NCF Nation: Dan Fox

Kelly optimistic about 2014 Irish defense

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
9:00
AM ET

NEW YORK -- As the Notre Dame football team prepares to replace several key defensive starters and install a new defensive coordinator this offseason, former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's words about filling those voids stand out to sophomore corner KeiVarae Russell.

"He [said it's] like it's baking the cake. Instead of putting the sugar you put the spice in," Russell said. "It's still going to turn out to be a cake. It's going to be a different taste of it."

Notre Dame's players and coach are expecting that cake will taste quite good next season.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IINotre Dame could lose defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt to the 2014 NFL draft.
As Notre Dame readies to bring in a new defensive coordinator and potentially replace six starters from Saturday's 29-16 win over Rutgers in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, N.Y., the Fighting Irish are optimistic they won't miss a beat defensively next season.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said the team has its new defensive coordinator in place, reported to be Jets linebackers coach Brian VanGorder, and an announcement will be coming soon as the contract had not been finalized as of Saturday. VanGorder will replace Diaco, who left prior to the bowl game to become the head coach at UConn.

"We're going to have a lot of really good players coming back, I feel really confident in that," Kelly said. "[I'm] really excited about the prospects next year defensively in the guys we got coming back."

Notre Dame's defense shined against Rutgers, forcing four interceptions and holding the Scarlet Knights to just 236 total yards. More than half of the starters from that game, though, might not be back next season. Defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, linebackers Prince Shembo, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese, and cornerback Bennett Jackson all started their final game for Notre Dame.

Junior defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt also started against Rutgers and could skip his final season and declare for the draft. If he does, he will join senior defensive tackle Louis Nix III, who did not play against Rutgers after undergoing season-ending surgery but signed with an agent to forgo his final year of eligibility.

"He'll now focus on making that decision. We've had a couple of conversations. He knows all the information," Kelly said of Tuitt. "My job is to provide him with all the information about the decisions that he's about to make. I'm pretty certain he'll make his decision here very, very soon."

As he looks to next season, Kelly likes the core group of defensive players, and believes the team will benefit if it's able to achieve more continuity. Notre Dame started 19 different players on defense this year, as freshman safety Max Redfield made his first career start in the Pinstripe Bowl.

Kelly specifically mentioned Russell, who had an interception against Rutgers, and sophomore linebacker Jarron Jones as two players the defense can build around next season. Russell is confident he can be a major player for the new defensive coordinator and be a cornerstone for the defense next season.

"I personally believe I'm going to be the best corner next year in the country," Russell said. "This game shows me the development I had from the start of last year and from the beginning of the year to where I've progressed. My man-to-man skills have gotten a lot better throughout the year. Sky's the limit for me. This shows I can really be the best corner in the country, it just takes a lot of work to do that, and this offseason I'm going to work on all my assets."


Notre Dame finally pulled away from Rutgers to escape Yankee Stadium with a 29-16 win Saturday in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Here's how it went down:

It was over when: Tarean Folston punched it in from three yards out with 3:38 remaining to make it 26-16 and give Notre Dame some much-needed breathing room. Redshirt senior Dan Fox picked off Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd on the ensuing drive to effectively seal the game. Kyle Brindza added a 49-yard field goal to make it 29-16.

Game ball goes to: Folston was named the starter by coach Brian Kelly earlier this week. Before the game, Kelly issued a statement saying that George Atkinson III (and cornerback Jalen Brown) would not play due to a violation of team rules, which Atkinson tweeted (and then deleted) was him texting during a team meal. In any event, Folston took advantage of Atkinson's absence and might have gained the front-runner status for the starting running back job heading into next season. He capped his rookie year with 73 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, adding three catches for 21 yards. Kudos to Cam McDaniel for being his reliable self, as he had 17 carries for 80 yards and added three catches for 29 yards. The duo did this behind an offensive line missing its three regular interior starters.

Stat of the game: Pick your poison: Notre Dame completely outdid Rutgers in first downs (31-16), total yards (494-236), takeaways (4-1) and time of possession (38:16-21:44). It is hard to imagine how the Scarlet Knights managed to stay in this game for so long (19-16 with four minutes left).

