What just happened? A recruiting recap


Barring a miracle, the Irish look to have finalized their recruiting class, with 23 recruits joining the 2010 recruiting class.

If you weren’t up and following things from 7:00 AM EST on (or 4:00 AM for us unlucky saps that live on the West Coast), here’s a quick rundown of how the morning went.

The Early Shift:

The first faxes came in just around the 7:00 o’clock hour. Defensive lineman Bruce Heggie from Florida, QB Luke Massa from Cincinnati, and offensive lineman Tate Nichols from Kentucky were the first batch in, with Kentucky wide receiver Austin Collinsworth, Derek Roback, the athlete from Ohio, as well as Ohio quarterback Andrew Hendrix joining the party.

Before the first hour was over, three more names came rolling in with North Carolina linebacker Prince Shembo, wide receiver and South Bend native Daniel Smith, and Ohio tight end Alex Welch. Shembo’s fax was especially nice to hear for Irish fans, as he had wavered a bit when Charlie Weis was fired.

Those nine combined with the already enrolled freshman defensive backs Chris Badger from Utah, Spencer Boyd and Lo Wood of Florida, Illinois quarterback Tommy Rees and Georgia wideout Tai-ler Jones.

Sixteen members down, in just the opening minutes of the morning

The Excellent UND.com Coverage:

For those of us that were watching UND.com, we also got our first look at the early enrollee freshman, who broke into offensive and defensive groups to do interviews with UND’s Jack Nolan. It was fun to see players for the first time as sleepy college students, dressed like every other varsity athlete in baggy issue-gear, doing their best to balance school, lifting, and sleep, not to mention the fish-out-of-water experience of moving into a dorm at mid-term and jump starting their college career.

It was also a nice touch adding in interviews with Kapron Lewis-Moore and Manti Te’o, two high-profile players that had pretty memorable Signing Day experiences.

Brian Kelly sat down for an early check-in with Jack, and his background in politics was immediately recognizable.

“The early returns are in and we’re pulling our base,” Kelly said. “The Cincinnati area guys — Luke Massa, Tate Nichols, Andrew Hendrix, Austin Collinsworth, Alex Welch. Now we’re starting to get some of the other guys from other areas, like Prince Shembo. I think we’ve done well early in the process with guys we think can contribute to what we’re going to be doing.”

Matt James Lands at Notre Dame:

The biggest news of the day for the Irish was the signing of Matt James. James had come down to Ohio State and Notre Dame, and apparently chose the Irish last night before faxing in his paper work just after 9:00 AM. He gives the Irish a true left tackle, something that’s plagued the Irish for the last few years.

But before the James announcement, the Irish received faxes from Illinois lineman Christian Lombard, New Jersey wide receiver Bennett Jackson, and Florida defensive tackle Louis Nix. Lombard has been committed to the Irish for a long time, and is far from an afterthought in offensive line recruiting, even though James’ decision stole the show. Jackson also looks like he’ll be a player that’ll bring quickness and speed to the offense, and could do very well in the slot of Brian Kelly’s spread.

And beside James, Louis Nix’s signature is one that should make Irish fans the happiest. Any commit that makes a decision to come to Notre Dame without knowing the head coach is truly picking a school for the right reasons, and should be a fan favorite. 

Following up the James announcement, linebacker Kendall Moore’s fax arrived at a quarter past nine. He’s another big time defensive recruit that has the ability to play both inside and outside linebacker. Another blue-chip athlete, this one recruited only by Brian Kelly and his staff joins the fray, with Danny Spond of Littleton, Colorado officially signing with the Irish. Spond was widely recognized as the best athlete playing high school football in Colorado.

The West Coast Faxes arrive:

Two California commitments sent their letters-of-intent into The Gug. Linebacker Justin Utupo, an All-State defensive lineman as a high schooler that was also named Lineman of the Year by the Los Angeles Times sent his fax in around 7:30 Pacific time. Running back Cameron Roberson sent his fax around an hour later, the powerful ball-carrier now the sole running back prospect with Giovanni Bernard deciding to go to North Carolina instead of the Irish.

Irish running back coach Tim Hinton sat down with Jack Nolan and got visibly excited when talking about Roberson. Also sitting down with Nolan were defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who once again broke down the intricacies of the 3-4 defense, as well as offensive line coach Ed Warinner, outside linebackers coach Kerry Cooks, and defensive backs coach Chuck Martin. Each one of them was a polar opposite from former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, who certainly wouldn’t win a Mr. Sunshine pageant.

Finally, the Irish received a fax from defensive lineman Kona Schwenke of Hawaii, who became the 23rd recruit and 18th signee from today. Schwenke was a first-team All-State selection that already stands 6-foot-5 and 225-pounds, which gives him plenty of frame to grow into.

The Ones That Got Away:

It wasn’t all good news for the Irish, as some high profile targets decided to go elsewhere. Elite linebacker Christian Jones chose Florida State over Notre Dame live on ESPN, and after looking at the reaction of his father, it was clear that the elder was rooting for his son to play football for the Seminoles, his alma mater.

Likewise Ego Ferguson chose LSU on television, picking the Tigers over the Irish and a few other finalists, to the delight of his family and friends, a few of them dressed with his name printed across their chest.

Illinois safety Corey Cooper chose Nebraska over the Irish and a few other teams, but there were reports that after Charlie Weis was fired, Cooper cooled on the Irish and the new coaching staff cooled on him.

As it stands, the Irish are waiting on safety Dietrich Riley and lineman Seantrel Henderson, two recruits that still consider the Irish as finalists, but don’t realistically have a shot.

All in all, a successful day for Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame football program. There were no defections on Signing Day, and the Irish were able to nab the top recruit on their board, signing Matt James away from the home state Buckeyes. 


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 ESPN.com.

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.