Notre Dame Football: Chris Brown

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Kelly wants more out of all of them, because that's just the way the head coach is wired. Mike Denbrock is not displeased with any of them, because six practices into spring ball would be an awfully early time for the offensive coordinator to heap any significant praise on a green group.

If Notre Dame's offense is going to break out in the fashion all expect now that it has a proven, dynamic quarterback in Everett Golson, it's going to need its receivers to take the next step. And these final three weeks of spring practice will probably go a long way in determining whether such a leap can occur, especially with headliner DaVaris Daniels exiled until the summer because of an academic matter.

"Now, it's kind of been funny, when I have a question, I have to figure it out as opposed to last fall," Corey Robinson said. "DaVaris played 'W' a lot -- whenever I had an issue, I'd go to him and he'd help me out, or I'd go to TJ [Jones]. Now I have to figure it out, and some of the younger guys who didn't play last year are coming to me and asking me what to do. That's really forced my hand -- and I know it's the same for Breezy (Chris Brown) and C.J. (Prosise). We have to know the offense better and it kind of puts pressure on us to do that so when questions are asked we can help out."

Robinson has raised eyebrows for the second spring in a row, this time for more than just his frame. The 6-foot-4.5, 205-pound son of hoops Hall of Famer David Robinson has asserted himself more after a nine-catch, 157-yard, one-touchdown rookie campaign, with Kelly saying the sophomore has pleased him more than anyone else at the position.

"He does exactly what I ask him to do all the time," Kelly said, loud and deliberately. "And he does it right. Now he may screw it up the first time, but you coach him and he does it right the second time. I love that kid.”

"They try to do it right," Kelly later added of the others when asked. "They all try to do it right. He does it right the second time. He's fun to coach."

Denbrock said the experience of Brown has made him the steadiest of the bunch, as his junior status and 17 career grabs for 265 yards and a score are all tops on the current roster.

It helps that youngsters like Robinson and
Will Fuller
(six catches, 160 yards, TD) got their feet wet last season as freshmen, but there are still projects in spring enrollee Justin Brent and Torii Hunter Jr., who redshirted last season while recovering from a broken left leg suffered in high school.

"If you look at those other guys, it’s still new to them," Denbrock said. "We’re really working hard at all positions on offense because of our youth and gaining that type of consistency play in and play out that you need to control the game from the offensive side of the ball."

Irish lunch links

March, 26, 2014
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Oh, Knicks ...
All that talk about Everett Golson this spring must have gotten lost between the time Notre Dame's former starter returned to school and the time the redshirt was unofficially taken off the Fighting Irish's other returning quarterback.

No, Malik Zaire is not bowing down to anybody this spring, even if the man he is splitting reps with has a résumé that includes national title game experience.

"I don't see it as a competition at all -- I see it, I'm competing with myself to get better every day and competing with myself to be the best quarterback in the country, because I hope that's why a lot of guys come to college football, especially Notre Dame," Zaire said. "I'm not here to make this a one-on-one match with the next guy as me being the most prepared to lead this team to 12 victories and a national championship."

[+] EnlargeMalik Zaire
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsDespite the pedigree that Everett Golson provides, Malik Zaire won't concede the Notre Dame starting job without a fight.
It's been there, nearly-done-that for Golson, which is why Brian Kelly raised a few eyebrows last month when he declared the starting job an open competition. What Golson's opponent lacks in experience he just might make up for in potential, as Zaire entered Notre Dame a year ago as ESPN's No. 6 signal-caller from the Class of 2013.

But with Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix now out of the picture -- and with incoming signee DeShone Kizer three months away from enrolling -- the burden is on Zaire to be more than window-dressing, to emerge as a viable in-game option for the Irish and perhaps even more.

"It's definitely put me in another level of capability in terms of just being comfortable within the offense," he said. "I think this year and this spring specifically it's got better for me because I'm in there a lot more than last year. Dealing with that, I'm feeling better as the days progress, I'm getting better as the days progress, I'm enjoying it as the days progress, so I'm just getting a lot better each day."

The southpaw gets the benefit of a clean slate with a new position coach in Matt LaFleur, and, by statistical measure, hardly trails Golson in the chemistry department with the current crop of receivers.

Only Ben Koyack and Chris Brown have caught passes from current Irish signal-callers, accounting for two receptions from Golson totaling 55 yards during that charmed run of 2012. Both the experience gap and the skill-set between Notre Dame's current quarterbacks are not what they were during Golson's ascension around this time two years ago, when he fought off the incumbent, football-savvy Rees -- who was never hesitant to share all that he knew with the underclassman.

