Chicago Colleges: Lo Wood

Q&A: Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, Part II

December, 3, 2013
12/03/13
5:00
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Here is Part 2 of our conversation with Brian Kelly.

Fifth-year guys. I know Lo (Wood) and Alex (Welch) reportedly are not coming back. What can you share about those conversations you've had with them or any other players? Is there anyone else you know about at this time?

[+] EnlargeChris Watt
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesNotre Dame guard Chris Watt injured his knee vs. Stanford.
Brian Kelly: Well, here's what we do. Those guys that have accelerated their academics to get their degree by the end of this year with a year remaining, I meet with all of them and I lay out the fact that they have roles on this team. Each one of them has a role. And they either accept that role or, because they have put themselves in a position where they have their degree, they've essentially increased their options. Some don't have options, right? Some of those guys don't have the degrees, so they have very little option, in terms of, they can only accept their role within the program. Some of these guys have more options. Some of the guys that I think have talked to the media have more options, they can choose to look at other programs. Each one of these guys I meet with, we go over the role that they have in the program, they either accept that role or they choose to, if they can, look at other options. And the two that you mentioned have obviously looked at other options.

Will those guys remain and practice through the bowl game, or are they kind of out of there the minute they graduate?

BK: I haven't gotten a chance to really talk to them about that yet. We're going to sit down here once I get my schedule set and we begin practice this weekend, I'll have a meeting with all those guys that have asked. The only guy I've talked to is Lo Wood about asking for a release.

Moving forward, Chris Watt, I know he took a pretty nasty hit the other night. What can you share about him?

BK: MCL. He's got a first-degree MCL, so that's, to most people, pretty significant. To Chris Watt, that's a papercut. So he's a pretty tough kid. If he can play, he's going to try to play. The only thing that makes it a little bit more difficult is he's got a torn PCL in the same knee. So he's lost a lot of his stability in that knee. We're going to see how it responds here over the next five-to-seven days. But first-degree MCL.

That's a sprain, I'd imagine?

BK: Yeah that would be a sprain. I'm sorry. That would be a moderate sprain of the MCL.

You've got a while now before you play at home again. How important will it be to resolve whatever issues there are with the playing surface? I know it seems every year like, 'Field Turf could come! Field Turf could come!' What will those conversations be like, if they haven't already taken place?

BK: It is paramount to our home-field situation, relative to playing and continued success. And I think I've put Jack (Swarbrick) out on the spot on this and he's addressed it. He's had a series of meetings and I'm very confident that we're going to have the field situation resolved in a very short period of time.

Speaking of next year, it's rare at least publicly to not have a schedule announced at this point. I'm sure you know a lot more behind the scenes than we do, but when do you expect maybe a public announcement, and how much more involved are you in conversations like this going from your fourth to fifth year now?

BK: Yeah, I'm involved in the schedule. But as you know, the ACC schedule bites a lot of that up and then there's still some long-term commitments going back to Knute Rockne that tie our hands. So when you're locked into some contracts -- Navy for one, Stanford, USC, Purdue. Now you're talking about six ACC games, and then another three or four. It doesn't give me much wiggle room. So as much as I'd like to say that I'm at the forefront of shaping a schedule, there's not a lot of wiggle room in these schedules right now. We're trying to do our best to balance it out, and I think 2014, you're going to see four ACC teams, and then in '15 I think we're going to get to six.

I'm sorry -- six ACC teams you said?

BK: Yeah, we're contracted obviously by the ACC but because of our Arizona State contract, Arizona State has to stay on the schedule, so we're not going to be able to play all of the ACC games next year. So we'll have to add another one in '15.

I'd imagine the conference has been fairly flexible with you guys in working these things out over the last couple of months?

BK: Yeah they have been, in terms of moving from an early game to a late game. And again, from our standpoint, we're still easing into this over the next year in trying to make all of these contracts the were pre-existing work.

Going off that, talking from an administrative standpoint, again, four, going on five years now on the job, what do you find yourself still learning about? How much more proactive have you been in some of these other conversations as it relates to the state of the program? How has each year — whether it's this one, last one, whatever — kind of contributed to that?

BK: I think the biggest piece here is academics and degrees, and we want to make it so we don't have this race to get a degree. We need kids to be pacing themselves to get a degree so we've got a much more mature team. We need a more mature football team. We need guys here for four and five years, and that's something that we have to look at in terms of how many hours our guys are taking and really do a very good job of pacing ourselves in terms of our academic preparedness here. We're moving a little bit to a point where we've got all these guys getting their degrees in three-and-a-half years, and that's great, but we also need a more mature football team. So getting my hands around that balance, academically and athletically, is the next stage of developing consistency in a much more -- we need a more veteran, much more mature football team moving forward.

