Aaron Lynch Blue Gold

Five things we learned: The 82nd Blue-Gold game

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The good news? Notre Dame won, with the Gold beating the Blue 17-14. The better news? Nobody got hurt. The best news? The kids are going to be alright.

If you were looking to draw conclusions after the spring game, you might be out of luck. Like last year, the Irish didn’t play a defensive front that they planned on using this fall. Incumbent quarterbacks Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees spend more time with rain panchos on than helmets. And walk-on running back Patrick Coughlin nearly led both the Blue and Gold teams in carries, swapping jerseys early and often, a sign that the coaching staff wasn’t willing to take a chance getting either Cierre Wood or Jonas Gray injured.

Still, there’s plenty to be gained from the rain-soaked 82nd playing of the Blue-Gold game, which gave audiences a good look behind the curtain of a Notre Dame football program on the rise, thanks to the open-microphone Brian Kelly wore for Versus.

Let’s take a look at the five things we learned in the Gold team’s 17-14 victory, in front of 27,863 rain-soaked, die-hard Notre Dame fans.

1. Freshman Aaron Lynch might be the best pass rushing recruit the Irish have brought in… ever?

Don’t laugh. Sure, the talented freshman is a long way from going down in the Irish record books, and somewhere Beano Cook is chuckling about a preposterous statement like this. But looking back at the modern era of recruiting, there hasn’t been another player like Lynch to sign with the Irish.

Manti Te’o was a five-star everything, but he was a middle linebacker. Victor Abiamiri was a top-ten, blue-chip recruit, but he always profiled as a power defensive end. Nobody knew Justin Tuck would become one of the NFL’s most dangerous players when he signed as a long and lanky three-star linebacker out of Kellyton, Alabama.

Lynch dominated the Blue-Gold game, taking advantage of freshman like Christian Lombard and seniors like Trevor Robinson alike. He led the game with seven tackles, led the game with 1.5 tackles-for-loss, and certainly led the game in quarterback hurries, planting Andrew Hendrix on his back early and often.

Understanding that the expectations could get out of control, Lynch wasn’t made available to the media after the game. But the blogosphere is already abuzz about the 18-year-old’s performance, and even Brian Kelly struggled to temper his enthusiasm.

“He’s a good football player,” Kelly said. “The one thing that he did today is he went against our first offensive linemen, he went against Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever, and we thought that would tamp down the expectations, too. But I’d also like to give him credit for what he did.”

Quarterback Andrew Hendrix, the receiver of Lynch’s torment, was a little less diplomatic.

“I told him after the game that I can’t wait to see him do that to other quarterbacks,” Hendrix said. “It was pretty painful.”

What Lynch did was raise a bar that already started sky high. Something Irish fans (not to mention the coaching staff) have to be very happy about.

2. The Irish defense will be dynamic on the edge.

Taking away what Aaron Lynch did, it was a very good day for the edge of the defense. With Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Darius Fleming all but taking the day off, the defense built depth at defensive end, but more importantly had great performances from nearly every outside linebacker that took the field.

Danny Spond and Prince Shembo, both fighting for the starting ‘Dog’ linebacker position, had seven and six tackles respectively. Shembo did a nice job playing in space while Spond looked fluid in coverage and also made a tackle for a loss. Ishaq Williams made five tackles in his Irish “debut,” working effectively at the ‘Cat’ linebacker position with Fleming watching. And while Steve Filer didn’t fill up the stat sheet, he came off the edge hard as a pass-rusher, nearly notching a few sacks on some very mobile quarterbacks.

It’s remarkable to think that in one calendar year Kelly and his staff have taken one of the biggest liabilities on the roster and turned it into a strength. Again, we weren’t going to see anything Diaco and Kelly didn’t want us to see, but expect some dynamic rush packages on the field come autumn with guys like Lynch, Shembo, Fleming, Williams and Filer getting after the quarterback, maybe at the same time.

3. The Irish rushing attack will evolve in season two.

It’s no surprise that the leading rusher for both teams was a freshman quarterback. Andrew Hendrix bulldozed his way to two touchdowns, running for 42 yards on five carries while Everett Golson had a game-high 74 yards on 11 carries, dazzling fans with a highlight reel 23-yard scamper that evoked shades of Fran Tarkenton.

Kelly kept both young quarterbacks live, and each defense took its turn teeing off on the signal-callers. While the passing game for each was a work-in-progress, the Irish showed their ability to incorporate the quarterback into the spread-option game, something Kelly didn’t have the luxury of doing last year.