"They're good together, they like each other," Kelly said. "Everett's not going to sit down and teach him the playbook, though. But they like each other, they get along very well, but it's not a Tommy Rees (situation), where Tommy Rees would sit down and teach Everett the offense; we don't have that kind of situation. These are two competitive kids. Malik wants to beat out Everett. But it's a very positive kind of atmosphere.

"(Zaire's) just a highly competitive kid, and he's extremely confident in his ability. Extremely. Sometimes I have to settle him down a bit. But that's a good thing. I'd rather have that than somebody who doesn't think he can do it. So the dynamic is very positive. They're very good with each other. They help each other. But it's not one where they're going to share notes and sit down and, 'Hey, how can I help you beat me out?' That's not happening."

Zaire treaded a path similar to Golson upon his arrival to Notre Dame last spring before coming down with mononucleosis during his first preseason camp. Kelly conceded that the 6-foot, 208-pounder probably got a little lost mentally as the reality of redshirting settled in, but he had come full-circle by season's end.

"When December rolled around, being in there and being at least kind of involved definitely impacted me in a way where I felt a lot more comfortable and I felt like myself," Zaire said. "I always say, 'You take the lion out of the wild and put him in the zoo for a while, he forgets how to be a lion.' In December, I was able to come right back and do what I've been doing since Day 1, and that's playing and being involved and being the quarterback that I am."

Whether that will be enough to pull off a monumental upset on the depth chart remains to be seen, but for now the only person Zaire is concerned with is Zaire, the name he thinks can take the first snap for the Irish come Aug. 30.

"This competition is more me getting better and finding whatever it takes to do and whatever it takes to get to that next level, so they don't have a choice but to play me," he said. "There are things that I can't control as well -- it's definitely an uphill battle on fighting in terms of what people believe to be a quarterback competition because of the guy that's been there and done that.

"So I can't concern myself with something I can't control. More of it is just like, whatever it takes for me to be on the field, and doing what it takes to be on the field and knowing that I got what it takes, that's all that really matters."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Everett Golson has a pretty good idea of what DaVaris Daniels is going through. Together, the redshirt juniors have been cast aside from Notre Dame in consecutive semesters because of academic shortcomings, with the quarterback missing the 2013 season and the receiver gone for this spring.

So in a sense, Golson has provided a blueprint for Daniels to return this summer and be ready to go when fall camp opens in August.

[+] EnlargeDaVaris Daniels
AP Photo/Michael ConroyDaVaris Daniels finds himself in the position that Everett Golson did -- having been kicked out of Notre Dame due to academic shortcomings.
"He was actually up here last weekend, so he came over and we were talking," Golson said. "I rapped with him a little bit, just going through kind of the same situation, encouraging him, letting him know everything is going to be fine. He's good. He's working out and doing his thing. I just can't wait to get him back."

Daniels' suspension became public in January, as he released a statement saying he planned to work his way back after a few months away. He spoke last week with CBSSports.com, detailing the pressures of mounting injuries and academic probation eventually leading to his GPA slipping below 2.0 in the fall.

The Vernon Hills, Ill., native is now working out at EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park, and he will be immediately counted on if and when he returns to the Fighting Irish, who said goodbye to other top targets TJ Jones (graduation) and Troy Niklas (draft) after last season.

Daniels' 49 catches for 745 yards and seven touchdowns last season all were good for second on the team. He grabbed 31 passes for 490 yards in his first season of action in 2012, with Golson as the primary signal-caller.

The two connected six times for 115 yards in the BCS title game loss to Alabama, one of the few bright spots in the 42-14 defeat.

For now, Golson is left to work with a new cast of receivers this spring, with Ben Koyack (one catch, 5 yards) and Chris Brown (one catch, 50 yards) being the only active players who have recorded receptions from him in the past.

"As long as [Daniels] takes care of the admissions process and getting back and he's readmitted, he'll be back here this summer," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "Now, he's got to take summer school when he gets back here and he's got to get his classes taken care of, and as long as he takes care of his classes this summer, he'll be eligible for all the games next year."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Spring football is under way at Notre Dame. And if the snowbanks at every turn of campus weren't an indication, the sight of a No. 5 throwing footballs in a red jersey again sure was.

