manti-teo getty images

Counting down the Irish: Analyzing the top five

6 Comments

This is the sixth installment of “Counting down the Irish,” our annual ranking of the Top 25 players on Notre Dame’s roster. Click here for our ratings of players 25-2120-16, 15-11, 10-6, and 5-1.

The list is out. And thanks to our team of panelists, here’s the Top 25 players on the Notre Dame roster as they head into 2011 camp. Again, we reserve the right to be completely wrong.

If you’ve got complaints, direct them here:

Frank Vitovitch of UHND.com
DomerMQ of HerLoyalSons.com
Eric Murtaugh of OneFootDown.com
Matt Mattare of WeNeverGradute.com
Matt & CW of RakesofMallow.com

2011 IRISH RANKINGS

25. Taylor Dever (OT, Sr.)
24. Chris Watt (OG, Jr.)
23. Zeke Motta (S, Jr.)
22. Aaron Lynch (DE, Fr.)
21. Carlo Calabrese (LB, Jr.)
20. TJ Jones (WR, Soph.)
19. Louis Nix (NT, Soph.)
18. Braxston Cave (C, Sr.)
17. Tommy Rees (QB, Soph.)
16. Prince Shembo (OLB, Soph.)
15. Trevor Robinson (OG, Sr.)
14. Ethan Johnson (DE, Sr.)
13. Dayne Crist (QB, Sr.)
12. Tyler Eifert (TE, Jr.)
11. Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE, Sr.)
10. Robert Blanton (CB, Sr.)
9. David Ruffer (K, Sr.)
8. Theo Riddick (WR, Jr.)
7. Cierre Wood (RB, Jr.)
6. Darius Fleming (OLB, Sr.)
5. Gary Gray (CB, Sr.)
4. Zack Martin (LT, Jr.)
3. Harrison Smith (S, Sr.)
2. Manti Te’o (ILB, Jr.)
1. Michael Floyd (WR, Sr.)

Only two points separated Michael Floyd (147) from Manti Te’o (145). After that, there was a significant drop-off to Harrison Smith, and Zack Martin, Gary Gray, and Darius Fleming were separated by a collective three voting points. If you’re looking for the guys that the group found really polarizing, the widest variances were Trevor Robinson (Matt had him rated 3rd, DMQ had him unranked), Dayne Crist (Matt had him rated 4th, DMQ had him unranked), and obviously David Ruffer (DMQ put him at No. 1, while Matt had him at 21.)

After looking over the list, I posed some questions to the group. Here are some of their answers, one set only in haiku form. (Ed. Note: Frank was traveling and unable to participate. I didn’t want you guys to think I thought his answers stunk.)

ANALYSIS

Gary Gray really elevated his play under Chuck Martin and Kerry Cooks. While Robert Blanton and Gray will anchor the cornerback spots, in 2012 it’ll be an almost entirely new secondary. What young cornerbacks do you see stepping up?

Eric @OneFootDown —I think Lo Wood will be a serviceable backup, in that he will play better than most believe he will. After that, I think three freshman will fight hard with Bennett Jackson and try to see some time. If Eilar Hardy doesn’t start out at safety he should be pushing hard for playing time. Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson will also be in the mix. Ideally, all of these players would get experience in 2011, although it might not be feasible.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — I’m a huge Eliar Hardy fan. He pledged to Notre Dame early in last year’s cycle and got lost in the shuffle thanks to the roller coaster recruitments of Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, and Ishaq Williams, but this kid is a stud with the versatility to play corner or safety. The lack of depth will mean he’ll be thrown into the fire right away and those reps will go a long way in getting him the necessary experience for when he’s locking down one side of the field in 2012.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow
There’s no substitute
For a sure-tacklin’ fifth-year
Well, maybe Darby

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — Um… pass?  It’s not that I don’t think someone will step up, it’s just that I don’t like the prospects. Or, really, I don’t like the waiting. Gray and Blanton already play at a very high level. It’ll be a damned miracle if whatever comes next isn’t a serious downgrade for at least a season.

Zack Martin came out of nowhere to anchor the offensive line. Who is the lineman that comes out of nowhere in 2011?

