Pregame Twelve Pack: Stanford edition


Week four of the Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as we head into the Purdue game.

1. Kelly and the Irish are going dark.

You can’t blame me as I’m never at practice, but somebody broke the practice policy for reporting, and as a result media will no longer be allowed inside LaBar Practice complex for the remainder of the season.

The entire system of what was reportable and what wasn’t was kind of vague to begin with, but beat-writers and media members won’t have access to Wednesday practices for the rest of the season. This ban is likely to stop reporting on things like injuries, which as Jim Harbaugh has proven this week, is something some team’s like to play close to the vest.

2. Is Stanford a Rose Bowl contender or paper lion?

We’ll most likely find out in the next three-game stretch, but the $64,000 question really seems to be, how legit is Stanford? While the early returns are certainly promising on the new 3-4 defense, I’m not sold on this group after three games against Sacramento State, UCLA and Wake Forest. From listening to Brian Kelly yesterday, you can tell that he and the staff aren’t quite sure of what to expect either.

“To be honest with you, it’s hard to evaluate them,” Kelly said. “Sacramento State,
the game was out of hand. It as 17-0 early. Got to 28-0 against UCLA. I
can tell you it’s a whole different scheme from last year. They’ve
employed a 3-4 defense and a lot of man to man coverage. They matched up
really well against an offense like Wake Forest, because they could put
nine, 10 guys on the line of scrimmage. They overwhelmed Sac State, and
quite frankly, UCLA, I don’t know what they were doing offensively.
They visited Nevada and put in the pistol offense and I don’t know what
was going on there.

“This will be totally different than what they have
seen, relative to our offense. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a different kind of scheme
for us. It’s going to be a great challenge on both ends.”

3. Looking for a scouting report on Chris Owusu? Try calling Jimmy Clausen.

Owusu will likely be at full-strength this weekend after being held our of the first two games of the season. His two two touchdowns against Wake Forest last week are a reminder that the preseason All-American is one of Stanford’s most explosive athletes. While Notre Dame has seen plenty of tape on Owusu, one person they could call is his high school quarterback, some kid named Jimmy Clausen, who connected for nine touchdowns and 750 yards during Jimmy’s senior season.

If Owusu runs wild against Notre Dame, they’ll only have themselves to blame. The Irish were one of his favorite schools during recruiting, but never came to the table with a scholarship offer.

4. There will be some familiar faces wearing Stanford uniforms this Saturday.

There will be some memories revived for a few Cardinal players, with former Irish football players Konrad Reuland and Nate Whitaker returning to South Bend after transferring from Notre Dame.

Reuland was a highly-touted recruit for Charlie Weis but never found his groove on the Irish roster, transferring out early in the 2007. He’s a big-bodied tight end that’ll be part of the depth chart for the Cardinal.

Whitaker was a walk-on kicker for the Irish, eventually becoming a kick-off specialist in 2007 before transferring to Stanford. He converted over 72-percent of his field goal attempts and was named honorable mention All-Pac-10 last season. Talking about his decision to transfer, Whitaker feels like he didn’t get a fair shake with the Irish.

“To be honest, I have tried to stay away from this but I don’t feel like I got a completely fair chance because of the fact that I was a walk-on,” Whitaker told the South Bend Tribune. “But other people have different opinions on that factor, and it’s up for discussion. But personally I don’t think that I had the fair chance that I deserved.”

Whitaker has certainly proved his worth, coming through with a great season as Stanford’s primary kicker, doing it under the same special teams coach he had at Notre Dame.

5. It’s not just players returning to South Bend…

The Stanford coaching staff also is ripe with connections to Notre Dame, with former special teams coordinator Brian Polian now holding the same position under Jim Harbaugh and defensive line coach Randy Hart back on the West Coast after spending the 2009 season at Notre Dame with Charlie Weis.

Polian spent five years at Notre Dame, recruiting the West Coast for the Irish, making him a pretty logical fit for Harbaugh.

6. How good is Andrew Luck? Well, Mel Kiper thinks he’s pretty good.

ESPN’s NFL Draft guru has just moved Luck to the top of his 2011 Big Board, his projections on the best player available in next year’s draft. Kiper has this to say about the Stanford quarterback: “Great arm, NFL smarts, solid footwork. Prototypical size and intangibles. Checks down with a veteran’s savvy.”

Luck still has another year of eligibility, but if he continues to play great football, it looks like Harbaugh will be replacing the best quarterback he’s coached.

