre Wood, WR Robby Toma, TE Tyler Eifert, C Braxston Cave, RG Mike Golic Jr., DE Kapron Lewis-Moore, LB Manti Te'o, S Zeke Motta

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Riddick (917 yards, 5 TDs)

Passing: Golson* (187-of-318 for 2,405 yards, 12 TDs, 6 INTs)

Receiving: Eifert (685 yards, 4 TDs)

Tackles: Te'o (113)

Sacks: Tuitt* (12)

Interceptions: Te'o (7)

Spring answers

1. Golson in charge of offense. Now in his second year as the starting quarterback, Golson is in charge of what Brian Kelly hopes will become a quarterback-driven offense. Golson has been much more vocal on and off the field since the 2012 season, and the hope is that he can help the offense dictate the pace of the game week to week this fall.

2. Jarrett Grace ready to step up. Te'o leaves a giant hole in the middle of the Irish defense after three-straight 100-plus tackle seasons, but Grace looks ready to step in and assume the starting role. Will he notch seven interceptions this season, like Te'o in 2012? Unlikely. But the staff has liked his progress from the get-go, and he has not been fazed by all of the hoopla surrounding the "Mike" position since Te'o's departure.

3. DB depth. Last season, the Irish entered the fall with two new starting cornerbacks. By Week 3, they were down Lo Wood and safety Jamoris Slaughter because of Achilles injuries. This year Wood is back, as is safety Austin Collinsworth, adding plenty of depth to a secondary that returns three starters. It will give the defense much more flexibility after the unit broke in three new starters in 2012. Several talented safety recruits are on the way, too.

Fall questions

1. Backfield answers. George Atkinson III is the most experienced of the backs, bulking up this offseason and readying for the closest thing to a No. 1 role that the Irish offense allows. Cam McDaniel has been reliable in limited action, and USC transfer Amir Carlisle impressed the staff before going down with another injury, this time a broken collarbone that kept him out for most of the spring. There is Will Mahone and a pair of four-star recruits on the way as well, but the bottom line is that none have handled a majority of the carries at the college level yet and are filling big shoes from last season in Riddick and Cierre Wood.

2. Receiver depth. Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson transferred this spring, leaving the Irish with a bit of a numbers issue. C.J. Prosise has converted to a full-time receiver and could compete for the starting slot role for 2013, but a group already down four of its top six pass-catchers from 2012 can ill-afford another injury or defection, and will likely need some early production from a talented group of freshmen.

3. Defensive leaders. This isn't necessarily an issue so much as an unknown. Last year's three seniors were tremendous vocal presences, helping the defense become greater than the sum of its parts in finishing second nationally in scoring. This year's unit could be deeper and more talented, and if it can work together like last year's, it could see similar success in 2013. Jackson, Farley and Nix figure to emerge as front-runners for defensive captain spots this fall.

All hands on-deck for receiving corps

April, 9, 2013
4/09/13
10:00
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Asked if early enrollee freshman James Onwualu would line up in the slot or outside this season, Mike Denbrock offered an answer befitting his depleted group: "Yes."

The Notre Dame outside receivers coach has found himself with a smaller pool of talent to work with this spring following the transfers of sophomores Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson, forcing him to mix and match faces all over the place in hopes of finding the best solution for the Irish passing game.

"We're kind of trying to find a way to incorporate everybody that we've got available to us right now kind of in the mix, and kind of put them in some different places and give some other guys some opportunities," Denbrock said. "Anytime that you're a little bit short numbers-wise, you've got to find them somewhere. So we're not going to practice any shorter, we're not going to take any fewer reps, so we've got to find bodies to do it."

Eight scholarship receivers remain on the roster, with two more, Torii Hunter Jr. and William Fuller, on the way this summer.

Denbrock likes the two freshmen he has right now, saying that Onwualu and Corey Robinson have impressed in their short time on campus.

"Corey Robinson, everything he does that comes near him -- his catch radius reminds me a lot of Tyler Eifert in that even if the ball's somewhere on the perimeter, he's going to find a way," Denbrock said. "Great ball skills, good knowledge of the game of football, surprisingly, even though he's from a small school in Texas and is basketball-oriented maybe family-wise, but has done a really nice job.