Eric @OneFootDown —I think it has to be Chris Watt just because he hasn’t seen a lot of playing time but he played really well last year when he did. Likely to be anchored next to another great linemen in Zack Martin at left tackle, Watt should really thrive in his first full season as a starter.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate— Well the easiest and clearest candidate to me is Andrew Nuss. No, he’s not new, but at the end of spring he was listed ahead of Chris Watt at the guard spot opposite Trevor Robinson which was a huge eyebrow raiser. It’s not as if Watt had  a poor spring–by most accounts he actually had a very good one–Nuss just played that well.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow
Ten was Martin’s year
Almost all back for ‘leven
Heggie twenty-twelve?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — [Insert joke here about offensive linemen sneaking around on tip-toes. ] Despite the loss of Chris Stewart, 2011 should really serve as an “establishment year” for the OL. Everyone on the line knows their job and should know it well, within Kelly’s system. I think there’s less opportunity for surprise this year.  That said, I missed the questions about Trevor Robinson last week, so let me say this: I sure hope he comes back to being the Trevor Robinson we knew and loved before last year. Either he was completely confused in 2010 or/and he had one hell of a nagging injury. Trust me on this: go look back at games where ND had a successful running game, marvel at how little Robinson participated in that success.

Harrison Smith has seen his reputation elevate significantly in one calendar year. Let’s say the Irish season ended with Ronald Johnson catching the long pass against Smith and Harrison didn’t have a career day against Miami. Would he be the third best player on the roster?

Eric @OneFootDown —Highly doubtful, although we’d probably be talking about Harrison as a very solid safety coming into 2011 which, when you think about it, is still a significant jump in performance from his rather awful sophomore season.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate— I’m not a fan of this sort of hypothetical simply because there’s no reason to put a negative spin on situations. What if Southern Cal would’ve converted all those opportunities when Tommy Rees turned it over in Irish territory? What if Manti Te’o’s knee injury against Miami would’ve been serious? What if Harrison was actually playing receiver for the Canes like Jacory Harris thought he was?

Would Smith be considered the third best player on the roster with these stipulations? Probably not. But Johnson did drop that pass and he did have that career day against The U. Those two instances didn’t define Smith in my eyes; what defined him and landed him his high ranking was the fact that he bounced back after a Clifford Jefferson-esque disaster of a 2009 campaign and became the defensive leader many pegged him to be.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow
With a RoJo catch
And a warmer El Paso
We’d be ’bout Motta

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — No, but that’s what happened, and so he is. Maybe in some alternate universe Harrison Smith is a 3rd string DB at Vanderbilt, I’m richer than Bill Gates, and Notre Dame has a reputation as a party school, but that’s just not the case.  Harrison’s rise may have been slightly less meteoric if, say, Miami’s passing game weren’t reminiscent of playing catch with my 8 month old, but even before that moment (and even before the Souther Cal game), Harrison was already making big strides. His play improved steadily as the season went on, and even if you took away his 13 credited tackles in the final 2 games of the season, he’d rank among the top 3 tacklers on the squad.

We’ve all seen Manti Te’o’s athleticism on display. We’ve all seen him miss a few tackles. What’s a realistic projection for his junior season?

Eric @OneFootDown —The realistic projection is for Te’o to be the best linebacker in the country. He will have a very good set of linemen in front of him, he’s very experienced for a true junior, and his defensive coordinator was one heck of a linebacker in college. What’s more, the linebackers and specifically the middle linebackers are a key focal point in this 3-4 defense and Te’o has all the ability in the world to be the best at his position in the nation.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — Te’o’s on the way to superstardom. Right now, he’s the best Notre Dame linebacker since Courtney Watson and by the end of the year you’ll be able to mention him in the same breathe as Stonebreaker, Bolcar, and Lynch. He’s that good.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow
The sky, the heavens
The moon, the stars, Ray Lewis
Not to oversell

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons— I wont project, but I do hope for wisdom. And Te’o’s certainly talked a good game when it comes to appreciating the need for wisdom. More than a few times last year he saw the opportunity for the big hit, wiffed, and gave up a big play (or, at least, big enough to suffer another set of downs for the opposition). I hope Te’o’s gained the wisdom to see more opportunities in big plays, rather than big hits, and applies all that natural ability to excellent technique in 2011. If he does, there may not be a lot of tackles left for the rest of the Irish.

