Notre Dame Football: Tarean Folston
"And so to just I guess jump into a leadership role isn't really possible -- you've got to have the tangibles of being a leader, and I feel like that's something that I carry. And for me leadership is natural. It's stepping into a position to be a standard-bearer for the team."
While that quote is sure to tug at the heartstrings of Notre Dame Nation, McDaniel is eager to push forward a ground game that he feels could be as complete as any in the nation, as a backfield that was uneven at times in 2013 returns everyone but George Atkinson III (draft defection) and welcomes back a mobile signal-caller in Everett Golson, who rushed for 298 yards and six touchdowns in 2012.
As for his goals this season, McDaniel, the team's leading returning rusher (705 yards in 2013), delivered another gem.
"Winning a national championship, that's the end goal for this team," the Coppell, Texas, native said. "And [with] the talent that we have, I feel like we're very capable of doing that. That's our team goal, and if anybody else says anything otherwise then they shouldn't be here."
Coming just within the vicinity of that goal will likely depend in large part on the development of the sophomores behind McDaniel: Tarean Folston (470 yards) and Greg Bryant (14), a pair of former ESPN four-star prospects from Florida.
Coach Brian Kelly likes the bruising mentality of Bryant, who's looking to put behind a forgettable rookie campaign that was plagued by injury. But the fifth-year coach knows he'll need more than a single major backfield contributor this season if the Irish want to return to 2012 form.
"I think he's probably what we've always thought about him -- his workouts, top of the line in everything that he does," Kelly said of Bryant. "I know our guys don't like to tackle him. He's physical. He's got all the tools to be a premier running back, and so you add him to the mix with Cam and Tarean, we feel really fortunate to have three great running backs."
@NJNDBlogger writes: Who do you project to start at D-line?
Matt Fortuna: Haven't seen the name Kiel in this space in quite some time. And of course your question centers around a quarterback. But I believe Everett Golson was wearing a visor when we saw him in the early part of practice on Monday. I'm not sure if he had to do anything extra to get that on his helmet for Day 1 of spring.
Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Jordan. And a reader from Japan? Wow. The different locations of Notre Dame fans I hear from never ceases to amaze me. As for your question, there's no doubt that special teams has been a failure so far in the Brian Kelly era. Here was his exact answer last Friday when asked: "Well, we went out and 'cliniced.' I won't tell you where we went, but we went with some NFL and some college programs and we took our film, with our hat in our hand and said, 'What are we doing here, what are we missing?' And primarily, it was, you know, it wasn't scheme as much as it was some coaching points and moving some personnel around, some speed players vs. some power players. And you know, I think we've got a better feel for the positioning of the players in the right positions.
"So we're going to make some adjustments to some of the looks that we have in our punt return. We think we've answered some questions in our coverage teams, and like I said, you know, it's unacceptable to be where we are. We went out with that sense of being very open to all things as it relates to special teams, because we've got to get better there. And I think we picked up some things that I think can really help us."
Matt Fortuna: Thomas, it's tough to handicap the carries at this point, but I do think you'll see more maturity from Folston and Bryant, who took some hits early in their rookie campaigns but certainly are talented enough to make an impact in the Irish backfield. Folston was running with the first-team during tempo drills on Monday, and his emergence down the stretch last season makes me believe he could take the next step this season.
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 …
- The first-team offensive line consisted of, from left to right, Ronnie Stanley, Steve Elmer, Matt Hegarty, Christian Lombard and Mike McGlinchey. Corey Robinson, Chris Brown and C.J. Prosise were running with the first team at receiver, while Tarean Folston saw some action in the backfield, and Ben Koyack was at tight end.
- The second-team offensive line, again from left to right, was made up by Hunter Bivin, Conor Hanratty, Mark Harrell, John Montelus and Colin McGovern. Malik Zaire ran the show with that group, with Will Fuller (now No. 7), Torii Hunter Jr. and Amir Carlisle seeing action at receiver. Greg Bryant and Cam McDaniel split time in the backfield.
- Defensively, the Irish used a four-man front on the first team, with Romeo Okwara and Ishaq Williams on the edge and Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones inside. Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt and Kendall Moore were at linebacker, while KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke was at corner and Max Redfield and Austin Collinsworth were at safety.
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.