Unsung hero: Brindza connected on 5 of 6 field goal attempts on what was an uneven surface, helping Notre Dame put up points whenever its offense could not punch it in. That was two field goals clear of the Irish's bowl game record. Credit to TJ Jones for catching five balls for 66 yards and carrying it four times for 16 yards and a touchdown in his college finale as well. (Oh, and let's not overlook Louis Nix, who is injured and has signed with an agent, meaning he could not travel with the team. That did not stop him from providing terrific Twitter commentary throughout the afternoon.)

What it means for Notre Dame: Let's just say the Irish had a lot more to lose in this one than they had to gain. But they can exit 2013 with a 9-4 record, their second-best mark since 2006. From an optimist's perspective, this is probably what was expected outside of the program when starting quarterback Everett Golson got suspended from school in May and once the injuries kept mounting as the season progressed. Stephon Tuitt's NFL decision will play a huge role in determining preseason expectations for this team, but getting Golson and many offensive weapons back will be huge for a program that has yet to really turn the corner offensively in four years under Kelly.

What it means for Rutgers: Goodbye American Athletic Conference, hello Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights had some opportunities to make this game a lot more interesting, but a number of questionable calls prevented them from gaining some much-needed momentum in this game, which in turn prevented them from gaining some positive momentum going into their new conference. First, coach Kyle Flood elected to decline an offside penalty on an 18-yard field goal by Kyle Federico, passing on an opportunity to go for a short touchdown in a game with little to lose and few touchdown opportunities to be gained. Later, the Scarlet Knights ran a halfback pass from the Irish 20 with Justin Goodwin, who tossed an interception to KeiVarae Russell. Michigan State made a similar mistake against the Irish earlier this year, and that one also was picked, a game-turning play in what turned out to be the Spartans' lone loss this season.

To watch the trophy presentation of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, click here.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- As Brian Kelly was finishing up his postgame press conference Saturday, an unexpected visitor made an appearance during the penultimate question.

"Jaylon, we'll be done in a second," Kelly said to Jaylon Smith, who had entered prematurely. "I know it's your press conference, but I'll be done in a second, and we'll let you get going. Is that all right?"

"Sorry," Smith said to the room of reporters. "I'm new to everything."

Within 24 hours, it turned out the freshman linebacker would be a seasoned veteran by Notre Dame's defense's standards. The Irish are hurting on that side of the ball -- just trying to get by, in a sense, with this weekend's game at Pitt preceding a much-needed bye before a two-game stretch against BYU and at Stanford.

[+] EnlargeEilar Hardy
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesSafety Eliar Hardy (left) is one of several Notre Dame reserves that were pressed into action due to injuries.
BCS dreams have essentially taken a backseat to figuring out just who is going to play and where, and how the remaining available guy will get ready for when their time comes.

"I think this is probably close to the pinnacle," Kelly said during Sunday's teleconference when asked if this defense has been hit as hard as any he's had in 23 years as a head coach. He added: "They don't give you any points for complaining about it. If they did, I'd complain every minute. So we just take care of it internally and get the next guy ready."

Ben Councell, the man behind Smith most of the season at the dog linebacker spot, was ruled out for the season Sunday after suffering a significant knee injury in the 38-34 win over Navy. Smith and Councell, of course, waged a preseason battle for a starting spot only after senior Danny Spond, last season's starter, was forced to retire because of hemiplegic migraines. And the linebacking corp is less than a month removed from its other big hit, when Jarrett Grace broke his leg in the Oct. 5 Arizona State game, costing the Mike linebacker the rest of his redshirt sophomore season.

It only gets worse up front, where Kona Schwenke is lost for at least this Saturday's game at Pitt because of a high-ankle sprain suffered on the Midshipmen's final drive. And Schwenke was only starting these last two games in place of nose guard Louis Nix III, who at first was ruled to have a shoulder injury suffered in the USC game, and then knee tendinitis, and now tendinitis and a small meniscus tear, though the school says he will practice this week after undergoing an MRI Sunday. Before that, Schwenke filled in for end Sheldon Day, who missed most of a three-game stretch after leaving a Sept. 14 game against Purdue with a high ankle sprain, and then re-aggravated said ankle sprain against Navy.

And no, it is not a coincidence that most of these injuries have come during this two-game stretch against Air Force and Navy, teams that often cut-block.