Obviously, Michael Floyd’s inclusion on this list means we’re all confident he’ll be playing for the Irish this season. Assuming he gets through this year without any off-the-field incidents, what should Michael Floyd’s legacy at Notre Dame be?

Eric @OneFootDown — With another productive season I think Floyd will be in the discussion for the best receiver in school history. We’ll always talk about his injuries and the fact that he played with Clausen and in pass happy offenses, but if he keeps ups the same productivity we’ve seen in the past it will be tough to argue with four years of more or less dominance when he’s on the field. If Floyd has a couple more games where he plays outstanding in big wins, his case will be even stronger.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — That’s tough because it’s so dependent on what happens this year. Through three years I’d call it one of the biggest teases in ND history. He’s never made it through an entire year getting hurt and missing time–which makes his career statistics even more mind-boggling. The entire receiving record book is going to be rewritten if he can stay on the field for even just a handful of games. Floyd is capable of delivering a year for the ages in a pass happy offense in 2011. If that happens his legacy will be that he was the most prolific and probably the greatest receiver in ND history. If not, then the way I’ll think of him down the road is “man, what could have been.”

MB&CW @RakesofMallow
Lest we all forget
Moppin’ floors to catchin’ scores
He’s come a long way

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons— Understated. Assuming, just for a moment, as much as it pains me, that the Irish wont win the BCS Championship this season, then Floyd’s legacy will be that of opportunity missed. He wasn’t part of the 2007 campaign, but, despite being one of the most gifted athletes in all of college football, he has been part of some rather underwhelming efforts. Statistics are impressive, but wins are glorious, and while his overall compilation may prove that he’s got all the talent in the world, he’s not achieved much glory.

MY THOUGHTS

In retrospect, I’d really have liked to ask what cornerbacking duo in recent Irish history has athleticism that rivals the Gray/Blanton partnership, but one of the biggest questions moving forward — and a question that very well could define the Kelly era — is how well did they identify, develop, and recruit in the secondary. Harrison Smith, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton are in their final years. After that… it’s pretty scary for depth, and 2011 is going to be a massively important year for a lot of young defenders in the secondary. If you’re wondering why Kerry Cooks shifted back to work with cornerbacks, this is probably the biggest reason.

Maybe I’m being optimistic, but this Irish team has a chance to really run the ball with conviction. If it does, it’ll be because Zack Martin makes another large leap forward, and the unit will be a much more physically developed unit. Trevor Robinson will play better. Braxston Cave will play better. Taylor Dever will play better. While there isn’t room for him in the lineup yet, one guy I’m surprised nobody mentioned was Christian Lombard. I’ve heard that he was so impressive throughout the season that it made the decision to let Matt Romine go much easier.

Harrison Smith’s 2010 season was watching a breakthrough happen in thirteen week increments. He was a much better player at the end of the season than he was at the beginning, and the Ronald Johnson drop was almost something Smith had earned after taking such flack for so long. For those that think Smith is overrated, Pete Sampson of IrishIllustrated.com had a great interview with Mike Mayock, who called Smith one of the most underrated football players in the country.

I want Manti Te’o to be the best linebacker in the country. I can’t argue that he isn’t one of the most talented, but I want him putting up monster statistics, something Luke Kuechly does at Boston College. (No I’m not discounting 133 tackles. I just think Te’o has the ability to do more.) Walking into his junior season, I think Te’o can do more than just amaze with his athleticism, he needs to be the tackling machine that Bob Diaco’s defense allows him to be, and that means cutting down on his misses. To use a baseball analogy, right now Te’o is a devastating power hitter. Call him Ryan Howard. He needs to become a devastatingly complete hitter, more like Albert Pujols.

