Friday notes: Coaches, Recruiting, and Enemies


Brian Kelly had a large press gathering today to officially introduce his coaching staff, and we’ll cover that extensively over the weekend, but before that I wanted to get out a few interesting notes that accumulated over the week.

* I’m a sucker for stuff like this, only because I can just picture the writers sitting in the room and discussing it, but Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o was named the the Honolulu Advertiser’s All-Decade football team. He’s one of two linebackers on the squad — the other former Hawaii linebacker Blaze Soares — and one of two players from Punahou high school to be listed. I know next to nothing about Hawaiian high school football, but I’m guessing Kahuku is a pretty legit program, as 12 of the 29 people on the roster were part of the football program.

(Complete aside, but remember when Julius Jones was named to Athlon’s NFL All-Decade football team, when they projected the 2000s? Think they probably missed on that one…)

* Former defensive line coach Randy Hart, who spent only one season at Notre Dame after two decades at Washington, joined Brian Polian on the staff at Stanford. That’s two Irish assistant coaches joining Harbaugh in Palo Alto, and Hart will be there just in time for heralded recruit Blake Leuders to take his official visit. Hart is a guy with a lot of roots on the West Coast, and I’d never fault anybody for taking a job at a university like Stanford, but Irish fans are hoping he doesn’t persuade Leuders to join him.

* Speaking of recruiting, it’s time for our weekly update on Seantrel Henderson, the gargantuan left tackle prospect who is still considering the Irish. The Columbus Dispatch spoke with Tom Lemming, who will telecast Henderson’s decision on his Signing Day television show, and he seems to think Pete Carroll’s defection puts Ohio State firmly in the lead for his signature.

Talking with someone close to both Henderson and the proceedings at the All-American game, Henderson spent much of his time in San Antonio hanging out with Trojan recruits. While Ohio State probably does have the lead with Henderson, there has yet to be a big-time recruit from Cretin-Derham Hall end up in Columbus, and that hasn’t been for lack of effort by the Buckeyes. As I’ve said before, I think Brian Kelly and Mr. Michael Floyd are the two biggest factors in Irish recruiting.

* While it isn’t directly related to Notre Dame football, Penn State assistant coach Jay Paterno submitted a letter to the editor at the State College newspaper and had plenty to say about the coaching carousel that kicked off when Pete Carroll decided to leave USC. He decried the state of his profession, citing the uselessness of contracts and the propensity for broken promises.

Here’s a taste:

A year ago The University of Tennessee took a shot at a young coach
who had been fired following a 5-15 stint with the Oakland Raiders.
That coach, Lane Kiffin, rewarded Tennessee for its hiring of him by
bolting after one 7-6 season for the vacancy created at USC.

The University of Tennessee paid out more than $5 million in
coaching salaries (not to mention several million dollars to buy out
the previous coach’s contract). At a time when universities are cutting
staff and faculty, Tennessee spent more than $7 million to win seven
games. A year later it is right back where it started.

This profession has lost touch with the reality of the world around
us, and some coaches have lost touch with what the mission of our
profession should be.

It wasn’t too long ago that we saw head coaches’ salaries go past
the $1 million dollar mark — they have now surpassed the $5 million
mark with no sign of slowing down. We are starting to look as arrogant
as the Wall Street bankers raking in seven-figure bonuses.

The astronomical explosion in coaching salaries continues at a time
of 10 percent unemployment in America and exploding tuition costs
burdening working class families.

I am not saying that every coach should take a vow of poverty or
stay at his school for three decades, but we must remember what has
made ours a noble profession. It is the mission of our profession: the
use of sport to help young men transition from high school and prepare
them for the world that awaits them after college.

Coaches walk into a recruit’s home and talk about how they will look
out for that young man’s future. When the parents or guardians pass
their boy on to college, they put his welfare into that coach’s hands.
The expectation is that the coach will help to guide him through a very
formative time.

I tend to think people should be paid what the market dictates, but as long as the NCAA continues to hide behind the shield of amateurism when it’s convenient, I think collegiate leadership should find a creative way to keep coaches in their jobs. It’s not Lane Kiffin’s fault that he was offered his “dream job,” nor is it Brian Kelly’s fault that the system allows — forces — him to leave his job with a bowl game still left on the schedule.