8-4 is not where you guys want to be. You beat Michigan State, though. You beat Arizona State. You beat USC. What do you take from this season? I know it seems like a lot of the goals, at least from the outside, looked off the table the minute Everett went down. How would you just kind of encapsulate the 12 games you guys played this fall?

BK: We're a couple plays, couple players -- the foundation is solid. We've got enough in place. We need certainly better play at a few positions, but feel really good about the overall strength of the program where you can win games like we've won this year. But certainly consistency at some key positions and continuing to build the depth within the program. But feel good about the overall program. Need to get some key positions to play at a higher level.

Q&A: Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, Part I

December, 3, 2013
12/03/13
3:15
PM CT
Brian Kelly AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillDecember is a busy time of year for Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.

Notre Dame's 27-20 loss Saturday night at Stanford completed Brian Kelly's fourth regular season with the Irish, who went 8-4. Now comes the busy time, as he is dealing with recruiting, staff turnover, potential NFL departures on his roster and, most importantly for the immediate future, figuring out where and when the Irish's bowl game will be. (Sorry, Subway alums in New York.)

On Tuesday, Kelly was promoting his involvement Tuesday with the VIZIO BCS National Championship Fan Throwdown contest, and he chatted with ESPN.com. Here is part 1 of that conversation.

(Of note: This interview took place before reports surfaced that Notre Dame lost its offensive coordinator, Chuck Martin, to Miami of Ohio, where he will become the RedHawks' next head coach.)

It's recruiting season, and some of the, relatively speaking, downtime you guys have now between the end of the regular season and the bowl …

BK: Downtime. Yeah, right. It's the busiest time. (Laughs)

Relatively speaking, as I said, what is the timeline now for some of the guys who have NFL decisions to make? What are the processes like with you and Stephon (Tuitt) and Louis (Nix) and whoever else may be thinking about it?

BK: We submit the paperwork to the NFL for their pre-draft status. I like to have that information. Then we put together all their academic work relative to what they may need, what they've taken, all that to make sure that we know exactly where they are academically in terms of pursuing their degree and finishing up their work. And then the third piece is we get a lot of information from third-party contacts that I have, relative to what they may look like next year if they come back. I did that with Manti (Te'o), I did that with Tyler (Eifert), I did that with Michael Floyd and really recruit them back to Notre Dame based upon all the information that we put together. Sometimes it's better that they move on to the NFL. Sometimes it's a better situation for them to stay and have another year here. So we'll put all that together. That's what we're doing. We're compiling that information right now, and we'll meet with them sometime next week.

From your philosophy, do you have a rule of thumb where you say, "Hey, you look like you're going to be a first-round pick. It's probably best if you go." Or is it kind of a more open-minded, two-way street with you?,

BK: No, Manti was really close to being a first-round pick with his pre-draft rating as a junior. He was rated between a first and a third; he wasn't a guaranteed first. Michael was between a one and a three as well. There's no sure things in the first round. Unless you're like Jadeveon Clowney or somebody that you know is going to be a top-five pick, I think we re-recruit you, unless you've already got your degree in hand and we know that with a great certainty you're going to be a No. 1 pick. We try to put the information in front of you that allows you to get your degree and increase your opportunity to help Notre Dame and help yourself for the future.

Between Manti, Michael and a couple of other guys, you've had a lot of success in re-recruiting some of these guys. What's that speak to what you've built in the program here in these four years?

BK: First of all, it's the degree at Notre Dame -- that's huge. Each one is different. Zack Martin was between a second- and a fifth-round draft pick. He could've gone, but he wanted to play with his brother. So I think each one of them has different circumstances, but they enjoy being in the program. So what we've built is an atmosphere and an environment that the guys enjoy being here every day and that speaks to the morale and that speaks to the direction of the program. But there are so many other things here as well in terms of the degree, in terms of being able to come back and know that they're on a great platform at Notre Dame, that if they play well and the team wins it enhances their chance of moving up as well.

[+] EnlargeGolson
AP Photo/Joe RaymondIt's unlikely that Everett Golson would participate in bowl practices for Notre Dame.
Switching gears a little bit, what do you know or what can you say about the status of Everett Golson right now?

BK: I've been assured that based upon all of the information that has been provided that he's going to be re-admitted on Dec. 13, and that information has been provided to admissions and it's just a matter of them sending out the admittance letter and then him being back on campus sometime around the 15th of December.