Trying to project Michael Floyd’s legacy before 2011 is more than difficult, it’s almost impossible. If Kelly’s offense turns into the vertically attacking scheme he used in Cincinnati, look out. If Floyd can stay healthy for a full 13 games, start rewriting the record books in stone. Of course, all of that is depending on the internal struggles Floyd has faced in the last six months. For those that feel like No. 3 got star treatment because of his lofty status on the football team, nobody will convince you otherwise. But Floyd has taken his lumps with humility, he’s seen his name erased from the team’s roster, from the media guides, even from the team’s website. He spent four months away from his teammates and coaches, and only was allowed to participate in unofficial team workouts because no coaching staff in the NCAA can dictate who can and cannot participate in those workouts. If the path to recovery leads to Notre Dame Stadium on September 3, I expect Irish fans to rally around their best player. What will cement his legacy is how he behaves from this day forward. (His behavior in the NFL will matter just as much.) He may have lost all the goodwill he gained when he made the difficult decision to return for his degree. But if the Irish win more than ten games this year, Floyd’s story will be one of redemption.

Pregame Six Pack: Back to the beginning

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Jarron Jones #94 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates with teammates after recovering a fumble in the second quarter against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
35 Comments

With the Irish heading east to New York, Notre Dame faces a true big-city conundrum—sink or swim. Because this season is on the brink. And with a defensive coordinator already out the door, there are no other anvils for Brian Kelly to pull off of his ankle.

The Irish need to win on Saturday. They need to find a way to stop a Syracuse offense that’s moving at hyper-speed, while also taking advantage of an Orange defense that’s allowed offenses to do the same.

More than anything, this team needs to find stability. Whether it’s from the enthusiasm of interim defensive coordinator Greg Hudson or from the head coach pulling the strings on a defense that is beyond in need of a rebound, Kelly has steered this program out of rocky waters before, and his athletic director has given him the clear message that he trusts he’ll do it again.

Let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. Because at 1-3, let’s face it—we need one. Here are six solutions that the Irish could use before high noon in the Meadowlands.

 

When in doubt, play aggressive. If there was a true sign that Brian VanGorder’s time at Notre Dame was up, it was the fact that as the veteran coach tried to seek a solution, he went further and further away from the things that gave his defense a chance to be successful.

As this unit found new and painful ways to give up points, they also threw gasoline on the fire. Because as they tried to protect against the big play or the painful drive, the defense spent more time on their heels and less time attacking.

There isn’t a world where this group will stop giving up big plays. Not with the young, inexperienced players learning on the job. And not with Syracuse moving so fast that even gutting the playbook’s inventory won’t stop the Irish from getting caught in some bad looks.

So if you know that, you might as well embrace it. You might as well hope that your defense can create some chaos in addition to absorbing it.

It may sound simple, but every big play this defense can create will be one more than we’ve seen of late. And even if “live fast, die fast” isn’t exactly the most inspiring mantra for your team’s defense, this team is way better off gambling on the big defensive play this scheme was supposed to provide, knowing that if it backfires, it’ll be no different than what we’ve seen and if it succeeds it’ll get Syracuse behind the chains.

 

Get your best 11 players on then field. Kelly has talked about an idea this simple in the past, and likely pulled his hair out when he realized that the variety of sub-packages, scheme tweaks and mental computation essentially limited the personnel that VanGorder even got to put on the field.

That explains why Andrew Trumbetti played 57 snaps last week and Jay Hayes played none. That explains why Joe Schmidt led the defense in snaps last season and Nyles Morgan couldn’t get on the field.

Kelly is a coach who understands basic principles. He’s won using them, beating teams that had more with less—doing it routinely at Grand Valley, Central Michigan and Cincinnati. So think of this less as a cliche than a reminder that a little garage logic sometimes helps.

Get your best guys on the field. Because good players usually win the battle in front of them. And ultimately, you need to be able to do more than handle the mental load of VanGorder’s scheme.

 

Get a dominant game from your offense. For all the heat Kelly took last week in his “call out” of players, he had a point about DeShone Kizer‘s play. Notre Dame’s star quarterback is too good to make the kind of mistakes he made last weekend.

More over, the offense, on whole, was rather unimpressive. The ground game couldn’t dominate. The turnovers killed momentum. And the fits and starts were enough to get Kelly as aggravated as we’ve seen him in years.

Notre Dame is a double-digit favorite for a reason. Because its offense is one of the country’s best when it’s clicking, and its quarterback is an elite player when he’s on. Noon starts against mediocre programs is when an offense like this should dominate. Let’s see them do it.