"It's unfortunate," Kelly said. "It's the style of offense that the academies play. It is what it is."

Kelly said it will make sense to possibly avoid scheduling multiple option teams in a single season, but that is a bridge he will cross when he gets to it. For now, his next-man-in philosophy is being tested by, well, a lack of next-men-in.

He said he guards against that by putting those who saw 15 or fewer plays in a game through extra conditioning that following Monday, while reserves get roughly half the work of the starters during 11-on-11 and scout team work in a given week.

"I think that we're so close that you don't really think about it in terms of, Oh, I've never seen you out here," redshirt senior linebacker Dan Fox said. "We get a lot of guys in at practice, there's a lot of reps to go around, so next man in and next man in."

Underclassmen such as Jarron Jones, Isaac Rochell and Romeo Okwara have been thrust into more meaningful time than most could have reasonably expected entering the season, while names unfamiliar to all but the closest of program observers -- Tyler Stockton, Justin Utupo and Eilar Hardy, to name a few -- saw extended action.

The last of those names, Hardy, helped set Smith up for the game-clinching tackle on Navy's Shawn Lynch during the visitors' final fourth-and-4 try. And he was only there because Austin Collinsworth suffered a neck strain that will require an MRI Monday.

Fellow safety Elijah Shumate, meanwhile, is expected to play against the Panthers after being sidelined the last three games with a hamstring injury, though Kelly had said the sophomore would play going into the Navy game, too.

There are also the knee injuries to left guard Chris Watt (PCL) and cat linebacker Ishaq Williams (ACL), both of whom left the Air Force game a week ago but only one of whom, Watt, could possibly return this week, depending on how quickly the redshirt senior can acclimate to the knee, which will not require surgery. Williams was in an immobilizer this week and could possibly return for the Nov. 23 BYU game.

The return of Watt would give Notre Dame four of its five starters back on the offensive line, as it lost right guard Christian Lombard for the season because of back surgery after the USC game. Still, the bruises have taken their biggest tolls on the other line, which during the spring and summer lost reserves Chase Hounshell (shoulder) and Tony Springmann (knee) for the season, in addition to seeing freshman signee Eddie Vanderdoes leave for UCLA.

All of it leaves the Irish, winners of four in a row, crawling to the finish line, every last piece of Kelly's three straight top-10 recruiting classes fitting into the plan for his push toward a second straight BCS-bowl berth.

"We are running out of next men. We're at that point where from a defensive standpoint, and particularly the defensive line, we're left with very few options," Kelly said, adding, "We'll figure something out. We'll get 11 guys out there. It's just not going to be one of those things where we're going to have the same group of guys out there all the time. As you know, we're going to have to find a way to stop a big, physical offensive line at Pittsburgh, and that is the thing that concerns you the most."

Nothing ever simple for Notre Dame

November, 2, 2013
11/02/13
9:54
PM ET

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Can't anything be easy around here?

Perhaps Ken Niumatalolo encapsulated why not after Saturday's Navy-Notre Dame game.

"For everybody that plays Notre Dame," the Navy coach said, "this is the Super Bowl for that team."

It was a different kind of championship, to be sure. And it was a different kind of rivalry, one whose mutual respect seeped through a silence that could best be described as deafening when both the Midshipmen and the Fighting Irish gathered near the visiting pocket of Notre Dame Stadium to sing the Navy Hymn afterward.

The ensuing "U-S-A" chants from the crowd as both teams gathered for Notre Dame's alma mater was a nice touch, too, as was the scary-low pregame flyover from the Blue Angels.

As for everything that happened in between on Saturday? Let's just say No. 25 Notre Dame will take the 38-34 win, thank you, and will wave a glorious goodbye to triple-option football for another year.

"Yes, I'm very glad," precocious freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith said of being done with a two-week stretch of Air Force and Navy, before adding that it would be "good to get back to regular football."

[+] EnlargeTarean Folston
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsTarean Folston, who gained 140 yards rushing, dives for the game-winning score in the fourth period.
Lately at this place, regular football has been tight, even when it should not be. Regular football usually has featured the slightest of game-changing mistakes -- in this case, a missed extra point on Navy's third touchdown, which had the Midshipmen chasing a touchdown on their failed final drive when they should have been a field goal away from tying it.

