Notre Dame Football: James Onwualu

Irish morning links

August, 26, 2014
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Brian Kelly press conference today. Now it feels like game week ...
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — This week marked the first unofficial "off" week for John Turner. The redshirt sophomore's workload essentially doubled this spring, with the former safety learning a new position as a linebacker, a chore that would have been complicated enough had Notre Dame's defense not been undergoing a massive face-lift under new coordinator Brian VanGorder.

"After practice I usually go watch film with [outside linebackers] coach [Bob] Elliott, so I really haven't had any time off this spring," Turner said. "Just been putting in work, trying to get better."

Turner is hardly alone, as he is one of three notable players switching positions on the defensive side of the ball, an area that has become somewhat of a haven for fresh starts and surprises for the Irish during Brian Kelly's tenure as head coach. James Onwualu went from safety to linebacker this spring after playing wide receiver as a freshman last season. And Matthias Farley moved from safety to cornerback; he arrived at Notre Dame three years ago as a receiver.

Turner, who played cornerback while at Indianapolis Cathedral High, said the move from the secondary to linebacker this time around has been a far more difficult one, though the spring served as a nice transition period.

[+] EnlargeJohn Turner
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesJohn Turner is one of several underclassmen making a position switch for the Notre Dame defense.
"It was like a learning process the first, I'd say, eight, nine practices. Just getting used to like just being at the line of scrimmage, just being asked to do all the different jobs that they asked me to do," Turner said, adding that, toward the end of spring, "it's been starting to click a lot. Just knowing the defense and just being able to pretty much line up and do everything I need to for the most part."

Turner, who mostly played on special teams, is one of several underclassmen competing for potential starting roles on a retooled unit. Turner is getting practice time mostly in the Sam linebacker role in VanGorder's base defense. The circumstances are a bit different for Onwualu, if only because he earned meaningful action as a rookie last year, catching two passes for 34 yards.

Still, the 215-pound Onwualu's blend of size and athleticism made him an enticing prospect on the other side of the ball, with the sophomore starting this spring listed as a safety before being brought down into the box. He's mostly playing at the Sam position as well.

"Obviously the linemen are a little bit bigger, so you've got to learn how to beat them in different ways, and I'm trying to learn that every day with my technique and everything," said Onwualu, who played corner and safety at Cretin-Derham Hall (Minn.) High. "But I think that's really the only thing. My strength is up there with a lot of people, so I believe I can play in the box."

The moves are hardly unique to the Irish, as the position switches have become as much of a staple under Kelly as anything else. Four players who started in the secondary last year, for instance, had arrived to Notre Dame as receivers: Farley, Austin Collinsworth, Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell.

VanGorder initiated this spring's moves shortly after his arrival, with the former New York Jets linebackers coach evaluating film and engaging in a series of conversations with both Kelly and the players.

"That evaluation started with film first, and then some training with them, watching them move around and all," VanGorder said. "But until you put the football down and put your cleats in the grass, there's a lot of ways to complete the evaluation. Now we're seeing them play the game of football, so there's some things we didn't have now that we've got to continue to evaluate. And then, in the end of this picture and the spring, we pretty much can define and profile a player in terms of who he is."

The returns from spring have been positive as the Irish search for unconventional ways to find playmakers among a relatively green group.

"I love him, I really do. I think he's a great guy. I think he's very honest and upfront about everything," Farley said of VanGorder. "You can talk to him about anything. He's personable, and that clicked from the start and I think everyone really feels that, and it's going to be really good for everyone moving forward."
Before Notre Dame opened spring practice earlier this month, Brian Kelly spoke of trying to find leaders on a young team with plenty of moving parts. Two weeks and just three practices later, that theme might be pushed to the back burner as the Irish search for identity within their personnel first.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsHead coach Brian Kelly said Notre Dame players will focus on their positions this spring and on leadership over the summer.
"I normally would tell you in our first kind of get-together, it was really working on that leadership piece with our team, but our guys are so focused on their own deal right now, getting their own position work down, their own house in order," the fifth-year Irish coach said Wednesday. "They've got a lot of things going on, so that I think really what is most important is we get our handle on our personnel and really develop those guys at their positions right now. We'll spend some time in June, now that we have some time with our guys, we'll spend June really as that opportunity to develop that leadership with our guys.

"This spring is really going to be individually about gaining some consistency at those positions and who those guys are. I think that's how the spring needs to go for us."