You've talked about possibly integrating him into bowl practices. What would be the process with that? What would you hope to get out of him in that limited time?

BK: Now that I'm looking at the schedule and the kind of bowls that we're looking at right now, if he comes back on, let's say the 16th, we're not going to practice again because we're leaving probably on the 20th, 21st, somewhere in there. I really don't even think he'll have a chance to practice, now that we're looking at bowl games that are going to be happening before the 29th of December. It's unlikely, given the timetable, that he would even practice.

Can he travel with you guys to the game?

BK: He cannot, no. He cannot travel to a competition site.

Speaking of bowls, what are you thinking of in terms of options here? I know you've said this will be a reward for the seniors; they seem pretty opposed to cold weather. Would that rule out New York? How open-minded is this process right now?

BK: I don't think it's open-minded. I think we've narrowed it down considerably. I'd say there's probably three bowls that we're looking at. But I think we're really down to a narrow focus on the bowl game situations. And again, I think just to give you a bit of an idea, we tie into ACC bowls next year, and so we'll be part of that rotation beginning next year. So we'd like to examine bowls that are not tied into the ACC for one last go-around, and so our focus is on not being tied into some of those ACC games right now. And we'll see how that plays out.

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.

Jackson, Fox may be limited in spring

January, 29, 2013
1/29/13
3:30
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After the NFL and the Manti Te'o questions came football talk, bringing some good and bad news to a 22-day-old Notre Dame offseason that has felt much longer.

Starting cornerback Bennett Jackson had surgery to repair a labrum tear. Starting inside linebacker Dan Fox had a similar operation. Both are expected to be limited to non-contact portions of spring practice, which starts March 20.

Safety Austin Collinsworth is expected to be ready this spring after missing the 2012 season because of separate shoulder and back surgeries. Brian Kelly also sounded optimistic about the playing future of center Matt Hegarty, who was shut down for the season following a Nov. 8 mini-stroke, while cornerback Lo Wood continues to recover from an Achllies tear suffered in fall camp.

Constant leg problems, meanwhile, may force offensive tackle Tate Nichols to take a medical redshirt.

Kelly pegged Hegarty, Nick Martin and Mark Harrell as players in the mix to replace Braxston Cave at center. Kelly said Fox, Carlo Calabrese and Jarrett Grace are the front-runners to replace Te'o at the MIKE linebacker spot, with Kendall Moore and potential incoming freshmen having a chance to be included as well.

The mentioning of Fox and Calabrese means both will likely be back for a fifth season in 2013, though Kelly said the official process needs to still take place.

"We're going to sit down when we get back, as we always have from recruiting, once we finish up our numbers in recruiting, then we start to talk about our fifth-year guys," Kelly said. "But they'll all, as we have in the past, they'll continue to train because they're in school anyway. And then we'll let them know our decisions as we talk to the university, relative to granting that additional year."

Kelly also said he is hoping the NCAA's ruling on safety Jamoris Slaughter's appeal for a sixth year will come before national signing day. Kelly said Slaughter is still in school.

Video: Notre Dame CB Lo Wood

January, 6, 2013
1/06/13
9:00
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Despite being sidelined with an injury, cornerback Lo Wood is still helping the Irish defense from the sidelines.

Russell catches on quickly for Irish

December, 17, 2012
12/17/12
8:13
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Yolanda Phillips often had to remind the second of her two kids, KeiVarae Russell, of who the parent was in their family. And despite having another son, Keith -- who is four years older than KeiVarare -- Phillips and the rest of the family couldn't help but refer to her second-born as "Little Man" ever since he was an infant.

"He's always been outgoing," Phillips said. "He's always been something else. Wherever we go, he's always going to talk to everybody, always holding me up. He's always been an outgoing person."

Little Man has grown up fast in six short months at Notre Dame, going from running back recruit to emergency starting cornerback following Lo Wood's camp Achilles tear, and emerging as an integral piece for the nation's No. 1 scoring defense along the way.

[+] EnlargeKeiVarae Russell
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCornerback KeiVarae Russell has adjusted to life as a starter quickly for Notre Dame.
Russell's tests have come big and small with the Irish, from a blown assignment in a season-opening rout of Navy to challenging the acclaimed aerial attacks of Oklahoma and USC in primetime road contests.

Asked if he still felt like a freshman, the fast-talking, always-smiling Russell quipped: "I wasn't a freshman after the first game, what you mean?"

