Tuesdays with BK: Pitt edition


There has been little familiarity for Brian Kelly in the opening five games of the season, as Kelly battled traditional Irish opponents that rarely showed up on the schedules of Central Michigan or Cincinnati. As the Irish prepare to face Pitt this Saturday afternoon, Kelly will square off with a team he’s battled the past three years at Cincinnati.

“I think we both know that we have a good grasp of — they know what we’re going
to do offensively, and we kind of know what they’re going to do
defensively, so I think that’s a wash,” Kelly said this afternoon. “I still think this comes down to who’s better prepared and who executes
better on Saturday, because we know each other so well. They’re like a
conference opponent more than anything else, going into a conference

The fine folks on the video team cut together some highlights from the rest of Kelly’s press conference.


A few thoughts on the presser as a whole:

The Irish coaching staff unearthed a great left tackle in sophomore Zack Martin, who saved a year of eligibility last season.

“When you look at Zach Martin as a first-time starter, each week he sees
new things and maybe doesn’t handle it like a veteran starter, but those
things that he has encountered already, he’s playing at a high level,” Kelly said.
“He’s grading out as our top lineman at this point.”

Before the season started, even Notre Dame wasn’t sure who they had at tackle, as even the university was misspelling his first name (It’s Zack, not Zach). But Martin has been next to invisible at left tackle (a very good thing for an offensive lineman), bringing the Irish their surest blind-side tackle since Ryan Harris took over during his true freshman season.


While much of the preseason hype — even Heisman discussion — went to running back Dion Lewis, it’s another sophomore running back that’s risen to the forefront of the Pitt rushing attack. Ray Graham has been a monster this year, missing the Utah game to open the season, but then racking up nearly 500 yards in three games, including a staggering 277 yards against Florida International last Saturday.

Kelly discussed how the Irish need to keep both Graham and Lewis, a guy that lit up the Irish last year, in check while also making things tough on first-year starter Tino Sunseri, who has top-flight wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin at his disposal.

“You have to pick your spots. I mean, if they know and you know and
everybody what’s watching the game knows that Baldwin is one-on-one the
whole game, that’s not a good situation,” Kelly said. “We have to make Sunseri not
know whether he’s getting help on his receiver, and that’s really the
game within the game, making sure that the quarterback is not sure when
it is double zone or when that corner is getting help on a particular

Putting a physical wide receiver like Baldwin on an island isn’t a recipe for success, while causing as much confusion as possible for Sunseri is, so hopefully the Irish find a way to commit enough man-power to stopping the running game without letting Baldwin make the big plays that killed the Irish last season.


Speaking of Baldwin, he’ll likely be matched up again with Pittsburgh product Darrin Walls on the edge. Kelly had this to say about his senior cornerback.

“He’s been outstanding. He’s been our best cover corner consistently.
He’s played through injury. He’s probably been our most professional and
locked-in player, and I say professional from a day-to-day standpoint,” Kelly said.
“He’s very purposeful in what he does. He’s somebody we can point to in
our senior class and say, that’s mental and physical toughness. He’s
displayed that each and every week.”

And if Kelly had watched the film of Baldwin getting the best of Walls last season, he did his best not to show it.

“Clearly we have a great deal of respect for Jonathan Baldwin, and Darrin
Walls is a pretty good football player,” Kelly said. “I think you’ve probably got —
whether it’s Moss versus Revis, I don’t know if they’ve put it in that
degree, but you’ve got two really good players out there that want to
win. Again, I think within our scheme, he’s going to have to defend him
one-on-one sometimes, and we feel good about that match-up, as well.”


Looking over the stats after last Saturday’s game, I was shocked to see Mark Herzlich barely make a dent in the ledger. Kelly attributed that to a schematic decision and the evolution of Theo Riddick playing as the slot “Z” receiver.

“It’s really about how you’re going to play the box for us, how many guys
you’re going to put in the box,” Kelly said. “If you drop that Sam backer and you
want to put him in the box, Theo is out in space with nobody over him,
and that’s probably not a match-up that teams want.

“So now you take a Herzlich out of the game against BC because he’s got
to stay out over Theo Riddick the whole game. I don’t know if he had a
couple of tackles, but he was effectively taken out of the ballgame. If
we can do that, it allows Armando to run and allows some other things to
occur then he’s doing his job, as well.”

That’s an interesting look at the game inside the game, and could be one of the reasons that Boston College coach Frank Spaziani was so effusive with his praise for Kelly and his gameplan after his team was easily defeated by the Irish.


One thing is for sure: Cierre Wood isn’t in Brian Kelly’s doghouse.

“Here’s why I like Cierre Wood. It seems to be a big topic of
conversation, my sideline demeanor,” Kelly said. “When I went to talk to him about
that play, talk to him about the play, he said, ‘Coach, it’s inexcusable
what I did. I can’t tell you why it happened. That’s ridiculous.’ He
immediately took accountability for his actions. I didn’t say another
word to him. I’m a Cierre Wood fan. We’re going to keep developing that
young man and he’s going to be a good football player. He just needs to
continue to develop, gain more confidence. He needs recognition
awareness. When he sees things, he’s got to go, and he’s still thinking
too much. When we can get that out of him, when he can just react, man,
he’s going to be fun to play.

“I’ll tell you what, he had a couple runs, real hard runs early in the
game, made that mistake obviously, you can’t put the ball on the ground
in a competitive situation. But what I loved about the kid is
immediately it wasn’t, well, I didn’t get the call, I didn’t hear it, I
was getting a little tired, we hear a lot of that around here at Notre
Dame, and we hear about it too much, and I didn’t hear it from Cierre
Wood. And that’s why I’m in his camp and we’re going to keep getting him
to move forward and be a really good player for us.”

Quotes like these are the ones that should have Notre Dame fans very excited about having Brian Kelly as the man in charge. While it may have been coincidental, Charlie Weis never trusted Shaq Evans after he failed to catch the crucial third down out-pattern that Jimmy Clausen threw him against Michigan. The coaching staff never said that Evans didn’t play because of it, but it threw Shaq’s confidence in a lurch as the season continued and likely helped Evans make his decision to transferred after the the initial two-deep depth chart was released.

Kelly’s made it known he’s not going to bury a kid that’s made some mistakes, even if he does get all over his case. That’s likely the difference between a college coach and a coach with an NFL background. In the NFL, if you can’t trust a guy, you get rid of him. With an 85 man roster, Weis was able to simply not use Evans. But Kelly seems to understand that guys like Cierre Wood are going to be important football players for Notre Dame, and burying their confidence is only going to hurt the team collectively. Kelly made it clear that laying the ball on the ground is unacceptable, but he also let everybody know that’ll be watching this press conference — players included– that Cierre Wood is a great football player.

That’s the kind of discipline-heavy leader that’s considered a player’s coach.

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.