It all resulted in Notre Dame's 10th straight win under Brian Kelly in games decided by seven points or fewer, with eight of those 10 wins coming at home in the past two seasons.

Kelly said he was "ecstatic" to escape this contest with a win, that there would be no asterisk next to it, that his guys would enjoy all 24 hours of their allotted celebration time.

But after so much talk this week about the confidence built up from three straight wins over Arizona State, USC and Air Force, he recognized the outlier that Navy was, how liberating the sigh of relief that washed over the building was once Smith stopped Shawn Lynch on Navy's final play, a fourth-and-4 end-around from the Irish 31.

"This is one, just throw it away," Kelly said. "It's such a different game. It's defending the quarterback, lead play, and it's just you're ready for one game and the Naval Academy and what they do and how they do it, and then the next week it's a totally different situation. That's why it's such a difficult game to play.

"Nobody runs this option as effectively, and when they are on and they're not turning the football over -- and that's what they did today -- it's a one-shot deal with them. Find a way to beat them and move on."

To be fair, his defensive line is pushing all sorts of limits on depth. From the Eddie Vanderdoes transfer to UCLA to season-ending surgeries this summer for Chase Hounshell and Tony Springmann, from losing Louis Nix for these past two games and then seeing Sheldon Day and Kona Schwenke go down with undisclosed injuries against Navy, Notre Dame is barely getting by up front, and it is no surprise that the Midshipmen were able to run for 331 yards.

"I'm just glad I'll never do the triple option ever again," redshirt senior linebacker Dan Fox said.

So it was a touching renewal with a rival who actually will stay on the schedule, and then another mark in the W column -- not much else to see here. It is on to a Pitt team that has fallen to the Irish by three points in each of the past two seasons, before a bye week gives way to tougher tests against BYU and Stanford.

Those BCS-bowl hopes that a seemingly refreshed outfit chatted about this week? Still alive, and that's all Notre Dame cares to know, however ridiculous the notion of an Orange Bowl matchup against someone like Florida State sounds after all that transpired in the last 60 minutes.

"It's Notre Dame; we don't expect anything to be easy," Irish senior captain TJ Jones said. "That's why we came here. It's one of the greatest challenges off the field and on the field that you can get from an institution, and we expect that week in and week out."

Irish defense looks to get back on track

September, 13, 2013
9/13/13
10:00
AM ET
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Bennett Jackson entered the football building's auditorium Wednesday wearing a yellow t-shirt. On the front, above his heart, the shirt read: "Irish D-Boys," with the Fighting Irish leprechaun logo right below the words. On the back, in big, bold letters, the shirt read: "Addicted to Our Culture."

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco had asked his players how addicted they were to that culture before a camp practice early last month, and Notre Dame has tried to live by that motto after a 2012 season that surpassed everyone's expectations.

[+] EnlargeBennett Jackson
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesSenior Bennett Jackson believes this year's Notre Dame defense can be as good as last year's.
"Just really dominance, that's what we expect from one another, that's our standard," Jackson, the lone defensive captain, said, describing his defense's culture. "We do everything throughout the day in every facet of our life at a first-class level basically, and we don't expect anything less than that. So our culture is dominance -- that's what we push ourselves toward."

But that culture of dominance was fractured last week by a Michigan team that put up 41 points in delivering the Irish their first regular-season loss since 2011. A unit that returned seven starters from last year showed holes that few saw coming.

The Irish finished last year's regular season atop the nation in scoring defense, at 10.33 points per game. They then gave up 42 points in the BCS title game loss to Alabama. The Crimson Tide converted all five red-zone trips that night into touchdowns. Likewise, the Wolverines reached the end zone on all four of their red-zone trips this past weekend.

This against a defense whose hallmark last season was two game-winning, season-defining, goal-line stands.

"We didn't play very well," linebacker Dan Fox said of the red-zone defense in each contest.

Notre Dame has allowed 47 points and six touchdowns through two games this season. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Irish did not allow 47 points last season until their sixth game, and they did not allow six touchdowns until their ninth game.

Their next two opponents, Purdue and Michigan State, could provide opportunities for those numbers to climb back to the standard, as the Boilermakers and Spartans rank 108th and 100th nationally, respectively, in total offense.