Yes, all eyes were on Everett Golson during his first Irish practice in nearly a year, with Avicii's "Levels" blasting once stretching was done and the tempo drill was under way. The media was able to view the first 30 minutes of practice from a balcony in the Loftus Sports Complex, with Golson and the offense running tempo on the far end of the field and the defense getting into gear right below us.

Golson is set to meet the media after practice for the first time since his return to school so we will have more on him later on Monday. As for what could be gathered about his weapons with the 2014 season still far away …
We'll have more later on Monday, as Golson will be joined by seven other players, plus coach Brian Kelly, following the completion of spring practice No. 1.
We are one day away from national signing day, an occasion packed with promise. As we noticed last week when looking at the Ultimate 300, some prospects meet their potential better than others.

Recruiting is an inexact science, as projects such as the Ultimate 300 reveal, and as many rosters filled with blue-chip prospects show, too.

[+] EnlargeJaylon Smith
AP Photo/Scott BoehmJaylon Smith was the only five-star recruit among Notre Dame's starters last season.
Look no further than Notre Dame, which currently has Recruiting Nation's No. 11 overall haul for the Class of 2014, down from No. 4 last season. The Irish were No. 9 in 2012, No. 9 in 2011, No. 21 in 2010 and No. 14 in 2009.

The 2009-13 classes made up the 2013 Notre Dame roster. So, using Recruiting Nation's rankings, we will take a look back at this past season's (general) starters to see where they stood as recruits.

The numbers? Notre Dame had one five-star recruit, six four-star recruits, 11 three-star recruits and one two-star recruit.

(Note: ESPN did not use the star system until 2010.)

Offense

  • QB Tommy Rees, Lake Forest (Ill.) High: Three stars, No. 19 QB, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 79
  • RB: George Atkinson III, Granada (Calif.) High: Three stars, No. 40 ATH, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 79
  • WR: TJ Jones, Gainesville (Ga.) High: Four stars, No. 68 overall prospect, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 81
  • WR: DaVaris Daniels, Vernon Hills (Ill.) High: Four stars, No. 65 overall prospect, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 81
  • WR: Chris Brown, Hanahan (S.C.) High: Three stars, No. 66 WR, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 78
  • TE: Troy Niklas, Servite (Calif.) High: Three stars, No. 19 TE, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 79
  • T: Zack Martin, Indianapolis Bishop Chatard High: No. 109 overall prospect, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 81
  • T: Ronnie Stanley, Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High: Four stars, No. 34 OT, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 79
  • G: Chris Watt, Glenbard West (Ill.) High: No. 68 overall prospect, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 82
  • G: Christian Lombard, Williams Fremd (Ill.) High: Three stars, No. 20 OT, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 79
  • C: Nick Martin, Bishop Chatard (Ind.) High: Three stars, No. 39 OT, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 78
Defense

  • DE: Stephon Tuitt, Monroe (Ga.) High: Four stars, No. 90 overall prospect, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 81
  • DE: Sheldon Day, Indianapolis Warren Central High: Four stars, No. 143 overall prospect, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 80
  • NG: Louis Nix, Jacksonville (Fla.) Raines High: Four stars, No. 64 overall prospect, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 81
  • LB: Prince Shembo, Charlotte (N.C.) Ardrey Kell High: Three stars, No. 47 DE, Class of 2010, Scout grade: 78
  • LB: Dan Fox, Cleveland St. Ignatius High: No. 76 OLB, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 76
  • LB: Carlo Calabrese, Verona (N.J.) High: No. 12 ILB, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 78
  • LB: Jaylon Smith, Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Luers High: Five stars, No. 7 overall prospect, Class of 2013. Scout grade: 90
  • CB: Bennett Jackson, Hazlet (N.J.) Raritan High: Three stars, No. 97 WR, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 77
  • CB: KeiVarae Russell, Everett (Wash.) Mariner High: Three stars, No. 28 RB, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 79
  • S: Matthias Farley, Charlotte Christian (N.C.) High: Three stars, No. 92 ATH, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 77
  • S: Austin Collinsworth, Highlands (Ky.) High: Two stars, No. 121 S, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 74
Special Teams

  • K/P: Kyle Brindza, Plymouth (Mich.) High: Three stars, No. 6 K, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 79

Close games highlight Pitt-ND series

November, 6, 2013
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The package was called "Desperado," a phrase both Pittsburgh and Notre Dame fans would probably rather never hear or speak of again.