 

Win in special teams. Two straight weeks the Irish have been on the wrong side of a touchdown. First, one taken away against Michigan State. Then, a return gifted to Duke that brought them back into the football game.

Hidden yards will be critical on Saturday. That means Tyler Newsome will need to get his first bad kick out of the way in warm-ups, no breakfast ball allowed on Ryder Cup Saturday. Justin Yoon will need to convert when he’s called upon. And CJ Sanders should have opportunities, it’ll be up to him to seize them.

It’s worth remembering that special teams has been a place where Kelly has tried to jump start his team before. Against Utah in 2010 it was with a punt block by Robert Blanton and a forced fumble on kickoff coverage by Kyle McCarthy. Kelly also stole a touchdown in the Tulsa game, hoping that excellent fake punt conversion would buoy a team that was still reeling from losing and the tragedy of Declan Sullivan that week.

So if the timing is right, expect Kelly to try and steal something on special teams this Saturday, especially if it can be a momentum builder.

 

Find some kind of consistency in the red zone. Want good news? Syracuse stinks in the red zone. The not so good news? So have Brian VanGorder’s defenses.

But VanGorder is out and a simplified scheme is in. And perhaps the best thing to ask for isn’t a new scheme or installation, but rather some calm before the snap, knowing an assignment for at least a few seconds before it’s time to do battle.

The Irish defense has been known to be the cure to the common red zone ills, but it’s critical to keep the Orange’s touchdown rate down at the mediocre levels where it currently exists. Getting Kizer and the Irish offense to punch in their scoring tickets for seven points and not three and you don’t need to be a math major to understand the Irish would easily win that shootout.

 

Play the game like tough gentlemen. Remember that slogan? Kelly all but co-opted it from Stanford back in the day, but it had a nice ring to it. And on Saturday, the Irish need to play like tough gentlemen—willing to win the battle in the trenches on defense and exert their will on offense.

This season that toughness got lost in the defensive ineptitude and also disappeared as Kizer found comfort in the quick throws and piloting the ground game with an extra hat in the numbers game.

But the “mental and physical toughness” that we heard BK mention a few hundred times over the last few years, that’s been missing. And after a string of losses that have this program feeling down, it’s time to return to the basic tenets Kelly tried to install those first few years.

Football is a violent game A true contact sport. It’s time for Notre Dame’s talent discrepancy to be matched by their size and strength advantage.  They need to dominate mentally and physically.

Talking Irish: What comes next?

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, center, watches as his players run off the field during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Texas , Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
AP
31 Comments

Another week, another chat with CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz. Let’s jump in.

KA: So JJ – Last we chatted, we weren’t all that comfortable speculating on the dismissal of Brian VanGorder. 12 hours after the game ended, he’s out of a job.
Any final thoughts — that you haven’t already covered over at CSN Chicago — on the move and the timing?

JJ: I thought it was interesting that Brian Kelly came out Saturday and said he was pleased with Notre Dame’s defensive coaching, then fired BVG on Sunday.
The tape of that game was awful, of course, and maybe he didn’t realize Jay Hayes didn’t play a single snap right after the game. But that seemed like an interesting 180. Kelly said he doesn’t like criticizing individual coaches publicly, which he didn’t do with VanGorder up until the release that he fired him. What were your thoughts on that whole process?

KA: I talked about this with John Walters, but I actually completely follow BK’s logic. I think after he watched the tape, and he saw his defense do the same things wrong — he had to pull the trigger. I just don’t think a coordinator can survive that Duke offensive explosion. And there’s absolutely no explanation for the way he allocated snaps and game planed 400 levels deep, when that game could’ve been won with vanilla.

JJ: Oh man, you’re just TEEING me up for the Bob Diaco reference.

KA: GO FOR IT!

JJ: Here’s something I can picture him saying: “Say you’re tasked with baking a cake. You need the cake to taste good. But you decide to get fancy and start throwing all these different ingredients in there and try to make a seven-layer cake. Maybe you accidentally grab the green chilis and throw them in there, and all of a sudden, people you don’t like your cake. And if you just went with the simple vanilla cake with regular chocolate frosting, people might’ve liked your cake.”