"I feel like we're definitely trying to push one another in practice," Jackson said. "We have a high standard as a defense, and we feel like we haven't played to that level or the level that we expect of ourselves, so of course we're (trying) to push our level up, pushing everybody through practice and just stay focused on our keys."

Head coach Brian Kelly has not lost faith in the unit that his team rode to last year's heights, saying that "what you see is what you got" when it comes to personnel this weekend, and that this year's defense remains capable of playing at a championship level, despite last week's rough outing.

Notre Dame's defense might very well live up to last year's high mark, but it received a not-so-friendly reminder that adjusting for personnel losses and bigger targets on their backs is still a process that takes time.

"We've got to coach some things up," Kelly said. "We've got to clean some things up fundamentally. I like our players, and we've just got to continue to develop who we are. I think I would feel a lot differently moving forward if I didn't feel like we had the players necessary to have a good defense and the level of the defense that we're going to need with the schedule that we're going to play. We've got to clean some things up, and I'm confident that we will."

Notre Dame season preview

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
10:30
AM ET
Today we're looking at Notre Dame, which looks to build off its best season in more than two decades.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Coach: Brian Kelly (199-68-2 overall, 28-11 at Notre Dame)

2012 record: 12-1

Key losses: RB Theo Riddick, RB Cierre Wood, TE Tyler Eifert, C Braxston Cave, DE Kapron Lewis-Moore, LB Manti Te'o, S Zeke Motta

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
AP Photo/John BazemoreBrian Kelly's Irish should once again be in the hunt for a BCS bowl game.
Key returnees: QB Tommy Rees, WR TJ Jones, WR DaVaris Daniels, LT Zack Martin, LG Chris Watt, DE Stephon Tuitt, NG Louis Nix III, LB Dan Fox, LB Prince Shembo, CB Bennett Jackson

Newcomer to watch: RB Greg Bryant. The Delray Beach, Fla., native was ESPN's No. 2 running back prospect for the Class of 2013 and walks into a crowded but opportune situation. Bryant, an Oklahoma de-commit, is one of six backs vying for extensive playing time after the Irish said goodbye to their top-two rushers from a year ago. Coach Brian Kelly has already gone on record as saying that his young running backs are guys who will help the Irish win some games this fall, and Bryant may turn out to be the best of the bunch.

Biggest games in 2013: Sept. 7 at Michigan, Sept. 21 vs. Michigan State, Sept. 28 vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 5 vs. Arizona State (in Arlington, Texas), Oct. 19 vs. USC, Nov. 30 at Stanford

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The most pressing question may be how Notre Dame adjusts on the fly after learning after the spring that it would be without quarterback Everett Golson for at least the fall (academic misconduct). Luckily for the Irish, senior Tommy Rees and his 18 starts are back, though he will need some new playmakers to emerge around him after the Irish lost their top two running backs and first-round pick Tyler Eifert at tight end. Six men are vying for carries in the backfield, while TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels anchor the receiving corps.

Forecast: Kelly made it clear that 2012 was in the past by taking his team to Camp Shiloh in Marion, Ind., for the first week of fall camp. No social media or television and, more specifically, no more talk about the Alabama game, Manti Te'o or the other headlines that followed the program during a wild offseason. In helping to get that message across, Kelly has the perfect quarterback in Rees, who has overcome negative headlines of his own and, last year, overcame losing his starting job. He went on to save the Irish in three of their first six games last season and proved to be as valuable as anyone on the roster. Never will that be more evident than this season, as he steps up again in Golson's absence. A stronger Rees took control of the offense during the offseason, and better decision-making should pay dividends for the Irish this fall.

They finished second nationally in scoring defense last season and return eight starters from that unit, including potential 2014 first-round draft picks Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. They are also much deeper, with a plethora of linebackers and defensive backs ready to spare the starters at a moment's notice, a far cry from last season, when the team broke in three new starters in the secondary -- with all three having been on the offensive side of the ball earlier in their careers.

Kelly returns all of his assistants after a renaissance 2012 campaign that saw the team notch a perfect regular season before meeting Alabama in the BCS National Championship. He brought in ESPN's No. 4 recruiting class for 2013. And he brings back more than enough talent to prove that last season was not a one-year wonder, and that the Irish are, in fact, here to stay. Another BCS bowl game -- despite the late loss of its starting quarterback -- should be well within reach for Notre Dame in 2013.