"James Onwualu is a tough guy, physical, loves the game, plays with tremendous passion. Good skill-set. Those guys are a pleasant surprise. And when you sit down and you think -- and we talk about this sometimes when we're watching practice film -- and you go, 'This guy's supposed to be getting dressed for the prom, and here he is out here competing,' and those guys are doing a great job."

The Irish lose four of their top-six pass-catchers from a year ago, but even the returnees could see themselves spread to different spots of the field.

Senior TJ Jones, whose 50 grabs last year tied for the team lead, is a candidate to play in the slot after the loss of Neal and the graduation of Robby Toma. So, too, is converted safety C.J. Prosise.

"I'd say the jobs open for anybody, all comers," Denbrock said. "Anybody who proves they've got the ability to go in there and do something positive for our offense is going play in there. We don't obviously have as much depth as we'd like to have, so that's a great opportunity for a lot of guys to do a lot of different things and not pigeonhole themselves into one specific position, but get out there and perform and earn your reps."

As usual for ND, next men in after transfers

March, 28, 2013
3/28/13
8:00
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Next-man-in might just be Brian Kelly's favorite mantra, and it may have become the defining one of the coach's Notre Dame tenure after the number of surprises that ended up lifting the Irish to an undefeated regular season in 2012.

As the spring departures of sophomore receivers Davonte' Neal and Justin Ferguson present another test, Kelly could have the very guy to fill at least the dual roles formerly occupied by Neal in both the slot and as a punt returner.

And yes, like unsung starters KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley before him, former safety C.J. Prosise is a convert to the other side of the ball as well, this after redshirting during his first year this past fall.

"C.J. Prosise is doing a great job," Kelly said when asked about his receiving options inside. "Really excited about C.J. You’ll see a lot of him in the spring, you’ll see what I mean. He’s been a very pleasant surprise -- that’s probably the wrong word. He’s been what we thought he could be; he’s just done it a lot quicker than we thought. And again, you’re talking about a slot receiver who's 210 pounds. Nice hands, got deceptive speed, can pull away. And then in terms of the run game, we’ve got a big guy that can do some nice things."

Amir Carslisle, who is expected to miss the next four weeks following a broken collarbone, will be another option upon his return as well.

Kelly mentioned Prosise and TJ Jones as possible punt returners as he looks to re-tool a unit that has finished 100th or worse nationally in each of his first three seasons coaching the Irish.

With another shoulder injury forcing Chase Hounshell to miss a second consecutive season, Kelly said promising Cat linebacker Ishaq Williams has started cross-training at defensive end.

"We can get him 15-20 more reps, and he's all for that," Kelly said. "So he’ll still get his Cat work and he’ll play some defensive end as well. Was really impressed with him. We put him in there on Saturday for the first time without any coaching, and he did some really nice things for us. Had another very good day today, and I promised him a visor if he continues to do that."

Irish lose two promising receivers

March, 27, 2013
3/27/13
4:36
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Rising Notre Dame sophomore wide receivers Davonte' Neal and Justin Ferguson have decided to transfer, coach Brian Kelly said Wednesday, meaning the Fighting Irish will have lost their top-four signees from a 2012 recruiting class that was ranked No. 9 nationally.

Neal, who was the Irish's primary punt returner last season, was the school's highest-rated prospect from the recruiting class of 2012, receiving five stars from ESPN and ranking as the No. 1 overall athlete in his class. Ferguson was a four-star prospect and the school's third-highest rated signee in the 2012 class.

Kelly announced at the beginning of the spring that quarterback Gunner Kiel, the second-highest rated player from Notre Dame's 2012 class, had left the program and would transfer at semester's end.

Cornerback Tee Shepard, the fourth-highest rated class of 2012 prospect to commit to Notre Dame, had left school for undisclosed reasons just two months after enrolling, before the last spring season even began.

To read the full story, click here.

Kelly on jersey gaffe: Coaching mistake

November, 4, 2012
11/04/12
4:17
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Notre Dame survived a potentially self-inflicted mistake Saturday, one that could have put its perfect season in further jeopardy.