It was not discovered until the day after the Fighting Irish's triple-overtime win over the Panthers last year that cornerback Bennett Jackson and receiver Chris Brown, both No. 2 for the Irish, were on the field together when Kevin Harper's potential 33-yard game-winning field sailed wide right after a bad snap.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh vs. Notre Dame in 2012
Matt Cashore/US PresswireEverett Golson's game-winning touchdown in the third overtime last season gave the Irish a heart-stopping victory over Pitt.
For the Panthers, it was an oversight that all but cost them a program-defining win for new coach Paul Chryst. For the Irish, it was a crisis averted, one of several minor miracles in a magical season.

It was another hold-your-breath moment in a series that, for one reason or another, has never lacked for drama. A primetime atmosphere awaits Saturday night at Heinz Field when the Panthers and the Irish square off. One team is fighting to clinch bowl eligibility, the other is clinging to BCS-bowl hopes and, well, here we go again.

"It happens," Pitt linebacker Todd Thomas said of the officials' error last season. "Two No. 2s on the field, it happens. Refs make mistakes, so everybody's not perfect. So it happens. So we just put the loss behind us and just carried on to the next week. But it happens. Everybody's not perfect."

Notre Dame has beaten Pitt by three points in each of the last two years, including a 15-12 tractor-pull of a contest in 2011 that both teams are best served to forget. The Irish are 6-3 against the Panthers since 2002, but eight of those games have been decided by eight points or fewer.

There have been seven total overtimes across two of those games -- a four-overtime Pitt win in 2008 and last year's three-overtime Notre Dame victory, its last close call on the way to the BCS title game.

"You know what, we're letting it go, it's old news," Pitt end Bryan Murphy said. "Whatever happened last year happened. We're not paying attention to it. We're just moving on from there. That's all last year. We were a different team, they were a different team. So we're not even concentrating on anything that happened last year."

Chryst echoed that sentiment during his Monday press conference in Pittsburgh, though tight end J.P. Holtz had a decidedly different tone when he told reporters that he did not like Notre Dame, calling their coaches "really cocky."

The comments seemingly made their way back here to Irish coach Brian Kelly, who said Tuesday: "They don't seem to like Notre Dame very much, and they want to beat Notre Dame."

Though in just his fourth year at Notre Dame, Kelly is more familiar with Pitt than any other opponent in the last seven years, having faced the Panthers in each of his three seasons at Cincinnati before playing them annually so far while with the Irish.

He has also faced the Panthers' new starting quarterback, redshirt senior Tom Savage, who appeared in Rutgers' 2009 season-opener against the Kelly-coached Bearcats.

"A big kid, strong-armed, and obviously they like to throw the football with him," Kelly said of Savage. "He's got some talented receivers. We're going to have to prepare ourselves for a kid that likes to throw the football and has some weapons."

The best of those weapons, redshirt senior Devin Street, is two weeks removed from becoming Pitt's career leader in receptions. Though winless and held to 42 or fewer yards in each of his three contests against the Irish, Street has no particular distaste for the team he will face this weekend.

"We don't go in disliking anyone, but we definitely have a respect for Notre Dame and the tradition and that type of team," Street said. "But we don't hate them or anything like that. I think they're a great team."

Both teams are coming off consecutive games against option teams -- Pitt losing to Navy and Georgia Tech, Notre Dame beating Air Force and Navy.

And both will reconvene in two years, and roughly every three years after that, as part of the Irish's five-game-per-year scheduling agreement that takes effect next year with the ACC, which Pitt is finishing out its first season in.

"Everyone knows Notre Dame; Notre Dame is one of the most historic football programs in the country, and they always will be," Murphy said. "I think it's amazing to have a team like that on your schedule. That's always a primetime game for us. I think it's huge for our team going forward to always have that game because we always play great against them. It's always just an amazing game between us two, so I think it's important that we continue that matchup."

Five things: Notre Dame-Navy

November, 2, 2013
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No. 25 Notre Dame goes for its fourth straight win today when it hosts Navy at 3:30 p.m. ET (NBC). Here are five things to watch when the longtime rivals take the Notre Dame Stadium field later this afternoon.