Prediction No. 4: Folston and Bryant show promise for fall
Tarean Folston, meanwhile, picked things up as the season progressed, finishing with 470 yards and three touchdowns on 88 carries, with him carrying the ball 11 or more times for 47 or more yards in five of Notre Dame's final six games. Bryant, meanwhile, returned to practice with the team late last season, meaning there shouldn't be any rough transition period for him to return to the field this spring.
The spring should be a nice opportunity for both of these former blue-chip prospects to build on what they started in Year 1. Obviously Folston has much more to build off after a successful first season, but Bryant could definitely use a re-boot after things got off to a slow start. The talent is definitely there, as the 5-foot-10, 204-pounder was ranked by ESPN as the nation's No. 2 running back from the class of 2013.
With George Atkinson III off to the NFL, there will be more carries to go around for these two, who could team with Cam McDaniel and perhaps even Amir Carlisle to help bolster a ground game that finished just 80th nationally in 2013. Bryant and Folston can go a long way toward earning that increased workload by displaying maturity and savvy in their first spring with the program.
Atkinson was second on the team in carries (93) and rushing yards (555), adding three touchdowns. Notre Dame as a whole had a down year running the ball, checking in at No. 80 nationally, at 151 yards per game. But as KC Joyner mentioned a few weeks ago, the running backs might have been better than advertised, as they avoided losses and return some experienced blockers up front. Having a mobile quarterback in the backfield will only help bolster the running attack, too.
The leading returning back is the surprising Cam McDaniel, who enters his senior year coming off a 2013 campaign that saw him tally 705 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 152 carries. Notre Dame knows what it has in McDaniel, a valuable piece to have in this relatively young backfield moving forward.
The biggest guys to keep an eye on this spring, however, are Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. The four-star prospects came in with plenty of hype last season but only one really delivered on it, with Folston going for 470 yards and three touchdowns on 88 carries. The bulk of his production came late in the season, as he earned a heavier workload and carried the ball 11 or more times for 47 or more yards in five of the Irish's final six games.
Bryant, meanwhile, carried the ball just three times for 14 yards in three games and he was shut down for the season because of tendinitis, likely earning a medical redshirt. He is back at full health and practiced with the team late in the season, though, leaving many to wonder if he can begin to show glimpses of the potential he flashed in high school and help further the Irish ground game.
Let's not forget about Amir Carlisle, either, as the USC transfer played in every game and tallied 204 rushing yards on 47 carries. All of the backs need to become better pass-catchers to help open things up for the offense, and while none of these players lack for experience, the potential they show moving forward makes for an intriguing battle to watch unfold this spring.
For the Ultimate ESPN 300 ranking, we incorporated both the prospect's grade and projection out of high school with his actual college impact and production. In the interest of objectivity, we also included prospects that were not included in our rankings. However, we did not include players we did not evaluate in high school, so there are notable names left off this list, like Michael Crabtree.
The 2014 class was not included. Freshman prospects from the 2013 class who had significant roles and who project similar production in the years to come were incorporated. And the schools listed are the ones the recruits initially committed to, so be warned, Irish fans, there may just be a name or two here who brings up bad memories.
Notre Dame had 13 commits make the list, including two in the top 50, Manti Te'o and Golden Tate.
7) Manti Te'o, OLB, Class of 2009: 2
RecruitingNation scouting report: Te'o appears to be a man among boys on film, a player whose physical weaknesses are difficult to spot. Plays fast and with great intensity. Fills inside with a good base and shows great power and strength when taking on pulling linemen and fullbacks at the point of attack. Full report
College accolades: Unanimous All-American. Walter Camp national POY. Heisman runner-up. Winner of Nagurski, Bednarik, Butkus, Lott and Lombardi awards. Career statistics (4 years): 437 total tackles, 34 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 7 INTs.
41) Golden Tate, WR, Class of 2007: 11
RecruitingNation scouting report: Tate is one of the best overall athletes in this entire class and could be an impact player at the college level at multiple positions. However, his outstanding blend of speed, quickness, instincts and ball skills will likely have every coach placing him at cornerback or wide receiver. Full report
College accolades: Biletnikoff Award winner. Unanimous All-American. Career statistics (3 years): 157 rec., 2,707 yards, 26 TDs, 3 rush TDs, 1,196 return yards.