Russell starred at cornerback for Mariner (Wash.) as a prep junior and cameoed at safety as a senior, though running the ball was his forte. Upon arriving to Notre Dame, his late-summer switch to the other side of the ball surprised all but one person.

"When he got to high school he wanted to step away and play offense," said his grandfather, Sylvester Phillips, every bit as gregarious as Russell. "I'd always tell him: 'Man, you need to be on defense!' So when he went to Notre Dame and the coaches saw the same thing I saw, that he could be on defense, we just laughed about it."

Phillips' first game came Sept. 22 against Michigan, his birthday weekend. Russell made the trip worthwhile by recording his first career interception. Just three weeks earlier, Russell had been reeling a bit after surrendering the first opponent touchdown of the season, in Dublin.

Cornerback Bennett Jackson, captain Manti Te'o and position coach Kerry Cooks laughed at him afterward, telling the rookie, in plain terms, to pick his head up and get over it. He blitzed on, acting instead of thinking, a formula that had served him well as a prep student.

Then, Russell did everything from starring for coach John Ondriezek's team on the field to ascending to student-council president and dining with special-needs students off it.

"One of my first comments to him as a ninth-grader was that you're a person that will make a difference in others' lives -- you have that ability, you have those opportunities," Ondriezek recalled telling Russell. "And there are a lot of people that have that opportunity to be successful, but they never are because they don't possess that drive and commitment and desire to succeed that he has."

For Martin Luther King Day during his senior year, Russell was invited to nearby Voyager Middle School as its featured guest speaker.

He told Ondriezek that he was nervous. Coach told the senior to treat the occasion like another game. By the time it ended, Russell was receiving a standing ovation from his younger peers.

"Once he gets started, once that first word comes out, he speaks so well, so fluent," Phillips, his grandfather, said. "He listens. He answers the questions and says what he wants to say. Even every game, he'll tell you he's nervous, he's got jitterbugs and everything. But once the game starts, it's over."

Russell is more to the point: It is arrogance, and it is a necessity at defensive back, freshman or not.

His message during the regular-season finale against USC's dynamic duo of Marqise Lee and Robert Woods illustrates that.

"I looked to both of them in the eyes and said: 'I'm going to beat you guys. I don't care if you're ranked No. 1 and 2 in the country,' " Russell said.

"I had to grow up real soon, real quick, and I learned that," he said. "You can't use the excuse of being a freshman. Once you get to college football, age is nothing. … When I first got here I was making excuses. Like during camp, I was like: OK, this is my first year. But I grew out of that real soon.

"I was like: They offered me a scholarship for a reason. I was one of the best in the country, so I've got to show why."

2012 Notre Dame regular-season wrap

December, 5, 2012
12/05/12
9:00
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Where do we begin? The spring, when a freshman All-America transferred to South Florida? Right after the Blue and Gold game, when the incumbent starting quarterback and a starting linebacker were arrested at an off-campus party?

How about fall camp, when one of two inexperienced starting corners ruptured his Achilles, months after a contributing safety underwent shoulder surgery that ended up sidelining him this season?

Notre Dame entered the 2012 season with questions under center, with very little experience in the secondary -- and even less when Jamoris Slaughter went down for the season Week 3 at Michigan State -- and with a schedule on deck that, on the surface, seemed as challenging as any in recent memory.

Twelve games later, the Irish stand undefeated and No. 1 in the country, awaiting their Jan. 7 date with defending champion Alabama in the Discover BCS National Championship Game. Brian Kelly has already worked his best job to date in a 22-year career that features championships at every level at which he has been a head coach.

The offense is led by a redshirt freshman quarterback who is only just beginning to realize his potential. The defense is led by a Heisman Trophy finalist who is as strong of a leader this program has had in decades, and its coordinator is one of the hottest names in coaching circles after the Irish led the nation in scoring defense.

That third-year coaching stigma around Notre Dame, the idea that something special happens in every strong leader's third year, from Frank Leahy to Dan Devine to Ara Parseghian to Lou Holtz? Maybe there is something to that, as Kelly has the Irish on the doorstep of a national title after consecutive 8-5 seasons.

Notre Dame entered the season unranked. It had dates with three top-10 teams, and five top-25 teams, with three coming on the road.

The Irish dealt No. 10 Michigan State its first blow of many this season. They turned the tables on Denard Robinson and No. 18 Michigan, a reversal of recent years. They beat No. 17 Stanford with a goal-line stand, a stark contrast in physicality between the two teams from past meetings. They won at No. 8 Oklahoma, and they won three games after that, setting up a showdown with their archrival.