…Is that what you expected? Bobby D loves his cake analogies.

KA: Bob literally went with a cake reference on Jim Rome the week before the season.

JJ: He gave us the cake/green chilis reference after Manti left too!

KA: And man — I thought Tim Prister hit it right when he was talking to BK this week — he essentially asked him, “aren’t you describing (when talking about what he wants in a defense) a Bob Diaco defense?”

JJ:  Pretty much. And Diaco played Syracuse last week (and lost). I gotta imagine when Kelly says he’s going to draw from certain parts of the inventory, it’s the simplest, least complex elements of it. So maybe you won’t see D-linemen dropping into coverage as frequently on Saturday?

KA: I hope I never see another defensive lineman drop into coverage. I mean, it stops being a surprise when it happens every game.

So let’s go to a question…

What do you expect to see from Greg Hudson. Because when BK described what he needed from him, he essentially said, “Enthusiasm.” And “love of Notre Dame.” That sounds like, “I don’t want to move my entire defensive staff, I want someone who can implement my ideas and organize them.”

JJ: Pretty much. I think Mike Elston will be relied upon heavily for planning the scheme along with Kelly, given Elston’s pre-BVG experience.

KA: Agree.

JJ: I don’t think Kelly wanted to throw DC duties onto Elston given he’s already the recruiting coordinator (and doing a good job at that).

KA: Yeah, and I also don’t think Elston wants to earn a DC job by doing it through an interim tag.

JJ: So to answer your question, if Hudson is the guy that can effectively communicate the defense, that’s a positive.

KA: Let’s finish this coordinator talk with this question: Do you think there’s an internal promotion possible — do you think it’s Hudson, or Elston? Or are you fairly certain ND is going national to bring someone in?

JJ: I think they gotta look nationally to a current college coordinator.

KA: Me, too. More Mike Sanford hire, less BVG hire.

JJ: So with Les Miles out, and that whole situation in flux, you gotta make your first call to Dave Aranda.

KA: I’m guessing they probably already did. And if they were paying BVG a reported 900k, Aranda’s $1.2 isn’t that hard to swallow.

JJ: BVG made over a million in 2014, per ESPN, so yeah.

KA: Good gig if you can get it.

JJ: The offense is in such a good place right now, even if Sanford were to leave for a coaching job, that you expect it to be pretty good to great next year.
But if the defense doesn’t get fixed, BK’s tenure will be defined by almosts instead of successes.

KA: So what do you think the personnel changes are? Playing more depth? Kicking Trumbetti from the starting lineup? Any other bold predictions?

JJ: If I can shill for a second, I wrote about seven players who could see more time going forward on CSN. But yeah, Jay Hayes is near the top of the list. I’m guessing you’ll see some Asmar Bilal, too, along with Jalen Elliott. And they gotta get Daelin Hayes on the field.

KA: We’ll pause this chat momentarily for you guys to read…

JJ: [plays jeopardy music]

KA: And we’re back. I agree with Elliott, Hayes and Hayes.

JJ:  You got anyone you want to see?

KA: I do — on both sides of the ball. I’m 100% on board with the youth movement. For me, that means Donte Vaughn at CB, Daelin Hayes at DE, and then seeing if KJ Stepherson can ascend at the X. I know it’s probably an unpopular opinion, but I’m still waiting to see if Torii Hunter can do anything beyond ordinary. Us expecting a TJ Jones senior season out of him might have been setting the bar WAY too high. He doesn’t challenge anybody down the field.

JJ: Perhaps, but he’s the most reliable guy out there when you need a first down.  Though I’ll say this, the TD catch Stepherson made vs. Duke…he doesn’t catch that ball five months ago. (Literally, he doesn’t. He dropped an over the shoulder pass in the spring game from Kizer.)

KA: Agree. That’s why I like sliding him inside as opposed to being way out wide. Don’t want him off the field, just want him off the island. Stephenson’s TD catch felt like an embodiment of BK’s early comments on him — how well he tracks the ball.

JJChase Claypool deserves an extended look, too.

