Five things we'll learn: Keys to the Irish season


In the nine months that have passed since the Notre Dame Fighting Irish last played a meaningful football game, Irish fans have done a lot of heavy thinking.

They just watched one of their own fail. A coach that dazzled the Irish faithful with his Super Bowl wins and unprecedented offensive fireworks. He found early success with recruits from a regime long thought mediocre at procuring high-level talent, but then failed when he brought in his own players, blue-chippers that competed annually for mythical national recruiting titles.

This one stung. Notre Dame Nation had just done all it could to get the last guy run out of town after three years. Even he started with a bang, riding an opportunistic defense and a recharged fanbase to a top-five ranking and eight consecutive wins to start his tenure, the Coach of the Year trophies and Sports Illustrated covers now sit covered in dust next to an old set of golf clubs.

(Let’s not even get into the guy before him. He never made it to his first practice, learning first-hand that while Student Affairs may be tough on students who are caught turning in a paper that’s less than truthful, the administration has even less leeway for coaches that may play a little loose with their CV.)

And so Irish fans sit, 13 years since Lou Holtz roamed the sidelines, having played in only eight bowl games and three BCS bowls, walking away with a lone victory against Hawaii on Christmas Eve, 2008. It’s been 17 years since Irish fans could even complain about getting truly worked over, when the Irish beat the eventual national champs head-to-head in November. (But even then they had themselves to blame after giving away the title to Boston College a week after ascending to No. 1.)

Fast forward to today. The New Guy. Brian Kelly. Named head coach of the Irish on Dec. 10, he’s gone undefeated since then, navigating effortlessly through the media obligations, his first recruiting class, some 180 speaking engagements, fifteen spring practices, and his first fall camp. He’s everything the last few guys haven’t been. Unfortunately, on Saturday against Purdue, there’s a good chance he could turn into the rest of them.

He’ll actually have to coach a game.

Heading into Saturday’s season opener against the visiting Boilermakers on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, here’s five things we’ll learn about the Irish, Kelly, and the state of Notre Dame football:

1. Brian Kelly has the experience needed to succeed at Notre Dame.

As we’ve learned from the Charlie Weis and Tryone Willingham, starting fast doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on the road to greatness. Nor does starting slow — Lou Holtz was only 13-10 after two seasons, including a 5-6 season that matched the final year of Gerry Faust. But Holtz had the experience needed to succeed at Notre Dame, he had already made stops at major college programs like Arkansas and Minnesota. In the last 50 years, the only Notre Dame head coaches to have had multiple D-I jobs are Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, and Lou Holtz. All three won national championships.

Kelly himself conceded he wouldn’t be ready if Notre Dame was his first stop.

“I could not do it. I could not do it. I learn something every day,” Kelly said last week. “I learn about press conferences and what I should say and what I shouldn’t say. It’s a learning experience. To have 20 years just to be able to function, I could not have done the job without that experience.”

One final tidbit that should have Irish fans feeling confident: Kelly’s 23-3 mark in the last two seasons at Cincinnati is the best two-year run by an incoming head coach since Frank Leahy came from Boston College in 1941.

None of this guarantees he’ll wake up the echoes, but at the very least he’ll know what to do if he finds them.

2. The defense will determine whether the Irish make a BCS run.

Charlie Weis likely sealed his own fate when he replaced Corwin Brown’s 3-4 system with the blitzing attack of Jon Tenuta. While Brown’s troops only played average football, under Tenuta the defense fell apart, giving up back-breaking big plays and blowing critical assignments.

Now defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is tasked with turning a defense returning most of the same players into an outfit worthy of its rallying cry: B.I.A. Best in America.  The talent is there to back up the seemingly preposterous statement. Notre Dame’s two-deep depth chart is littered with top-notch talent, every bit as strong as the units at Alabama, TCU or Texas.

Nearly every player in the depth chart was a four-star recruit, and as the Wall Street Journal pointed out last week, Notre Dame’s projected starters have the third-highest recruiting rankings in the country, trailing only USC and Florida. Better yet, most were recruited to play in the same 3-4 scheme that Diaco employs. Part of the offseason was spent rebuilding the psyches of some players that were left gun-shy after a terrible season. If Diaco can turn this group of talented players around, expect him to be running his own program soon.

