Weekend Leftovers: Ragone, Kelly, Recruiting


This afternoon, Mike Ragone will make his initial court appearance for his misdemeanor marijuana charge in LaGrange County court. The proceedings might take less than 10 minutes, but they’ll likely carry a weightier consequence for the tight end, especially if he plans to play football this fall for the Irish.

This will be Brian Kelly’s first true disciplinary test, and for the most part, Kelly is playing his cards close to his vest.

“”It’s one thing to have reports about him. I’ve worked with him over
the past three of four months.” Kelly said last Wednesday. “He’s a hard-working kid who
obviously wants to get his degree at Notre Dame and play college football.

“It’s one of those matters that I look at very seriously. We’re
responsible for our student-athletes, whether some people like to shy
away from that responsibility. We want to make sure they represent the
university in a positive way.”

Ragone will likely meet with the Office of Residence Life over the summer semester, where he’ll find out if he’s going to spend next season with the football team, or suspended from school. Not to underscore the seriousness of the charges, but at any other school, Ragone’s looking at a one-game suspension. We’ll find out what Notre Dame thinks about Ragone’s mistake soon enough.

* The Detroit News’ Lynn Henning had a fawning column on Irish coach Brian Kelly last week, pointing out that both Michigan and Michigan State had chances at hiring Kelly, who drew the eyes of many with his impressive work at Grand Valley State and Central Michigan.

Kelly always had the coaching know-how, the savvy, the voltage, to be
a remarkable Big Ten coach. Do you think his years at Grand Valley
State, winning Division II national championships, were the product of a
man leading a small-school team in ways that wouldn’t transfer to the
larger stage?

It was foolishness even a decade ago to believe
Kelly wasn’t on his way to becoming a major national coach. What he did
at Grand Valley was no illusion. He got the recruiting discards from
Division I schools, for the most part, and by way of a head coach’s
engineering, discipline and inspiration turned the Lakers, pound for
pound, into one of the slickest football powers in the country. (Grand
Valley was 41-2 in Kelly’s final three seasons there.)

In the
autumn of 1999, after Nick Saban had departed MSU for LSU, it was easy
to mention Kelly as a potential candidate, even if he was 38 years old
and had coached only in the NCAA’s second tier. That’s because all the
national gurus who understood coaching pedigrees knew Kelly was special.

Michigan State never interviewed him. He was an hour drive away.

He climbed the ladder, of course, taking over Central Michigan when
the Chippewas were lagging, and transforming them quickly into a power.
But the Spartans looked past him again in 2002 when they fired Bobby
Williams and hired John L. Smith.

Kelly got an even better handle
on the Midwest recruiting turf at CMU, which he polished as quickly as
he took the Cincinnati job when Mark Dantonio moved to MSU in 2006.

year later, after Kelly had spent a year further toughening a Bearcats
program Dantonio had nicely constructed, Michigan needed a football
coach. Lloyd Carr was retiring.

Kelly was now 46. He had won at
three different Michigan-Ohio stops. He had a sturdy resume, as well as
the snap, crackle and pop of a man with intellect and personality — the
kind of coach who can talk substantively with a university president
and turn around at that night’s banquet and fire-stoke the alumni.

again, he wasn’t quite tall enough timber for Michigan, which instead
hired Rich Rodriguez — a hire, by the way, that in this view was at the
time as smart as Dantonio’s was in East Lansing a year earlier. And the
belief here is that Rodriguez will yet win at Michigan, as Dantonio has
been precisely what MSU needed.

The point is, Kelly never could
quite get two Big Ten schools, in his backyard, to take him seriously at
a point he was already emerging as a dynamic national coach.

It’s scary to think that both Kelly and defensive backs coach Chuck Martin spent most of their coaching careers in the back yards of Spartan and Wolverine fans, and now will be working tirelessly to defeat both teams in the first month of their Notre Dame career. After the start Rich Rodriguez has gotten off to, you’ve got to think there are quite a few Michigan administrators kicking themselves, especially with Kelly and Rodriguez running similar offenses, with Kelly spending his entire career in-state.

* Speaking of glowing columns about Kelly, the Chicago Tribune’s Brian Hamilton spent 24-hours with the man in charge of Notre Dame nation, as he barnstormed the country.  Hamilton goes into great detail about Kelly’s ability to meet-and-greet the masses. It’s not a skill that wins you football games, but it certainly is a skill that wins you the hearts and minds of a fanbase pretty hard-up for a winner.

“It’s not just about change,” Kelly says from his usual seat on the
Notre Dame jet, third back on the right side of the plane. “I think it
has to be met with an energy and excitement. You still have to get
people to buy in. Even after having some lean years. They gotta believe
in me.”

So he engages those people. He clutches their palms, absorbs the stories
about family patriarchs who graduated from Notre Dame before the World War II. He meets their expectant eyes with the assurance they long
for: We are part of this, you and I.

“This is really about, I think, making sure people know the head
football coach at Notre Dame — you can reach out and touch that person,”
Kelly says. “It doesn’t sit up on a tower and is separate from what
Notre Dame represents. It’s not this position that is guarded.”

Maybe he means to strike the note, maybe he doesn’t, but on this the
contrast with his predecessor is impossible to ignore. Charlie Weis was
not lovable, and the Guglielmino Athletics Complex was as welcoming as a
Supermax penitentiary under his watch.

“No one loved Notre Dame more than Charlie Weis,” Kelly says of his
predecessor, an alumnus. “He loved Notre Dame. He knew more about Notre
Dame than I do.

“But I also know that a head football coach, regardless of whether it’s
at Notre Dame or Central Michigan or Grand Valley is also an ambassador
and a very influential person when it comes to shaping sentiments about
how people feel about their program.”

I’m really impressed with the way Kelly handles the media’s questions about the previous coaching staff and Charlie Weis. There’s no way for Kelly to play the Notre Dame card the way Weis could, and to Kelly’s credit he doesn’t try to do that. He’s a head football coach, and Kelly plays that part of his resume up as well as anyone, which is something he should do, because he’s had as much success as any coach the Irish have had in years.

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”