Stepping up… The Secondary

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If you missed our first two installments of “Stepping Up,” where we talked about the offensive line and the wide receivers, be sure to check them out.

It wasn’t hard to identify the secondary as a massive problem area last season. A perceived area of strength going into the season, the Irish defensive backs were a massive disappointment, failing to make many big plays, and far too often getting beat for one instead. The veteran cornerbacks that many had high hopes for disappointed almost to a man, as veterans like Rasheon McNeil, Darrin Walls, Gary Gray, and Robert Blanton all had major lapses in coverage, and played well below expectations last season. Meanwhile, the transition of Harrison Smith back to safety was a disaster, and the combination of run-support heavy Kyle McCarthy and the enigmatic play of Sergio Brown left the Irish defense without a capable centerfielder, something that spells disaster for a team trying to play a Cover 2 scheme.

The returning secondary is truly a mixed bag. On the edges, the Irish only lose Rasheon McNeil from the cornerback rotation, returning Walls, Blanton, and Gray, the three corners that played the most minutes in the defensive backfield. At safety, the Irish lose their top two contributors in McCarthy and Brown, in addition to backup Ray Herring, though they do get Harrison Smith back after a lost season spent transitioning between safety and outside linebacker.

While poor pass defense can hardly be blamed solely on defensive backs, corners and safeties are the last line of defense and will always be the ones on the hook when a pass play goes for big yardage. Regardless of the ineptitude of the pass rush, there was still no excuse for a secondary that gave up way too many explosive plays and made a habit of giving up career days to opposing quarterbacks. 

While new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and new defensive backs coach Chuck Martin have their hands full, they’ve got a group of players that come with a lot of talent. Every cornerback on the roster was a well-regarded recruiting prospect, and they’ve all got plenty of experience to lean on. And while Harrison Smith’s maligned minutes are the only ones that truly return at safety, a clean slate might be the best thing for everyone involved.

The Irish not only have to replace minutes, they need to replace the bad memories of a defensive season gone awry. Here are the key losses, important returning players, and the defensive backs that need to step it up.

KEY LOSSES:

If there was a highlight for the Irish secondary, it was Kyle McCarthy. McCarthy was the epitome of a program player, a guy that paid his dues on the way up and played two stand-out seasons as a starter. While I wasn’t as high on his tackling prowess as my colleagues in the broadcast booth, McCarthy’s obscene two-season stat-line made him the only Notre Dame defensive back to eclipse 100 tackles in a season, and he achieved that feat twice. McCarthy also chipped in a team-high five interceptions.

RETURNING STARTERS:

The time is now for cornerback Darrin Walls. There is no more waiting for the former blue-chip cornerback. He’s back for a fifth-year at Notre Dame and hopefully will blossom under the regime change. Robert Blanton also returns, likely humbled from a sophomore season that had to be disappointing after such a strong freshman campaign. Gary Gray will likely be fighting for a starting job as well after wrestling one away during the second half of last season. Gray made a few big plays, but Irish fans hope he’ll bring a new confidence to the field as a senior. At safety, Brian Kelly already mentioned that Harrison Smith has been impressive during offseason workouts and will return to safety after being flip-flopped around the past two seasons.

STEPPING UP:

While every position is a clean slate for the Irish, no group needed it more than the secondary. Last year, the problems seemed to be between the ears more so than athletically. The secondary never seemed to master the new principles of the blitzing Cover 2 scheme that Jon Tenuta employed, and too often the defense was just plain beat on coverage that was fundamentally puzzling. For the Irish defense to play up to their skill level, here are a few guys that’ll need to play big:

Harrison Smith: Nobody needed a regime change like Smith did. The Tennessee native had a rocky season that saw him become the ire of many Irish fans, but enters the season with two years of eligibility remaining. Moving Smith from undersized linebacker to safety expected to play deep coverage is a lot to ask of a young player, especially one that likely relied on a lot of gambling to compete against players that sometimes outweighed him by 100 pounds.

Jamoris Slaughter: Slaughter is the type of guy better classified as a football player than either a cornerback or safety. Slaughter was given a shot late in the year to win a job in the secondary after others played their way out of contention, but he never truly seized the moment. That said, the previous coaching staff believed he was a sound tackler with good speed and ball skills, and has to think that a job in either nickel or as a starting safety is a very real possibility.

Zeke Motta: Motta is a guy that made an immediate impact on special teams. He’s also a jumbo-sized safety that has great football instincts and his eyes on a starting safety position. While I’ve got no idea if Motta can be a guy that plays great in space, if his play on special teams is any indication, he’ll be flying around the field looking to make tackles if he’s given his chance.