USC entered the season as the No. 1 team in the country, with many of us viewing the teams' regular-season finale as a chance for the Irish to maybe play spoiler against the Trojans.

The Irish instead entered that finale as the nation's No. 1 team, with the Trojans unranked. Notre Dame won, delivering USC its fifth loss of the season.

How wrong we all were.

Offensive MVP: Tough choice, but I'll go with Theo Riddick. The senior has played all over the field during his career before finally settling into the hybrid role of running back and slot receiver. He established himself as the Irish's No. 1 back while Cierre Wood was suspended during the season's first two games, and he leads the team with 880 rushing yards and five touchdowns, while adding 35 catches for 364 yards and a touchdown. Tyler Eifert is the bigger name and will be a high-round draft pick, but his numbers became a casualty of an offense that was still developing early in the season.

[+] EnlargeTheo Riddick
Harry How/Getty ImagesTheo Riddick found his groove as a combination running back/slot receiver for the Irish.
Defensive MVP: Manti Te'o is the obvious choice here, as he is one of three Heisman Trophy finalists and leads the team with 103 tackles, seven interceptions and two fumble recoveries. He deserves all of the credit he gets, but let's not overlook the efforts of Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt up front, too. Nix might be one of the most underrated players in the country -- as inside linemen usually are -- while Tuitt made many forget about Aaron Lynch by recording 12 sacks this season.

Newcomer of the year: KeiVarae Russell was recruited as a running back, and he didn't get to campus until June. Then projected starting cornerback Lo Wood ruptured his Achilles tendon in camp, and Russell surged to the top of the depth chart at corner, before making an impact in his first season. He played outstanding on a big stage at Oklahoma and has made many forget that he is a first-year player.

Biggest surprise: Raise your hand if you thought, after four weeks and two yankings, that Everett Golson would be leading an undefeated Irish team at USC in the regular-season finale. The redshirt freshman quarterback's rise has been perhaps the biggest development for this Irish offense, as he has steadily grown while the playbook has steadily opened. He has become a bigger threat with his legs, has handled the bright lights well and, best of all for Notre Dame, has upward of 40 remaining college starts.

Biggest disappointment: We're getting picky here with a 12-0 team that is ranked first in the country, but there is room for improvement. How about the punt-return game, which, while not losing Irish yards the way it often did last year, has never really gotten going under true freshman Davonte' Neal, with the Irish ranking 115th nationally in punt returns, averaging 2.44 yards per return. Red zone offense, ranked 75th nationally, has room for improvement as well.

Best game: The end of the Stanford game, on Oct. 13 in Notre Dame Stadium, was out of a movie scene. Heavy rain, power against power, deafening roars from the home fans. Football at its purest element was on display, with the Irish winning their sixth game with a goal-line stand against a Cardinal team that had simply outmuscled Notre Dame in recent matchups.

Notre Dame mailblog

November, 30, 2012
11/30/12
7:10
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What's crackin'?

Mike from Turnersville, N.J., writes: Hey Matt, I just want to know one thing. How can there be no controversy this year in college football like ESPN states when Notre Dame won 3 games that were controversial. The Pittsburgh game should have been over, but the referee called Pass Interference on a 4th down play, that was the wrong call. The game should have been over and Notre Dame should have lost that game. Even the Stanford vs ND game was crooked, bc the guy for Stanford scored a TD to tie the game and the Referee didn't give him the TD. What are your thoughts about those calls? Doesn't those calls make Notre Dame a controversy to be in the National Championship?

Matt Fortuna: Mike, there is always controversy in college football. I think Notre Dame got a big break on both plays in the Pitt game, but what national title team hasn't received a couple of breaks along the way? As for the Stanford game, it was an early whistle on the Stepfan Taylor final play, but he was surrounded by Irish defenders, so to assume he would've scored is a stretch. And a score would have only set up an extra point in bad weather, which, if made, would have only extended the game, not won it. Two years ago Auburn won five games by three points or less. Last year Alabama got a chance at revenge in the title game against a team it lost to at home two months earlier -- over another one-loss team. Every eligible team has lost a game except for Notre Dame. The Irish are the most deserving No. 1 team right now.



Kevin from Mandan, N.D., writes: First, I am glad Notre Dame beat USC. Not a fan of Lane Kiffin. That brings me to my question. Why have I not heard someone in the media ask Kiffin why he did not kick a FG with over 3:00 left in the game, down 9 points(2 scores) on fourth down? Kick the FG, use your 2 timeouts and hope to get the ball back with a chance to win the game. When you fail on fourth down, game over. You lose. Horrible decision. Not a very smart coach.