Position changes have been common under Kelly, who noted that receiver-turned-safety James Onwualu could see time on both sides of the ball. Other players, such as safety-turned-linebacker John Turner and safety-turned-corner Matthias Farley, could carve out niches within Notre Dame's defensive packages.

Kelly was happy to see his players return from spring break in one piece and locked in on practice. The schedule laid out was less than ideal this spring, with Easter not until April 20 and with the school's break this past week, forcing the Irish to start practices earlier than normal (March 3 and 5) before going their separate ways for two weeks.

"I think they got away, they recharged their batteries, they enjoyed themselves, but they were mature enough to know that when they came back, they had some work to do," Kelly said. "I didn't feel like we took a step back in any fashion."

Notes: Right guard Christian Lombard left practice early after spraining his wrist. Conor Hanratty replaced him. ... Notre Dame has not abandoned its search for reliable special-teams play. Kelly said he has broken out players into specific roles to ease the transition once fall camp arrives. "I don't know if you watched us, but we haven't been very good at special teams," he said.

New faces must step up as spring opens

February, 28, 2014
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly got into his car on Friday morning and saw that the outside temperature was minus-8 degrees -- as if there was any doubt Notre Dame would be indoors on Monday when the Irish commence Kelly's fifth spring here.

What he will see, though, are more new faces in new places than he probably has during his Irish tenure. And he's anxious to see who rises up from a team that said early goodbyes to three juniors after the 2013 season and welcomes two new staff members.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsBrian Kelly is looking for some new faces to step forward in the spring.
"In an ideal world you'd want your best players to be your best leaders," Kelly said. "Sometimes that's not the case, so you observe daily and find out who those guys are and you try to cultivate those individuals. I think with this group in '14 our best players can be our best leaders and they may not all be seniors. I think we've got some great seniors, I think all of our seniors are committed, but we may have some great underclassmen who are great leaders, too."

The additions of assistants Matt LaFleur (quarterbacks) and Brian Van Gorder (defensive coordinator) have given the staff more flexibility as well, as Kelly said Friday that Kerry Cooks will now coach the entire secondary, not just the cornerbacks, while Bob Elliott will move from safeties coach to outside linebackers coach. Kelly also added graduate assistants in former NFL fullback Ryan Mahaffey (offense), former Irish safety Kyle McCarthy (defense) and Mike Hiestand (defense), son of current Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

As for switches on the field: Matthias Farley has moved from safety to corner, John Turner has gone from safety to outside linebacker, James Onwualu has moved from receiver to safety, Will Mahone has moved from running back to receiver, and Amir Carlisle is now a runner and a receiver. Everett Golson, meanwhile, has returned at a listed 200 pounds, 15 pounds heavier from his listed playing weight from 2012.

Personnel notes: Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) and Devin Butler (shoulder) are out for spring. … Nick Martin (MCL) and Ben Councell (ACL) will be limited to non-contact. … Nicky Baratti, Chase Hounshell and Doug Randolph (all shoulders) are good to go. … Receiver Luke Massa will not return for a fifth season after initially planning to come back. Kelly said Massa had received a job offer that was too good to pass up.

Kelly on Shembo: Kelly addressed Prince Shembo's comments during last weekend's NFL combine, when the former Irish linebacker said the coach told him not to talk in school about the the Lizzy Seeberg investigation.

"That was a collaborative decision," Kelly said Friday. "I don't make any decisions independent when it comes to major decisions at this university. The head football coach works in concert with our administration, so we made a decision based upon the information that we had that we felt it was in Prince's best interest that this was not a matter that needed to be discussed, but that was certainly something that he could've decided to discuss. We didn't threaten him with, he couldn't play or we were going to put him on the bench or throw him out of school. It was still his decision. But talking to his parents and talking to Prince we felt because of the information that we had in front of us that it was a matter that be left alone at the time."
Duke and Tulane already opened spring ball this past Friday. Notre Dame is moving things up this year, too, as the Fighting Irish will start their spring season on March 3. With that in mind, during the next few weeks, we'll start taking a look at players, position battles and more to watch as spring ball rapidly approaches.

This week we'll look at the top five players to watch in spring, starting today at No. 5.

