Debating Mendoza


There was some good back and forth over the past week about the performance of Ruben Mendoza’s strength and conditioning program, started by a nice article written by Blue & Gold’s Ryan O’Leary. O’Leary touched on the common phenomenon of blasting the departing staff and touting the incoming guys, just as it happens at nearly every major sports program that replaces a head coach.

While many Irish fans have surely forgotten, O’Leary points out that both previous Irish head coaches, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis, won national coach of the year awards. O’Leary also went on to support the work of Ruben Mendoza, Weis’ man in charge of strength and conditioning. He largely used the performances from the four Irish players that worked out at the NFL Scouting Combine as support:

From O’Leary:

Quarterback Jimmy Clausen
didn’t work out at all because of his toe injury, but four other former
Irish players showed the scouts their stuff at the annual meat market,
and their results were pretty impressive:

Kyle McCarthy didn’t blow anyone away with his 40-yard dash time, but he was first
among the 23 safeties – and sixth among all combine participants,
trailing only two receivers and three cornerbacks – with a time of
11.13 seconds in the 60-yard shuttle run. McCarthy was also second
among safeties in the 20-yard shuttle (4.13 seconds) and the three-cone
drill (6.74 seconds).

Offensive linemen Eric Olsen and Sam Young
tied for ninth among 46 players at their position group in vertical
jump, with each getting 29.5 inches of separation from the ground.
Young was also 10th among linemen in the standing broad jump (8 feet, 8
inches), while Olsen was tied for fourth in the three-cone (7.50

Receiver Golden Tate
didn’t surprise a lot of people with his excellent time of 4.42 seconds
in the 40, which ranked fourth among 44 wideouts, or his 10-foot broad
jump, which tied for 10th at the position. But while Tate performed as
expected in the speed and agility drills, he also impressed with his 17
reps on the 225-pound bench press, the lone strength measurable at the

Tate’s number ranked him seventh among receivers, and he wasn’t alone –
each of the Notre Dame players placed in the top 10 at their position
group on the bench press. McCarthy tied for second among safeties with
24 reps (or one more than Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy). Young tied for 10th among offensive linemen with 29 reps, while Olsen tied for third with 35.

Perhaps these guys were forced to do some work in the weight room all this time after all.

O’Leary combined this year’s combine work with the impressive workouts that both Trevor Laws and Brady Qu
inn had at the combine, and drew a fairly reasonable conclusion that Mendoza certainly shouldn’t be blamed for the team’s downfall. Pretty logical thought process, right?

Over at Irish blog, The Biscuit took exception:

I have 2 main issues with the crux of his argument.

First, he uses the performance of a few players at the combine, in particular categories, to evaluate an entire program.

Yes, ND guys put up some good numbers at the combine. In some
places, our guys finished in the top 5 or top 10 at their position. But
in other exercises, which Ryan conveniently leaves out, our guys didn’t
finish in the top 5 or 10. So I could’ve just used those stats, and
written an article on how BAD Mendoza was. So he’s really only telling
part of the story. I mean, if I just use Olsen’s bench numbers (#5 of
all those in the combine) to make the argument, that’d pretty much be
the same thing. Because he picked the measures where our guys did best
and said “Hey, hey, look how great they’re doing! Mendoza was really
good”. But what about all the places where they didn’t do great? Those
numbers are just as valid.

Speaking of numbers, ND has 5 guys at the Combine. 1 of them,
Clausen, isn’t even working out. So we’re looking at 4 guys on a roster
that’s HUGE. So now these 4 guys represent the entire report card on
Mendoza? Last I looked we had 11 guys playing offense, 11 D, plus ST’s,
on the field. And we’re going to use our 4 best/most athletic guys as
the barometer for how well Mendoza did? Seems a bit skewed.

My 2nd beef with the argument is that he puts a bunch of emphasis on
a few meat-market-ish tests designed for NFL Scouts to pick and prod
top athletes for the pros. This isn’t necessarily what translates into
a program-wide result of fitness. For example, ND’s issues in the
latter half of the season in ’09 and ’08 were clearly
endurance-related. The ability to keep going, for a full-game, non-stop
and 100%. ND dropped long, hard-fought games to teams like Pitt and
UCONN, and they faded late in the year 2 years in a row. There’s no
2-mile run at the combine, so there’s no metric for how well Mendoza
taught and enforced a discipline that would lead to stamina and
endurance in the face of adversity.

I fall somewhere in the middle on this one. O’Leary’s main point — that outgoing staffs take way too much heat — is spot on. His best example was that of former ND strength coach Mickey Marotti, who was butchered for the training he did under Bob Davie, but has lead Urban Meyer’s strength and conditioning program at Florida to unprecedented heights.

That said, The Biscuit is spot on with his two beefs. Five guys is hardly an accurate assessment. And while the combine numbers of some Irish players have been impressive, one of the best players developed in the Mendoza program was Denver Broncos tackle Ryan Harris, who hardly set the combine on fire with his strength numbers.

For whatever reason, second half results were an issue for Weis’ last three seasons, and the Irish wore down as games went on this year. That could be a result of Mendoza’s training philosophies, a lack of leadership by Weis and the coaches, players not eating right, and just about anything else.

As the Irish begin their transformation under Brian Kelly and his hand-picked strength coach Paul Longo, it’ll all come down to one thing: Results on the field. 

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.


Irish suffer first recruiting defection with Donovan Jeter


After five losses, Notre Dame suffered their first consequence of a poor season in recruiting. Donovan Jeter, a four-star defensive lineman, has stepped away from his verbal commitment.

Jeter made the news public on Tuesday, taking to Twitter to send Irish fans into a tailspin.

The sky isn’t quite falling. Jeter called the Irish his top school, likely just getting ahead of the news that he’ll start taking official visits to other schools, something Notre Dame’s recruiting staff has worked well to slow down the past few cycles. Also helping the Irish’s cause is his proximity and connection to fellow Western Pennsylvania prospects David Adams, Kurt Hinish and Josh Lugg.

Still, after making it through last recruiting cycle without a defection, finding a way to win back Jeter is priority No. 1, a versatile defensive lineman who had an elite offer list and picked Notre Dame after basically dismissing them over the summer. The Irish have done it before, getting Stephon Tuitt back in the fold after Georgia Tech sold him on staying home. They won a battle with current defensive coordinator Greg Hudson when he was at Florida State for Aaron Lynch, though Lynch only lasted a season in South Bend.

Usually a decommitment—especially this time of year—isn’t ground for a news story. But as all eyes focus on Brian Kelly and his grasp on the Irish program, this serves as ammo for those looking for cracks in the foundation.


Jeter posted a Tweet that essentially confirmed my speculation. And also should serve as a reminder—DO. NOT. TWEET. AT. RECRUITS.