Pregame Twelve Pack: Michigan edition

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Round two of the Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers, or miscellaneous musings as we into towards the Michigan game.

1. Mother Nature might be playing a factor in this one.

Maybe it was Rich Rodriguez’s premonition during his Tuesday press conference, but it looks like rain for South Bend this Saturday. Here’s what Rodriguez said about his recollection of Notre Dame Stadium.

“It’s an intimate setting, just like the Big House,” Rodriguez said Tuesday. “You’re in a confined area. It seems like it always rains when we go down there, I don’t know what the forecast is. The few times I’ve been there it seems like it’s always raining and the grass is usually high. Because of the rain, I guess.”

Tossing Rodriguez’s dig of the field aside, the weather is going to be a factor on Saturday and the Irish are already preparing for it.

“Today we did a wet ball drill in (special teams), in particular because
the snapping, punts, field goals, things of that nature,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “Wet ball in
7-on-7, we did that in camp. We have to play in the elements. You have
to practice them. but I don’t think I over-coach it. I think we have
great balance in our offense and defense that if we have to take shape
differently during the game because of the elements, we’ll do that.
Thirteen years of being on Lake Michigan at Grand Valley State, I think
I’ve seen every kind of weather pattern that’s blown through here.”

2. With Jamoris Slaughter limited, walk-on Chris Salvi is the next man in.

Much of this week has been dedicated to looking at the thin depth chart in the Michigan secondary, but with Jamoris Slaughter being held out unless it’s an emergency situation, walk-on safety Chris Salvi now serves as the primary back up for Zeke Motta.

Want the dish on Selvi? How about this blast from the past from the suburban Chicago newspaper the Daily Herald on November 9th, 2007.

Salvi is a two-year starter for the 9-2 Corsairs, who
will take on De La Salle Saturday night in the Class 7A quarterfinals. A
cornerback turned safety, he’s become a focal point of the defense with
his textbook tackling and hard hits.

He ranks second on the team with 93 tackles. He also has
4 interceptions, a sack and a blocked punt against Notre Dame that he
recovered himself and ran in for a touchdown.

“Last year, Chris had a good year, but this year he’s
had a breakout year,” Carmel coach Andy Bitto said. “Part of it has to
do with the fact that he switched from cornerback to safety and safety
seems to suit him a lot better. He’s great against the run and he’s the
kind of player who really loves to hit people.

“But the other part of it is that Chris has worked so
darn hard to improve himself and establish himself on this team. He was
in the weight room so much over the summer that I had to practically
kick him out. I think I’ll be able to use him as an example for many
years about what you need to do to really get ahead. This is a kid who
is just extremely motivated to do his best.”

Brian Kelly’s confidence in Salvi seemed to be similar to that of Carmel coach Andy Bitto.

“I’m good with four and Salvi is a real solid player for us. He’s on all of our (special teams),” Kelly said. “He’ll be our fifth guy and we’re not afraid to put him in the game if we have to.”

3. Barry Gallup Jr. filled the role of Denard Robinson this week.

No word on whether or not Gallup actually laced up his shoes, but he did take the scout team reps at quarterback, trying to replicate the offensive prowess of the speedy Michigan quarterback. He might not have the top-end jets of Shoelace, but Kelly was happy with the work he did.

“You can pay attention to pursuit angles, how you’re working in
different levels defensively, and not have a guy who’s 4.3, 4.4,” Kelly said after practice Thursday. “Though I will say Gallup did a nice job running that offense for us, because you
get banged around a bit running the ball as much as he did.

4. The Irish just added a much more visible sign of tradition to the football offices. Seven of them.

Brian Kelly added some serious hardware to the lobby of The Gug this week, bringing in the school’s seven Heisman Tropies to be displayed alongside a National Championship trophy and a bronze bust of the Four Horseman. Kelly’s rationale was simple:

“The tradition here can be talked about all we want and it can be read
about, but you can also see it tangibly when you walk into this football
facility now,” Kelly said. “Obviously, with the national championship trophy on
display, it’s real when a recruit or an alumnus or a former letterwinner
comes in. You can tangibly see the success of Notre Dame. It’s not just
what was talked about.”

5. That tradition will be on display for some pretty impressive recruits.

The Irish welcome a nice collection of recruits to South Bend for the big game against Michigan. Irish fans better hope that the potentially stormy weather doesn’t wash a few of the uncommitted targets away.