3. The Notre Dame offense depends on the health of Dayne Crist.

While the “Next Man In” philosophy is a key tenet of Brian Kelly’s belief system, the head coach is tweaking his rules when it comes to starting quarterback Dayne Crist. While Crist has only thrown 20 passes in his college career, behind him the Irish are looking at true freshman Tommy Rees and former walk-on quarterback Nate Montana. With Crist only 10 months removed from a torn ACL, Kelly is playing a delicate balancing act with his junior quarterback.

“Dayne Crist is a guy who is going to have to use all of his tools,” Kelly said. “He’s a pretty good athlete. He can run as well and he can extend plays. He’s going to get hit out there. But we’re not going to put him in a position where we get running hits on our quarterback. That’s just not smart.”

The physical ability of Crist has never been questioned, and nobody inside the program would be surprised if he leaves Notre Dame drafted higher than Jimmy Clausen. But for Notre Dame to win now, they’ll need to keep the quarterback healthy.

4. If the offensive line can hold up, Notre Dame will dominate with its running game.

Many assumed the implementation of the spread offense meant throwing the ball a majority of the time. But if you look back at the history of Brian Kelly’s offense, you’ll see that he’s kept a run-pass balance that purists would find refreshing. At Central Michigan, Kelly ran the ball nearly 53-percent of the time. At Cincinnati, that number was 48-percent.  

“It’s a misnomer that with the spread you’re going to throw the ball every down,” offensive coordinator Charley Molnar said. “If we can get the defense in the looks where we like to run the football, where they’re really trying to play coverage, we’ll create running lanes for our running backs that would be no different than what you would get in a conventional offense.”

More importantly, the Irish will depend on the run to keep its relatively youthful offensive line protected, leaning on the zone running system that Kelly and Molnar have utilized as well as the expertise of line coach Ed Warinner to protect Zack Martin and Taylor Dever, two tackles starting their first games on Saturday.

Armando Allen, Cierre Wood, Robert Hughes and Jonas Gray are the most talented backfield the Irish have had since the Holtz era. The Notre Dame rushing attack took a backseat during the Charlie Weis era, as the team’s finesse style struggled to create an even average ground attack. Expect that to change under Kelly, where explosive running plays from the spread could bring back memories of Reggie Brooks and Tony Rice breaking free in the second

5. The i
dentity of Notre Dame football has changed for the better.

Even if the 2010 season doesn’t go as well as many Irish fans hope, there’s still plenty of reason to believe that the Irish football program has changed for the better. New strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo has implemented a program that made incredible gains to a roster that consistently faltered in November. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick worked with Kelly to institute a training table, catching the Irish up in a dietary arms race that Notre Dame has been lagging behind in for years. And Kelly re-energized the Notre Dame community, meeting with professors, deans, and students in ways that Charlie Weis never made time to do. Kelly didn’t need to make 180 stops in 180 days this offseason, but he understands better than any coach that’s been at Notre Dame since Lou Holtz that being an ambassador at award dinners, fund-raisers and golf outings is part of the job as well.

While Weis touted a schematic advantage, Kelly might also better him on the field immediately by installing a frenetically-paced, no-huddle spread attack that will wear down teams with their conditioning and precision. While Weis reveled in outsmarting his opponents, Kelly plans on out-hustling his opponents with smart players, a change that could pay immediate dividends.

The days of Brian Kelly being perfect end this Saturday. But even if he’ll never be, Notre Dame fans can at least find hope in the new beginning.

Pregame Six Pack: Anchors await

Chris Swain, Max Redfield

Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic. Work began on Mount Rushmore. The Jazz Singer ended the silent film era. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs. And Notre Dame played Navy in football for the first time.

The Irish won that contest 19-6, and the two teams have played every year since then. So much has changed since that first game, yet the longest running intersectional rivalry is still rolling on, stronger now than maybe ever.

While the Irish’s four game winning streak has extended their already lopsided series lead (Notre Dame holds a 74-12-1 edge), the ledger is hardly what makes the game special. An annual David & Goliath matchup, both schools remain committed the game, part of the unique bond that exists between the two institutions.

So much of this week has been made about the mutual respect between the two programs. A 30-minute documentary aired earlier this week. Both teams will share part of their uniform—as will the coaches on the sidelines—a tip of their cap to the shared history (and nifty corporate synergy) between respected opponents once again doing battle.