Where ND fits in on watch lists

July, 24, 2013
7/24/13
9:00
AM ET
Watch list season came and went, and if the releases are any indication, Notre Dame is in serious trouble at quarterback, running back, center, defensive back and punter.

Well, not really. But those positions are notable considering the Irish did not land anyone on the watch lists for the Davey O'Brien, Doak Walker, Rimington, Jim Thorpe or Ray Guy awards.

(Never mind that cornerback Bennett Jackson made the watch list for the Bednarik Award, given to the nation's top defensive player.)

Still, it was quite a run for the Irish, and particularly for Louis Nix, who made six different watch lists. (Stephon Tuitt wasn't too shabby himself, making five.)

Below is a roundup of the dozen different Irish players who made watch lists in the past two weeks. Notre Dame is the only school with multiple defensive players on the watch list for the Maxwell Award and the only school with multiple defensive players on the watch list for the Walter Camp player of the year award. The Irish's four Bednarik watch listers are the most in the nation, and their three players on the Butkus watch list are tied for the most in the nation.

Maxwell (best player): Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt
Bednarik (defensive player): Bennett Jackson, Louis Nix, Prince Shembo, Stephon Tuitt
Mackey (tight end): Ben Koyack, Troy Niklas
Lou Groza (kicker): Kyle Brindza
Nagurski (defensive): Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt
Outland (interior lineman): Zack Martin, Louis Nix
Butkus (linebacker): Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox, Prince Shembo
Rotary Lombardi (offensive/defensive lineman, linebacker): Zack Martin, Louis Nix, Prince Shembo, Stephon Tuitt
Biletnikoff (receiver): DaVaris Daniels, T.J. Jones
Walter Camp (best player): Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The first public plays in Notre Dame uniforms for Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle are being put on hold.

The two will sit out Saturday's Blue-Gold spring game as a precautionary measure, coach Brian Kelly said Wednesday.

Robinson is recovering from a hyper-extended elbow while Carlisle nurses a broken collarbone suffered March 23.

Kelly said that Carlisle returned to practice in pads Wednesday but was limited to no contact.

Robinson, who enrolled this spring, presumably injured his elbow while making a diving, one-handed catch during Saturday's scrimmage, the entirety of which was open to reporters and others on hand for the coaches clinic.

Carlisle has yet to take a snap in a Notre Dame uniform after transferring from USC following his freshman season of 2011, getting a waiver from the NCAA to play immediately and then breaking his ankle before last spring, forcing him to redshirt in the 2012 season.

Dan Fox, Bennett Jackson, Nicky Baratti, Chase Hounshell and Tyler Plantz are all out Saturday as well. The first three of those players have been used lightly this spring while recovering from offseason shoulder operations. Hounshell will miss the 2013 season after suffering a serious shoulder injury this spring, similar to the one that forced him to miss last season.

Kelly said the offense, wearing white, will be scored Saturday against the defense, wearing blue, with no live special-teams play, though Kyle Brindza will punt.
Notre Dame returns to the practice field Wednesday morning after a week off for the Easter holiday. Five sessions are in the bag and 10 remain, including the April 20 Blue-Gold spring game.

Like every team every season, the Irish are welcoming new faces in several new places. Among the biggest for the program heading into the 2013 season are at running back, center and Mike linebacker.

Here is a look at how those battles are shaping up as spring practice No. 6 takes place today.

RUNNING BACK
[+] EnlargeGeorge Atkinson III
Matt Cashore/US PresswireIrish coaches have talked up George Atkinson III in the chase for playing time at running back.
This is, frankly, a blanket term for a backfield that will likely feature more than one person at a time throughout much of the coming season. But the Irish did lose their top two rushers in Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, and with (at least) a strong left side of the offensive line returning, it will be interesting to see how the unit shakes out. Rising junior George Atkinson III has the most experience among returners, and head coach Brian Kelly and position coach Tony Alford have been high on him so far this spring, praising his weight training (he's up seven pounds, to 217) and ability to catch the ball in the slot. Can Atkinson be the typical 20-carries-per-game, between-the-tackles back? Will it matter? USC transfer Amir Carlisle also drew plenty of praise in the same role this spring before the rising redshirt sophomore suffered a broken collarbone March 23. Rising junior Cam McDaniel and rising redshirt freshman William Mahone are back there as well, and the program will welcome in talented prospects Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston this summer, at least one of whom may be primed to make an immediate impact.