5) Freshman WR Justin Brent

It was just a year ago that rising sophomore wide receivers Davonte' Neal and Justin Ferguson announced their intentions to transfer during spring ball. Who did that benefit most? Early enrollees Corey Robinson and James Onwualu, who received increased reps and parlayed that into more playing time during their freshman seasons with the Irish.

Now Notre Dame welcomes in another early enrollee at receiver in Brent, who certainly has the physical tools to compete immediately at the next level. What's more, the Irish took a number of unexpected hits at the position this offseason, with top returning target DaVaris Daniels receiving the Everett Golson treatment for what he said is an academic violation and tight end Troy Niklas declaring for the NFL draft. Daniels has said he plans on returning in the summer, but in the meantime, there are passes to be caught, passes to be thrown by Golson in his return to school.

Brent, one of just two Irish signees to enroll early, has already drawn attention for his 6-foot-1, 204-pound frame.

"When I got a chance to see him work out this morning, the first thing that stood out to me is that he does not look like a freshman," coach Brian Kelly said on signing day. "He had his shirt off this morning and he was running around, and he looks like a senior. He is a physically gifted young man. You can see a lot of the accolades that are out there with him in terms of where he was ranked.

"But what we were looking for specifically, and there were some really good players at this position, we were looking for a physical player at this position, somebody that could impose their physicality, could run after the catch. His ability to run after the catch was very impressive for us and had, for us, some of the things, the traits that we were looking for at that particular time and that position."

The opportunity will be there for Brent to make an early impact. And based on accounts of his pre-Notre Dame work ethic, he sounds ready to step up to the challenge.

Notre Dame mailblog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Jones getting back up after each hit

October, 18, 2013
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- TJ Jones was the last Notre Dame player to meet the media this week, anxious reporters a casualty of what has become the senior's weekly routine of receiving a massage every Wednesday or Thursday. Those rubdowns come after practice, which Jones usually prepares for by attending treatment sessions on Sunday or Monday, all so that he can be ready for the running and hitting that awaits in Tuesday's practice.

What that treatment is for usually depends on which body part Jones hurt in the previous Saturday's game -- and if there is a Saturday Notre Dame game, Jones impairing an appendage of some kind is all but certain, even if the extent of the damage is not known in the immediate aftermath.

"Four years ago I would've been looking to miss practice," the senior said. "I would've really just kind of looked for every chance I got to kind of just milk the injury."

[+] EnlargeLamar Dawson
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsNotre Dame wide receiver TJ Jones catches a pass in last year's game against the USC Trojans.
Not anymore, not as one of two Irish offensive captains on a unit still seeking its identity halfway through the season, with rival USC coming to town on Saturday night.

Yes, being Notre Dame's leading receiver and punt returner has taken a toll on a body that the program generously lists at 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds. It is a frame that has withstood the beating that comes from being the Irish's go-to threat, from catching 33 passes for 481 yards and four touchdowns, from returning seven punts for 71 yards, and from being targeted countless times more.

"Overall, wide receivers are looked at to be some of the softer people out on the field, but TJ definitely shows that it's just the opposite," freshman receiver James Onwualu, Jones' roommate on road trips, said. "He gets hit a whole bunch in the game -- he's still sticking his head into plays, blocking for our running backs and doing everything he can when he doesn't have the ball as well. I think the toughness that he shows coming back every week to play his best for the team is really unselfish, and it makes him an even better player than he already is."

The most notable of the bruises came early in a Week 2 loss at Michigan, Jones coming down hard and suffering what coach Brian Kelly said the next day was a slight shoulder sprain. He finished with nine catches for 94 yards and a heads-up touchdown in the loss.

Notre Dame's next defeat was hardly kinder to Jones, who rolled an ankle late in the Oklahoma game.

Kelly, who raised a few eyebrows in August by publicly declaring Jones a first-round NFL talent, said the receiver's toughness has been acquired, a byproduct of being thrust into meaningful moments as a true freshman in 2010.

"He has elevated himself in the sense that he now plays with a mental and physical toughness," Kelly said. "There are times where those bumps and bruises that you mentioned -- which affect everybody, right, in this game of college football? -- may have affected him from week to week. It does not affect him now. He fights through them. He's in practice. He's on the ground diving and making catches. He's on the ground more in practice than any of our young freshmen because he's competing all the time.

"These are the marks of great players. Every great player that I've had practices that way. That wasn't the case with him, and he has developed that over his time here at Notre Dame. He's had others to see in terms of he's seen a Michael Floyd in the way they practice, he's seen a Manti Te'o, he's seen a Tyler Eifert and the way they practice. He's obviously at that level."