7. Harbaugh playing coy with injury to one of his top receivers.

While Brian Kelly has shown in his first three weeks that he’s pretty candid about injuries, Jim Harbaugh has taken a page out of Bill Belichick’s book when dealing with injuries, specifically one to veteran wide receiver Ryan Whalen, who dislocated an elbow and his highly doubtful to play on Saturday.

When asked at his press conference if Whalen was going to play, Harbaugh went stealth.

“As soon as I tell you, you’re going to tell Notre Dame,” Harbaugh said. “I’d want to know about the status of every player on their team, what percent they are, how many plays they are going to play. That’s valuable information.”

Whalen was wearing a shoulder sling at practice this week, giving reporters an ability to read between the lines.

8. The Tunnel Workers’ Union is a blue-collar bunch.

As Stanford Daily sports editor Kabir Sawhney mentioned, the Stanford offensive line has established quite a reputation. Dubbed “the tunnel workers’ union,” by Stanford fans, Jonathan Martin, Andrew Phillips, Chase Beeler, David DeCastro, and Derek Hall combine to create a formidable running game.

Let’s take a quick look back at their recruiting pedigree — often times a hard evaluation when dealing with linemen.

Jonathan Martin — Three Stars. UCLA and Utah Offers. California native.
Andrew Phillips — Three Stars. Northwestern and North Carolina offers. Maryland native.
Chase Beeler — Three Stars. Oklahoma transfer. Oklahoma native.
David DeCastro — Three Stars. Oregon State and Washington offers. Washington native.
Derek Hall — Three Stars. BC and Michigan State offers. Defense end recruit.

While the group may not wow you with their star-power, it’s another good example that you find great football players in all shapes and sizes.

9. The Irish need to play some solid red zone defense.

That’s because Stanford looks like a juggernaut in the scoring zone, going 19-for-19 thus far on the season, with a staggering 16 touchdowns. What makes a team like Stanford so dangerous close to the goal line is a solid running game and a mobile quarterback that is also accurate, two traits that make Andrew Luck very valuable. For the Irish to win this football game, they’ll need to punch in their own opportunities, as well as hold the Cardinal to field goals instead of touchdowns.

10. Look for the Irish to make a big play on special teams.

Last week’s fake field goal is a gigantic stain on a special teams group that prides itself in being one of the best in the country. Kelly and special teams coordinator Mike Elston have put the troops on notice that things better turn around quickly.

“We’ve taken our lumps on some effort things, more so than we have
schematically. Obviously one of things I mentioned earlier in the week,
I didn’t like the effort of some of the veteran players on special
teams,” Kelly said. “This has been more of a, look, this is your last shot or you’re
not going to go to BC. I’m not putting you on the bus —
if you’re the third string whatever position and you’re not giving us
great effort on special teams, then I’m just going to leave you home.
This has been more challenging our players to play at a higher level.”

11. The defensive line will be front and center on Saturday.

It’ll be mass-on-mass up front, with the winning line likely dictating the game. Defensive linemen Ethan Johnson, Ian Williams, and Kapron Lewis-Moore know they’re up for a challenge. When asked how Stanford compared against the Irish’s two previous opponents, Lewis-Moore saw some subtle differences.

“I feel like Stanford is a mix of Michigan State and Michigan, the way
the offensive line plays,” Lewis-Moore said. “The offensive line, they’re moving in space.
Michigan State is coming straight at you.
Stanford, they can do a combination of the both. They’re fast, quick,
have good pad level. They’re going to try to knock us off the ball. I
think it’s going to be a great challenge for us.”

The front-three will need to stay on their feet, and take advantage of their opportunities to make big plays in the backfield.

12. Irish need to break a very ugly streak this Saturday.

Talk about a trend that needs to be reversed: The Irish have lost 10-straight games against top-20 opponents. Four of those games have come inside Notre Dame Stadium.

This is the highest-ranking the Cardinal have ever had when they played Notre Dame, and the Irish are a 4.5 point underdog according to Las Vegas, a number that might not make sense for people that look at the Irish record and Stanford’s three-game start. The good news for Irish fans? Brian Kelly is 8-2 against ranked opponents, so it looks like something has to give.


How we got here: Roster Attrition

Rees Golson Kiel

There is the team you recruit and then the team that you coach. And for Brian Kelly, the team he could be coaching certainly isn’t the one that’s taking the field.