Some of the expected visitors that are still being recruited by Notre Dame:

      George Atkinson, WR
      Josh Atkinson, CB
      Wayne Lyons, S
      Stephon Tuitt, DE
      Maty Mauk, QB (2012)

Here are the recruits already committed to the Irish that will join them in South Bend.

      Kyle Brindza, K
      Jalen Brown, CB
      Brad Carrico, DE
      Jarrett Grace, LB
      Eilar Hardy, S
      Justice Hayes, RB

Wayne Lyons is a five-star prospect that has just about every team in the country chasing him. The Atkinson brothers are also a pair of prestigious national recruits, and Stephon Tuitt has offers from SEC powers like Georgia, Florida, and LSU. With scholarships opening up with the departure of Derek Roback and Shaq Evans, this weekend could be a big one.

6. Looking for the last time Brian Kelly squared off with Rich Rodriguez?

November 17, 2007. Pat White and the No. 6 West Virginia Mountaineers survived a fourth quarter run by Kelly’s Cincinnati Bearcats, and held on to a 28-23 victory. Ben Mauk (Maty’s older brother) led the Bearcats with 323 yards passing and two touchdowns, as well as paced the rushing attack with 52 yards on 15 carries. Pat White and Steve Slaton both had 100 yard days, with White getting 27 carries for 155 yards, and Slaton ran for 103 yards on 23 carries.

7. Looking to see how Kelly’s offense has done against a Greg Robinson defense?

After holding Cincinnati offenses to 22 and 17 points in Greg Robinson’s first two seasons coaching at Syracuse, the Bearcats exploded for 52 points in Kelly’s first match-up against the Orange in 2007, scoring double-digit points in each quarter, on their way to racking up 544 total yards.

In 2008, a week after handing Notre Dame a 24-23 loss on Senior Day, Cincinnati coasted to an easy 30-10 victory over the Orange in what was Greg Robinson’s final game as head coach of Syracuse. Tony Pike did most of the work, throwing for 272 yards and two TDs, with the Bearcat defense also forcing two turnovers.

8. ND’s offensive line vs. UM’s defensive line could be the story.

Michigan’s secondary may be a mess, but this game will be won or lost in the trenches for the Irish. The Wolverine defense played pretty stout against a UConn running attack that many thought was lethal. Mike Martin, Greg Banks, Ryan Van Bergan and Craig Roh will be the main threats battling Zack Martin, Chris Stewart, Braxston Cave, Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever.

The 3-3-5 system of Greg Robinson and Rich Rodriguez relies on bringing pressure from different places, so if Ed Warinner’s group can identify who is coming and where he’s coming from, there should be holes up front to run between, and time for Dayne Crist to dissect a porous secondary.

9. Dayne Crist will have the opportunity to play a breakout game.

How big of a deal is Dayne Crist? Even though he only joined Twitter in June and has exactly one start as a college quarterback, he’s got over 2,750 Twitter followers already. In fact, Crist’s right arm even has its own Twitter page, with “The Cannon” starting to rack up followers all around the Notre Dame blogosphere.

Crist played a solid game, completing 73 percent of his throws for 205 yards and a touchdown, but he missed on two or three more explosive plays, including potential touchdowns to both Kyle Rudolph and Michael Floyd (twice). Crist will need to harness some of the emotions and energy that maybe had him missing some easy opportunities last Saturday. If he does that, expect a very nice day from Crist. And his right arm. (They can both tweet about it later that night…)

10. This is a big game for defensive line coach Mike Elston.

Elston played football for the Wolverines, lettering from 1994 to 1996 as a linebacker. After his playing career he worked in the football department for four years, starting as a camp coordinator his first two years, then climbing to the ranks of graduate assistant in 1999 and 2000.

Elston had to leave Ann Arbor to get a full-time coaching position, and went to Eastern Michigan, before joining Kelly at Central Michigan in 2004. The two have been together ever since. This will only be the second time Elston has faced off against his alma mater since he began coaching over a decade ago. The first was a 41-17 loss in 2006 when Central Michigan was beaten by a Michigan team that would walk into South Bend the next week and blow out the Irish.

