Pregame Twelve Pack: Sun Bowl edition


We get teary-eyed just thinking that this could be the last of these monsters for nine months. But before we crack a cold one to celebrate (ice pack for my hands, that is), here are twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to play Miami at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.

1. The Irish defense will have a chance to prove it truly is ‘B.I.A.’

At first, there were chuckles among fans when they heard the Irish defense took to barking ‘B.I.A’ — Best In America — when they frenetically ran around the practice field. What an optimistic goal, many thought, without ever considering it could actually become (even close) to true.

Maybe it wasn’t all that far from the truth it turns out. Sure, the Irish defense only clocks in as a Top 40(ish) defense, but Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune points out a few very impressive trends when you look at Notre Dame’s defense in the season’s final month.

Projected over an entire season ND’s November numbers would place it as the nation’s No. 4 rushing defense (93.3 yards per game), No. 6 in third-down defense (31.3 percent conversions), No. 2 in first downs allowed (12 per game), No. 2 in total defense (233.3 yards per game) and No. 1 in scoring defense (7.3 points a game).

And passing defense? The Irish haven’t allowed a 200-yard passing performance since Oct. 16 against Western Michigan and didn’t allow a passing TD after Halloween. The only rushing TD they’ve yielded since the Oct. 23 Navy meltdown came on a four-play, two-yard drive by USC.

Statistically speaking, Miami is the fifth best offense the Irish will face, behind Tulsa (#5), Michigan (#6), Stanford (#14), and USC (#27). If Diaco’s troops can hold strong, there might be some truth to the BIAs we hear come spring practice.

2. Regardless of the defense, the Irish need some offense out of Tommy Rees.

Any full blown quarterback controversy was effective cooled in the Coliseum, where Tommy Rees played like a true freshman in hostile territory, making some bad decisions with the football in the second half before driving the Irish down the field for a much-needed victory.

But if the Irish are going to win tomorrow, they’ll need Rees to limit the mistakes he made when the Trojans dropped seven men into coverage. Offensive coordinator Charley Molnar talked about the post-USC Rees, and what the coaching staff did to prepare him for the Sun Bowl.

“He did struggle a little bit, some of that was due to the big arena we played in and the talented defense we went against,” Molnar said. “Really what we did at the beginning was just get Tommy’s confidence back, and went back to basics, did things he really felt comfortable with. And then we slowly but surely installed the game plan as the week went on. He’s had really a good 12 days of practice so far.”

Last week, head coach Brian Kelly admitted that the offense was “in flux” and simply doing anything it can to win football games. For the Irish to beat the Hurricanes, they’ll need Rees to do more than just limit turnovers.

“Tommy has to be part of the equation,” Kelly said. “We can’t go in there and say things like, well, he just has to distribute or he just has to manage the game. Tommy has to play well. and if we’re to win this football game, he has to use the experience he had as a starter and go play the game the way he’s capable of.”

3. With one quarterback injured, Hurricanes will ride Jacory Harris.

Miami interim head coach Jeff Stoutland had been playing coy with his choice at quarterback, repping both freshman Stephen Morris and junior Jacory Harris until Morris injured his ankle earlier in the week during practice in El Paso. While Morris’ ankle is “way better than we thought he would be,” according to Stoutland, he announced this afternoon that Harris will get the start.

According to Bob Diaco, the Irish won’t change their strategy depending on what quarterback plays, but if they’re looking for a blueprint on how to shutdown Harris, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster gave it to them last year. (Courtesy of EDSBS)

So what did they do? Play soft coverage and hope Harris made some mistakes? Revamp the offense to catch Miami’s speedy defense off guard? No. Foster and Beamer basically said f— it, we’re going after Miami. That early fumble by Jacory Harris that set up the Hokies’ first touchdown? Well they did what I said they wouldn’t be able to: Foster dialed up a hide-the-children, all-out, man-to-man blitz with no free safety with the cornerback, Dorian Porch, coming off the short side of the field. (Miami was in a three receiver set with a tight-end backside. Foster put two guys to this backside: one played the tight-end in man coverage and the other, Porch, just blitzed, and of course Harris never saw him.)

This sounds like a Jon Tenuta-approved recipe for defense, but Diaco’s been far more disciplined with his use of blitzers. Still, expect to see Robert Blanton, who has shown a great knack for coming off the edge, to hear his number called quite a few times.