Turnover on the Notre Dame roster is by no means exclusive to the Kelly era. For as long as you’ve likely been following Irish football, players have been coming and going–often times sooner than four or five years.

But as we look at the sources of this disappointing season, how this became Notre Dame’s youngest roster since 1972 is worth a look. Because as Brian Kelly struggles to win with a team that’s playing a stack of underclassmen while his fourth and fifth-year classes are all but gone, it’s amazing to see the attrition that’s struck this roster, especially considering this should be when the Irish are feeling the benefits of their national title game appearance.

From fifth-year candidates to sophomores, 20 signees have left the Irish program. That includes transfers, dismissals, withdrawals, injuries or walking away. (It doesn’t include leaving early for the NFL.)

The talent drain has taken big names and small, included five-star prospects like Gunner Kiel, Eddie Vanderdoes, Greg Bryant and most recently Max Redfield. It’s featured shortened career of projected 2016 starters Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson, and shown the bad luck the Irish staff has had bringing in pass rushers.

Let’s look at how this team got so young.


Gunner Kiel, QB — 5 star
Tee Shepard, CB — 4 star
Davonte Neal, WR — 4 star
Will Mahone, RB — 3 star
Justin Ferguson, WR — 3 star

Recap: The second phase of Brian Kelly’s star-crossed quarterback run came after Gunner Kiel transferred after a redshirt season, leaving before Everett Golson was declared academically ineligible. Had Kiel stuck around, who knows what would’ve happened. The departure of Tee Shepard was also costly, the highly-touted cornerback never dressing for the Irish after his early enrollment didn’t help clear up academic issues that seemed to plague him for the rest of his football playing career.

Neal reemerged at Arizona, moving to the defensive side of the ball. Mahone’s high-profile dismissal came after an ugly incident in his hometown of Youngstown, but resulted in a life-changing turnaround. Add in the early departures (though successful careers) of Ronnie Stanley and CJ Prosise and you begin to see how this group certainly accomplished plenty, but left a ton on the table.


Greg Bryant, RB — 5 star
Max Redfield, S — 5 star
Eddie Vanderdoes, DT — 5 star
Steve Elmer, OL — 4 star
Corey Robinson, WR — 4 star
Mike Heuerman, TE — 4 star
Doug Randolph, DL — 4 star
Rashad Kinlaw, DB — 3 star
Michael Deeb, LB — 3 star

Recap: This group could’ve redefined the roster. While Bryant and Redfield never played up to their potential before being cut loose from the university, a front-line defensive lineman like Vanderdoes would’ve changed the complexion of the Irish defense.

Below the radar, the losses of Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson certainly hurt more than we expected. Neither were breakaway talents, but both more than good enough to been veteran starters on a team that clearly needed a few more of them.

The bottom half of this list almost stands out just because they were big swings and misses. With the Heuerman, Kinlaw, and Deeb, the Irish took shots on a few less-than-elite names and came up empty, with Heuerman and Deeb never able to shake off injuries before eventually going on medical hardships. A big recruiting class coming off a historic season, this group had plenty of success, but could’ve been more.


Nile Sykes, LB — 3 stars
Grant Blankenship, DE — 3 stars
Kolin Hill, DE — 3 stars
Jhonathon Williams, DE — 3 stars

Recap: Four defenders, four front seven players, three pass rushers. When Irish fans wonder where the pass rush is, it’s misses like this that end up really hurting. Sykes, Hill and Williams were hardly national prospects. Blankenship was an early target with modest offers, though a strong senior season brought interest from Texas.

Hill’s pass rush skills were evident from his situational use as a freshman. His departure left a hole, and he’s now the second-leading tackler behind the line of scrimmage for Texas Tech. Sykes never made it onto the Irish roster, and is now the sack leader for Indiana. Williams is now in the mix at Toledo, a reach by the Irish staff who saw him as a developmental prospect.


Mykelti Williams, DB — 4 star
Jalen Guyton, WR — 3 star
Bo Wallace, DE — 3 star

Recap: Three wash outs that seemed like promising prospects when they committed. Williams was especially important, a key piece at a position of need who is now reviving his career at Iowa Western CC. Guyton is also taking the Juco route, the leading receiver at Trinity Valley CC in Texas. Wallace is an edge rusher now at Arizona State, never making it to campus after Brian Kelly spoke highly of the New Orleans prospect on Signing Day.


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

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.