From Brett Perotta of the ESPN Stats & Information blog, citing seven signees in college football who will make an immediate impact in 2013:
RB Greg Bryant, Notre Dame

Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick are gone, leaving a vacancy in the backfield and over 300 carries to go around. Bryant is the first top-10 running back the Irish have signed since James Aldridge in 2006. Notre Dame posted a respectable 4.9 yards per carry as a team last season and will return three starters on the offensive line. With returning dual-threat quarterback Everett Golson, Bryant should have plenty of room to work.
CENTER
So much of how Notre Dame's offensive line shakes out will depend on this position battle. With fifth-year seniors Zack Martin and Chris Watt back manning the left side of the line, and with redshirt junior Christian Lombard seemingly back for Year 2 as the starting right tackle, the Irish need to identify Braxston Cave's successor in the middle. Redshirt sophomore Nick Martin, Zack's younger brother, was running with the first team during the start of the first spring practice, March 20, and figures to have the inside track there right now. Nick Martin served as something of a utility man on the second-team line throughout last season. Redshirt sophomore Matt Hegarty, cleared following a November mini-stroke that threatened his football career, should give Martin a push here as well. Right guard is the other open position battle, and if Kelly or position coach Harry Hiestand deem tackle sophomore Ronnie Stanley or early enrollee Steve Elmer ready, there is always the chance that Lombard could slide to right guard.

MIKE LINEBACKER
Jarrett Grace was talked about a lot last spring by the coaching staff but, frankly, just was not needed so much in 2012. Not with Manti Te'o having the kind of season he had, recording seven interceptions en route to a Heisman Trophy runner-up campaign that saw him rarely leave the field. Now that position is vacant following three consecutive 100-tackle seasons, and Grace, a redshirt sophomore, has the inside track to take over inside. Fifth-year senior Dan Fox, recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, is capable of playing both inside positions, and fellow fifth-year senior Carlo Calabrese has resumed his role as the Will linebacker after splitting duties there with Fox the past two seasons. No one should expect anything resembling Te'o's All-America-type run from the position so soon, but with starters, and depth, returning at every other linebacker spot, the Mike is the position to keep an eye on during the offseason.

Video: Impact of injuries on ND spring ball

January, 30, 2013
1/30/13
9:29
PM ET


Will injuries to cornerback Bennett Jackson and linebacker Dan Fox be a problem for Notre Dame heading into the start of spring practice March 20?
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.
It's never too early to look really, really, really smart. (Or not so smart.) Here are a few fearless predictions for next season, all of which I will stand by through thick and thin ... obviously.

1. Everett Golson will be the Week 1 starter ... but his leash may be even shorter than it was this past season. Tommy Rees is there waiting for the two-minute drill when called upon, but with Andrew Hendrix seasoned another year and with Gunner Kiel's redshirt season now out of the way, coach Brian Kelly is quick to insert a new guy whenever the opportunity presents itself. Nonetheless, Golson will enter spring and fall camp as the No. 1 guy and will emerge from both as the winner.

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillEverett Golson will begin the season as the starter, but there's plenty of competition behind him.
2. Notre Dame will make a BCS bowl game, but yes, will lose a few regular-season games. The schedule is easier than this past year's, but trips to Michigan and Stanford certainly present big challenges, not to mention a number of potential trap games that almost tripped the Irish up in 2012. The Irish had ridiculously strong leadership in 2012 that proved to be the difference in a number of close contests. Despite having what would appear to be a more talented team in 2013, it is asking an awful lot of this group to run the table for a second straight season.

3. Stephon Tuitt will break Justin Tuck's sack record and have a very tough decision to make at season's end. The defensive end and his mother have said in published reports that they aren't thinking about an NFL future just yet, but that will become harder to avoid after Tuitt takes yet another step in 2013. Following a 12-sack sophomore campaign that Tuitt deemed a "learning year," the 6-foot-6, 303-pounder will add a couple of more, breaking Tuck's single-season Irish record of 13.5 and becoming a universally accepted first-round pick should he choose to enter the draft after his junior year.