4. The Irish secondary will have its opportunities to make plays.

Regardless of what quarterback starts, the Irish secondary should have plenty of opportunities to make plays. Now that we know it’s Harris, he’s shown a propensity to make some very bad decisions against good passing defenses, which Notre Dame certainly qualifies as.

In Harris’ three games against Top 30 passing defenses, he’s completed only 53 percent of his throws for 6.6 yards an attempt, throwing seven touchdowns, but eight interceptions.

On the season, the Irish are giving up only 6.2 yards an attempt, good for 19th in the country, only nine touchdown passes, which is 4th in the country, so if the Hurricanes throw the ball, Chuck Martin’s boys better be ready.

“We won’t do anything outside of our working system,” Diaco said when asked about taking advantage of interception-prone quarterbacks. “We’ll operate within our framework as far as how we call defense and how our players play structurally inside of it. As the game unfolds, then we’ll see where it goes.”

5. The Sun Bowl brings in two teams in opposite directions.

On paper, many see this match-up favoring the Hurricanes. But a look at the state of each program shows that these two teams are trending in very opposite directions.

The Irish are playing for their first four-game winning streak since the 2006 season that saw Notre Dame rip off eight straight wins. They’ve done it behind a resurgent rushing attack and elite defense.

Miami enters having lost three of their final five games, including ugly losses to Virginia and South Florida, the finale all but costing Randy Shannon his job. More uniquely, the Hurricanes will be playing a football game that their head coach won’t have anything to do with, as Al Golden is merely observing the Hurricanes while he gets started recruiting, the only lame-duck/new incumbant coaching situation of the bowl season.

6. The Brian Castello, king of the Red Hats, get another moment in the sun.

It turns out those triumphant final snaps walk-on quarterback Brian Castello took in the Irish’s final home win over Utah were only the beginning. Now he’s got a guest spot at the South Bend Tribune, running the “Red Hat Diaries.” (Not to be confused with the shoes…)

In his three different entries, Castello has talked about the opening night talent show, which featured an original piano score by freshman linebacker Danny Spond, the difficulties of picking properly at the Hyundai Gift Suite, where Castello scored a 22-inch flat screen, and going through weapons simulations at Fort Bliss, where Castello lit up 21 targets with a military assault weapon.

They’re entertaining reads and give you a great idea of what bowl week is actually like for players that both hit the field and roam the sidelines.

7. Darrin Walls, Notre Dame will miss you.

It’s the final start for cornerback Darrin Walls, who walks away from Notre Dame on a high note after a up-and-down career. Walls came to South Bend one of the top defensive back recruits in the country and went toe-to-toe with All-American Calvin Johnson as a true freshman. But Walls played unspectacular football on a miserable 2007 team, spent the 2008 season away from the team due to personal reasons and played just average in 2009, managing only one interception.

But Walls’ senior season has been a different story, and Bob Diaco had high praise for his graduating cornerback.

“Darrin is a benchmark for professionalism,” Diaco said. “He is someone you can point to on any given day to say this is how you come to work, this is how you come to meetings, this is how you look when you’re on campus, this is how you conduct your business. He’s clean cut, he looks good, he wears nice clothes. I don’t know whether he has the approach that any given day he might meet someone that can change his life, so he better be ready for it. But that’s how he operates and conducts his business. He’s going to be very successful in whatever he does.”

Walls is the only member of the secondary out of eligibility, but he’ll leave big shoes to fill both on and off the field.

8. Ian Williams, Notre Dame will miss you, too.

After injuring his knee against Navy, Ian Williams will be back on the field for the final game of his career against his home state Hurricanes, a school that didn’t think Williams was worthy of a scholarship offer.

“I think it’s going to be fun,” Williams said. “I’ll be glad to be back and the team is very excited. I’m 100 percent right now. I feel great.”

With Williams back in the fold, it gives the Irish an interesting dilemma — incorporating their best defensive lineman into a unit that’s played their best football without him. It doesn’t sound like a problem Bob Diaco seems to worried about.