As for the rest of the Irish contingent:
54) Michael Floyd, WR, Class of 2008: 29
62) Louis Nix, DT, Class of 2010: 64
101) Tyler Eifert, TE, Class of 2009: NR
111) Jaylon Smith, OLB, Class of 2013: 13
115) Eddie Vanderdoes, DT, Class of 2013: 10
122) Sam Young, OT, Class of 2006: 19
245) Shaquelle Evans, WR, Class of 2009: 40
254) Tarean Folston, ATH, Class of 2013: 66
255) Stephon Tuitt, DE, Class of 2011: 90
265) Jimmy Clausen, QB, Class of 2007: 8
277) Kyle Rudolph, TE, Class of 2008: 105
That changed drastically this season. With several highly projected underclassmen on their roster, the Irish figured to say goodbye to one or two underclassmen early. And even when Kelly said in late December that he had submitted paperwork to the NFL advisory board for Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson III, few expected all three to leave school early.
Then January came along, and within one week's span, all three players declared for the draft, choosing to avoid the recent trend and skip their final seasons. Each had his reasons, so here's a look at the trio and a look at who on the Irish roster will be tasked with filling the big shoes in 2014.
(Worth noting: Nix, who had a fifth season of eligibility available to him in 2014, is not included in this group, because he graduated in December.)
Leaving: Stephon Tuitt
Replacement: Isaac Rochell
The outlook: It is worth noting that Justin Utupo will return for a fifth year and that veterans Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) and Chase Hounshell (shoulder) are expected to be back at full health next fall after both missed the 2013 season. Together, all will be counted on to replace the production of Tuitt, who was one of the best pass-rushers in school history. Still, if the Irish are looking for a youngster to step up, they will turn to Rochell, who ended up seeing much more playing time as a true freshman than initially expected this past fall, given the injury bug that affected the Irish in the trenches. ESPN's No. 139 overall player from the class of 2013 played in 11 games, recording 10 total tackles. The 6-foot-3.5, 280-pounder is a far cry from the 6-foot-6.5, 312-pound Tuitt physically, but most typically are. The bottom line is Tuitt will be the hardest of Notre Dame's early departures to replace, but Rochell will probably see his role increase the most in his sophomore season. Junior Sheldon Day, entering his second year as a starter, will be counted on even more this coming fall as well.
Replacement: Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant
The outlook: Atkinson should be the easiest of the early departures to replace, as his playing time and production took a big dip late during this past season. He was ultimately suspended for the New Era Pinstripe Bowl for what Kelly called a violation of team rules, a violation that Atkinson later tweeted (and then deleted) consisted of him texting during a team meal. Still, the Irish have the always-reliable McDaniel back for another year, and the Coppell, Texas, native actually had more carries (152-93) and rushing yards (742-583) than Atkinson in 2013 while helping with kick-return duties as well. The most important developments to keep an eye on, though, are those of Folston and Bryant, both of whom came to Notre Dame as highly touted four-star backs expected to deliver immediate boosts. Bryant had trouble gaining playing time early and ultimately suffered a knee injury that forced him to take a medical redshirt, but Folston came on strong late in the season, finishing with 88 carries for 470 yards and three touchdowns. Things will be tougher next season with a rebuilt offensive line, and all of these backs need to improve as pass-catchers, but there remains plenty of promise in the fold. Let's not rule out redshirt junior Amir Carlisle, either.
Leaving: Troy Niklas
Replacement: Ben Koyack
The outlook: Niklas, who began his career at linebacker, played tight end at Notre Dame for just two years, coming on this past fall after the departure of Eifert, as he hauled in 32 passes for 498 yards and five touchdowns. He was improving as a blocker and was on track to become one of the best tight ends in the country next season. Now Koyack will be tasked with a bigger workload in his senior season. He, too, came on strong late last season, finishing with 10 catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns, though he often played in two-tight-end sets with Niklas and gave the Irish plenty of offensive flexibility.
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.
Frank Serra writes: Who do you feel will be granted a fifth year at ND?
Matt Fortuna: Frank, if I had to guess right now, I'd say Austin Collinsworth and Christian Lombard are the most likely to come back if they want to. Kendall Moore is a possibility as well. As for the others? Lo Wood has already decided to play elsewhere next semester. There are reports of Andrew Hendrix and Alex Welch seeking other options. There is usually a surprise or two every year, but it is tough to say right now who could fit into the picture next season.
Todd from Buffalo, N.Y., writes: Do you put any credence in the theory that on teams with depth that an injury-plagued season, while disappointing, can provide a boost to the next season since younger players got a lot of playing time and experience that they might not have gotten? This could really help on defense and the O-line where multiple starters are moving on. Or am I just trying to desperately put a positive spin on an uneven 2013 campaign?