Dark Horses: Expect another McCarthy to start working his way onto the field, as Danny is reportedly the better athletes of the two brothers. Fifth-year senior Leonard Gordon should contribute as a safety or corner (Thanks, Zach.). From a physical standpoint, early enrollee Chris Badger looks ready to go on special teams at the very least. E.J. Banks redshirted last year, but might be ready to take a shot at a job in the secondary as well. 

Swarbrick discusses the state of Irish football program

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Jack Swarbrick spoke extensively about the state of the Notre Dame football program. Released last Friday and a part of Swarbrick’s weekly podcast, the Irish athletic director covered the laundry list of hot-button issues, including Brian Kelly’s status, the NCAA order to vacate wins that Notre Dame is appealing, and the challenge of winning football games in today’s environment.

The entire 25 minutes are worth a listen, as Swarbrick and Nolan cover just about every question and complaint that’s out there. And in case you don’t have that time, here’s a quick breakdown:

 

Swarbrick on the 2016 season. 

“It was an extremely disappointing year. Every player, every coach, myself, other administrators involved in the program, we all share the same view. There’s no way around that conclusion. It’s not bad breaks, it’s not a play here, a play there. We didn’t do what we need to do. So we do start from that perspective.

“I think there’s a danger in overreacting to any one piece of information that you get in the course of the evaluation of football programs. That begins with, it looks one way from a this-season perspective, but it feels a little different to me from a two-season perspective.”

 

Swarbrick on the evaluation process: 

“I’m looking at the program. Wins and losses are a huge indicia of where the program is, but it’s not the only one. More important to me, frankly, is the experience of our students. My interaction with them and what their interactions with the coaches, and the environment and are we meeting their expectations. Now, we clearly didn’t meet their expectations competitively this year, because they want to win, too. But on many of the other things, the program elements are in good shape.”

 

On the off-field issues, and the challenges that faced the football team this fall. 

“I don’t want to do anything to minimize the disappointments, whether they’re competitive or unacceptable behavior in the last game at USC by one of our players, obviously, which just isn’t acceptable, it isn’t okay. The disciplinary issues we had to deal with at the front of the year, none of those are acceptable, all of those go into the evaluation, but those are the only ones that sort of get the public scrutiny. I’m dealing with the other 120 young men who are for the most part like my co-host James (Onwualu), doing everything right, making every right decision, having a real positive experience. You’ve got to look at it all, not just isolated elements of it.

 

Discussing the disappointment of the NCAA’s ruling to vacate wins and why the university is appealing: 

“If you’d merely expelled the students, you wouldn’t get this penalty. But because you went though an educative process and kept them in school and adjusted credits and made those things, you subjected yourself to this penalty. That seems like a bad message to send, but that’s one that we’re continuing to advocate for down the road.”

 

On the challenges of winning in today’s college football, as opposed to 30 years ago. 

“I think undoubtedly it is harder. Now, people from that era may have a different view. But there are things that make it harder. But it doesn’t make any difference. It’s harder to win basketball games than it was back then. It’s harder to do a number of things.

“We don’t treat any of that as an excuse or a reason to have different goals. I sort of embrace that. Some of those things that you might view as obstacles are ultimately the things that we have to offer young people. It is the eliteness of the institution and the quality of the education. You can’t say it’s an obstacle and then talk about how great it is because it helps you. That’s the way it is. I wouldn’t trade anything for the circumstance we now compete in. I think it is exactly what it should be. We have to do a better job with it, that’s all.”

Report: Corey Holmes set to transfer

Irish Illustrated / Matt Cashore
Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated
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Receiver Corey Holmes is transferring from Notre Dame. The junior, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, will look for a new program after earning his degree this summer, Tom Loy of Irish247 reports.

Holmes told Irish247:

“It’s just the best decision for me. I’m graduating this summer and I’m just going to find the best fit for me to finish things up.”

Even after a strong spring, Holmes saw little action this season, though he played extensively against USC in the season finale. He had four catches against the Trojans, a large part of his 11 on the year, also his career total.

That Holmes wasn’t able to find a consistent spot in the rotation is likely a big reason why he’s looking for a new opportunity. After opening eyes after posting a 4.42 40-yard dash during spring drills, the Irish coaching staff looked for a way to get Holmes onto the field. But after losing reps at the X receiver on the outside, Holmes bounced inside and out, never finding a regular spot in the rotation, playing behind Torii Hunter Jr. and Kevin Stepherson on the outside and CJ Sanders and Chris Finke in the slot.