Injured guys. Louis Nix III and Ishaq Williams are out, but coach Brian Kelly said that Chris Watt, Sheldon Day and Elijah Shumate will play. Still, how fresh they are, and how much they can do, remains to be seen. We could see more Conor Hanratty at left guard, as he filled in when Watt (knee) went down in the Air Force game. And the defensive line already is stretched pretty thin without Nix, so if Day is limited, that could mean even more playing time for Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones. (With Kona Schwenke playing nose guard in place of Nix.) Regardless, it is another test for the Irish defense against a much more potent triple-option attack than the one they faced last week.

Freshmen (and other) receivers. Corey Robinson and Will Fuller reached the end zone last week for the first time. Falcons coach Troy Calhoun said after the game that the Irish's receiving corps was as deep as he has seen it. When others step up, it makes like easier for Tommy Rees, who does not have to just rely on TJ Jones. DaVaris Daniels and Troy Niklas have been solid, but when Ben Koyack, Chris Brown and James Onwualu can make plays, it helps open up the offense and make things a lot less predictable.

Running game. Speaking of opening up the offense ... I feel like I've been repeating myself all season in this category. Obviously Notre Dame lost its top-two running backs from last season and has dealt with injuries on the offensive line, but the running game has to be better, especially when this team goes into Stanford at the end of the month. Notre Dame threw the ball extremely effectively last week and had too many good opportunities downfield to pass up, but things won't always be that easy. The Irish averaged just 3.6 yards per carry last week, and on the season, they are averaging just 4.1 yards per rush. They are 95th nationally in rushing offense, tallying 136.4 yards on the ground per game.

Quarterback play. Andrew Hendrix played the entire fourth quarter of last week's game after Rees' strong outing, and he completed a 47-yard pass to Fuller that set up the quarterback's four-yard touchdown run. The much-needed work was certainly a step in the right direction for Hendrix, who remains the Irish's No. 2 signal caller and who, frankly, needs to do better than he did against USC if he gets thrust into meaningful game action again. While this game might not get out of hand like last week's, it is not out of the realm to expect the Irish to have a comfortable second-half lead. Even without it, it would not hurt to stick Hendrix in there more mid-game and get his feet wet.

Cornerback play. One of the reasons for Notre Dame's improved defensive play over the last two weeks has been tackling, especially from the cornerbacks. The secondary stepped up last week against Air Force, tallying 22 total tackles against the option attack. Navy does not present much of a threat passing the ball, but play on the edges is always key, and the Irish will need Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell -- who has come along very nicely lately -- to continue similar play this afternoon.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Two months ago, DaVaris Daniels had an idea to help develop chemistry. He invited a handful of teammates, and a former teammate, over to his house in Vernon Hills, Ill., a little more than two hours northwest of Notre Dame. They spent a weekend working out at his alma mater, Vernon Hills, and at nearby Lake Forest, Tommy Rees' high school.

Fellow wideouts Chris Brown and C.J. Prosise were there. So, too, were running backs Amir Carlisle and George Atkinson III. And they had suspended quarterback Everett Golson throwing them balls, since those connections might very well resume next season.

"Just build chemistry, keep it," Daniels said. "Last year we had a pretty tight team, so that was kind of my main thing, was just to keep everybody close and keep what we had last season and continue into this season."

[+] EnlargeDaVaris Daniels
AP Photo/Michael ConroyDaVaris Daniels committed to getting better this offseason. The results are showing already.
This was one way Daniels, Notre Dame's leading receiver, matured into the type of offensive linchpin the Irish were seeking after saying goodbye to first-round picks Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert in consecutive years. Others on the checklist included fine-tuning route-running, becoming a better blocker and bringing a consistent work ethic to the field every single day.

Early returns have been positive, with Daniels hauling in two fourth-quarter touchdown passes on consecutive plays last week in a tight win at Purdue. He has 17 receptions this season for team bests of 299 yards and four touchdowns, or four more than he scored during last year's redshirt freshman campaign, his first year of college action. That season concluded with a national title-game rout courtesy of Alabama and its top-ranked defense, though it also served as something of a coming-out party for the 6-foot-1½, 203-pound receiver.

Daniels had six catches for a game-high 115 yards against the Crimson Tide. But whatever that did for his confidence paled in comparison to the humiliation of a 42-14 defeat.

So he went back to work. Being able to run a 4.5 40 and leap upward of 40 inches was one thing; harnessing those gifts into production was still quite another.

There were the summer workouts with teammates back home. There was rooming with Rees during camp, the nightly picking of his starting quarterback's brain about where to be on certain routes and how to make their timing more crisp. He learned how to use his hands better off the snap, making life harder for the corners matched up with him daily in practice.

