Spring Solutions: Wide receivers


(After a bit of a layoff, we’re back with some more Spring Solutions. If you want to get caught up, check out our write-ups on the linebackers and running backs.)

There are plenty of variables to consider when predicting what the Irish wide receiving corp will bring to Brian Kelly’s table next year. Gone is Biletnikoff Award-winning wide receiver Golden Tate, who had the most electrifying year of any player in college football last season. Also gone is the glue guy, possession receiver Robby Paris. Most importantly, the guy who was in charge of getting the ball to the wide receivers, quarterback Jimmy Clausen, is now fighting for a starting quarterback job for the Carolina Panthers.

Adding to the complexity of the equation are the wholesale changes taking place with the Irish offense. Charlie Weis’ pro-style offense was replaced by Brian Kelly’s collegiate spread attack. Both offenses have been prolific the past few seasons, but have achieved their success through very different philosophies.

Still, if its possible, the Irish find themselves with the chance to replicate or exceed last season’s performance. While there are certainly more question marks in the wide receiving depth chart, the key replacements could in many instances trump the record-setting performers that just walked out the door. While they may not match the statistical brilliance of Clausen and Tate, their successors, Michael Floyd and Dayne Crist, will have more than will likely see their names called earlier in the NFL Draft whenever they chose to leave the Irish.

(Though Floyd and Crist should take note of the recent Irish track record for sliding down draft boards when making their decisions.)

It may be foolish to think that Floyd and a group of largely unproductive wideouts can match the production of Floyd, Tate, Paris and Clausen. Yet this spring gave us the scratch work for Kelly’s formula to achieve.

           2010: Duval Kamara, Barry Gallup
           2011: Michael Floyd,
           2012: John Goodman, Deion Walker, Shaq Evans, Robby Toma, Theo Riddick
           2013: Daniel Smith, Austin Collinsworth, Bennett Jackson, Tai-ler Jones

Once upon a time, Duval Kamara was a highly-touted freshman recruit that had the potential to become an elite college wide receiver. As Kamara prepares for his final season at Notre Dame, it’s up to him to finally put together a season that captures a sliver of the potential that recruitniks thought he possessed. It appears that Kelly and his staff are giving Duval every opportunity to see the field, with his name firmly entrenched at the top of every depth chart that’s come out this spring, and he’ll see plenty of one-on-one coverage playing across from Floyd. Another senior who I thought would see a bump in productivity under Kelly was Barry Gallup, Jr. Gallup finally found a niche last season on kick off returns, mostly as a chauffeur for returner Theo Riddick, but looked good with the ball in his hand. If you were looking for Gallup to make noise in Spring Practice, you would’ve been disappointed, because you rarely heard his name among those mentioned by the staff. That said, with the speed and formations Kelly will run out there, there’s a chance for Gallup to find his niche in his final season.

If there’s a front-runner for next year’s Biletnikoff award, you’d have to put Michael Floyd with the lead dogs. It’d be the first time in the award’s history that teammates won in back-to-back years, but Floyd certainly has the skills to pull it off, though a key will be staying healthy, no easy task for Floyd thus far in his career. Also interesting will be Kelly’s usage of Floyd. There was rarely a fade route thrown this fall, a staple of the Weis era with big #3 isolated in the red zone. Floyd will likely be running different patterns in a different system, but he’ll face the same decision Tate made after last season: Stay for a senior season or chase the dream of the NFL.

 The sophomore class is crowded but undistinguished. For the Irish offense to set sail, this group will need to be ready to make the leap. John Goodman is a candidate to succeed, if only because he and Crist gave Irish fans a sneak preview of what the two could do on a long touchdown pass against Washington State. Goodman also displayed his advanced athleticism, taking snaps at quarterback in certain formations against USC. The Fort Wayne native redshirted his freshman season and even toyed with a move to quarterback with an uncertain depth chart, but will be given every chance to thrive at receiver. Deion Walker is another guy that was highly touted, but has yet to make a mark for the Irish, making only a single catch against Nevada after redshirting his freshman season. Walker had an elite list of scholarship offers, but has been stuck behind Floyd and Tate as edge receivers. Theo Riddick joins the receiving corps after averaging 5.5 yards a carry at tailback, but a crowded depth chart, solid hands, and great skill in open space made him one of Kelly’s first position changes. Riddick was knicked up most of the spring after shoulder surgery, but still looked good in the Blue-Gold Game. If you asked 100 Irish fans what freshman receiver would contribute more last season, everybody but Robby Toma’s parents would’ve picked Shaq Evans. But it was Toma who had the coaching staff’s trust down the stretch while Evans failed to see the field as the season collapsed. Still, Evans has the upside to eventually replace Floyd if he puts his mind to it, while Toma profiles as a waterbug-type slot player.

With all the receivers fighting for time this spring, it was the 17-year-old Tai-ler Jones that found his way onto the first string by the middle of spring practice. Jones impressed everybody with his speed, hands, and savvy in 15 short practices, giving Kelly a weapon many thought was a season or two away from contributing. He’ll be in the starting lineup from day one, no small feat at this position.  Austin Collinsworth is a versatile athlete who could play on either side of the ball, but committed quickly to the Irish after he was being heavily recruited by Kelly’s Bearcats staff. If you’re looking for a wildcard, look no further than Bennett Jackson. He’ll need to gain some weight under Paul Longo, but Jackson has track speed and could become a vertical threat. Hometown product Daniel Smith has the physical tools to be a D-I wide receiver, and we’ll find out if he has the speed to contribute this fall. Smith’s offers won’t wow you, but his game tape shows a playmaker that dominated the competition.  

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.

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 Irish247.com 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.