“Obviously for me, and what I’m used to, it’s a comfort level in terms of play-calling,” Kelly said. “But we’re going to make it work whoever the quarterback is. I think it’s pretty clear that we saw that they had the ability to do both, and that’s pretty exciting when you’re in the spread offense.”

On a windy and wet day, it’s hard to judge where any quarterback is throwing the football. But both Golson and Hendrix had flashes of rock-solid play, with Hendrix’s two-minute drill at the end of the first half giving him the opportunity to unleash a couple of big-time throws. Golson had a sloppy fumble and turnover, but he also showed a comfort level in the pocket and in the spread that most early-enrollees couldn’t imagine.

Running the ball with the quarterback — regardless of what quarterback is on the field — will be an added element in the Irish offense. But also expect to see a big jump in production from Cierre Wood, who took great strides in his first spring as the starting tailback.

“I like the way Cierre looked,” Kelly said of his running back. “Confident in running the football is the way I would describe him. He was confident and decisive in his decisions. If he couldn’t hit it at the front door, he was going to bend it back.”

Wood only had seven carries, but his 39 yards came in chunks. Expect bigger things out of the running game both from Wood and No. 2 Jonas Gray.

4. The Irish defense finally has the physicality of a BCS-caliber defense. 

If you were looking for big collisions, I offer you Louis Nix’s tackle of walk-on running back Patrick Coughlin. Working through multiple blocks, the 345-pound freshman defensive tackle put a very large shoulder into Coughlin, popping the backs helmet off his head and knocking him into next week.

Nix is an abnormally large defensive tackle and looks the part of an NFL’er right now. Keeping him in the game continues to be the biggest challenge for the coaching staff.

“Louis Nix, our concern is how long can he play at that level?” Kelly said. “Because when he’s out there, he’s a pretty good football player. He was today. We’ve just got to continue to develop his work volume.”

If it looks like Notre Dame’s defense is bigger than seasons past, it’s because it is. Consider that the projected starting 2011 defense, even with one less defensive lineman, is 205 pounds heavier than the 2006 defense. (Numbers courtesy of JRT)

2011 (3-4 alignment)          2006 (4-3 alignment)
Louis Nix, 345                           Trevor Laws, 283
Ethan Johnson, 300                 Derek Landri, 277
Kapron Lewis-Moore, 295        Victor Abiamiri, 270
Darius Fleming, 250                Chris Frome, 262
Prince Shembo, 250                Joe Brockington, 220
Manti Te’o 255                          Maurice Crum, 220
Carlo Calabrese, 245               Travis Thomas, 209
Zeke Motta, 215                       Chinedum Ndukwe 210
Harrison Smith, 214                Tommy Zbikowski, 210
Robert Blanton, 196                Ambrose Wooden, 193
Gary Gray, 195                         Mike Richardson, 188

Total: 2,755 lbs.                       Total: 2,550 lbs.

If you’re looking for a reason to believe that the Irish can play dominant defense, here it is. Three NFL sized defensive linemen? Check. Big, strong, physical linebackers? Yep. In the past, it was the front-seven of the Irish defense that didn’t physically stack up. Not anymore.

5. After a few quiet weeks, the Irish struck gold in recruiting.

Even with weather most elite recruits would run from, the Irish coaching staff got a major commitment from Maryland’s Ronald Darby, who some are calling the fastest recruit Notre Dame has signed since Raghib Ismail. Darby was joined by commitments Nicky Baratti and long-snapper Scott Daly, all three priorities for the Irish coaching staff.

Both Darby and Baratti are listed as athletes by the major recruiting websites, but Darby walks in as a cornerback and Baratti as a safety. Daly is a 6-4, 230-pound long snapper, a position the Irish almost brought in last recruiting cycle, even with tight numbers.

Darby spent most of his time on the sidelines with fellow Irish commitment Tee Shepard, giving the Irish a cornerback duo that any college would take. With more than a dozen other prospects on campus this weekend, recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin and player development head Dave Peloquin continue to bring in elite recruits, with Darby having offers from Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Michigan (among others) while Shepard turned down USC, Miami, Auburn and Alabama for the Irish.

If last year’s position of need was defensive end, this year’s roster needs an infusion in the secondary, and Shepard, Darby and Baratti are three great additions.

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Kelly goes back to basics with defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

THE GOOD

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

THE BAD

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

THE UGLY

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There should be no harm in that.

VanGorder out as defensive coordinator

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)
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Brian VanGorder has been fired. Notre Dame’s third-year defensive coordinator was relieved of his duties after just four games.

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

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

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

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

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

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