All of this in the name of fulfilling all of that untapped potential.

"He's two-quarters of the way," coach Brian Kelly said. "He needs to be four-quarters of the way."

He is aware. KeiVarae Russell recalls Daniels telling him a year ago about his desire to become one of Notre Dame's greatest receivers ever.

"I was like, 'I don't doubt you. I think you will,' " the sophomore cornerback said. "So far it's shown. You can see it's totally different from last year. Last year he didn't even have one touchdown. He played a great role last year but didn't have one single touchdown. He has four in three games. You can see the difference. That shows."

His quarterback, having gone to high school just 10 miles away, knew the kind of athlete he was getting when Daniels came aboard two years ago.

"I remember playing him in a summer league basketball game the summer going into my senior year," Rees said. "We actually won, but he had, like, a tip-slam over a guy, and it was just kind of, 'Not many guys could be out here doing that.' "

In the past two years, Daniels' father, former NFL defensive lineman Phillip Daniels, had seen a mindset that belied that athleticism. Playing in a wing-T offense in high school and adjusting to a redshirt year in college slowed the learning curve some.

Now, Phillip says, DaVaris simply isn't thinking so much anymore. Mastering the basics of the craft has turned one of the nation's top prep receivers into a guy who could very well be on his way to becoming one of the nation's elite college wideouts.

"He had to learn little things as a receiver," Phillip Daniels said. "I think because he's learning all that stuff, and learning the plays and how to play the position, it's slowing down for him. It's not running through his mind at 100 miles per hour, and he can play football."
Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard made his 29th career start last Saturday against Youngstown State. Safety Isaiah Lewis missed the game with injury but still has 30 starts under his belt, tied for the most of any Spartan.

But when it comes to The Bus, Dennard and Lewis are glorified special teamers, barely hanging onto roster spots. See, The Bus doesn't care about career starts. All of its regular riders have those. You need to bring something more: All-Big Ten honors, All-America honors, a national award or two. Helping your team to a Big Ten championship -- and possibly more -- moves you up a few rows.

What is this magic bus? Let's let Pete Townshend, er, Mark Dantonio explain.

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsCB Darqueze Dennard, like many other MSU players, wasn't considered an elite prospect coming out of high school but has developed into a top performer.
"I tell them I've been a secondary coach all my life, for 30 years," Dantonio told ESPN.com in August. "I kid them that we only travel 10 on my bus, on the All-Coach Dantonio secondary team. And Isaiah and Queze, they're both on the bus.

"So they're traveling, they're playing on special teams, but they've got to become a starter this year."

It won't be easy, looking at the group sitting at the front of The Bus.

There's Mike Doss, the former Ohio State safety who Dantonio coached in Columbus, a three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection and a unanimous consensus All-American in 2002, when the Buckeyes won the national title. Next to Doss is former Buckeyes teammate Chris Gamble, a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2002 who also contributed on special teams and offense before becoming a first-round NFL draft pick. Other D-Bus starters include Kwamie Lassiter, who Dantonio coached at Kansas; and safeties Aric Morris and Renaldo Hill, who Dantonio mentored at Michigan State during his first go-round as an assistant for Nick Saban.

"It's very humbling," Dennard said. "Me and Isaiah, we both think we are very blessed to be mentioned with those guys. Those are great players he always mentions on his bus. It’s a great thing to even be talked about at the same time. We have to have a mindset how it is, we have to be the top of the top of the top of the bus."

It's a lofty goal, but one that Dennard could reach as a senior. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the league's coaches last year after recording 52 tackles, three interceptions and seven pass breakups for one of the nation's best defenses. More impressive, he played most of the season with a sports hernia, likely suffered in September. Dennard underwent surgery after the season.

"He could have had his intestines hanging out, and he wouldn't have done anything about it," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. "The kid's that tough."

Dennard entered the fall on the watch lists for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation's top defensive back, as well as the Bednarik and Nagurski awards, which go to the top defensive player. The 5-11, 197-pound senior should push Ohio State's Bradley Roby for the Big Ten's Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year award.

He's also a potential high pick in next April's NFL draft.

"He's probably the best corner we've coached," Narduzzi said this spring. "And he's a fun kid to coach."

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Lewis
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsIsaiah Lewis ties up South Florida running back Marcus Shaw.
Lewis also is on the Thorpe Award watch list after earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors as a junior. He has recorded 154 tackles, six interceptions and nine pass breakups the past two seasons as Michigan State has blossomed as a top 10 defense.