Matt Fortuna: Kevin, I wasn't in Lane's postgame presser, but I'll say that if you have eight chances to score from inside the 10-yard line, you need to score a touchdown on one of them. Not taking anything away from Notre Dame's defense, but if you can't punch it in from as close as USC was, you don't deserve to win the game. The Trojans needed a touchdown eventually, and that was easily their best shot. Hats off to the Irish.



Dave from Yokosuka, Japan writes: As a member of the Uniformed Services currently stationed overseas, I really appreciate your dedication to bringing news to ESPN at all hours! Every chance I have, I check the blog and other spots for updates. Here's my question: What's the status of Lo Wood, Austin Collinsworth, and others who were injured before the beginning of the season? Any chance we might see them in the Big Game or will they look for medical waivers? Thanks a lot!

Matt Fortuna: Thank YOU, Dave. I believe Collinsworth has done some limited work with the team in practice, but we won't see either of those guys in a game until next season. Both have redshirt options available, so it wouldn't be worth burning it on one game, tempting as it may be for those two guys.



Cory from Hazleton, Pa., writes: now you can eat your words saying nd 8-4 having no shot at OU n SC. 12-0 baby bring on the SEC

Matt Fortuna: NOW I can? Pretty sure I (and 99.9 percent of America) have been eating them all season long. Jack Swarbrick himself said after the USC game that he thought the Irish would be a year away from a national title run.

Kelly wants more out of special teams

October, 23, 2012
10/23/12
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- To be clear, Brian Kelly was kidding Tuesday when he said he would grade his special teams as an A+ through seven games.

By not turning the ball over and by averaging more than 0.3 yards per return in the regular season, the Irish's punt return unit has actually markedly improved from last season. Problem is, at 111th in the nation with a 2.83 yards per return average, it still isn't very good this season.

Defending punts and kicks, Notre Dame is Nos. 30 and 92, respectively, and neither will cut it against an Oklahoma team that ranks among the top six in both return categories, having brought back a punt and a kick for scores.

"When we lost [Lo] Wood and we lost Jamoris Slaughter and had to pencil in players fulltime on the defensive side of the ball, we lost some really good cover guys," Kelly said. "We're really thin there. And we're not going to be able to answer it until we get some reinforcement. This recruiting class should help us next year where we have depth in personnel.

"We're still one click behind in special teams with the depth of the personnel that we need. And that's just the fact. We're playing some young guys there that have to get better. But I like where we're going to go. I think our punt return is going to be really good. I think we're going to have some guys that we'll be able to get on that team."

True freshman Davonte Neal has all 12 of the Irish's punt returns, never turning the ball over but netting just 34 yards.

"We're fielding the ball much better than we did last year," Kelly said. "We need to go north and south."

The kick return unit has not been as explosive as it was last year, when George Atkinson III burst onto the scene as a true freshman with a pair of touchdowns.

Atkinson averages 19.4 yards on eight returns, and the Irish are 93rd nationally (19.2).

"We are who we are right now," Kelly said. "We're clearly disappointed. We have to do a better job. We have to give George Atkinson more room. We've got to do a better job. And we can. We just have to be better at that area right now."

Wood injury devastating to Irish secondary

August, 20, 2012
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As Thursday's media day wound down, Kerry Cooks was asked by yours truly about the progress of Notre Dame's cornerbacks.

Here are the words that came out of the Irish cornerbacks coach's mouth over the ensuing 37 seconds:

"I think that Lo Wood wright now is probably playing outside of himself. He's playing, really, better than what I would have anticipated him playing at this point. He's our most experienced cornerback as far as actually going into the games and playing, and now it's really starting to show up. He's just playing with a different edge. It's one of those things that's really hard to explain. But he's confident, he's making plays, he's smart, he's being savvy, he's doing all those things that a guy who's played a lot of football for you will do. And he really hasn't played a lot. He's played the most, but he hasn't played a lot."

Now Wood won't be playing at all in 2012, a victim Monday of an Achilles injury that will rob him of his junior season. He has a redshirt year remaining and will presumably be back for 2013 and, depending on circumstances, 2014. As Cooks noted, Wood was the Irish's most experienced corner and their biggest surprise of camp, a notion head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged earlier this month.