But make no mistake: All the respect talk this week doesn’t make this a friendly Saturday.

There is no love lost between the Irish and the Midshipmen on the field.  So while both teams may honor the other by standing during their respective alma mater, this is a game that each team desperately wants to win.

After a rain-soaked weekend in South Carolina, it looks like a dry Saturday in South Bend. So let’s put away the rain panchos and get to the Pregame Six Pack.


After watching the Georgia Tech game from the sideline, Max Redfield steps back into the starting lineup. 

Drue Tranquill begins his recovery from ACL surgery today, as fearless as ever. And while Matthias Farley has shown some playmaking ability against option attacks, Brian Kelly confirmed that Max Redfield would stay in the starting lineup against Navy.

Redfield is coming off his most productive game as a college football player, making 14 tackles—including 11 solo stops—against Clemson. Now Redfield will step into the one-high safety role, while Elijah Shumate will take over for Tranquill in the box.

“He plays the role that Shu played. Shu played the role that Tranquill played,” Kelly said.

That means it’ll be Shumate running the alley and handling the pitch man. And Redfield will be asked to serve both as the last line of defense and also make a difference in the option game as well.

Just about everybody who watched Redfield last week saw a different player than the one who was largely ineffective against Virginia as he tried to play through a broken thumb. And Kelly talked Thursday evening a little bit about the journey Redfield has taken to get there.

“Each kid is a little bit different in the way that football strikes them,” Kelly said. “He’s somebody that I think is looking at football through a different lens and understands that there are so many details to it… He wants to play at the highest level, he wants to play on Sundays. He wants to get his degree from Notre Dame. I think he’s just maturing and developing at a pace that’s comfortable to him.”


DeShone Kizer did more than just survive at Clemson. Can his silver-lining performance trigger a more explosive offense?

With the game on the line and Hurricane Joaquin creating a relentless rain storm, nobody would’ve thought putting the game on the shoulders of DeShone Kizer would be Notre Dame’s best chance to win. Yet that’s what Brian Kelly did, and Kizer very nearly pulled a rabbit out of the hat.

Navy doesn’t play defense like Clemson. While the Midshipmen’s defense is vastly improved (they rank just one spot behind Notre Dame in total defense heading into Saturday’s contest), they’ll be in a physical mismatch for most of the day, relying on turnovers and stops to limit the Irish offense.

But after serving as the unexpected engine of Notre Dame’s comeback last Saturday, Kizer looks capable of doing more than just game managing, especially for an offense that’s averaged seven touchdowns a game against Navy the past four years.

“I just think when you get opportunities to play on the road, leading your team back in the fourth quarter, you gain more of an understanding of a quarterback who’s got to make plays,” Kelly said. “I think we knew he was the guy that could handle the moment, he certainly was able to do that… I think it just added on to the fact that we’ve got a quarterback that can help us win a championship.”


For as challenging as slowing down Navy’s option is every year, Notre Dame fans sometimes forget that Navy’s got to find a way to stop the Irish, too. 

As mentioned just before, Notre Dame is scoring 48.25 points against Navy during their four-game winning steak. And one of the biggest challenges that Navy faces is Brian Kelly the playcaller.

Earlier this week, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo talked about what makes Kelly’s offense so good and why Notre Dame’s head coach is so difficult to stop.

“Coach Kelly, I’ve always admired the way he calls plays. Some play-callers bury their face in their call sheet, but he’s watching the game,” Niumatalolo said. “But if he sees something, he’s going to exploit it. He’s got a great feel for the game. We’ve got to be able to adjust. We’ve got some ideas of what we can do, but he’s going to adjust very quickly to us and we’ve got to be able to adjust.”

Expect Kelly to try and get the ground game back rolling again after a difficult weekend at Clemson. And with veteran safety Kwazel Betrand likely lost for the year with after suffering a broken ankle against Air Force, the back end will be tested as well.

It’s a challenge at every level for Navy. And with Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford keeping the offense moving, it’ll stress the Midshipmen like no other game on their schedule.


Even with one loss, Kelly still thinks Notre Dame controls their own destiny. 

