Carroll understands the challenge ahead


While you’ll get me thoughts on Charlie Weis’ press conference a little bit later, I thought it’d be worth taking a look at Pete Carroll’s press conference from yesterday and hear what he had to say about the Fighting Irish.

Living in the heart of Trojan country, I have a chance to hear from Carroll on a regular basis, and he truly is a guy that only knows one way. Whether he’s talking about football, stopping gang violence in Los Angeles, the weather, or rush-hour traffic, Carroll is all about positivity and taking on challenges. And after hearing his comments about the Irish, it’s clear that Carroll knows he’s in for a challenge this weekend.

It’s no secret that both Weis and Carroll know that everything they say in these sessions will be analyzed and scrutinized and studied for hints by the opposition. I’m sure much of what is said is said for a reason (like mentioning that a certain wide receiver was practicing in full pads yesterday for the Irish).

Here are some statements Carroll made during his presser yesterday. Allow me to read between the lines and speculate for a bit.

On Notre Dame’s passing attack:

You can’t be much better than they are. The efficiency he’s throwing at
right now, Clausen’s on it. He’s finding receivers. They’re protecting
him well. He’s keeping the negative plays down. Only two picks in all
the plays he’s made so far. These guys are loaded.

I haven’t seen
the rest of the schedule, but up until now, this is the best passing
team by far that we’ve seen. They pose the biggest challenge, and
they’ve got big play guys either coming out of the back field or the
tight end spot. Of course, Golden Tate is just having a ridiculous
start to the season. So this is a very, very good attack, and they’re
challenging the heck out of us.

Slowing the Irish down in the air is going to be a critical area for the Trojans and Carroll doesn’t mince words on the challenges it presents his defensive unit. Much has been said about the revamped and reloaded Southern Cal defense, yet a closer look at the numbers doesn’t necessarily support the thesis that this USC defense is as stout as the ones before it. While the glamor stat of zero touchdown passes allowed certainly strikes fear into the hearts of opponents, a closer look shows that opposing offenses have thrown for just about the same amount of yards against the Trojans as they’re averaging against their other opponents. With nickel back Brian Baucham questionable as he returns from a motorcycle accident, Shareece Wright academically ineligible, and Marshall Jones out for the season with a cracked vertebra, there are opportunities for the Irish to attack.

On the Notre Dame running attack:

Armando Allen is a good football player. When they put Golden Tate back
there, they run like crazy. They have a good running back, an
experienced offensive line. They have all the schemes. If
anything, they’re riding the strength of what Jimmy Clausen brings to
them. They’re such a high-efficiency throwing game, why not? They’re
putting up big time yards and all that, so.
But the running game is definitely there. One that has enough
variations to it, it taxes you scheme-wise. They do enough that they’re
not just a zone team. They do a lot of things. So, they’re fairly,
deeply committed to the whole wildcat system and all of that. With
Allen and with Tate back there, they’ve got a lot of different things
that they can do. They give you a very difficult spectrum of things to
prepare for.

It’s clear that Carroll has noticed the difference running game coordinator Frank Verducci has done with the offensive line, as well as the commitment to the Wildcat offense. It’s no longer just a gimmick, but something that opposing coaches need to game-plan for. That said, former Trojan defensive coordinator Nick Holt had success against the Wildcat with Washington’s defense this year, so it’ll be interesting to see if Carroll finds a similar solution. Interestingly, Carroll gets sidetracked again on the Notre Dame passing attack, which makes me wonder if he hopes the Irish make themselves one-dimensional, so they can just go out and cover the pass, or if he’s hoping the Irish throw the ball around the field, and USC will try to impose their will through a time-consuming ground game.

On preparing for Golden Tate:

It’s really a challenge. Really a challenge because they move them in
all their receiver spots, and then he winds up behind the center
getting the football. He is like a running back at receiver. He’s a
bigger, stronger, more physical guy when the ball’s in his hands. So
they have realized that. They’ve used him all over.
So we just
have to keep track of him and know the tendencies when he moves. There
are so many things you can do it’s very difficult. They’ve done a
really good job of utilizing their special guys, and he’s the
beneficiary of that.

Carroll saw first hand what UW’s passive coverage on Tate did to destroy the Husky defense. Expect him to have everyone on the defense well-versed in Tate’s tendencies, and be ready for every possible outcome when Tate’s playing the X, roaming the slot, lined up in the Wildcat, or motioning from the fullback position.

