Friday notes: Saracino, Bubba, Expansion, etc.


With just days remaining until Irish athletes report for summer school and begin unofficial preparations for the upcoming season, football news should begin to pick up. Until then, you’ll have to consider Steve Filer jumping out of a pool newsworthy.

(Might have to get Notre Dame Film & TV department to help with the video preparation, but Filer’s ability to jump out of the pool — and to have the common sense to put a towel down to curb the chances that he’ll hurt himself — remind us that Filer is an elite athlete ready to explode on the scene, not to mention has a solid head on his shoulders.)

I’ve got a small announcement coming up about some exciting posts for next week, but until then, let’s run through a few interesting notes I saw this week.


My column on the departure of Notre Dame admissions czar Dan Saracino brought in quite a bit of feedback. Some of it was anti-Saracino, some in support. One of the more interesting conversations I had was with former Irish assistant and recruiting coordinator Bob Chmiel, who was center stage for the recruitment of T.J. Duckett.

Chmiel is a wonderful man, continues to love Notre Dame, and still lives and breathes Irish football. Let’s just say Chmiel’s characterization of Duckett’s recruitment doesn’t quite jive with that of Duckett’s fathers, as portrayed by Sports Illustrated. For as much grief as Saracino received for the Duckett recruitment and the SI article, Chmiel had nothing but positive things to say about Saracino’s treatment of Duckett or any recruit. He also believes that the Irish didn’t have much of a shot to begin with, as Duckett had all but packed his bags and made the decision to be a Spartan.

I’ll say it again, Saracino has one of the hardest jobs in college sports, and I’ve heard from many that he only has the best intentions of student athletes and the university when dealing with the often subjective process of undergraduate admissions (athletes or not). While the university might have been late to the party, Notre Dame has changed their philosophy on recruiting and scholarship offers quite a bit from Holtz/Davie years.

Here’s a quote from an article on Saracino back in 2005:

“If you’re not interested in being a student-athlete (after looking at
the academic requirements), then Notre Dame is not a good match for
you,” Saracino said. “We are who we are, and we’re proud of it. (The
academic requirements are) not a hindrance to the program, it’s to want
the young man not to be used for just his athletic abilities.”

News reports over the last five years said that talented players like
Randy Moss, Carson Palmer and T.J. Duckett could not get into Notre
Dame for academic reasons, and Saracino admits that Notre Dame will not
be able to admit every top athlete in the country.

“Are there going to be young men who are great athletes who we cannot
admit? Sure,” Saracino said. “Of the top 100 (recruits), maybe there
will be 50 that we can’t sign. I don’t know whether that number is 20,
30, 40, 60, I don’t know. All we know is we just need 20 (recruits) each
year who academically can make it through Notre Dame and athletically
can help us.”

For as long as Notre Dame plays football, there’ll be student athletes that don’t fit the profile of the university. The key, as Saracino points out, is to get the ones that do.

Final thought: Whoever ends up taking the place of Saracino should run and hide if a photographer from a magazine wants to take a shot of them with their arms folded in a menacing pose.


Blue-chip quarterback Bubba Starling will be on campus again this weekend, and this time he’s bringing his mom with him. That’s a very good sign for Irish fans, and Pete Sampson over at writes that the Irish might be receiving a much needed commitment from an elite quarterback.

“This trip is about seeing the same stuff, but it will be different
because this will be my mom’s first time at Notre Dame,” said Starling,
who’ll arrive on campus Friday night and leave Saturday afternoon.
“She’s going to be a big role in my decision. She wants the best for me
and I like her opinion. I’m sure she’ll love it up there.”

Coincidentally, Starling has been in touch with quarterback
Dayne Crist, who wanted to pull the trigger for Notre Dame during his
own spring visit three years ago but held off because his mom wasn’t on
the trip.

“I was just telling Dayne that if I’m feeling it and I like it
up there that I could commit,” Starling said. “You never know.”

Starling has a tentative visit scheduled for Nebraska in two
weeks but admitted his decision might be made by then.

Sampson reported earlier in the week that Starling ran a forty-yard dash timed electronically in the 4.3s, which is absolutely preposterous speed for a quarterback. I’ve come to trust 40 times as much as I do those email forwards promising you money if you send it to seven of your friends, but Starling would be a great get even if he runs the 40 half a second slower. (Basically, what Robby Paris ran on his Pro Day.)

Now Irish fans have to talk Major League Baseball scouts into thinking that Starling and his 95-mile-per-hour fastball want nothing to do with professional baseball.


Yesterday, news broke that the Pac-10 was making a run at six Big 12 teams — Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Colorado, and for the first time in a while, there might actually be some substance behind the rumors.

“We’re led to believe that that may be the case, but, again, there are so many different reports and different dialogues and different developments within our league and outside our league that prevents me from being able to predict what will happen,” Colorado AD Mike Bohn said.

Big 12 commission Dan Beebe canceled a news conference that was set for yesterday and is pushing it until later today, but if this happens, the Big Ten will likely do their best to respond, and then we could have one of those Armageddon scenarios everybody loves to talk about. 

(Although I refuse to fan the flames until something real actually exists.)

For as much heat as the Big East has taken, the Big 12 wasn’t necessarily all that rock solid either, and the potential fracture of six teams, including crown jewels Texas and Oklahoma, proves this. News today from the Columbus Dispatch has emails exchanged between Big Ten commish Jim Delany and Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee, taking about the other apple in their eye: Texas.

Texas president athletic director DeLoss Dodds didn’t do much to quell the rumors either.

“You’ve known me for very long; I am not hanging back,” Dodds said,
according to the Associated
Press. “I’m not waiting to see what other people are going to do. I’m
going to know what our
options are, so that’s not going to change. My hope is that the Big 12
survives and you and I
retire knowing it’s a great conference. It’s been very viable, and if it
stays in place, it will
continue to be very viable.

“If we need to finish it, we’ll finish it,” he said. “We’re going to
be a player in whatever

Expect a long weekend of rumors, rhetoric, and reactionary measures by the Big Ten, who might have missed their chance at manifest destiny with these potential moves by new Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott.

If anyone sees Jim Delany standing outside Father Jenkins window tonight, holding a boombox over his head and playing Pete Gabriel’s Your Eyes, don’t be alarmed.

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.