Tulsa v Notre Dame

Pregame Twelve Pack: Utah edition


After a much needed week off, here comes another Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to play No. 14 Utah.

1. Let’s get it out of the way.  Michael Floyd isn’t talking about the NFL.

Brian Kelly wouldn’t talk about it, and Michael Floyd won’t either, leaving any decision to be made about the NFL until after the season, when Floyd can get some accurate advice on whether or not staying for his senior season is the best thing for him and his family.

When asked about Senior Day and whether or not this would be Floyd’s last game running out of the tunnel, Mike brushed the question off quickly.

“I never think about it. If that comes to a decision that I need to make, then that’s down the road,” Floyd said. “Right now I’m just trying to look for Saturday and get a big W under our shoulders.”

2. How difficult will it be to get that ‘W’ against No. 15 Utah?

Well, for Charlie Weis, a win against a team ranked in the Top 15 was a pretty tough task. Want a good reason why Weis isn’t on the Irish sidelines right now? It’s his record against teams in the AP Top 15: He was 1-11.

A quick recap:

2005: W against #3 Michigan — 17-10
2005: L against #1 USC — 34-31
2005: L against #4 Ohio State — 34-20
2006: L against #11 Michigan — 47-21
2006: L against #3 USC — 44-24
2006: L against #4 LSU — 41-14
2007: L against #14 ranked Penn State — 31-10
2007: L against #4 ranked Boston College — 27-14
2007: L against #13 ranked USC — 38-0
2008: L against #5 ranked USC — 38-3
2009: L against #6 ranked USC — 34-27
2009: L against #8 ranked Pitt – 27-22
Overall: 1-11

The good news for Irish fans? Weis’ lone victory against a top 15 team was in his first attempt. This will be Kelly’s first shot against a Top 15 team.

3. How legit is Utah’s Top 15 ranking?

Back when the Irish were prepping for Stanford, I openly questioned how good Stanford really was. It turns out they were really good, their only loss coming against Oregon, a team they lead at the half but gave up 28 unanswered second half points as the Ducks ran away from the Cardinal.

Anthony Pilcher over at Clashmore Mike did some statistical digging into Utah, and the results seem to tip the scales back towards Notre Dame. Vegas is also keeping the Irish in this game, with the Irish opening as only a four-point underdog, though it now sitting at 5.5 points.

According to Pilcher, Utah has played the 104th best schedule in college football, while Notre Dame’s ranks 4th, part of why the Irish are still predicted to keep this game within a touchdown, even with Tommy Rees making his first start at quarterback.

4. Even in a doomsday situation, don’t expect to see Andrew Hendrix.

While I didn’t write about it, I was a little bit surprised to hear that Andrew Hendrix was going to be inserted into the three-deep QB depth chart with the injury to Dayne Crist. While Hendrix certainly warranted getting some practice reps after Crist went down, I would’ve been shocked if Kelly ever let Hendrix step a foot onto the field with only three games left in the season.

Turns out, if Doomsday presents itself, it won’t be Hendrix captaining the Irish ship, but walk-on quarterback Brian Costello.

“Brian Castello will play this week,” Kelly said before cracking a joke. “Is it Brian Castello? Good. Got that right.”

Castello and Kelly have quite a relationship, with Castello the head of the “Red Army,” the group of back-up quarterbacks responsible for signaling in the plays to the starting quarterback. It was Castello who joked that he was the player on the roster that drew the ire of Kelly more than anybody else, and he’s never even seen the field. (Kelly also approved Castello as the guy on the team you’d most want to do your taxes.)

When will Andrew Hendrix be ready to see the field?

“I would say right now, I can’t see a situation where Andrew would play in the game,” Kelly said. “It would have to be Army, USC.”

By then, I’d be shocked if Kelly didn’t stick with Castello, saving Hendrix the year of eligibility. Still, these weeks in the depth chart will be illuminating for Hendrix, who walked onto campus as the most physically talented, but incredibly raw scholarship quarterback on the roster.

5. Checking in from Ecuador, it’s freshman safety Chris Badger!

The South Bend Tribune‘s Eric Hansen took to his email account to track down Irish freshman Chris Badger, who is roughly 3,000 miles away from South Bend this weekend, working in Ecuador on a 21-month long Mormon Mission.