Earlier this week, Brian Kelly hopped on SiriusXM radio with Stephen A. Smith. And while on Tuesday Kelly said he wasn’t sure if a one-loss team could get into the College Football Playoff, he sounded more confident that the Irish still controlled their own destiny when he was talking to Smith.

“After you lose, you’re going to take that bump. That’s really part of it,” Kelly said, sounding unworried about the slide to No. 15. “I think we have a really good football team. We did not play up to the level we’re capable of and you should fall considerably because of it.”

But Kelly thinks the Irish have a schedule in front of them that can allow them to step back into the race. And while it’s still way, way, way too soon to be wondering if the Irish have the schedule needed to qualify without a conference title game, Kelly seemed to think winning out would solve all of those problems. (Even with USC’s Thursday night loss to Washington.)

“The great part of it is that we’ve got a schedule in front of us that’ll allow us to control our own destiny,” Kelly said. “If we continue to play better football and we’re a better football team in November than we are right now, we’ve got a chance to be where we need to be at the end of the year.”



For Notre Dame to win, they need to slow down Navy’s option specialist, record-setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds

Justin Thomas may have gotten all the preseason attention from Irish fans. But Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds is the more dangerous of the option trigger-men. The senior quarterback and leader of the Midshipmen will finish his college career as one of the most prolific players in college football history.

Reynolds has already scored nine touchdowns this season and his 73 career rushing touchdowns tied for second most in college football history, only four behind Montee Ball‘s record. At 25-11, his 25 wins as a starter are the most in Navy history, third most among active NCAA players.

Reynolds saw his first action as a freshman in 2012, thrown into action in Dublin after starting quarterback Trey Miller went down. Looking for his first victory against the Irish, Reynolds cherishes the opportunity to come to South Bend and fight for one.

“I’m excited. Playing at Notre Dame Stadium. I wouldn’t want to go out any other way,” Reynolds said. “It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a tough challenge. They’re a very, very good team. It’s the best team we’re going to see, they’re a Top 10 team in the country, even with a loss.”


This is Ken Niumatalolo’s best Navy team. And he knows it needs to play perfect to beat Notre Dame. 

During this week’s Onward Notre Dame: Mutual Respect documentary, we saw the large photo that hangs on the office wall of Ken Niumatalolo—the chaos and happiness of Midshipmen celebrating after they shocked Notre Dame in 2007, ending a 43-year losing streak.

While Niumatalolo was just the offensive line coach at the time, he acknowledged just how important that victory was to his program.

“For us it was a great accomplishment. I have [the picture] up there because they’re hard to beat and it doesn’t come too often, so we had to relish that one time we beat them in 2007,” Niumatalolo said in the documentary. “A big part of that picture just shows the jubilation of years trying to get over the hump.”

If there was ever a Navy team that’s well positioned to make a shocking statement at Notre Dame Stadium again, it might be this team. Outside of sophomore right tackle Robert Lindsey and sophomore linebacker D.J. Palmore, every starter on Navy is an upperclassman.

The offensive line doesn’t have a man smaller than 275 pounds, a much larger unit than you’re used to from Navy’s standards. The entire backfield is seniors, led by Reynolds but tag-teamed with fullback Chris Swain and slotbacks Desmond Brown and DeBrandon Sanders.

Even with Reynolds and a veteran group of talent, this group knows it can’t afford to make any mistakes, especially in the turnover column.

“It’s priority each and every week. But especially this week,” Reynolds said. “We can’t give them any [turnovers]. They’re very very good on offense, we can’t put our defense in a bind by giving them a short field. We understand the importance of ball security this week and having zero turnovers.”

Defensively, Dale Pehrson has taken over for Buddy Green as defensive coordinator while Green recovers from offseason surgery. With a veteran front seven and some talent on the back end, this isn’t a hapless defense just hoping to capitalize on an Irish mistake, but rather a defense that Kelly said is befitting of a Top 25 team.

Still, it’ll take more than just Niumatalolo’s best team to beat Notre Dame—they’ll need the Irish to falter. But in the midst of a four-game losing streak against the Irish, expect Navy to empty their arsenal to do anything to get a win.

“We’ve had a hard time making the plays,” Niumatalolo said about the last four years. But this is our best defense that we’ve had. We’ll go in there and take a shot at them. They’re really good. Always have been.”


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.”