Robby Toma

What to take from the Blue-Gold game


The 27,863 fans that paid to see the Blue-Gold game in person might be thawed out and dry by now. For the rest of you that either skipped the festivities or watched on TV, trying to quantify what you saw and reach some conclusions might be a little difficult.

First, let’s cross off a few of the easy ones. Notre Dame has four intriguing quarterback options, all of whom are good enough to start for a BCS program… eventually. The Irish also have three legitimate kicking options, with Nick Tausch and Kyle Brindza putting together impressive performances. Lastly, Aaron Lynch looked pretty good out there, even if he still is a work-in-progress.

Here are a few other thoughts worth chewing on after re-watching Saturday’s game.

1. Even with a shaky Saturday, Dayne Crist is still the leader in the clubhouse for the starting job.

Sure, that short-hop throw to Theo Riddick gave many of you the twitches. But Crist looks much more stable in the offense, and that 5 for 11 wasn’t as ugly as it semi-appeared. Is Dayne as accurate as Jimmy Clausen (or even Brady Quinn)? No. But his command of the offense is much better than it was last year, and Crist’s struggles on Saturday were often because his receiver wasn’t on the same page — a page Crist was correctly on.

While it was nice to see both Hendrix and Golson flash brilliance, it’s clear right now that Crist and Rees give the Irish the best chance to win. Rees’ day — specifically his struggles controlling the slick ball and his poor read on Lo Wood’s interception — were a reminder that Tommy isn’t quite ready for prime-time either.

2. Dan Fox inserted his name into the middle of the middle linebacker conversation.

Fox has always been an intriguing candidate, but never much of an option because of his inability to stay completely healthy. But his seven tackles tied for a game high with Danny Spond and Aaron Lynch, and he was incredibly active from his middle linebacker position.

The depth at middle backer, whoever takes the spot next to Manti Te’o is an intriguing lot, with Carlo Calabrese the starter, but by no means a clear leader over Fox and Kendall Moore. You can easily add David Posluszny and Justin Utupo to that list, and I was really impressed with the freshman’s physicality.

3. Bob Diaco wasn’t showing his hand on Saturday.

Blink and you missed these guys: Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ethan Johnson, Darius Fleming, Gary Gray, and Harrison Smith. (I’m not counting Manti Te’o, who Kelly allowed to play on the punt team.)

Diaco has always played things close to the vest, but Saturday he filled his secondary with walk-ons and rolled into a vanilla coverage just about every play, relying on the strength of his front-seven players to keep the Irish offense at bay on a sloppy day.

Still, Kelly said everything he needed to after the game.

“When you go into the Fall and you feel like your defense is going to be able to stop the run and play the ball in the air, that is pretty good feeling,” Kelly said.

4. The wide receivers need a little work. The tight ends are good to go.

Regardless of weather conditions, I was hoping to see more from Theo Riddick and TJ Jones. Jones was playing nicked up with a bum ankle and Riddick was still in the midst of a (potentially temporary) transition to Michael Floyd’s receiver position. Still, it’d have been good to see one of the quarterbacks take a shot down field, especially against a mostly walk-on secondary. Robby Toma looked good in the slot, and Deion Walker finished up a strong spring with five catches for 56 yards.

While the wideouts underachieved, tight end Alex Welch impressed in his first real performance in front of Irish fans. Mike Ragone also had a nice catch to open the game in the slot, adding another complement to Tyler Eifert, who could be an All-American candidate this season. With Ben Koyack coming to campus this summer, those are four solid options at the position, taking some of the pressure off the receivers.

5. The young secondary is coming on strong.

For worried Irish fans, seeing Lo Wood step in front of a Tommy Rees pass and make a savvy play had to be reassuring. Just as important, Bennett Jackson looked like a natural at cornerback, making a few big hits and seeming at home on the opposite side of the ball. Ditto for Austin Collinsworth, who spent a ton of time as the only scholarship DB on the field, covering plenty of ground and making quite a few plays.

6. There’s a punting battle brewing between Ben Turk and Kyle Brindza

It’s no secret that Ben Turk struggled last year, both in terms of hang time and distance. With a strong wind, Brindza averaged 42.7 yards on his kicks while Turk averaged 40 yards per kick, with one of Turk’s punts the beneficiary of some nice roll.

From all reports, Brindza is still learning and his operation time needs some work. But special teams coach Mike Elston knows he needs more out of his punter and I expect Turk and Brindza to battle well into the fall.

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.