Jones, who volunteered for the vacant punt return spot this year, calls it all "normal soreness." He says he never let a nick or bump keep him from the practice field earlier in his career, but admitted "if there was something where I didn't have to go as hard, I may have taken a play off or jogged instead of ran full-speed back then."

The son of the late Andre Jones -- an end on the Irish's last national title team -- attributes maturity to his ability to recover so quickly. He has been more proactive over the years, learning to appreciate Notre Dame's athletic training staff more while jumping into the cold tub or onto the masseuse table quicker than he used to.

This past weekend's bye has served as a bit of a welcome reprieve, too.

"I enjoyed it a lot, this is the freshest I've felt since summer," Jones said. "This was the first real break we've gotten since our three-week-long camp this year, which was longer than normal. So this is the first time I'm actually feeling kind of refreshed and really 100 percent."

Irish lunch links

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
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Happy Columbus Day!

Irish lunchtime links

October, 9, 2013
10/09/13
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Am I the only one who finds it tough to differentiate wild-card celebrations from World Series ones?

Bye week evaluations: Offense

October, 8, 2013
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Notre Dame's first bye week comes at the season's midway point, giving us the perfect opportunity to make a decent evaluation of what this team's strengths and weaknesses are following a 4-2 start. We'll break this down into four categories over the next four days: offense, defense, special teams, coaching staff.

Without further ado, here is the first installment.

OFFENSE

Grade: C+

Summary: Notre Dame is averaging 27.3 points per game, a slight increase from last year's 25.77 mark. Of course, part of that is a result of playing from behind, something the Irish did against Michigan and Oklahoma, both losses. They found themselves in another shootout this past weekend against Arizona State and proved they were able to pull out a contest far different from some of the meat-grinders they endured in 2012.

[+] EnlargeTommy Rees
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesTommy Rees has nine TD passes and just one interception in Notre Dame's four victories.
Tommy Rees has been Tommy Rees. He eclipsed the 300-yard mark in the first three games. He threw two picks in a loss at Michigan, a game in which the Irish defense did the offense no favors. Rees misfired several times against a stout Michigan State defense, but he protected the ball and the Irish escaped the Spartans in a game reminiscent of last season. He became the easy scapegoat against the Sooners after throwing three picks — which Oklahoma turned into 21 points — but he received little help from his offensive line and receivers on two of those gaffes. Andrew Hendrix has appeared here and there, but Rees remains the Irish's best option at quarterback. Criticize Rees for his physical attributes if you must, but if you're going to get mad about the offense's make-up, blame the starting quarterback who got himself suspended for school this semester — after the program spent a whole spring investing in him to take charge. Rees stayed through the good and bad, has endured a lot more than most signal-callers has had to, and has kept a strong mindset through it all. Go back and watch the Purdue game, especially late in the second half, as he rallied the offense on the sideline, commanding the group's attention in a way only a senior with the respect of the entire locker room could. Brian Kelly has stuck by Rees, and he will continue to do so as long as Rees remains the offense's best option, which is what he is.

His offensive line has been stellar in pass protection, ranking eighth nationally in fewest sacks allowed per game (.60), surrendering just four on the season. That's all the more impressive when you consider Rees' lack of threat with his legs. Still, the running game had trouble getting off on the right foot, tallying three consecutive under-100-yard performances in games 2-4 before George Atkinson III broke out against Oklahoma. The Irish continued to build off that ground success last week against the Sun Devils, rushing for 145 yards. Slowly, the Irish have made progress in that department, raising their rushing yards per game average from 114.3 to 137 since Week 4.

In the pass-catching department, meanwhile, TJ Jones has been every bit as good as advertised, with the captain hauling in 33 passes for 481 yards and four touchdowns. He has had two 100-yard games and a 98-yard effot, absorbing hit after hit and becoming the kind of reliable target for Rees that Tyler Eifert was in 2011 and 2012. He has gotten big lifts here and there from DaVaris Daniels (25 catches, 385 yards, 4 TDs) and Troy Niklas (14, 250, 4), and the Irish have regularly played true freshmen who have made some minor contributions (Corey Robinson, James Onwualu, Will Fuller).