On Notre Dame’s attacking defense:

They’re the most aggressive they’ve been. Last year they started really
coming after people, and this year they’ve picked up on that. They’re
pressuring well over half of the time which is a tremendous percentage
of pressure from the defense. In certain games they’ll get it up higher
than that.
So what that causes is they’re taking chances to come
after you. It’s very aggressive, and they cause bad plays. You can
protect really well, then there are some are opportunities, because the
coverage is more limited.
It’s just whether or not we’re able to handle the heat that they bring.
If we can, we can have a chance at moving the football. If they can’t,
they can control the game and cause some bad things and create some
negative plays and give you issues that you don’t want. They’re doing a
nice job now. It’s difficult.

There’s risk and reward here. That’s part of it. When you’re committing
people to the line of scrimmage, there is more space in the secondary.
That’s why protection is so important and the rhythm of the quarterback
is so important to get the ball out so you don’t get hit and disrupted.
The whole point of pressuring is to disrupt the offense. If you
can minimize that there are opportunities to make plays, and we have to
create some space and see if we can do that

Carroll has to believe he can take some shots down the field. Expect to see Damian Williams involved in this game plan early and often, as well as the play-action passing game utilized early, especially if the Irish have early problems stopping USC’s ground game. Carroll also realizes how essential it’ll be to protect his quarterback, so I’d think max protection, two-man routes with the potential for big plays is a sound strategy against a defense that has proven susceptible to big plays. 

On Notre Dame’s run/pass tendencies:

They’re a team that’s interesting. They’re willing to throw the ball a
bunch if they think that’s what’s necessary in the game plan. Sometimes
they’ll go the other way. They’re not a set style that you can tell
what they’re going to do in a game plan.
The Michigan State game
they came out and played empty the whole first quarter, you know, ran
the ball like twice or something. Were moving the ball up-and-down the
field. They adjusted from there and did some other things.
This is a team that you have to see what they think of you. It’s going
to take a while. We have to be flexible early in the game and adapt.
See if we can get situated once they declare how they want to play it
from that side of the ball.
That’s how they’ve always been. It is kind of a wait and see what they think they need to do to win every time we play them.

This is one of the more interesting evaluations of Charlie Weis’ offense I’ve ever read. Carroll admits that scheming and game-planning for Weis’ attack is useless. Instead of guessing, he lets Weis dictate what he’ll do and counter-attacks. This has to be one of the more underrated aspects of Pete Carroll the coach. His ability to think on his feet, make in-game adjustments, and adapt his defense to match what the opposing coach is trying to do. When you think about USC defense, you rarely think of a team that let’s the opponent dictate terms. Yet here’s Carroll admitting that he does as much when facing a Charlie Weis run offense, even using Weis’ perception of Carroll’s own defense to guide his decision making. This is a fascinating revelation.

It’s apparent that while there is a rivalry between Carroll and Weis, it’s one based in admiration. While neither may like each other especially much, it’s clear that both need the other to succeed at their job. Weis needs to beat Carroll, and Carroll greatly enjoys the satisfaction that comes with out-smarting Charlie Weis at his own game.

Expect a chess match on Saturday. 

How we got here: Roster Attrition

Rees Golson Kiel

There is the team you recruit and then the team that you coach. And for Brian Kelly, the team he could be coaching certainly isn’t the one that’s taking the field.

Turnover on the Notre Dame roster is by no means exclusive to the Kelly era. For as long as you’ve likely been following Irish football, players have been coming and going–often times sooner than four or five years.

But as we look at the sources of this disappointing season, how this became Notre Dame’s youngest roster since 1972 is worth a look. Because as Brian Kelly struggles to win with a team that’s playing a stack of underclassmen while his fourth and fifth-year classes are all but gone, it’s amazing to see the attrition that’s struck this roster, especially considering this should be when the Irish are feeling the benefits of their national title game appearance.

From fifth-year candidates to sophomores, 20 signees have left the Irish program. That includes transfers, dismissals, withdrawals, injuries or walking away. (It doesn’t include leaving early for the NFL.)

The talent drain has taken big names and small, included five-star prospects like Gunner Kiel, Eddie Vanderdoes, Greg Bryant and most recently Max Redfield. It’s featured shortened career of projected 2016 starters Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson, and shown the bad luck the Irish staff has had bringing in pass rushers.