What now? Bennett Jackson had the boundary spot locked up, but playing alongside him will likely be Jalen Brown, converted running-back recruit KeiVarae Russell or Josh Atkinson. Running back Cam McDaniel was moved to corner in the spring to add depth but had been cross-training at both positions as recently as late last week. Freshman safety recruit Elijah Shumate was moved to cornerback during camp. Versatile fifth-year safety Jamoris Slaughter saw some action at corner in the spring, but the Irish are already down a man at safety with the loss of Austin Collinsworth (shoulder surgery). And, of course, the Tee Shepard experiment lasted less than two months, something the four-star cornerback reminded us all about once again earlier Monday in another tweeting barrage.

For those keeping count, that's two (Brown, Atkinson) remaining healthy Notre Dame cornerbacks who were actually recruited at the position.

Aaron Lynch transferred this spring, but Notre Dame's defensive line has enough talent to still be strong. Tommy Rees got arrested a short while later, but three other highly touted quarterbacks had been waiting in the wings to start the season. As for Wood's injury? Well, the Irish never exactly knew what they would be getting from a first-time starting corner, and they will still have to wait until Sept. 1 to get an answer.

It's just much less certain.

Source: Lo Wood likely out for year

August, 20, 2012
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Notre Dame's already thin group of cornerbacks took a big hit Monday, as projected starter Lo Wood went down with what is likely season-ending Achilles injury, a source confirmed to ESPN.com.

Read the entire story.

Roster breakdown: Defense

March, 29, 2012
3/29/12
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Our breakdown of Notre Dame's 2012 roster continues today with the defensive side of the ball.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The players: Aaron Lynch, Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Tony Springmann, Chase Hounshell, Sheldon Day, Tyler Stockton, Kona Schwenke

The incoming: Jarron Jones, Romeo Okwara

[+] EnlargeLouis Nix
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesTackle Louis Nix is a key cog in what should be a strong, experienced defensive line for Notre Dame.
The breakdown: Injuries forced all three current starters — Lynch, Nix and Tuitt — to play much more than expected last season, and none disappointed. They are all second-year players now, and their pass-rushing ability should have opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks on their heels. Lewis-Moore has been cleared for spring following a season-ending knee injury in 2011 but might not start, though he will likely see plenty of playing time as the line rotates. Hounshell (shoulder surgery) is not cleared yet, but he will likely see significant time this fall after playing as a true freshman last year as well.

LINEBACKERS

The players: Danny Spond, Manti Te'o, Dan Fox, Prince Shembo, Kendall Moore, Ishaq Williams, Anthony Rabasa, Carlo Calabrese, Jarrett Grace, Justin Utopo, Connor Little, Ben Councell, Joe Schmidt

The incoming: None

The breakdown: As we said with Tyler Eifert yesterday, everyone knows what Te'o is capable of, as he likely would have been a first-round NFL draft pick had he left school following his junior year. Fox and Calabrese shared the other inside role last year, and their experience should prove valuable. Shembo has been working at the cat spot this spring, and up-and-coming talents like Williams and Spond figure to see extensive playing time.

SECONDARY

The players: Bennett Jackson, Jamoris Slaughter, Zeke Motta, Lo Wood, Josh Atkinson, Austin Collinsworth, Dan McCarthy, Jalen Brown, Cam McDaniel, Eilar Hardy, Chris Salvi, Joe Romano, Will Salvi, Connor Cavalaris, Matthias Farley, Blake Breslau

The incoming: Elijah Shumate, Nicky Baratti, C.J. Prosise, John Turner

The breakdown: The loss of Tee Shepard really stings this group, which is down to four scholarship corners with a combined zero career starts. Jackson and Wood are in position to take over as the new starters, and playing time last season should help with the transition. At safety, Slaughter and Motta saw plenty of time the last two seasons, and Slaughter in particular has shown a nose for the ball and the capability of providing a leadership force that Harrison Smith is leaving behind. Collinsworth will likely also see plenty of snaps after playing last year.

Notre Dame's to-do list for 2012

January, 20, 2012
1/20/12
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With the season over, it is time to take a look at which areas Notre Dame must shore up entering 2012.

Figure out the quarterback picture. Tommy Rees is 12-4 as a starter, but his season ended on a sour note, with two consecutive losses. Andrew Hendrix showed promise in limited action but only started one drive in the Champs Sports Bowl when given the chance to split time with Rees. Everett Golson redshirted. And there's apparently a new kid in town. As important as the decision coach Brian Kelly makes is the communication process with his pupils, as none of the two or three eventual non-starters wants to feel misled, which could force an uncomfortable dynamic for all moving forward. Regardless, Notre Dame finds itself with a good problem to have.