Matt Fortuna: Todd, nice try. (Kidding.) There are, though, obvious silver linings when younger players are forced to play so quickly. Was it in Notre Dame's best interest to lose two games in November? Of course not. But the fact the Irish were able to compete against strong competition with vastly depleted lines and with young players getting their feet wet certainly should alleviate some concerns about those guys as they enter the 2014 season.
Jeff from Ontario, Canada writes: If Everett Golson gets readmitted to the university, shouldn't he be able to participate in everything with the university (traveling with the team or at least practicing)?
Matt Fortuna: Obviously this question came before Golson was readmitted. But since I've gotten similar questions this month, I'll try to explain it here. Basically Golson has been readmitted to start classes at Notre Dame for the spring semester, so he is not technically a student there until classes resume there on Jan. 12, 2014. So he would not be able to participate as a Notre Dame student-athlete in competition until then, though he is certainly able to pay his own way to the New Era Pinstripe Bowl and join his teammates on his own if he would like. (And as Brian Kelly said he may do, considering his girlfriend lives in New York.)
Andrew Sama from South Bend, Ind., writes: Great article on the "Echoes" preview. Definitely agree on TJ Jones for team MVP. Folston and Jaylon Smith should probably be offensive / defensive frosh of the year but honorable mention should go to Corey Robinson. Kid had a great year and got better as the season progressed. Big things ahead for him. Sleeper candidate for defensive POY would be Dan Fox. Led the team in tackles I believe and responded to a mid-season benching like a true team leader, then came back and played his heart out. It would behoove the coaching staff to reward a kid like that with something. Keep up the great work -- Go Irish!Andrew
Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Andrew. Prince Shembo ended up winning the defensive player of the year honors, with Fox and Chris Watt sharing the Nick Pietrosante Award (courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication). The honor seems to fit both fifth-year seniors, each of whom had to deal with different problems during their final year at Notre Dame. As you mentioned, Fox led the team in tackles (90) and seemed to turn a corner after it looked like he would lose his starting job to Jarrett Grace. He also played the Mike and Will inside without complaint, and it certainly seemed like he was playing his best ball of the season in November.
William Wheaton from Illinois writes: Hey Matt, diehard Irish fan here! And my question today is concerned with the departure of both offensive and defensive coordinators, who and when are the Irish going to be after. And with the change imminent, what is it going to do to our offense being Everett Golson is back. Will we still be running the pro-style offense that Tommy Rees has been operating this year or will it be the option attack that Everett Golson led us to the title game with?
Matt Fortuna: William, I highly doubt that Kelly would bring in someone with a completely new idea for the offense considering the success he has had throughout his career, though obviously a Kelly offense will ideally look more like the ones he had at Cincinnati, given that he now has a mobile quarterback seemingly tailormade for the role. I would not be surprised if Kelly put Mike Denbrock and/or Tony Alford in charge of the offense full time, and simply hire a new position coach. The bigger concern would probably be finding the right fit on defense, especially with the likely personnel losses about to come on that side of the ball next year, and especially with so many ties between all of the coaches on that side of the ball.
- Notre Dame was the second-most profitable football team in 2013, per Forbes. Irish games were the ninth-most watched among all teams this season, according to data compiled by Good Bull Hunting and Sports Media Watch.
- Great point from IrishIllustrated's Pete Sampson right here on the latest addition to Brian Kelly's resume. (Subscription required)
- Tarean Folston is looking forward to 2014 alongside Greg Bryant, Andrew Owens writes on BlueandGold.com.
- AthlonSports' Steven Lassan ranks Jaylon Smith No. 12 among all freshmen this season.
- Bob Diaco did not disappoint Wednesday on the Jim Rome Show.
- Congrats to beat colleague and friend Brian Hamilton on his new job.
He did say on Saturday, however, that he does not expect any more of his assistants to leave, and that was seemingly confirmed shortly afterward by defensive line coach Mike Elston, whose first-ever tweet was the announcement he's staying at Notre Dame. (There had been some chatter that he could follow Bob Diaco to UConn to become the Huskies' defensive coordinator.)
Staying at ND. Love thee Notre Dame. Go Irish.
— Mike Elston (@CoachMikeElston) December 14, 2013
As for the awards show, TJ Jones took home team MVP honors in a team vote that Kelly said wasn't even close. (Yours truly had predicted Jones as the winner beforehand, just as he had predicted the correct final score of the Stanford game.)
