Friday notes: Assistants hit the road


It’s officially the spring evaluation period for college recruiting. Thanks to a recent rule change, head coach Brian Kelly won’t be able to hit the hallways of high schools, but his assistant coaches will.

The Irish coaching staff will fan across the country, with each assistant working their region or position grouping for key recruits. Expect to see Bob Diaco on the east coast, Tony Alford covering Florida, Mike Denbrock on the West Coast, Chuck Martin covering the Midwest, Ed Warinner all across the country meeting with linemen, Kerry Cooks in Texas, Tim Hinton doing his best to lock down the state of Ohio, Mike Elston also working the Southeast as Charley Molnar sets sail to reel in an elite quarterback. There’s only so much time to be on the road, and with Kelly relegated to alumni functions and awards dinners, the assistant coaches will do much of the heavy lifting this spring.

Here are a few interesting headlines from a quiet week of Notre Dame football, as we cross the 120 day mark until the Irish kick things off against Purdue.

* Tim Prister at broke down the remaining offensive linemen in play for the Irish after receiving big verbal commitments from Matthew Hegarty, Jordan Prestwood, Conor Hanratty, and Tony Springmann.

The Irish have offers out to Maryland tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, Tennessee’s Antonio Richardson, Arkansas’ Brey Cook, Arizona native Cyrus Hobbi, Georgia tackle Watts Dantzler, Colorado tackle Brendon Austin, and Virginia’s Jay Whitmire, according to Prister. If I had to guess the next guy to pledge to Kelly and the Irish, it’d be Austin, although the staff would be happy to take any of the guys on this list.

* It seems Jimmy Clausen didn’t need to show up in a stretch Hummer to get people wondering if he’s still too cocky or a bad teammate. Arriving at Carolina’s mini-camp with a 12-pack of Cactus Cooler that was requested by star teammate Steve Smith, Clausen had all eyes on him during an impressive mini-camp. But it wouldn’t be a football season without some Clausen controversy, and PFT’s Mike Florio seemed to supply it, with a well-placed source claiming that Smith thought Jimmy was “a punk.”

Smith didn’t take too kindly to that quote and has been on a warpath denying a report he labeled “all BS.” He was eager to challenge Florio on-air earlier today, but Mike passed on the confrontation, knowing that he wasn’t going to give up a source that Smith would’ve demanded be named.

Regardless of all the manufactured noise, it was interesting that the reports that did come out about Clausen all kept the familiar theme of his questionable off-the-field personality. Some of the more interesting reports quoted veteran teammates who were surprised that Clausen would reach out to them with text messages and introductions, something maybe not that common with rookies, but something essential in a quarterback expected to lead. If you’re looking for a comparison, there’s no articles questioning Tim Tebow’s decision to reach-out to his new teammates, and Clausen is far closer to seeing the field that Denver’s new first road quarterback is. Jimmy will battle rumors until he’s actually given the opportunity to go out on the field and play football, which I’ve got a hunch comes sooner than later.

* Uber-freshman T.J. Jones is making some noise on the national scene with his surprise ascendancy to the top of the WR depth chart after only a semester at Notre Dame. The guys at took a look at the top early-enrollees who made an impact during spring practice, and they listed Jones and Oklahoma’s Kenny Stills as the two wide receivers that created the most buzz.

Here’s what they had to say about Jones:

Jones, whose first name is Tai-ler, moved his way onto the first team
midway through spring drills and stayed there the rest of the way. He
caught an 18-yard TD pass in the spring game. Notre Dame is looking for a
complementary receiver for star WR Michael Floyd, and Jones could be
that guy. His dad, Andre, was a defensive end at Notre Dame from 1987-91
and played on the Irish’s 1988 national championship team. His uncle is
Philip Daniels, a veteran NFL defensive end.

I’m eager to see what Jones can do out of the slot for the Irish. After watching him during the Blue-Gold game, it’s clear that he’s one of those athletes that won’t shy away from the big stage, a crucial trait for a true freshman that wants to see the field.

* The news that the Pac-10 and the Big 12 are in discussions on a possible collaboration for a television contract is interesting news on the conference realignment front. While Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is out looking for potential additions to the conference as a way to build their TV empire, the Pac-10 and Big 12 are taking creative looks at building their negotiating power with the TV networks without mortgaging the history and affiliations of the conference.

Both the Big 12 and Pac-10 have expiring TV contracts that pay them much less than the Big Ten and the SEC, so they’re looking for every possible way to build leverage, including building a TV network that takes advantage of the fact that six of the nation’s top 13 media markets are in the heart of Pac-10/Big 12 country.

While people consistently believe that the Irish either need to relinquish independence or merely go it alone regardless of the consequences, Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe and Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott are looking at an outside-the-box solution that could give their universities the revenues needed to compete with the other conferences, while not hurting the other athletic programs at their respective universities.

It’s interesting now that Jack Swarbrick is moving closer to a 6-5-1 scheduling model instead of continuing to try and work with the ridiculous 7-4-1 template Kevin White installed, the Irish could put themselves in a better position to forge creative alliances that could be both lucrative for the university financially while also allowing them to hold on to their independence.

* One final note: It’s SHOCKING, just shocking, to see that NFL defensive rookie of the year and former USC Trojan Brian Cushing has been suspended for performance enhancing drug use. Rumors of steroid use have dogged Cushing since his days at USC, and pictures like this one have been around for years.

Cushing had appealed the suspension, but was rejected earlier today. Cushing will sit out the first four games of next season for the Houston Texans.    

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.