Establish a punt return game. Michael Floyd's 41-yard punt return in the Champs Sports Bowl was notable for the fact it was 38 yards more than what the Irish netted returning punts all season long. The normally sure-handed John Goodman is reportedly back for a fifth year, but Kelly has said that Notre Dame needs more of a gamebreaker back there to make a difference in returns. Whether that potential gamebreaker can be Theo Riddick, George Atkinson, Austin Collinsworth or someone unforeseen is anyone's guess.

Retool the secondary. At least three starters are gone from last season's unit, including captain Harrison Smith. On a team that will face elite quarterbacks like Matt Barkley and Landry Jones next season, this is crucial. Zeke Motta and likely Jamoris Slaughter return, with reserves such as Bennett Jackson, Lo Wood and Collinsworth potentially competing for starting spots.

Weekend rewind: Notre Dame

November, 14, 2011
11/14/11
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It's time to take a look back at the weekend that was in Landover, Md., where the Irish notched their third consecutive victory.

The Good: Notre Dame played its most complete offensive game of the year Saturday, beating Maryland 45-21. The Irish notched more than 500 yards of total offense for the fifth time in 10 games this season, jumping out to a 17-0 lead early and never looking back. The victory — along with several other dominoes falling into place — has the Irish ranked for the first time since the season began.

[+] EnlargeLo Wood
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireLo Wood's 57-yard interception-return touchdown was the turning point against Maryland.
The Bad: Time to nitpick, and in this case the offensive line (and Tommy Rees) are the unlucky recipients of an extra big microscope in a week the Irish left little to complain about offensively. Still, Notre Dame surrendered three sacks Saturday after not allowing a single one in its last five games. The Irish had allowed just five sacks on the season prior to Saturday.

The Ugly: Maryland's uniforms? Or the Terrapins' play? Tough call here, though watching quarterback Danny O'Brien's season come to an early end because of a broken bone in his upper left arm added injury to insult.

Turning point: Inserted for Robert Blanton (stinger), cornerback Lo Wood came up with a 57-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter, the Irish's second third-quarter score, to make it 38-7. It probably would not have been much of a competitive game anyway, but this one sealed the deal with plenty of time remaining.

Call of the day: Jonas Gray punched it in from 1 yard out on fourth-and-goal in the final minute of the first half, making it 24-7 Irish at the half. Sure, it's not that difficult to gain a yard (or have faith in your team to), but Maryland had just scored on the previous possession to cut the lead to 10, and a Terrapins stop there could have changed the momentum of the game.

Next up: Notre Dame's next challenge after beating a two-win Maryland team will be beating a three-win Boston College team. The Eagles are coming off a 14-10 win over North Carolina State, their second victory in three games. Keep an eye on linebacker Luke Kuechly, who could finish this season as the leading tackler in the FBS for the second consecutive season. Saturday will also be Senior Day at Notre Dame Stadium.

What we learned about Notre Dame: Week 11

November, 13, 2011
11/13/11
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1. Tempo too much for Terps: Notre Dame ran 84 plays Saturday, its most in the Brian Kelly era. By comparison, the Irish entered the game averaging 67.2 plays per game. They got out to an early 17-0 lead, and the confusion and exhaustion of Maryland's defensive players were evident both through their play and through comments afterward.

2. Toma making most of time: After relaying the news last week that Theo Riddick (hamstring) would be out for Saturday's game, Brian Kelly said he didn't look at Robby Toma as a backup. A career-high seven catches for 73 yards proved Kelly right, and it proved the tiny junior can make a difference when given the chance. He did the same last year in place of an injured Riddick, making 14 catches for 187 yards. It will be tough to keep him off the field once Riddick returns.

3. If Notre Dame Stadium were to get a Jumbotron …: Saturday provided a taste of what a Jumbotron might look like if Notre Dame ever got one. The Irish had a long pregame show on the big screen at FedEx Field, and interspersed highlights of all of their athletic teams throughout the night in what was technically a Notre Dame home game.

4. Third-quarter dominance continues: I guess we actually didn't learn this Saturday, as the Irish have been dominant in the third quarter all season long. But the lesson was certainly reinforced against Maryland. Cierre Wood had a 3-yard touchdown run, and Lo Wood picked off a Danny O'Brien pass just more than a minute later, returning it 57 yards for a touchdown. Notre Dame outscored the Terrapins 14-0 in the third period. The Irish now hold a 77-13 edge in the third quarter this season.

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