KA: I was disappointed that Claypool didn’t make more noise, especially after flashing against Michigan State.

***

KA: So you had a chance to talk to the players made available on Wednesday.
Play psychiatrist for me. How did they respond? Did they look like a group ready to play better football? Or a team that’s still in a funk?

JJ: They kept saying how much fun practice was Tuesday and Wednesday.
Which, for a team that’s 1-3, maybe is good?

KA: Was that burned into their brain or do you think it was legit?

JJ: I’m very skeptical of a fun practice equaling better play. But maybe a little of both. Maybe players having fun = better tackling? I’m really just grasping at straws, though. It’s one of those for sure.

KA: Okay – so I’ll defend our picks last week by saying that we both were scared to death of the defense. But ND is a double-digit favorite against Syracuse. I don’t know if I even think they should be favored. How are you feeling about this one?

JJ: I’m like one of the 10 undecided voters in this country, just slipping back and forth on my prediction. But I came to Notre Dame 45, Syracuse 42.
I do think Syracuse is the worst defense Notre Dame will have faced this year, which is enough to overcome this offense.

KA: I actually think the scoring is going to be slightly lower, but I was thinking ND 41, Cuse 38. But my confidence in ANY OF THIS is zero. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the offense bottoms out and only scores like 28, too.

JJ: Oh yeah, if this were a confidence pick’em, I’d put about 2 points on this one.

KA: I’ll leave you with this one: Are there moral victories for this team now?
As in, what would you see this week that’d make you happy — or is it only a win?

JJ:  How emphatic can I say no?

KA: (With ALL CAPS)

JJ: They’re 1-3 and I don’t see an easy path to bowl eligibility. FINE THEN NO (shouts into computer)!

KA: It’s an ALL OUT WAR for Bowl Eligibility. Because those 15 practices are critical to the mission and to salvaging next season, too.

JJ: Especially for a young roster. And Brandon Wimbush. Plus, it’d be a massive, smoldering crater to not make a bowl game this year. That just can’t happen at Notre Dame. And if it does, it puts the coach squarely on the hot seat.

KA: I’m looking at the schedule and it’s pretty much razor-thin margin of error right now. So when I used to think back on the bear hug I watched between coaches from the Yankee Stadium press box in 2010, when they beat Army to clinch a bowl bid, I thought we’d never be back there.

Yet… Here we are.

JJ: S&P+ gives Notre Dame a 32% chance of being bowl eligible this year. Donald Trump has a better chance at becoming president than Notre Dame does at reaching a bowl at this exact moment.

(braces for the STICK TO SPORTS yelling)

KA: How appropriate that the Irish are in New York* this weekend then. But hey — I’m actually excited about a 1-3 team and what they can do, something I thought I’d never type.

JJ: There’s the positivity!

KA: So there you go. Leave it on a high note. Once again, we’re both picking a shootout victory for the Irish — one last leap of faith, at least for me.

JJ: Same here.

KA: Thanks buddy. Enjoy the game. Catch you next week.

JJ: Have a good one.

***

If you want more state of the program talk, John Walters and I dove into the state of the Irish on our Blown Coverage podcast. 

And in that corner… The Syracuse Orange

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Head coach of the Syracuse Orange Dino Babers speaks with quarterback Eric Dungey #2 and running back Dontae Strickland #4 during the first half against the Colgate Raiders on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
Getty
75 Comments

With the season at a tipping point, the Irish hit the road. Outside the friendly (or not so friendly, of late) confines of Notre Dame Stadium, Brian Kelly’s team hits the road and travels to New York, where Syracuse awaits.

New head coach Dino Babers has installed his up-tempo offense and the system is already taking hold. The defense hasn’t caught up, helping to launch Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign on the way to a very uneven start.

So before we get to this weekend’s shootout, let’s dig into the challenge that’s ahead. To get us ready, we’re joined by the Daily Orange’s Chris Libonati. He’s an assistant sports editor and football beat writer for one of the country’s premier student newspapers.

In addition to juggling his studies on magazine journalism and public policy, Chris breaks down what Notre Dame should expect from the Orange this weekend in the Meadowlands.