“There’s no disruption of chemistry,” Diaco said. “The players know exactly where everyone fits all the time. That’s our core belief. That’s how we operate. We communicate clearly every day with the players as it relates to where they stand. The vision is clear, so there’s no backdoor, behind-the-scene conversation. As it relates to Ian, there’s no loss of chemistry. We’re excited he’s back. he’s got an opportunity to play in his last college game. He was able to grind it out and work hard to get himself back on position to be healthy enough to contribute.”

Williams comes back at a perfect time, as the Irish defense will be facing another stiff rushing offense, with Miami the seventh Top 30 rushing offense the Irish will face this year.

9. Notre Dame fans will get their first look at Seantrel Henderson.

Once the apple of every Notre Dame fans eye, the Irish will finally see gargantuan freshman right tackle Seantrel Henderson on the field.

While Henderson initially considered Notre Dame during the high-stakes recruiting process, many Irish fans thought they’d get their first look at the 6-8, 360-pound freshman against USC, where Henderson initially pledged his commitment. But after the NCAA hit USC with major sanctions, Henderson decided to take his talents to South Beach too, where he’s started nine games for the Hurricanes, even though he joined the team late in preseason drills.

Called Miami’s “Great Wall of China” by quarterback Jacory Harris, Henderson has spent the week talking with fellow Cretin-Derham Hall graduate Michael Floyd, who counseled Henderson during the hectic recruiting process.

The Irish will send Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ian Williams and Darius Fleming against Henderson, who bookends with senior left tackle Orlando Franklin to form a formidable duo.

10. Both Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph have received their NFL grades.

And that’s about all we really know about that.

“There are so many different factors that go into making that decision,” Kelly said, as if he read the 1200 words I wrote about Floyd’s decision yesterday. “All I can tell you is, as the head football coach, I’d love to have them both back. We’ll be able to get clearer information as to what their status is in the next week or so.”

Last year, both Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate made the announcement that they’d be forgoing their senior season on December 7th, which was incredible early, considering the Irish weren’t playing in a bowl game. That early decision, coupled with the fact that neither went to the NFL Advisory Board, is a good example of not doing your homework, which is something that both Floyd and Rudolph hopefully are doing.

Floyd and Rudolph leaving early is one of the necessary evils that come along with recruiting elite prospects to your football program and I know most of us would take a multimillion dollar job offer after our junior year, especially if we were on track to still get our diplomas. That said, leaving early for a late second round contract isn’t the optimal use of early entry.

From the sounds of it, we’ll find out soon enough whether or not Rudolph or Floyd will be playing for the Irish in 2011.

11. The Irish offense will have Theo Riddick back at full strength.

If you’re looking for a quarterbacks best friend, Theo Riddick should qualify. And for the first time since Tommy Rees took the reins of the offense, he’ll have Riddick in the slot at full strength, who Brian Kelly plans to utilize.

“You’ll see a much more expanded role for him in this game,” Kelly said. “He hasn’t been part of our game plan for over two months. He’ll be an integral part of what we do.”

The Irish offense lost a huge component when Riddick went down with a severe ankle sprain against Western Michigan, and while the Irish bulked up their running game to counter his loss, Riddick’s return could also help the ground game, both by quick handoffs to the speedy slotman and by spreading the Miami defenses splits.

12. Robert Hughes, this Sun Bowl could be for you.

Earlier in the week, offensive coordinator Charley Molnar gave an insight into why it took running back Robert Hughes so long to get consistent carries this year.

“As we went through spring ball and summer camp, he ran like he was a 172-pounder,” Molnar said, more than hinting at a problem that’s plagued the senior running back.

Somewhere in the middle of the year, the light switch flipped on, as Hughes took his garbage time carries against Western Michigan and reminded both the fanbase and the coaching staff that the senior anvil was a weapon worth using down the stretch.

“I wanted to play,” Hughes said. “That was the tipping point.”

Coupled with the loss of starter Armando Allen, Hughes emerged as the ‘boom’ in the Irish offense, nowhere more evident than in the Irish’s game-winning drive against USC, where Hughes trucked his way through a Trojan defense that was gasping for air.

Kelly made it clear that both Hughes and Riddick will have “expanded roles” in the Sun Bowl, meaning that if the Irish are going to establish the running game needed to help Tommy Rees, they’ll do it behind the power running of Hughes, playing his final game in a Notre Dame uniform.

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.

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 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.