Let’s look at how this team got so young.


Gunner Kiel, QB — 5 star
Tee Shepard, CB — 4 star
Davonte Neal, WR — 4 star
Will Mahone, RB — 3 star
Justin Ferguson, WR — 3 star

Recap: The second phase of Brian Kelly’s star-crossed quarterback run came after Gunner Kiel transferred after a redshirt season, leaving before Everett Golson was declared academically ineligible. Had Kiel stuck around, who knows what would’ve happened. The departure of Tee Shepard was also costly, the highly-touted cornerback never dressing for the Irish after his early enrollment didn’t help clear up academic issues that seemed to plague him for the rest of his football playing career.

Neal reemerged at Arizona, moving to the defensive side of the ball. Mahone’s high-profile dismissal came after an ugly incident in his hometown of Youngstown, but resulted in a life-changing turnaround. Add in the early departures (though successful careers) of Ronnie Stanley and CJ Prosise and you begin to see how this group certainly accomplished plenty, but left a ton on the table.


Greg Bryant, RB — 5 star
Max Redfield, S — 5 star
Eddie Vanderdoes, DT — 5 star
Steve Elmer, OL — 4 star
Corey Robinson, WR — 4 star
Mike Heuerman, TE — 4 star
Doug Randolph, DL — 4 star
Rashad Kinlaw, DB — 3 star
Michael Deeb, LB — 3 star

Recap: This group could’ve redefined the roster. While Bryant and Redfield never played up to their potential before being cut loose from the university, a front-line defensive lineman like Vanderdoes would’ve changed the complexion of the Irish defense.

Below the radar, the losses of Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson certainly hurt more than we expected. Neither were breakaway talents, but both more than good enough to been veteran starters on a team that clearly needed a few more of them.

The bottom half of this list almost stands out just because they were big swings and misses. With the Heuerman, Kinlaw, and Deeb, the Irish took shots on a few less-than-elite names and came up empty, with Heuerman and Deeb never able to shake off injuries before eventually going on medical hardships. A big recruiting class coming off a historic season, this group had plenty of success, but could’ve been more.


Nile Sykes, LB — 3 stars
Grant Blankenship, DE — 3 stars
Kolin Hill, DE — 3 stars
Jhonathon Williams, DE — 3 stars

Recap: Four defenders, four front seven players, three pass rushers. When Irish fans wonder where the pass rush is, it’s misses like this that end up really hurting. Sykes, Hill and Williams were hardly national prospects. Blankenship was an early target with modest offers, though a strong senior season brought interest from Texas.

Hill’s pass rush skills were evident from his situational use as a freshman. His departure left a hole, and he’s now the second-leading tackler behind the line of scrimmage for Texas Tech. Sykes never made it onto the Irish roster, and is now the sack leader for Indiana. Williams is now in the mix at Toledo, a reach by the Irish staff who saw him as a developmental prospect.


Mykelti Williams, DB — 4 star
Jalen Guyton, WR — 3 star
Bo Wallace, DE — 3 star

Recap: Three wash outs that seemed like promising prospects when they committed. Williams was especially important, a key piece at a position of need who is now reviving his career at Iowa Western CC. Guyton is also taking the Juco route, the leading receiver at Trinity Valley CC in Texas. Wallace is an edge rusher now at Arizona State, never making it to campus after Brian Kelly spoke highly of the New Orleans prospect on Signing Day.


Swarbrick: Kelly will be back in 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly will be coaching Notre Dame in 2017. That’s according to his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So even with a 2-5 record and a difficult slate still to come, there will be no change atop the Irish football program.

“Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year,” Swarbrick told

Swarbrick’s vote of confidence is nothing new—he’s taken a similar stance in his weekly appearances the past few weeks. But it likely became necessary as the season continues to frustrate, and Notre Dame’s head coaching position becomes part of the hot seat discussion.

But even with plenty to accomplish during this week off, both on the field and in the classroom, Kelly was out front and on the ESPN airwaves, openly shouldering the blame of this season’s failures, while also mentioning this is the youngest team at Notre Dame since 1972.

See the entire segment here:


Bye Week Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.

Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.

How we got here: The Defense

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week. 


Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.

How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?

Let’s look back.



When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.

That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.

That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.

Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.

Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.

But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.



The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.

But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.

[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]



Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.

The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.



Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.

“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”



While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.

Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.

Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.