This Saturday’s game had to be a tough one for Badger to miss, with it being against his home state Utah Utes. But Badger has his life focused on things much larger than a football game.

There’s no TV in the mission; there are no movies. I honestly am leaving the world behind for two years to serve, to do nothing else but to try and make someone else’s life better,” Badger told Hansen. “It’s more rewarding than I can describe.”

While the timing wasn’t perfect, there’s no faulting Badger for taking his mission, though the Irish could’ve used Badger in a secondary that was decimated with injuries this year.

6. Key No. 1 for the Irish this weekend — play better special teams.

Two weeks ago, a punt return touchdown and a blocked extra point returned for two points were the difference between winning and losing against Tulsa. This week, the Irish prepare to face Shaky Smithson, one of the country’s most dangerous returners.

Kelly was asked what the Irish needed to do to limit explosive returns.

“Two things. Number one, they do a great job building a wall for him and allowing him to get to that wall after he makes the first guy miss,” Kelly said. “He makes that first guy miss, they’ve got a very good scheme that allows him to get to that wall. Our guys have to do a great job of corralling him so he doesn’t get to that wall. If that wall gets set, Utah does a very good job. We’ve got to make sure we do a good job of corralling. There are probably going to be some times where we have to decide whether we’re going to kick to him or not. I think we have to consider all those things within the game plan.”

I’ve been harsh on punter Ben Turk, and I put the touchdown return against Tulsa on him, even if there were four Irish defenders in place to make the play. Turk has got to get better with both hang time and direction of his kicks. While he’s improved since the beginning of the season, he’s been far from consistent kicking the football.

7. Brian Smith, we hardly knew thee.

Outside linebacker Brian Smith will be playing his final home game in Notre Dame Stadium. If there’s a guy on the roster that’s polarized fans more than Smith these past four years, I’m not sure who it is.

Smith shot out of the gates during his freshman season, supplying one of the lone bright spots during a terrible 2007 season after being offered a late scholarship by the Weis regime only after the Irish decided to switch to a 3-4 defense. But from there, Smith plateaued, with his work at inside linebacker in the 4-3 during 2009 far from impressive.

But Smith got a fresh start in Kelly and Bob Diaco’s 3-4 system, and from day one was inserted as the starting field-side outside linebacker. But he failed to keep the job, bumped for Kerry Neal during fall training camp. But after being relegated to a reserve role, Smith has played some of his best football, filling in admirably in the middle of the defense when Carlo Calabrese couldn’t play against Tulsa.

Thursday afternoon, Brian Kelly illuminated on the changes and maturity he’s seen Smith exhibit, a far cry from the person he observed at the end of last season.

“Maybe this isn’t right to say, but I wasn’t a big Brian Smith fan early on,” Kelly said candidly. “I thought he looked maybe a little too much at what he could do instead of what the team could do. I told him today, if I had anything to do with making the decision on a fifth year, which I certainly don’t, I’d be the first one in line advocating for Brian Smith to come back for another year. I would not have said that early in the year.”

Thanks to early playing time in 2007, Kelly won’t have that option, but Smith has three more games — and hopefully a bowl game as well — to continue that evolution.

8. Dan Wenger could try to return for a sixth year of eligibility.

Forget about a potential fifth year for Brian Smith, injured center Dan Wenger is trying to do something even more rare, successfully receive a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA, after missing two seasons with injuries.

The process is hardly a streamlined one.

“Here’s the specifics on how this moves forward: We cannot even file for a request for a sixth year until the end of the season. So even if that thing is postmarked and all done, we can’t turn it in,” Kelly said.

“First it goes to the Big East, and the Big East has to say no, and then it gets pushed to the NCAA. Essentially, they’re going to turn down a request for a sixth (year) unless there are circumstances that warrant it. And there are only about two or three of them. It has to be something that is extraordinary. This will not meet extraordinary. What it will be, did he lose two seasons of competition due to injury? That’s what it will come down to.”

Got that?

Kelly went through one of the more contentious sixth year battles ever, with former Cincinnati quarterback Ben Mauk losing his plea for a final season with the Bearcats, even though he filed a lawsuit to try and overturn the ruling. Wenger case is much more clear-cut than Mauk’s, with Dan sitting out all of the 2007 season with an injury and missing every game of 2o1o with lingering concussion symptoms. If the doctors clear Wenger to play and he and his family weight the consequences, the Irish would be adding some veteran depth to an offensive line that’ll be graduating only Chris Stewart.