Holmes has two seasons of eligibility remaining, redshirting his sophomore season. Because he’ll earn his degree this summer, he’ll be able to play immediately next year. Irish 247 reports that Holmes is looking at Miami, UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona and North Carolina, though he’ll have a semester to find other fits.

 

Mailbag: All about BK

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17:  (L-R) Sam Kohler #29, head coach Brian Kelly, Grace Kelly and Hunter Bivin #70 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Welcome to a fairly action-packed Mailbag. Why didn’t one of you guys remind me to do these more often?

This one, as the title suggests, is all about Brian Kelly.

 

@chrise384: Do you think that silence from Swarbrick this week means anything or do you think it’s status quo and BK is back in ’17?

I think Swarbrick’s been silent because there’s nothing else to say. He made his comment to ESPN that Kelly would be back in 2017. Why would it benefit him to say anything else?

Kelly also made comments—10 feet away from his boss—that he’d be back and doesn’t want to go anywhere. So other than releasing a 2:37 a.m. tweet reiterating Kelly’s intentions—and essentially calling B.S. on the reports that BK was looking to get out—there’s no reason to respond to the noise, when there’s a ton of work to do and big decisions still to make.

Speaking of those…

 

Domer521: Keith – The banquet is next Friday evening. Do you expect any announcements regarding recruits or DC/assistant coaches before then?

I don’t. For a variety of reasons, I think Kelly is waiting to make any formal moves on his staff until after that evening. And in reality, any college assistant that’s going to come to Notre Dame is probably coaching in a bowl game, and won’t leave his program until after that game is played.

(That doesn’t mean that BK isn’t lining things up. I expect that he is.)

So while the idea of getting a coordinator on hand now might be ideal, the reality of the situation is that you need someone ready to hit the recruiting trail after the New Year, taking the world by storm for that final month and closing stretch until Signing Day.

 

@GhostAKG: Many are saying Charlie Strong for our new DC. Is that good/realistic? And what are some of the names you’ve been hearing more?

I was one of the people to speculate, but the more you think about it the less it makes sense. Charlie Strong is a head coach. And a good one. Any return to South Bend would feel incredibly temporary, with the circus following every job vacancy that opens up—with fans and media speculating, “Is this the one to get Strong back to the head job?”

That’s not a headache BK and company would want to deal with, especially when you consider how much this collective fanbase sweats out coordinator hires or parallel moves.

(Remember when Tony Alford left after Signing Day and it felt like someone died around here?)

Charlie Strong is a good man and a good coach. But that’s the wrong type of hire for ND. I think he’ll probably take a year off to examine the landscape, continue to cash those fat checks coming from Austin, and then get back into it next year.

 

irishwilliamsport:

Keith, I know this is an exercise in futility but I’ll ask a mailbag question… What would you guess BK’s combined job approval rating is among all fan bases ?

You’ve got me. No clue. Does anybody have a good job approval rating?

At this point, I don’t think anybody’s approval rating is all that high at 4-8, to the point that Jack Swarbrick—a guy who might be the most powerful and intelligent athletic director in the country—has seen fans turn on him as well.

I wasn’t quite sure what you were getting at with your question about “all fan bases,” but maybe you were talking about the perception of Kelly both inside and out of the program? If so, I thought Colin Cowherd’s take on Kelly, at least from a national perspective and a guy who watches a lot of college football, is interesting. (It’s a perspective that’s pretty common, I must say.)

 

codenamegee: 

What has Brian Kelly done to make you think he can win a championship at Notre Dame. Looking at his FBS coaching resume his teams have never beaten a top 5 team. I just don’t get why everyone thinks he’s a good coach. Notre Dame is poorly coached (too many mental breakdowns), offense lacks imagination (Running plays are too predictable, no tail back screens, no delay draws, lack of counters and traps). Yet all I hear how Brian Kelly is this great coach or Brian Kelly is a great offensive mind. If he is, he hasn’t showed it since he’s been in South Bend.

Well, first off—and this is a biggie—he played for one. So let’s not ignore that. And he was maybe one play away from getting invited to playing for another last year, a game-winning, last-second field goal against Stanford knocking the Irish from the playoff.

Now I get that playing for one isn’t the same as winning one. And when it comes to comparing this program to Alabama’s, frankly I don’t think Notre Dame has a chance to get to that level until Nick Saban retires… or the NCAA finds something illegal in his program. So if that’s the bar you’ll set, I’m not sure he can get there. And I’m not sure Notre Dame is willing to do what it takes to get there. And frankly, that’s something I’m okay with—especially as you

Last point for you—have you really heard anybody calling Brian Kelly a good coach lately? Is anybody following Notre Dame saying Kelly’s done a good job this season? Has the coach himself even said that? Have I?