Dantonio doesn't bring up names like Doss and Gamble with his current players, but he lets them know where they stand.

"For Coach Dantonio to tell you you're one of the best guys he has ever seen play this position, one of the best guys he has ever coached at this position, it means a lot, man," Lewis said. "You want to be the best and want to do better."

Dennard knows firsthand how preseason praise, whether it stems from his coaches or the outside, means nothing unless he can back it up on the field. Last year, he played opposite cornerback Johnny Adams, who entered the season projected as a potential first-round pick -- Mel Kiper had Adams at No. 14 on his initial Big Board -- but didn't take his game to the next level. Adams earned All-Big Ten honors but missed Michigan State's bowl game with an injury, wasn't drafted and twice was waived by NFL teams last month before making the Buffalo Bills' roster.

"Knowing all the things he did throughout his career here, it kind of gets you down," Dennard said. "But at the same time, I too much don’t think about it. … It's definitely motivation. Just going in every day, from my standpoint you can't be complacent with everything. Preseason is preseason."

Lewis is expected to join Dennard this week when Michigan State faces its first major test of the season on the road against No. 23 Notre Dame. Although the Spartans finally looked like a functional offense last Saturday against Youngstown State, they'll lean on their defense against an Irish team averaging 236 pass yards a game and deep threats T.J. Jones, DaVaris Daniels and Chris Brown.

Big plays have been a theme early this season for the "Spartan Dawgs," who already have eight takeaways, tied for sixth most nationally and nearly half of their total (20) from all of 2012. Dennard and Lewis look to continue to trend in South Bend.

"We have to make more plays," Dennard said. "We have to make more interceptions for touchdowns and have to do more exciting things, like forcing fumbles or scoring touchdowns or doing whatever, big hits or whatever to make Coach D happy."

If they do, they'll earn permanent spots on the bus, seated toward the front.

" After this year, are they going to belong with the likes of Mike Doss, Chris Gamble, Kwamie Lassiter, Aric Morris, Renaldo Hill?" Dantonio said. "Those guys who are starting in front of them right now, guys that we've coached, they're very, very good players. [Denard and Lewis] are making their way onto the field, onto that team."

Irish lunchtime links

August, 29, 2013
8/29/13
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College football is back.

Top 10 moments from 2012: No. 2

June, 13, 2013
6/13/13
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No. 2 marks the arrival of Notre Dame as a legit national title contender.

As always, my mailbag is open to hear your suggestions on rankings such as these.

Oct. 27, 2012: Brown catch leads to big fourth in upset at OU (Stories here and here)

A three-point home win over a so-so BYU team a week earlier hardly had anyone convinced that 7-0 Notre Dame was ready for a trip to Norman, Okla.

College GameDay was on-hand for this one, too. So were an Owen Field-record 86,031 fans, who did a nice job of striping the stadium for a candy cane-like look of alternating red and white sections. And for three quarters, the contest looked like it had the chance to become a classic.

Then Everett Golson hit rookie Chris Brown on a 50-yard fourth-quarter completion — the first catch of Brown's career — setting off 17 straight points for an Irish team that went on to win 30-13.

Manti Te'o had a devastating sack of Landry Jones and recorded a diving interception late. Blake Bell did score the first rushing touchdown of the season against the Irish, but in the end it hardly mattered.

Golson turned the corner as a quarterback in this game, completing 13 of 25 passes for 177 yards and rushing for a score. The Irish dominated the lines of scrimmage. No. 5 Notre Dame upset No. 8 Oklahoma, giving the Sooners their second home loss of the season. The Irish won their fourth game of the season against a Top 25 team. They held an offense that had averaged 44.7 points per game to 31 points under par.

The Irish were back, officially. And they received contributions from all over in getting there -- none bigger than the one delivered by a true freshman who entered with zero career catches.

Previously

No. 10: Rees replaces Golson on final drive, leads Irish to win over Purdue

No. 9: Irish open season in Dublin with rout of Navy

No. 8: ND gets revenge on Robinson, UM in night win to cap perfect opening month

No. 7: ND survives missed FG, missed penalty and 3 OT scare from Pitt to stay perfect

No. 6: Notre Dame tours award circuit after perfect regular season

No. 5: Notre Dame joins ACC, will play five ACC games per year in football

No. 4: Irish rout Wake on Senior Day, ascend to No. 1

No. 3: Goal-line stand stuffs Stanford in OT
We've reached No. 7 on our countdown, which consists of arguably the wildest four hours of the regular season for the Irish.