Jones easily took home best-dressed honors on the night, wearing a burgundy suit with a bowtie and some hipster glasses. Corey Robinson and Chris Watt were among the bowtie-wearers as well.
The biggest news, or non-news, of the night came when Stephon Tuitt met with the media afterward, saying he remains undecided on his future.
As for the big winners on Friday...
- Scout team player of the year, offense (presented by Mike Denbrock): Torii Hunter Jr., over Josh Anderson and Tyler Plantz
- Scout team player of the year, defense (presented by Josh Reardon): Joe Romano over Bruce Heggie and Austin Larkin
- Newcomer of the year, offense (presented by Tony Alford): Tarean Folston over Nick Martin and Corey Robinson
- Newcomer of the year, defense (presented by Bob Elliott): Jaylon Smith over Jarrett Grace and Cole Luke
- Around the Bend award (presented by Ernest Jones): Tyler Stockton (Community service)
- Father Lange Iron Cross Award (presented by Paul Longo): Carlo Calabrese (Weight room)
- Special teams player of the year (presented by Scott Booker): Kyle Brindza
- Nick Pietrosante Award: Chris Watt and Dan Fox (Courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication)
- Defensive lineman of the year (presented by Mike Elston): Stephon Tuitt
- Offensive lineman of the year (presented by Harry Hiestand): Zack Martin
- Rockne Student-Athlete award (presented by David Peloquin): Jarrett Grace
- Next Man In award (presented by Brian Kelly): Kona Schwenke
- Offensive player of the year (presented by Brian Kelly): Tommy Rees
- Defensive player of the year (presented by Brian Kelly): Prince Shembo
- MVP (presented by Brian Kelly): TJ Jones
With that on the docket, we figure we can get a headstart here and take a peek into our magic crystal ball to look at who may be some of the lucky winners.
This is my third year on the Irish beat. The first awards show I covered had 12 awards, while the second had 17.
Zack Martin has won the offensive lineman award three years running, so I think that is likely the safest bet of the night. Unless, perhaps, he wins team MVP, in which case the lineman honor could go to one of his teammates, with Chris Watt probably having the best chances then. My pick for MVP would be TJ Jones.
Scout team honors are anyone's guess, considering we in the media have not seen a single minute of practice since the season started. Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt shared the defensive lineman award last year, something that could happen again. And you have to think Kyle Brindza repeating as special teamer of the year is a very real possibility as well.
Newcomers will also be interesting, though Jaylon Smith and Tarean Folston may have gained some breathing room in those races with their performances down the stretch.
There seem to be new awards every year, so there will be plenty of props to go around throughout the night. And I would be absolutely shocked if Danny Spond does not get some kind of honor, given the model that he has become for the program after all he had been through and given back to Notre Dame.
We have probably seen the last of Bob Diaco at these events, which is a shame, since, as many saw during his introductory press conference Thursday at UConn, he is usually the best-dressed man in the room. Matthias Farley rarely disappoints in that department, either. (Hey, there's a new award idea right there.)
What do you guys think? Shoot me your suggestions in the mailbag or on Twitter on those you believe are most deserving of credit at Notre Dame this year.
Kevin Hogan. Hogan was a bystander during last year's overtime thriller in South Bend, Ind., and he did not take over as the Cardinal's starting quarterback until four games later, against Oregon State. Stanford went on to win all five games with Hogan under center, including the Rose Bowl, and is now 14-2 with Hogan at the helm. The redshirt sophomore has plenty of Notre Dame ties in his family. More importantly, he is completing better than 60 percent of his passes for 2,052 yards with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Hogan is the third different Stanford signal-caller the Irish will face in as many years, and while he is not exactly Andrew Luck, he presents a different kind of challenge this time around from Josh Nunes last year.
Notre Dame's offensive line. It has been a wild 12 months for Matt Hegarty, whose playing career was in question after suffering a ministroke last November. He has since recovered, and with Nick Martin tearing the MCL in his left knee in the first quarter last week against BYU, Hegarty is now the Irish's man in the middle. The southpaw will be tasked with calling out blitzes and communicating with Tommy Rees and the rest of the line as they ready for a Stanford defense that is tied for sixth nationally with 34 sacks. Notre Dame has not been too shabby in protecting Rees, who has been sacked just seven times this season, tied for No. 2 nationally.