Listen, I get it. Losing seasons are terrible. They are really painful and this one came out of nowhere, making it worse. Then throw on top of that just how close the games were—each week a decision here or there, or a blown assignment or missed opportunity sometimes the singular difference between a win and a loss.

That all adds up. And it certainly will carry into next season, a direct reflection on the coach’s job status, regardless of the length of his remaining contract.

 

irishdog80: Can Brian Kelly truly survive and thrive as head coach at Notre Dame or is his best opportunity a fresh start at a new school or pro team?

I don’t think Kelly would’ve stayed if he didn’t think he could thrive. He could get another job if he wanted one. And I don’t think Swarbrick would’ve let him stick around if he didn’t have comfort that the football program—a team that he spends more time around than anybody outside the players and the coaches—was in good hands, and that this was a bad season, not a bad program.

That’s a really good question though, Irishdog. We’ve seen Bob Stoops rally. We’ve seen David Shaw bounce back, though neither pulled a four-win season. And for now, I think Kelly can, too. But it’s worth pointing out that the rumor everybody seemed to be fired up about, three-win & nine-loss Mark Dantonio, would be a huge coaching upgrade over Kelly is funny, considering Dantonio just took a College Football Playoff team and drove it off a cliff.

 

 

irishcatholic16: With reports that Brian Kelly is seeking job opportunities outside of Notre Dame then shortly after saying that he’s committed to Notre Dame along with him bolting Cincinnati in the same fashion (saying he would stay then leaving), do you think he will lose the trust of his team and could we see more decommits as a result? Will the team trust him knowing that he isn’t fully committed?

I have no belief that those reports are true. And I have no reason to think that Kelly’s team—seven years in—would have their trust of the man leading the program hinging on reports from national media pundits.

Are we still talking about the way he left Cincinnati? Because it sure looked to me an awful lot like every coach leaves their program—Tom Herman just the latest example of a coach left in an unwinnable situation, with the media ready to pounce by asking unanswerable questions.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt that Kelly’s agent was talking to teams. He was. He’s the same guy that reps Herman, and a handful of other top-shelf coaches. But that’s what agents do. They talk about their clients, 99% of the time without the client ever having any idea he’s doing it.

 

 

bjc378:

I’ll ask the obvious question. Sorry, I didn’t listen to the podcast.

Do you (still) think BK should be the Irish coach next year? If so, how long of a leash do you give him next year and what changes would you demand? If not, or if he decides to coach elsewhere, what’s your wish list look like?

No apology necessary, first off, on the podcast. It’s supplemental, but listen for John Walters’ wisdom, it’s basically like telling your friends you subscribe to Newsweek.

As for BK, yes I do think he should be the coach next year. I don’t think Notre Dame is a program that should fire someone for a single bad season—period. I didn’t like it when they did it to Ty (in retrospect it was the right thing to do), and I wouldn’t like it if they did it to Kelly, a year off a ten-win season and a Fiesta Bowl appearance.

(Also worth noting, they don’t do it in hockey, basketball, baseball, soccer, or any other sport.)

As for the leash? That’s hard to say. I think we’ll know quite a bit about this team at the end of next September. They’ll have played Temple (the potential AAC champ coached by one of the nation’s underrated head coaches in Matt Rhule), Georgia, Boston College, Michigan State and—don’t laugh—Miami (Ohio), who has got it going now under Chuck Martin. So if that month goes sideways and the season does too, I won’t have any problem with Swarbrick trying to upgrade and make a change.

As for the wish list? No clue. Not at this point. I’ll take Jon Gruden off of it, so cross him off before anybody asks me. And any other NFL head coach.

But I’d start by looking at someone like Willie Taggart, a young Harbaugh protege who coached at Stanford and has now done good work as a head coach at both Western Kentucky and USF.

Drue Tranquill named first-team Academic All-American

Drue Tranquill
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Drue Tranquill was named a first-team Academic All-American. The junior safety, who returned from his second major knee injury during his three-year career, earned the honors after posting a 3.74 GPA in mechanical engineering.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s first academic All-American since Corey Robinson earned the honor after the 2014 season. He finished second on the team in tackles with 79 and lead the team in solo stops with 52. He also had two TFLs and an interception.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s 60th Academic All-American, the third-most of any school behind Nebraska and Penn State. He’s active in the university community, serving as a mentor for the Core Leadership Team for Lifeworks Ministry, and is a member of Notre Dame Christian Athletes. He is a also member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) and Rosenthal Leadership Academy.