4. Greg Bryant will be the No. 1 RB by midseason. There is a logjam in Notre Dame's backfield, but none are all that proven. George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel have performed well in complementary roles, but neither have handled anything close to the workload that a No. 1 back requires. While the carries will likely be divvied up among those two, USC transfer Amir Carlisle and redshirt freshman William Mahone, Bryant's size and speed fit the mold of an every-down guy, and his first year will go a long way in proving that he is the future answer in the Notre Dame backfield.

5. Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese will be the returning fifth-year guys. I suppose this would be a bold prediction if I gave you an announcement date. But considering we didn't officially hear about last year's fifth-year guys until the spring, I won't be holding my breath.

It's game day at Spartan Stadium

September, 15, 2012
9/15/12
7:32
PM ET
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Greetings from Spartan Stadium, where No. 20 Notre Dame and No. 10 Michigan State are about an hour away from kickoff.

We already know what's at-stake here for the Irish, who begin a six-game stretch in which they face five ranked opponents. They are 0 for their last 9 against top-10 teams, losing by an average margin of 15 points per game. A 2005 victory at then-No. 3 Michigan was Notre Dame's last victory over a top-10 opponent, and the Irish will hope to replicate that performance again tonight in the Mitten.

A couple travel items: USC running back transfer Amir Carlisle did not make the trip after being cleared for action two weeks ago. Carlisle suffered a broken ankle before the spring and has yet to play for the Irish, who bring back former starter Cierre Wood for his first game of the season.

Defensive end Chase Hounshell did not travel with the team, either. Brian Kelly has said that Hounshell not playing through two games is a matter of having too many players in front of him, though. Tackle Tate Nichols (right knee subluxation) did not travel, either, as he has yet to play this season.

One player who did make the trip is linebacker Danny Spond, who is expected to appear in his first game of 2012 after suffering a preseason head injury. Spond will likely see time at the dog spot with Ben Councell, moving the Dan Fox/Carlo Calabrese tandem back to the will spot. Calabrese was at the will last week in his first game back from suspension, but Fox was moved outside, as Kelly wanted Councell to see a traditional offense from the sideline before stepping in.

The student section is full and the rest of the crowd is beginning to file in, with Spartans players heading over beforehand to greet their classmates. We'll be back with any breaking news throughout the game and to recap the night's events here, with in-game observations coming from Twitter. We'll also have a live chat going throughout the game, with yours truly chiming in during the second and fourth quarters.

If history's any indication, it will be a fun one. Looking forward to it.

Notre Dame weekend rewind

September, 10, 2012
9/10/12
10:46
AM ET
Here's one last look back at Notre Dame's 20-17 win over Purdue:

The good: Notre Dame is 2-0 for the first time since 2008. Remember, the Irish were 0-2 a year ago. They are Nos. 20 and 19 in the AP and coaches' poll, respectively. They overcame a number of injuries to pull out a tight win that, frankly, they probably don't finish last season. Tommy Rees proved he wasn't rattled by the offseason, or outside distractions, either.

The bad: Those injuries made things difficult. Among those to leave the game were Kapron Lewis-Moore, Sheldon Day, Ishaq Williams, Jamoris Slaughter, DaVaris Daniels and Tyler Eifert. Manti Te'o got banged up, too, and Nick Tausch missed the game with a groin injury. All should be good to go Saturday.

The ugly: Eight penalties after a flag-less performance against Navy was not what anyone had in mind. Notre Dame having to burn all of its timeouts with more than 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter was probably not part of the plan, either.

Biggest personnel change not involving a QB: Carlo Calabrese returned from suspension and played inside, with Dan Fox, who usually starts there, moving to the dog, where Ben Councell would be. Coach Brian Kelly said afterward that he wanted Councell "to see the game from the sideline," adding that the game plan for Navy was different a week earlier.

Next up: Notre Dame travels to East Lansing, Mich., to face rival Michigan State. We all know what happened last time the Irish walked into Spartan Stadium. And we all remember how the Irish took care of business last year. As will be the case with most games this season, the spotlight will be on each quarterback and the Irish's offensive line play, as Sparty brings in a very talented defensive line.

Roster breakdown: Defense

March, 29, 2012
3/29/12
9:00
AM ET
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.

SPONSORED HEADLINES