11. Denard Robinson certainly announced his presence with authority.

In his first start, Denard Robinson set a Michigan record for most yards rushing for a quarterback, with 197 yards on 29 carries. His 19-of-22 passing moves him to second all-time on the Michigan lists for completion percentage in a single game behind Elvis Grbac. Robinson’s 383 total yards is the sixth-highest total yardage mark in Big Ten history and the top mark for the Wolverines in school history.

Even more bizarre, while Robinson may have burst onto the scene with his performance against UConn, he led the Wolverines offense in rushing last year with 351 yards on 69 carries last year, averaging 5.1 yards-per-carry and scoring 5 touchdowns.

12. Coach worth watching? Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.

The opening performance by the defense against Purdue was impressive, but if Diaco really wants to earn the adoration of Notre Dame Nation, he’ll need to orchestrate an equally-impressive performance against Denard Robinson and the Michigan offensive attack.

Diaco discussed what the defense needs to do to stop Robinson.

“It’s a real challenge,” Diaco said. “All we’re going to do is do the best that we can in selecting from the menu of installation that we have, preparing the players mentally, focusing on the nuts and bolts of defense in terms of block destruction, tackling and effort. Then they need to just clearly know their assignment and do their assignment the whole time.”

Kelly already hinted earlier this week that the Irish wouldn’t send a lot of pressure after an option quarterback. We’ll see what Diaco has in store for Michigan Saturday afternoon.

 

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Duke

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Anthony Nash #83 of the Duke Blue Devils runs for a touchdown during the second half of a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s move was emphatic. Brian VanGorder’s departure confirms that a 1-3 record is unacceptable. And the demise of this team was as swift as the departure of a colleague Brian Kelly has known for the bulk of his 25-plus year coaching career.

But that’s the job. And the move likely wasn’t easy for a head coach who saw himself as close to tenured as any man this side of Lou Holtz had been, and is now clearly in uncharted territory.

“I’m under review, as well,” Kelly acknowledged on Sunday afternoon. “We’re all in this together: All the players, coaches, everybody. So players’ jobs are on the line. Every job is being evaluated as the players. All coaches’ jobs are on the line as well.”

With Greg Hudson now directing the defense, and Syracuse having run more offensive plays than every program but three, the challenge this weekend is stark. So let’s move forward ourselves and finish off the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter WilliamsBrian Kelly gave him credit, so let’s start there. Williams ran hard, looked explosive and flashed on special teams.

It’s time for Williams to get some more reps, even if it means taking away from Josh Adams’ leading load as well as Tarean Folston‘s.

 

Donte Vaughn. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback wasn’t perfect—he got beat inside a few times on slant routes that everybody in the building saw coming. But he came up big and made a play, something Notre Dame’s defensive backs haven’t done since Shaun Crawford went down for the season.

His length and cover skills should be put to the test again next weekend when Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo looks to replicate his monster 270-yard performance against UConn. The focus will be on Cole Luke, Vaughn, Julian Love and Nick Coleman.

 

Kevin Stepherson. The freshman only caught three balls, but all of them were big gainers,  including his beautiful 44-yard touchdown catch. With Torii Hunter unable to push the lid off opponents, Stepherson might be a better fit for the X moving forward, assuming he continues to learn the playbook and run precise routes.

 

The Weather. Looked like a heckuva day in South Bend, at least from a weather perspective.

 

THE BAD

The tackling. That was one of the worst tackling performances I can remember. Especially against a team that was anemic on offense heading into the weekend. Name a defender and you’ll recall a missed tackle.

Drue Tranquill held on to a few early, then had some ugly whiffs. Cole Luke, a guy Brian Kelly called the team’s smartest football player last week, sure looked lost a few times, too. And with hopes that Devin Studstill is the answer at free safety, Studstill did his best to make us wonder about that, too. He took some horrific routes to footballs, a difficult day at the office for a young kid who needs to learn quickly.

When your senior captain outside linebacker is getting run over by a quarterback for a first down and you’re thinking, “at least he made the tackle,” the bar has been lowered pretty significantly. But another week of “thudding” at practice might be needed—even with heavy installation coming soon.

 

The special teams. A missed field goal proved costly. So did some horrific tackling and coverage on the kickoff return that let Duke back into the game. And for the fourth time this season, Tyler Newsome flubbed his first kick of the game. (All but asking for the nickname Mulligan to emerge.)