 

Dino Babers is four games into his tenure at Syracuse. The offense seems to have taken to his up-tempo attack. The defense… feels like a work in progress. Can you give us a progress report on the program since Babers took over?

I think the offense has clearly improved from last season, and the defense has regressed. The problem right now is going to be cycling through Scott Shafer’s players that don’t really fit Babers’ systems or creating spots where they can fit. Although that seems a bit unfair, that’s the reality of coaching changes. It’s easy to see that the program could improve after this season, but it’s just speculation for the time being.

 

Notre Dame relieved defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder of his duties on Sunday following another poor performance. Syracuse is actually ranked BELOW Notre Dame in scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. Brian Ward came with Babers from Bowling Green. Is he overmatched? Or is the personnel just that bad?

I don’t necessarily think all of the defensive problems fall on Ward. Scott Shafer ran a high risk-high reward system that required players to be more aggressive in chasing big plays, big hits, etc. The Tampa 2 is almost a 180 for players that are used to that type of a system. For the most part, the Tampa 2 is a bend-don’t-break system, but it appears that the transition is going to take a little while.

One of the best examples is the very first Louisville touchdown. A ball fake easily made the safeties bite and Lamar Jackson threw a long touchdown over the top of the defense. Right now, it’s big plays that have affected Syracuse. Teams really haven’t put together consistent drives. It’s more three-minute drives and under that are killing SU.

 

Now the offense should terrify Irish fans. Specifically what Amba Etta-Tawo is doing. The Maryland transfer put up pedestrian numbers before coming to Syracuse, where he’s coming off of a historic game against UConn. How is he doing this? And how big of a surprise has his emergence been?

It’s kind of amazing to watch. You ask yourself if he can top a performance, and he just did it last week. That said, some of that is the system taking advantage of his best skills. He’s been very good in space, and he’s even better on deep throws. Several times, he’s been adjusted on the boundaries of the field, out-jumped corners or come back to an underthrown ball. And when he doesn’t do that, he burns the corner.

I haven’t seen him really run a crossing route or anything over the short-middle of the field (he has run a few screens and is good in open space), but he hasn’t really needed to. What defenses could try to do is shade a safety over the top, but the Baylor-style spread has its outside receivers almost out to the sidelines, which means safeties have to shade way over. That’ll open up the middle of the field for guys like Brisly Estime and Ervin Philips or potentially expose defenses in the run game.

 

Babers was candid about saying he’d have rather Brian Kelly didn’t fire VanGorder before they traveled to New York, and that he’d prefer the game be played at home in the Carrier Dome rather than the Meadowlands. Let’s talk about this neutral site game? Is it strictly economics? Or what’s the purpose of taking this game to the New York Metro area?

I think just talking about this probably reveals this project as a bit of a failure. Playing this game in the New York Metro area was supposed to expand Syracuse’s brand as “New York’s College Team.” Syracuse scheduled high-profile games against USC (2012), Penn State (2013) and Notre Dame (2014) at MetLife, but hasn’t won any of those games. When it comes down to it, SU put its brand against a national brand and the fan splits at those games were not in the Orange’s favor. This crowd will almost certainly be pro-UND and it’s considered a “home game” for SU.

What the series has done is take a home game away from the Carrier Dome and it pits SU against a top-level program when its still trying to make bowl games on a consistent basis. A smarter series would have been to play Rutgers, but Kyle Flood reportedly nixed that when he was RU’s coach.

 

We’ve seen just about every offense score points on Notre Dame. How many do you think Syracuse needs to score to beat the Irish this weekend?

A lot. I know that’s not specific, but SU’s defense has really struggled against good offenses. DeShone Kizer may have struggled at times this year, but I’d bet he has a decent game against Syracuse. I think the Orange would have to hang at least 40 points on UND to win on Saturday. That’ll be tough if Eric Dungey can’t play for some reason. He didn’t come out for interviews on Tuesday because he was getting treatment for an undisclosed injury. Dino Babers declined to talk about the injury on Wednesday. My guess is that Dungey plays, but if he can’t Zack Mahoney will have to step in for him. Mahoney’s deep ball isn’t quite as good as Dungey’s, which could limit Etta-Tawo’s deep-play ability.

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)
Getty
85 Comments

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.