Nov. 3, 2012: ND survives missed FG, missed penalty and 3 OT scare from Pitt to stay perfect (Story here)

Notre Dame had just eliminated seemingly every doubter by wining at Oklahoma a week earlier. Then the Irish found themselves down 14 at home to Pitt in the fourth quarter.

Everett Golson threw what looked like a devastating pick in the end zone with less than four minutes to play, then made up for it by tying the game with a touchdown pass and rushing it in for a two-point conversion.

Cierre Wood looked ready to land in the end zone to give the Irish a touchdown lead in overtime No. 2, then fumbled it on the way down.

Finally, Pitt's Kevin Harper lined up for a 33-yard field goal attempt that would seal the Irish's fate — except he missed.

Golson rushed it in for the game-winning score in triple overtime, allowing everyone inside Notre Dame Stadium to breathe and extending the dream for the Irish.

The next day, everyone learned that the Irish should have been penalized on Harper's missed field goal attempt, as they had two No. 2s (Bennett Jackson and Chris Brown) on the field together in their "desperado" package.

The day had it all — drama, quarterback switches, a gritty performance from Louis Nix (flu) — and, at the end of it all, left Notre Dame standing undefeated at 9-0.

Previously

No. 10: Rees replaces Golson on final drive, leads Irish to win over Purdue

No. 9: Irish open season in Dublin with rout of Navy

No. 8: ND gets revenge on Robinson, UM in night win to cap perfect opening month
Our series continues with the wide receivers and tight ends.

Starters returning: T.J. Jones
Players returning: DaVaris Daniels, Davonte' Neal, Daniel Smith, Chris Brown, Justin Ferguson, Luke Massa, Troy Niklas, Ben Koyack, Alex Welch
Players departing: Robby Toma, John Goodman, Tyler Eifert, Jake Golic
Newcomers: James Onwualu, Corey Robinson, William Fuller, Torii Hunter Jr., Mike Heuerman, Durham Smythe, Jacob Matuska

The breakdown: The biggest hole will clearly be left by Eifert, who broke a number of records at Tight End U. Watching the development of the converted linebacker Niklas, along with the growth of Koyack and recovery of Welch (ACL tear), is important to keep an eye on.

Still, Notre Dame has to feel pretty good about what they return among their pass-catchers, especially in light of the Discover BCS National Championship. Jones and Daniels were two of the few who brought their A-games on Jan. 7 against Alabama, and both look like legitimate go-to options heading into 2013. Expect to see plenty of Everett Golson-to-Daniels connections over the next three years.

Neal is an interesting prospect considering he spent the majority of his freshman season simply waving the fair catch signal. He was ESPN's No. 8 overall prospect for a reason, and he should have the chance to show off his athleticism in the slot more now with Toma out of the picture. Brown, meanwhile, made arguably the biggest offensive play of the year for the Irish and, because of his speed, is someone defenders need to keep a close eye on whenever he takes the field.

Onwualu and Robinson enrolled in January and should have a leg up on the other newcomers when fall camp commences.
The time has come, and the debating will soon ensue.

The three-day weekend is over, the offseason (yes, rumor has it that there is such a thing at Notre Dame) is in full swing and today we start one of the more popular series on the college football nation blogs: The countdown of the top 25 players from this past season.

It is much easier here, where we deal with just one team. The criteria is simple: Who produced the most for Notre Dame during the Irish's 12-1 campaign? Some good names were left out, as is the case when a team outperforms any and all preseason expectations, but we'll give it our best shot here, starting today with No. 25.

No. 25: Chris Brown, WR

Making the case: Brown's case is simple: He made the biggest play for Notre Dame's offense all season long. Tied at 13 with less than 10 minutes remaining in Norman, Okla., Brown caught a 50-yard bomb from Everett Golson on a beautifully executed play-action on second-and-2. Five plays later Golson rushed it himself for the go-ahead touchdown, the first of 17 straight points Notre Dame scored to close out the game and record its biggest win in 19 years, a 30-13 triumph over the then-No. 8 Sooners. Brown's first season in South Bend, Ind., featured just two total catches for 56 yards, but that Oklahoma grab — the first catch of his career — will resonate in Irish history for quite some time.

Preseason ranking: NR

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