* is reporting that Chris Stewart, Darrin Walls, and Dan Wenger are all returning for a fifth year at Notre Dame. They’ve also heard that Barry Gallup Jr. will be receiving a fifth year, which is a little bit bigger surprise, though something I wondered when I heard that Brian Kelly was taking over the program. I think Gallup is one of the players that with benefit the most from the coaching change, and he’ll be a perfect guy to use in Kelly’s offensive attack, with his experience running, receiving, and returning.

* Finally, I’ve gotten a lot of emails regarding the coaching change at Southern Cal, and I thought I’d just give my opinion on the move. (I’ve already done this over at CFT, but I’ll make it short and quick here.) I think it’s a great short-term move for the Trojans, and it’ll likely rescue their small, but star-studded recruiting class. That said, I think the worm has officially turned on the public perception of the program. Chris Huston, better known as the Heisman Pundit, spent years working in the Sports Information department at USC, and helped orchestrate three successful Heisman campaigns. He’s still incredibly connected to the football program and its athletic department.

Here’s what he had to say on the hiring, which he called “suicide:”

My criticism of this move by USC doesn’t touch upon the horrible football decision that has been made. It doesn’t touch upon his failings as a head coach or his lack of qualifications as a head football coach or his lack of qualificiations for a prestigious job like USC’s. It doesn’t even touch upon his shoddy interpersonal skills, his numerous closeted skeletons that have yet to emerge or his unjustified rise through the coaching ranks that has been aided and abetted by his father, Monte Kiffin, and his godfather, Pete Carroll…

Kiffin was able to convince USC that he was that guy. But the reality is that by hiring Kiffin, USC is sticking a fat middle finger in the face of the NCAA, the media and its fellow institutions. With probation pending, it has hired as its coach a man who is a walking, talking, living, breathing NCAA violation… USC might as well have invited a permanent microscope upon itself at a time when it should be battening down the hatches and fixing its issues. Rather than making a clean break from the anything-goes Carroll Era, it has chose to continue it.

Huston, talks more about the NCAA case against the Trojans, and its pretty enlightening stuff. I’ve heard people say that Armageddeon was coming to Heritage Hall and that a slap in the wrist is all there will be. Either way, it’s interesting that the Trojan leadership — some say joined by influential power-brokers like NBC announcer and former Trojan quarterback Pat Haden — took the ultimate decision out of AD Mike Garrett’s hands, and assembled a staff around Kiffin, the new face.

It’ll be an interesting few months in Los Angeles, and while the Trojan dynasty may have breathed its last breath, the talent they still have within the program means they’ll likely be back for more. But if Ed Orgeron’s actions in the hours after Kiffin resigned at Tennessee are any indicator, it’s still business as usual…

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.

CB Elijah Hicks commits to Notre Dame

Irish 247

Just hours after one member of Notre Dame’s 2017 class stepped away, another took his place. Southern California defensive back Elijah Hicks committed to the Irish. The four-star prospect, an all-purpose defender who can play safety, cornerback and contribute in special teams, pulled the trigger just days after taking his official visit to South Bend.

He made the news official via Twitter and recorded a commitment video with Irish 247’s Tom Loy. And even as Notre Dame’s season continues in the wrong direction, Hicks bought in to the message being sold by the Irish coaching staff, picking Notre Dame over programs like UCLA, USC, Michigan and Washington.

A year after stocking up the secondary—Hicks gives the Irish a nice piece to pair with Paulson Adebo and all-purpose athlete Isaiah Robertson. And as we watch Troy Pride, Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Devin Studstill might a quick impact on the back end, Hicks compares favorably to that quartet, another prospect with elite offers who will come into South Bend ready to fight for a spot in the two-deep.

Hicks told why he pulled the trigger now:

“I chose Notre Dame because on my official visit I felt comfortable and it felt like home,” said Hicks. “One of my favorite quotes about Notre Dame is, ‘Other teams play college football, Notre Dame is college football.’ Coach Lyght, I feel like he could give me the tools that’s necessary to make it to the NFL and have a long career. Also, they have a rich tradition and great academic support.”

Hicks plays for La Mirada High School, the same program that produced reserve Irish tight end Tyler Luatua. He returns Notre Dame’s 2017 class to 18, a Top 10 group by any evaluation.