Overall, the offense has been uneven, as it has yet to really turn in a complete performance outside of Week 1 against a Temple team that is still seeking its first win. The Irish appeared to be moving closer to that direction against ASU, but a pick-six put a dent in that performance. The bye week will serve them well as they prepare for a skilled but depleted USC defense that should give the offense its biggest test before Senior Day against BYU.
Notre Dame kicks off the first of three games this year against the Pac-12 with Saturday’s showdown against No. 22 Arizona State in Arlington, Texas. What should you be looking for? Glad you asked. Notre Dame reporter Matt Fortuna and Pac-12 reporter Kevin Gemmell talk it over.

Matt Fortuna: Arizona State is a newcomer to the Pac-12 portion of Notre Dame's schedule this year, Kevin. The Sun Devils have looked great against USC, not so great against Stanford and, well, fortuitous in their win over Wisconsin. They put up 62 points last week against what was believed to be a good Trojans defense, getting Lane Kiffin fired in the process. So I guess we'll start there, given Notre Dame's defensive struggles so far this season: What makes Todd Graham's unit so explosive offensively, and what do the Irish need to really keep an eye on Saturday to keep the points down?

Kevin Gemmell: Tempo, tempo, tempo. Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, who Graham trusts to run the show offensively, uses “tempo” as a verb, not an adjective. As in, he wants to tempo teams into submission.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Foster
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriNotre Dame will have to find a way to slow down D.J. Foster and the Arizona State offense.
They want to have as many possessions as possible. And they get that with a fast-paced attack that stretches and then compacts a defense. Quarterback Taylor Kelly is off to another outstanding start, and a huge reason for that is the addition of wide receiver Jaelen Strong, a junior college transfer who already has 31 catches for 433 yards. He gives Kelly that sideline threat the Sun Devils were lacking last season, and Kelly has been fantastic at spotting him on the outside shoulder and letting him make plays. Strong has been targeted 51 times, so it’s only a 60-percent completion rate when they look to him. But when he does catch it, it’s usually for a substantial gain; he averages 14 yards per reception.

They use running backs Marion Grice (12 touchdowns already!) and D.J. Foster in creative ways in the screen game and like to splt Foster out into the slot. Tight end Chris Coyle has also emerged as one of the top players at his position in the country.

How about the Irish? Things don’t seem to be going as swimmingly as they did last year. Only 25.4 points per game. ASU is going to blitz early and often. What does Notre Dame have to do to get its offense moving in the right direction?

Matt Fortuna: It will get overlooked because Notre Dame lost Saturday, but the Irish were finally able to establish a ground game, tallying 220 rushing yards against the Sooners. They had eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark as a team just once before, in the opener against Temple. Junior George Atkinson III, who was the No. 1 back entering the season, finally played like it, lowering his shoulder and looking more like a downhill runner. He finished with a career-high 148 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.

Aside from not turning it over on their first two possessions and falling behind 14-0, it is very important for the Irish to continue to establish the ground threat early, as they often can become predictable in second- and third-and-long with a non-mobile quarterback under center in Tommy Rees, though Brian Kelly did insert Andrew Hendrix in for some zone-read, change-of-pace packages against the Sooners. Receivers must run better routes, too. TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels have been big playmakers, but they both had route-running miscues Saturday that were costly. Kelly has said that ordinary things need to be done better. The Irish also regularly play three true freshmen wideouts (Corey Robinson, James Onwualu, Will Fuller).

I'm interested in ASU's defense, particularly Will Sutton. Before the season, everyone had pegged this as a matchup of the two best interior defensive linemen in the country, between Sutton and Notre Dame's Louis Nix. It's been hard to gauge Nix's performance so far, as the Irish have faced some mobile quarterbacks and quick-strike offenses that have utilized the short passing game early to essentially take the line out of the game. What challenges do Sutton and the rest of the Sun Devils' defense present?

Kevin Gemmell: They like to blitz a lot. Todd Graham fashions his defense as a “hybrid attacking defense,” meaning at times they’ll substitute speed for bulk to create pressure from anywhere on the field.

Sutton hadn’t made much of an impact the first few games for a couple of reasons: One, they were facing mostly run-based power teams like Wisconsin and Stanford; two, he’s been seeing a lot of double and triple teams. Makes sense. His first step is so quick that it precedes his reputation. But he finally broke out against the Trojans with two tackles for a loss and a sack. I think, as the season pushes on, we’re going to see more pressure from the front seven based on the teams they’ll face.