Scott Booker has a ton of kids on his run teams. But they’ve got to get some consistency out there if they want CJ Sanders to help turn this into a positive, not another unit to hide.

 

The pass rush. Yes, the drought is over, with Nyles Morgan getting the first sack of the season for the Irish. But man—this team has a gigantic hole on it and finding any type of pass rush is critical.

Sure, Duke’s quick passing game took advantage of the Irish’s leaky secondary and didn’t let Notre Dame get to the quarterback. But at this point, every snap you’re giving Andrew Trumbetti over a kid who can get to the quarterback—Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, or anyone—feels lost.

 

The coaching. Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said the following, when asked about an evaluation of his defensive coaching and game plan.

“That’s probably the one area that I feel better about today. We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today,” Kelly said.

That was likely a time-buyer until a long night of thinking, because morning brought clarity for the head man.

 

THE UGLY

The State of the Program. With the game tied 28-28 heading into the fourth quarter, one team was jumping around like they’d won the lotto. The other was all but biting their fingernails, kicking dirty and looking lethargic.

If anything set off Kelly postgame—even more so than the defense his troops were displaying—it was the lack of effort.

“There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth,” Kelly said. “You’re playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it’s work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.

“There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s where we got to go.”

In Kelly’s first few seasons in South Bend, he was criticized for having his team celebrate victories, even the ugly ones. But somewhere this program lost track of the ultimate goal and that likely falls on the head coach to fix that problem as soon as possible.

 

Firing a staffer. Notre Dame’s head coach likely saw what many of us saw as well. But a decision like that from the cheap-seats is one thing, a decision from inside the program is another.

Follow Notre Dame long enough, and you’ll tire of thinking about the carousel that’s come and gone—Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis, armies of loyal assistants who have spent years working to climb the summit. And for most, life after Notre Dame isn’t the same.

Sure, there’s Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong. But there are a few dozen others who have come to a program with noble ambitions—willing to do it right and win on and off the field—but they fail too often on Saturdays.

So as ND Nation almost united in celebration of the move, it’s worth a quick word to a fanbase that always fashions itself as possessing proper etiquette.

Few come to your office and celebrate the worst day of your professional career. Less dig into your family’s Twitter account, hoping to break a story or confirm news they celebrate jubilantly. Sure, some of that comes with the territory. And certainly VanGorder was well compensated for his time in South Bend.

But ultimately, this Sunday hopefully provided some perspective. Baseball lost one of its brightest young stars. Golf lost one of its icons. And many many more things of consequence took place—inside the sporting world and out.

But when it comes to VanGorder, a quick reminder of something that has nothing to do with sports. A man has lost his job. A family will uproot once again. And the dynamics on the current football team—where Montgomery VanGorder still plays an important role—won’t ever be the same.

“I will tell you this: Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there. He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn’t working.”

There should be no harm in that.

VanGorder out as defensive coordinator

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)
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Brian VanGorder has been fired. Notre Dame’s third-year defensive coordinator was relieved of his duties after just four games.

Brian Kelly made the move official Sunday morning, less than an hour before his weekly Sunday teleconference. He’s replaced VanGorder with defensive analyst Greg Hudson, a former Notre Dame linebacker who joined the Irish staff in June and spent the last three seasons as defensive coordinator at Purdue, a position he also held at East Carolina and Minnesota. The rest of the defensive staff remains unchanged.

“Obviously, this is a difficult day for our coaching staff, but I’m excited and honored about the opportunity that Coach Kelly has afforded me,” Hudson said in the team’s statement. “We’ve got to improve on defense, without a doubt, and I’m confident that we will. We have great student-athletes and a tremendous defensive coaching staff. I can’t wait to get started with our group.”

The VanGorder era ends with the Irish ranked 101st in scoring defense, 96th in rushing defense and 87th in pass defense. The Irish are dead last in sacks, the last FBS team to get one when Nyles Morgan finally got the team’s first sack against Duke.

Hired after Bob Diaco left Notre Dame for the head job at UConn, VanGorder brought with him an NFL system and a multiple, attacking scheme. But after injuries derailed his first season, it was a defense best known for its maddening inconsistency, with even last season’s talented outfit plagued by the big play and mistakes.

As late as Saturday night Kelly pledged allegiance to his defensive coordinator, calling the staff’s game plan the least of his concerns after the 38-35 loss.

“We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective,” Kelly said.