Jarron Jones. Kona Schwenke tried to give it a go last week against the Cougars but was sidelined soon enough because of a high-ankle sprain. That led to increased playing time at nose guard for Jones, who stepped up to the plate and doubled his season tackle total (seven to 14) and blocked a field goal. Can he do it again? Schwenke's status remains up in the air. And Tyler Gaffney, the nation's 10th-leading rusher, will be tough to stop, as he has had only 23 carries for zero or negative yards (second-best nationally among backs with 175 or more carries, per ESPN Stats & Info).
Irish running backs. Notre Dame eclipsed the 200-yard rushing mark against BYU for just the third time this season. As Irish Illustrated mentioned earlier this week, the Irish have won 20 in a row when attempting 30 or more rushes. The biggest development against the Cougars might have been seeing two different backs break out for big games, as Cam McDaniel had a career-best 117 yards and freshman Tarean Folston rushed for 78 yards and a touchdown. If they can keep it going against the nation's No. 3 rushing defense (89.5 yards per game), that will take lots of pressure off Rees as well.
Special teams. Jones' blocked kick last week, his second of the season, was huge. And the Irish will need more huge special teams plays in this contest to pull out the win. Stanford leads the nation in kick returns. Notre Dame, as we know, is not very good at defending kick returns (116th), so preventing big plays in that department is a must. But TJ Jones looks closer and closer each week to breaking free for a big punt return -- he might have been on his way last week if he did not get tripped up by the playing surface -- and Kyle Brindza has proven to be a clutch kicker. Both could be difference-makers if the Irish protect the ball on offense.
Being down so many players in the trenches is hardly an ideal situation when bracing for Stanford, but the Irish have built themselves to be ready for a moment like this, with their backs against the wall and unfamiliar names stepping to the forefront.
Those include keeping the big plays to a minimum as well as getting more production out of the running game, a task that becomes more challenging without center Nick Martin, whom Kelly said suffered an MCL tear in his left knee that will sideline him for six months, including spring ball.
Next-man-in Matt Hegarty will look to build off his three-quarter performance last Saturday, when the Irish rushed for 235 yards, 78 of which came from touted freshman Tarean Folston.
Kelly had high praise for Folston, who has increased his production as of late and has had an easier time fitting in this year than other highly recruited rookies. Safety Max Redfield is among them, as he's had trouble getting on the field despite being the No. 23 overall recruit in the 2013 ESPN 300.
When you think, you stink, Kelly said, and Redfield has been charged with understanding a lot more in the defensive backfield than Folston has in the offensive backfield.
"Let's just take Tarean Folston and Max Redfield, two very gifted young men," Kelly said. "Tarean has had to wait for his chance, he's getting more of it as the season progresses. Max has 10 times as much on his plate at that position as Tarean Folston -- 10 times -- in terms of coverage checks and formation adjustments and communication, all of those things, which are all going into the knowledge base for him.
"He's going to be a dynamite player for us. But there's so much knowledge in our system in the way we play. If we were a close-the-middle-of-the-field, cover-1 team, he probably would have been standing back there in Week 1, if that's what we did. That's not our system. We're a two-deep team and there's a lot going on and he's learned a lot, he's grown a lot and he's at a position now where he's starting to feel pretty comfortable."
1. There is still plenty of pride left in this team. Cam McDaniel looked at me in disbelief when I brought up the fact Notre Dame is probably going to the same bowl game no matter what it does these final couple of weeks. And that's a good thing for Notre Dame, which can finish with a 10-win season if it wins out. The Irish played arguably their most complete game of the season, with the stakes arguably at their lowest. That says a lot about this program, and particularly about the seniors, who had two long weeks to think about this after losing at Pitt and came out and played inspired ball against a good BYU team.
3. Special teams improving. Jarron Jones blocked a crucial field goal attempt late in the fourth quarter to seal the win, his second block of the season. Kyle Brindza has turned in quite an impressive season, hitting all three of his field goal attempts on Saturday, including a 51-yarder to give the Irish a 10-point lead. And TJ Jones was oh-so-close to breaking off a big punt return, possibly for a touchdown, had the playing surface not been so poor. Kick coverage can certainly be better, but the Irish's special-teams strides, as a whole, were evident on Senior Day against BYU.
Top Returning Players: AAC and Notre Dame
FBS INDEP. SCOREBOARD
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35