9. It’s brotherly love for Tony and Aaron Alford.

In one of those subplots that’ll surely have Alex Flanagan getting some screen time, Notre Dame wide receivers coach Tony Alford will welcome his brother, Utah running backs coach Aaron Alford, to South Bend this weekend, as their respective teams prepare to do battle.

And Alford’s making his family pick sides, laying down an ultimatum to his mother Gloria.

“My mom flew in. She’s sleeping at the house,” Alford said jokingly. “I told her, ‘Listen, if you don’t pick the right team and cheer for the right team, you can stay somewhere else.’ She can stay in Michigan City. I think that’s where Utah stays. She’s more than welcome to stay there Friday night.”

Joking aside, the relationship that Tony has with his brother Aaron is a strong one, with Tony providing plenty of support for his younger sibling.

“He’s done everything on his own merit. He seems to really enjoy what he’s doing, and I can’t tell you how proud of him I am,” Tony said. “I’m more proud of the young man he’s become, just the type of person he’s become.”

The relationship is an illuminating one, and after listening to Alford talk about his younger sibling, there’s no question why he’s renowned as a recruiter.

10. Key No. 2 for an Irish victory? Tommy Rees controlling the turnovers.

While most people would like to see the Irish establish some kind of running game, if Notre Dame is going to win the football game, they’ll have to do it behind the arm of Tommy Rees. Sure, trusting a true freshman to throw the ball to win the game doesn’t always work (see Tulsa for details), but the difference between this Utah team and some of its predeccesors is its inability to force turnovers.

Utah has only forced 14 turnovers, but when they do, they capitalize on them. For Rees to win the football game, he’ll need to minimize the mistakes, while also taking advantage of a surprisingly susceptible Utes defense against the explosive passing play.

Rees has shown the ability to be accurate on short, precision throws. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and his defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, in only his second year, will likely have taken notice of that trend, possibly tempting the Irish to throw the ball down the field. If they do, it’ll be up to guys like TJ Jones and Tyler Eifert to work down the seams, if Utah decides to try and double team Michael Floyd.

11. After spurning them in recruiting, Manti Te’o has a chance to terrorize the Utes in person.

With his Mormon background and Hawaiian heritage, Manti Te’o was an early target of Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, who has stocked his roster full of similar prospects to Te’o. But after initially considering the Utes, Te’o brushed aside the opportunity to play for Whittingham, narrowing down his choices to Notre Dame and USC, before eventually choosing the Irish in a Signing Day upset for the ages.

That didn’t stop Whittingham from singing Te’o’s praises this week:

“He’s a beast in the middle. He is someone  who is playing at a very high level,” Whittingham said.

“We would have loved the opportunity to have him, but he had his five official visits and we weren’t involved. We certainly knew about him and followed him since his sophomore year. There isn’t any team in the country who wouldn’t love to have him. He is just a talented kid, an exceptionally talented kid.”

Te’o’s inclusion in the Bednarik semifinalists is a sign that Manti’s made the leap from good to great this year. What’s even more amazing to consider is the fact that we’ve all seen Te’o miss quite a few tackles and run himself out of his share of plays, indicating a ceiling that has yet to be reached.

Nobody is looking towards next year yet, but with Te’o at one middle linebacker and Carlo Calabrese at the other, the Irish will have their best set of interior linebackers since the Lou Holtz era.

12. Irish fans should hope November 13th is still a magical day at Notre Dame Stadium.

The last time the Irish played on November 13th? Try 1993, when the No. 2 ranked Irish knocked off the No. 1 rated Florida State Seminoles, winning one of the highest-profile college football games ever played.

Jumping out to a 21-7 halftime lead, the Irish held on to beat Charlie Ward and Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles, with Shawn Wooden knocking down a Ward pass as time ran out to ensure a victory.

With Lou Holtz in town earlier this week, I’d be shocked if this day in Notre Dame history wasn’t mentioned to a squad that’ll run onto their home field for the last time this season, hoping to win on Senior Day for the first time since 2007.




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 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.