That said, you have to look out for safety Alden Darby, who is coming off a fantastic performance against the Trojans. He had two picks (one returned for a touchdown) and has 19 tackles on the year. Hybrid linebacker Carl Bradford is explosive and Chris Young has really emerged, leading the team with 29 tackles.

The front seven is a little undersized, but it’s quick and if your protections aren’t set, someone will get missed with as much as the Sun Devils like to blitz.

Now that the Sun Devils are back in the top 25, it’s a huge game for them to keep some of that momentum going on a national stage. The Pac-12 is already coming off of the nonconference season with a 29-4 record.

Notre Dame, however, seems to be scrambling to salvage its national reputation. And with three games against the Pac-12, which many believe is the deepest conference in college football, it seems the Irish could restore some of that lost credibility. How do you see them matching up with the now Lane-less Trojans or Stanford in the season finale?

Matt Fortuna: Based on everything we have seen from both Notre Dame and Stanford so far, that matchup might not be a very pretty one for the Irish. Fortunately for them, it is not until the regular-season finale, meaning they have plenty of time to fix their issues in the six games before then.

The bigger question pertains to what kind of team the Irish will be heading into that matchup in Palo Alto, a status that will largely be dictated by their performances in both the ASU and USC games. The Irish need to get it together, fast, and Rees has to avoid a repeat performance of this past Saturday (three first-half interceptions) and get the offense going again. In theory, that should be enough to beat a USC team that looks to be reeling after the firing of its coach, though that kind of midseason move can have different lingering effects, good or bad. It's not like the Trojans aren't talented, and it's not like they won't be up for another night game at Notre Dame Stadium.

Still, I say the Irish win that one, especially coming off a bye. And especially with the threat of falling under .500, as a loss to ASU would make them 3-3 on the season. Notre Dame might be the better team, but the Irish have shown me little over the last four weeks that suggests that they are capable of keeping up with the Sun Devils' offense.

So that's an early 1-2 prediction for Notre Dame against the Pac-12 this season. What say you, Kevin?

Kevin Gemmell: I’m an ASU lean right now simply because of how explosive that offense can be. And if the Sun Devils can fix a couple of assignment issues on defense, I think they have the firepower to be a top-20, maybe even top-15 team. But they have to show they can do it away from home. A neutral field setting provides a nice opportunity. It’s close enough for their fans to travel, but it’s not a true road game.

As of today, we’re in lock-step when it comes to the Stanford matchup. The Cardinal offense is looking better and better each week. I thought back in April that Tyler Gaffney was going to be a game-changer for Stanford, and so far he’s shown that he is. That season finale could also have huge BCS implications, and I don’t see the Cardinal tossing one away at home in a game that could potentially lock them into a fourth straight BCS game.

As for USC, well, who knows? Haven’t heard any USC players come out and condemn the firing of Lane Kiffin. Maybe this move reinvigorates them? The Trojans certainly have talent. But as of today (as always, I reserve the right to change my mind), I’d go with Notre Dame at home.

Weekend rewind: Notre Dame Week 1

September, 2, 2013
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Here's a look back at the opening weekend that was for Notre Dame:

The good: Notre Dame ended a one-game losing streak that no one would stop talking about. The Irish's 28-6 win over Temple got them off to a sharp start in 2013, as they did not turn the ball over and had strong play from quarterback Tommy Rees and the rest of the offense.

[+] EnlargeTommy Rees
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesTommy Rees was sharp in the opening victory over Temple.
The bad: Nick Tausch missed his only field goal attempt, a 39-yard try. Kyle Brindza then missed one from 44 yards, making the Irish 0-for-2 on the day. Head coach Brian Kelly had wanted Saturday to be somewhat of an audition for his kickers, and the Irish are now left with a crucial decision to make heading into this Saturday's game at Michigan.

Biggest surprise: Kelly had harped on it throughout camp, but Rees' ball distribution was evident Saturday, as he connected with seven different receivers, including four who hauled in multiple catches. Not among them were freshmen Corey Robinson and James Onwualu, or redshirt freshman C.J. Prosise, either.

Best quote: Kelly won his 200th career game, becoming the fifth fastest to accomplish the feat (270 games) and second youngest (51 years, 310 days old, second only to Pop Warner) to do it, per Notre Dame, among college coaches with at least five years of service or 50 victories at a school that was classified as a major college. Asked during a Sunday teleconference what 200 career wins mean, Kelly said: "That I'm a pretty good coach when I recruit good players."