When Pitt's Kevin Harper missed a 33-yard field goal in the second overtime that would have ended the game had it gone in, the Irish had Bennett Jackson and Chris Brown, both of whom wear No. 2, on the field together.

By rule, Notre Dame should have been penalized and the Panthers should have gotten a first down.

"No exception to [the rule]," coach Brian Kelly said during his Sunday teleconference. "It was a coaching mistake. ... We've got to do a better job -- an oversight that can't happen."

Kelly said he noticed the gaffe right after the play.

Pitt ended up kicking a field on its next drive to start the third overtime before Everett Golson rushed for the game-winning touchdown.

Notre Dame had been penalized for a similar mistake once earlier this season, when Dan McCarthy and Justin Ferguson, both No. 15, were on the kick return unit together in Week 2 against Purdue. Ferguson has since changed his jersey to No. 82.

"We have an easy way for us to make sure that this doesn't happen again," Kelly said. "[Jackson and Brown] won't be on the field again. It's on me now, so I'm going to make sure it doesn't happen."

Nichols still hurting: Kelly said tackle Tate Nichols may have taken a step back with a knee injury and will get an MRI this week, though information won't be available until later in the week.

Rookie receivers making strong impression

August, 14, 2012
8/14/12
8:00
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- National signing day never seemed so far away.

Back then, more than six months ago, the story line of Notre Dame's recruiting haul surrounded the player the Irish didn't get, as touted California wide receiver Deontay Greenberry flipped to Houston at the 11th hour. But with three receivers highlighting the group of nine freshmen who met the media for the first time, Monday's discussions shifted to those who will take the field for the Irish this fall.

And if reviews from 10 preseason practices are any indication, those freshman wideouts will, in fact, be seeing the field this fall.

"We're all looking to play early," Justin Ferguson said between practices 10 and 11. "The spots [are] open, and we just gotta make the best of our opportunities."

[+] EnlargeDavonte Neal
Davide De Pas for ESPN.comDavonte' Neal has been able to pick the brain of former Notre Dame star Michael Floyd.
Examples of that include Chris Brown's touchdown reception from Everett Golson last Wednesday that spanned more than half the field. Or Davonte' Neal learning the intricacies of the slot position from senior Robby Toma, while also trying to make his mark on the punt- and kick-return teams.

Neal, whose whirlwind recruitment ended with a commitment to the Irish three weeks after signing day -- and hours after failing to show at his former elementary school for his originally scheduled announcement because of what his father had said was a family issue -- used something of a cheat sheet before arriving on campus.

The 5-foot-9, 171-pound Scottsdale, Ariz., native enlisted the help of Cardinals first-round draft pick Michael Floyd this spring.

"It's a big help, just because Michael Floyd, he's a great receiver," Neal said. "And he has size on him, so he knows the size part of it and the swift part of it, and he's obviously under Larry Fitzgerald, who is another great receiver. So I feel I have a little advantage just because Michael Floyd has helped me out."

Floyd, who re-wrote the school record books before graduating, has left a considerable production hole to fill, though depth among the receiving unit has helped breed competition.

"There's no replacing Michael Floyd's production, but as a unit we just gotta come together and fill that role," Brown said.

Brown, a high school track star, is the speediest of the trio. Neal, ESPN's No. 1 athlete from the class of 2012, is the most decorated. The 6-foot-2, 196-pound Ferguson is the most physical of the new wideouts.

Each has described comfort with the playbook, which, as least thus far, has spared them from the inevitable wrath of their superiors.

"The coaches have been very supportive, we haven't gotten chewed out or anything," Ferguson said. "If we do something wrong — not politely — but they make sure we know what we're doing. They know the right way to get the message across, so they help us a lot."

Playmaking ability certainly helps, too.

With assistant Tony Alford in charge of the running backs and slot receivers this season, the line between each position will be further blurred, as both are expected to provide crucial elements to the passing game -- even if those passes are coming from just a few yards away.

"Coach [Brian] Kelly, he knows best, and coach Kelly knows what to do with the football," Neal said. "We have a lot of playmakers that can take that three-yard catch or three-yard run for 30 yards, 40 yards, and I just feel that I'm just another asset to the team."

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