Brian Kelly - vs. Michigan

2011 could be the year… Now with stats to back you up


I’m a few days late linking to Bill Connelly’s season preview of the Fighting Irish, but I can always blame the research needed to simply understand what Connelly is actually talking about for the delay.

Connelly is part of the wonderful team at, taking “innovative statistics and intelligent analysis,” two things that always trump the standard blow-harding that comes along with this time of year when people try and project who’s going to be good and who isn’t in the upcoming season.

I’ve done my best to ignore the fact that Notre Dame is a “consensus” preseason No. 12, if only because Notre Dame’s inclusion in preseason magazines and rankings rarely ever comes true. But when somebody actually takes the time to show WHY the Irish have the potential to be a very special football team, well — that deserves a second look.

Do yourself a favor and read Connelly’s entire preview. But here are a few tidbits I found incredibly interesting:

* Dayne Crist vs. Tommy Rees: It’s easy to look at the team’s record under Crist and the Irish’s record after Rees took over and to come to the conclusion that Rees played better. Even if you compare their stats, which are pretty similar, you’d think a spotless W/L record would give Rees the lead heading into fall camp.

But Connelly breaks down the numbers and shows that the Irish offense was actually better with Crist at the helm — with the Irish offense averaging 30.3 Adj. PPG with Crist and 26.7 Adj. PPG with Rees.

Both hovered around the national average of 27.1, but taking opponent into account, the offense performed slightly better with Crist at the wheel. (This despite the fact that running back Cierre Wood began to thrive late in the season as well, further aiding Rees.)  The Irish very much won games with defense over their final third of the season, and while Rees didn’t get in the way, Crist was the slightly more well-rounded option in terms of yards per pass, touchdowns-to-interceptions, and run threat (he’s not exactly Tony Rice, but he had 165 pre-sack rushing yards). I assume the starting job will be Crist’s when all is said and done, though Rees and evidently Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix all still have a chance to sway the coaches.

While you wouldn’t have known it by watching the Blue-Gold game, I heard nothing but good things about Crist’s work during spring practice. Brian Kelly is going to stay mum about it for obvious reasons, but I suspect it’ll be Crist leading the Irish come September 3 against USF.

* Look out for the Irish defense. While some people still want to think differently, Bob Diaco did an outstanding job with the Irish defense. Even more impressive though, was Chuck Martin’s work with the secondary. Guiding a secondary that needed to forget a really ugly statistical season, Martin and Diaco helped the unit perform a 180, even more incredible when you consider they lost a starter in the season opener and played with only two healthy scholarship safeties for most of the season. Still, Diaco probably won’t be fully embraced until he shows he can stop the Navy option, but after that dreadful day, the defense was transformed.

The only time they gave up more than 14.3 Adj. Points in the last five games was against Miami in the Sun Bowl, and in that game they took a 30-3 lead before the Hurricanes got rolling. Theirs was potentially the best defense in the country after their humbling loss to Navy on October 23, and it is the primary basis for what will be some pretty strong College Football Almanac 2011 projections. Which is odd considering defense hasn’t been the strongest feature for Kelly’s teams in the past. So consider this a huge nod in the direction of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, whose 3-4 alignment evidently fits the personnel very well.

Rarely do you see a position coach do such a good job with his unit and lose responsibility, but that’s what happened to Martin, who gave the cornerback coaching duties to Kerry Cooks. But don’t worry about Martin, he’ll have his hands full as recruiting coordinator and will likely have even more say in the weekly packages installed this season.

* Irish will improve at blitzing. One final note that caught my eye — Connelly makes mention of the defense saying, “Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense almost had the statisticaly profile of a 4-2-5 — not great in attacking situations, but reacting, swarming, and preventing big plays…”

What’s interesting is that the Irish actually did slide into a 4-2-5 when they went to four down linemen, something I imagine they’ll do much more this season, with guys like Aaron Lynch, Steve Filer, and Ishaq Williams capable of bringing heat on the pass rush.

For as well as the defense played last season, I’m guessing the Irish want to be more effective when blitzing the passer. With the move of Prince Shembo to an outside linebacker spot opposite Darius Fleming, the Irish have two guys with elite pass rush ability standing on the edges of the defense, giving Diaco the ability to confuse a defense far better than he could last year, when Kerry Neal and Brian Smith weren’t great pass rush options.

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.


Irish suffer first recruiting defection with Donovan Jeter


After five losses, Notre Dame suffered their first consequence of a poor season in recruiting. Donovan Jeter, a four-star defensive lineman, has stepped away from his verbal commitment.

Jeter made the news public on Tuesday, taking to Twitter to send Irish fans into a tailspin.

The sky isn’t quite falling. Jeter called the Irish his top school, likely just getting ahead of the news that he’ll start taking official visits to other schools, something Notre Dame’s recruiting staff has worked well to slow down the past few cycles. Also helping the Irish’s cause is his proximity and connection to fellow Western Pennsylvania prospects David Adams, Kurt Hinish and Josh Lugg.

Still, after making it through last recruiting cycle without a defection, finding a way to win back Jeter is priority No. 1, a versatile defensive lineman who had an elite offer list and picked Notre Dame after basically dismissing them over the summer. The Irish have done it before, getting Stephon Tuitt back in the fold after Georgia Tech sold him on staying home. They won a battle with current defensive coordinator Greg Hudson when he was at Florida State for Aaron Lynch, though Lynch only lasted a season in South Bend.

Usually a decommitment—especially this time of year—isn’t ground for a news story. But as all eyes focus on Brian Kelly and his grasp on the Irish program, this serves as ammo for those looking for cracks in the foundation.


Jeter posted a Tweet that essentially confirmed my speculation. And also should serve as a reminder—DO. NOT. TWEET. AT. RECRUITS.