Next up: Notre Dame travels to Michigan for the final scheduled time, and for the second-ever night game at the Big House. College GameDay will be in town, just like it was last time. And we all know how that one ended. If the past four years are any indication, this one will likely come down to the wire. And it will likely give the winner a huge boost on the path to a potential BCS bowl berth.

What we learned about ND: Week 1

September, 1, 2013
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Here's what to take away from Notre Dame's 28-6 season-opening win over Temple.

ND1. Rees looks better. There's no such thing as a perfectly clean opening game. But Notre Dame delivered about as crisp of a performance as one could have asked for offensively, starting with Tommy Rees. He led the Irish to touchdowns on their first two drives and avoided the bad decisions that had plagued him earlier in his career, allowing Irish nation to rest easy as Notre Dame heads to Michigan for Week 2.

2. Carlisle might become a major factor. Notre Dame's first play of the game? A 45-yard rush for Amir Carlisle, who was playing in his first game with the Irish after a broken ankle cost him last season after getting a waiver to play immediately following his transfer from USC. Carlisle had a team-best 68 rushing yards on just seven carries, adding two catches for 5 yards. He looked like the best of the five running backs the Irish used Saturday, and he could grow into a bigger role in the offense as the season progresses.

3. Kicking woes need to be resolved. Brian Kelly wanted Week 1 to be somewhat of a tryout between Nick Tausch and Kyle Brindza. Kelly could not have liked what he saw, as each missed his lone field goal attempt. Michigan will be far less forgiving of such mistakes next week if Notre Dame cannot work out the kinks there.

4. Freshmen make presence felt. Notre Dame played 10 true freshmen in the opener, with Corey Robinson and Jaylon Smith earning the starts. Receivers James Onwualu and Will Fuller, cornerback Cole Luke and end Isaac Rochell saw action early, with Max Redfield and Devin Butler getting special teams action. Running backs Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston carried the ball late in the game, finishing with 35 total yards. Folston was the only freshman to catch a pass, hauling in a 9-yard grab.

Notre Dame mailblog

July, 5, 2013
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Enjoy the weekend!

Tim Griffin from Sioux City, Iowa, writes: With Tommy in as QB. Will the Irish be undefeated in the regular season this year and the defense that much better than last year?

Matt Fortuna: Tim, undefeated is asking a lot, even if Everett Golson had been under center going into 2013. It's just really, really difficult to get through one campaign unscathed, let alone two, especially with that schedule. Even Alabama lost a game in each of its past two national title seasons. I think Notre Dame's defense is deeper and has the chance to be better than last year's unit, which was much better than the 2011 unit, which was in position to win 10 or 11 games with Tommy Rees under center if not for all of the turnovers. So, if you look it at in a simple way -- better decision-making from Rees than two years ago, better defensive production -- there is certainly a chance for the Irish to win 10 games and make a BCS bowl game. Of course, it's a lot more complicated than that, especially with no Tyler Eifert or Michael Floyd on offense and a tough schedule once again.


Luke from Columbus, Ohio writes: This year's team is not expected to do anything special. However, neither was last year's Irish squad. What is the ceiling this year?

Matt Fortuna: Luke, I (and most others) know better than to put a ceiling on a team after the way last season turned out. If you're looking for silver linings from this offseason, it's that things could be a whole lot worse when you lose your starting quarterback after the spring. Instead, the Irish have a guy with 18 starts who knows the offense inside and out. The offseason of 2012 was also far from kind to the Irish, be it recruiting defections, the Rees arrest, the Cierre Wood suspension, the Aaron Lynch transfer, the questions surrounding Louis Nix, and so forth. As I said to Tim above, there is certainly a chance to have a very strong season, though I'd be shocked if the Irish ran the regular season table again.


Kevin Quinn from California writes: Which 2013 recruit do you think can make the biggest impact on the team for this upcoming season?

Matt Fortuna: Kevin, I'll go with Greg Bryant. There is a lot of depth in that backfield, but most of it is unproven. While I can see the carries being thrown around all over the place this season, I think Bryant is the type of running back recruit Notre Dame has not seen in a long time, and the opportunity will be there for him to contribute during his first year. I expect Corey Robinson and James Onwualu to get plenty of opportunities this season as well.

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