Aaron Lynch Blue Gold

Projecting the freshmen


With a tip of the cap to Frank over at UHND.com and as we get ready to embark on another fun offseason exercise of projecting the Top 25 players on the Irish roster, I wanted to follow up on his series that’s been going on here, here, here and here.

In what likely will be something we can look back on and chuckle, I’ll attempt to pick my rookies that’ll likely make the biggest impact on the 2011 season. And just because Frank came up with the idea and I obviously need to advance his original thought, I’ll get crazy and rank the 23 incoming freshman in order of their impact on the season.

Because this isn’t picking teams in gym class, I’m going to avoid ranking these guys from 1-to-23, but you’ll see where I’m going with this one rather quickly.

Without further ado, here’s a quick projection of what we can expect from the Irish rookies. (With the very large asterisk signifying my right to change my opinion, groupings, and thought process whenever I want to.)

Group One: See you at Training Table

This group can basically be lumped together, as I don’t expect any of them to use a year of eligibility. Again, this doesn’t mean I don’t think they won’t become big-time players (ask Harrison Smith what redshirting did for him), it just means that these guys will likely spend the season on the scout team.

Brad Carrico, OL — The debut commitment of the 2011 signing class and an early-enrollee will likely see incredible physical gains during his year watching, learning and eating.
Nick Martin, OL — With his older brother holding down the blind side, Martin can follow the family plan by redshirting a season then hopefully stepping into the starting lineup.
Conor Hanratty, OL — Terry’s son will definitely benefit from Paul Longo’s weight room and a few extra meals at training table.
Tony Springmann, DE — He’s got the size to potentially be a mammoth individual, I just don’t see Springmann breaking into the two-deep at defensive end yet.
Matt Hegarty, OL — He might be highly touted, but Hegarty will likely spend his freshman season facing off against the Irish’s No. 1 defense — pretty good practice.

Group Two: Don’t hold your breath, but intrigue awaits

Whether it’s a stacked depth chart or some needed development, there’s a good chance we won’t hear any of these names, but they could just as easily turn into a Kona Schwenke-like player, coming out of nowhere to make a difference. At the very least, they might be special teams candidates and earn a letter.

Chase Hounshell, OL/DL — Something about this kid strikes me as fierce, and his ability to cross-train on either side of the ball has me thinking he might work his way onto the field.
Anthony Rabasa, OLB — Rabasa might not grab the eyeballs like some recruits, but this kid played elite football in an elite league, a good recipe for early success.
Troy Niklas, OL/DL — Call it West Coast bias, but there’s something about this lanky Orange County product that’s intriguing right out of the gate.
Jarrett Grace, LB — He’s walking into a crowded depth chart, but Grace has an All-American ceiling, something I won’t say about many recruits.

Group Three: So you’re saying there’s a chance…

In honor of Lloyd Christmas, Group Three either fills a need for the Irish or is good enough to have the coaching staff find a role for them. Sure, they might not turn into freshman All-Americans, but expect to hear Tom Hammond or Mike Mayock gushing over one of these guys relatively soon.

Ben Koyack, TE — The Irish have a great depth chart in front of him, but Koyack’s the real deal with the ball in his hands. If he puts in the time this summer gaining some good weight, he’ll have every chance to add some weaponry to the tight end position.
Josh Atkinson, DB — He’s got nice height, good speed, and great bloodlines, I just don’t know how ready Josh is to contribute on a very good defense with an excellent (but thin) secondary.
Kyle Brindza, K/P — That rocket that’s replaced Brindza’s leg hopefully will give the Irish a jolt, both in the kickoff game and in punting.
Jalen Brown, DB — It’s hard to know what someone brings until they’re on campus, but Brown’s got the speed to contribute early on in special teams.

Group Four: Expect to hear these names

They might not turn into instant stars, but expect to hear from this group in the same way you heard from Prince Shembo. Brian Kelly will find a way to get the player, and his talents, onto the field.

Eilar Hardy, DB — The safety depth still isn’t great, and Hardy could add some athleticism to the mix.
Matthias Farley, WR/DB — Raw athlete was singled out by Brian Kelly for being the potential sleeper of the freshman class. He’s 6-foot-4 and 200-pounds. His spot might be the red zone.
Ben Councell, OLB — With both Shembo and Danny Spond impressing, Councell might not have much of a role in the two-deep, but the lanky linebacker could be a terror on special teams.
Ishaq Williams, OLB — Call me crazy, but Williams might not see the field all that much this year. Sitting behind Darius Fleming and potentially a guy like Steve Filer, Williams could really learn a lot of football, even if it’s from the bench.
Everett Golson, QB — I think Golson will beat out Andrew Hendrix for the three-spot, but I don’t know if Dayne Crist (or Tommy Rees) will let him make much of a difference. Golson brings some much needed athleticism to the position and a nice change of pace.
Cam McDaniel, RB — If anything, McDaniel might walk onto campus as the best punt returner on the roster. (Something the Irish are clearly in need of getting fixed.)

Best Bets for Breakout

My failed attempt at an alliteration does give us a few great candidates for major immediate impact. If these guys deliver on what recruitniks drooled over, then Irish fans are going to be very happy with this group dominates as soon as early September.

Davaris Daniels, WR — His athleticism seems to jump off the screen when you watch him, but his lack of experience at wide receiver might hurt. That said, if he’s a quick learner, expect a trio of Michael Floyd, TJ Jones and Theo Riddick starting things out with guys like John Goodman, Deion Walker and Davaris Daniels breathing down their necks.
George Atkinson, RB/WR — Atkinson played in the Army All-American game as a safety. He’ll likely tote the football at Notre Dame, or pass catches depending on what the offense needs. His versatility could mean a lot to the Irish offense.
Stephon Tuitt, DE — We didn’t get a chance to see him this spring, but the man is the size of a redwood tree. If Tuitt comes into camp in shape, he’ll be playing quite a bit of football.
Aaron Lynch, DE — Come on, did you think it’d be anyone else? Lynch’s transcendent performance in the Blue-Gold spring game has people thinking the Irish have their first true pass rushing threat since Justin Tuck.

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.