IBG: The season begins


The good folks of the Notre Dame blogosphere found it in their hearts to welcome me into their midst for the Irish Blogger Gathering. I noticed this nice community-building exercise last season and feel quite honored to be invited by the Subway Domer himself.

Nothing like putting your feet to the fire to get started with this weekly exercise. I’d like to go on record saying I’m not a huge fan of predicting national champions, Heisman winners, or Irish bowl games/final record, so I just aimed high or holstered my sidearm if I wasn’t quite sure as opposed to throwing at the dartboard blindfolded.

Here are the questions for the opening week of the season, “hosted” by our friend Frank over at UHND:

1. Name one offensive player and one defensive player you’re most excited to see in the new systems and why.

While my gut reaction was Cierre Wood, I’m going to go against the grain and say Kyle Rudolph on offense. What Brian Kelly does with his tight ends will be very interesting, and having a 6-6, 265-pound Ivan Drago-clone out on the edge like Rudolph makes me more than curious. While everybody predicts big things for Rudolph, he hasn’t done it yet in a Notre Dame uniform. We’ll know the true creativity of a Kelly offense when we see what he does with Kyle, and if he’s actually back in the Wildcat, look out.

Defensively, I’m looking forward to seeing Darius Fleming in the position he was born to play. This crew of outside linebackers took a big step back developmentally when the defense transitioned to Jon Tenuta’s 4-3 system, and I’m expecting Fleming to have a breakout season under the tutelage of Bob Diaco. I expect Fleming to rack up double-digit sacks.

2. What’s one reason you think Brian Kelly is the right coach this time. What’s one reason you think he might not be?

I could give you a dozen reasons why I think Kelly is the right guy at the right time, but I’ll defer to ESPN’s Bruce Feldman, who spoke candidly about Kelly’s near-perfect fit at Notre Dame.

On the flipside of the coin, looking back at what I was writing when Jack Swarbrick was conducting his search, I wasn’t overly convinced that Kelly was the right guy for Notre Dame. While my feelings have changed since last November, one thing I did worry about was the class of competition Kelly played. If we’ve learned anything in the last few years, not all wins on the football field are created equal. Winning at Grand Valley, Central Michigan, and in the Big East isn’t necessarily a great predictor for success at Notre Dame, and if you look at Kelly’s track record in the big games he’s played, it’s not as if he’s been a giant killer.

(Note: This is the only thing I could think of after twenty minutes of scratching my head and searching through the blog archives.)

3. A lot of people are labeling Purdue, Boston College, and
Michigan State as toss up games. Considering Notre Dame beat all three
of these teams during the disappointing 2009 season, do you consider
these games toss-ups or games you expect Notre Dame to win?

It’s not as if Notre Dame won any football games (other than Nevada and WSU) convincingly, so I’m not sure how you can use last year’s cardiac victories as a rationale for expected success. That said, maybe I’m crazy, but I put all the games, minus Utah, Michigan State and USC, in the ‘expect to win’ category. On paper, Notre Dame should be favored in every game except Southern Cal.

4. What’s one reason you think Notre Dame could shock the world
and pull of another 1964-type season? What’s one reason you’re
concerned we might see more of a 1997-type season?

I’ll give you two reasons for an Ara-like season: Charlie Weis & Brian Kelly. If the Irish do make a run this year, it’ll be because of the players Charlie Weis recruited to Notre Dame and the player Brian Kelly turned into contenders. To a lesser extent, it happened with Ty using Davie’s players, it happened with CW using Ty’s players, and it could happen with BK using CW’s players.

If you’re looking for a formula for why the Irish would take a step back like they did during Davie’s first year, I’d posit a formula like this:

(New Offensive System + New Offensive Tackles + New Starting Quarterback + Tough Opening Schedule) x Same Mediocre Defense = Disappointing Season

Not that I think that’s going to happen, but all the elements are there for it to potentially take place.

5. Which freshmen do you see contributing the most on the field this year (outside of TJ Jones – that’s too easy?

After Jones, there’ll be a pretty serious drop off, but if I had to guess it’ll be Collinsworth on offense, Lo Wood on defense, Danny Spond on special teams. The transfer of Shaq Evans likely moves Collinsworth up a spot on the depth chart and I’ve got a feeling he’ll be the kind of player that Kelly utilizes all over the field.

Defensively, it’s pretty clear that Lo Wood is going to play early and often, and if Chuck Martin can keep his head on straight, he’ll have the most weight to carry. As for Spond, I just wanted a reason to mention him. He might be my favorite prospect in the freshman class, just because of his athletic ability and below-the-radar arrival. A high school quarterback fighting his way into the two-deep at middle linebacker? That’s the stuff of legend, and the kind of athlete that was getting ignored by the previous coaching staff.

6. Other than Dayne Crist (too easy again) who is the one player
Notre Dame can least afford to lose to injury for any significant
period of time?

It’s not even close right now: It’s Manti Te’o. Right now the depth at middle linebacker is frightening. Steve Paskorz is out at least three weeks, Anthony McDonald is very questionable, David Posluszny is doubtful. No offense to Carlo Calabrese, but the depth chart is Te’o and then Uh’o. Runner-up to either defensive end, but to me, Te’o is irreplaceable. 

7. 2010 Season Predictions:

  • Record: Not comfortable naming a number, but I expect double-digits
  • Bowl Game & Opponent: Rose Bowl vs. Wisconsin (Followed by Civil War between the Arnold brothers…)
  • Final Ranking: 7th
  • Opponent with highest final ranking: PITT
  • Notre Dame Off MVP: Michael Floyd
  • Notre Dame Def MVP: Darius Fleming
  • Best Opponent Def. player: Greg Jones
  • Best Opponent Off. player: Ricky Dobbs
  • Best Opposing Coach: Kyle Whittingham
  • Game I am most excited to watch: Michigan
  • Game most likely to DVR: All of them. Like to record while I watch. Tape doesn’t lie.
  • National Champion: No clue.
  • Heisman: No clue.
  • Purdue Prediction: 27-17, Irish victory.

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.