Getty Images - Jonathan Daniel

Help wanted: All options being explored on punt returns


Being ranked 101st in the nation is never a good thing. But that’s what the Irish got out of their punt return unit, the weakest special teams grouping under Mike Elston’s watch. Notre Dame failed to create anything in the return game, with Armando Allen’s 38-yard return in the season opener against Purdue the only big play on the season.

While most squared the blame on John Goodman’s shoulders, the truth of the matter was that the return game struggled for a variety of reasons. An early injury to Armando Allen took the Irish’s most dangerous return man out of the mix. A lack of depth and experience made it difficult for the Irish to get solid blocking for the returner, specifically finding guys that could stop opposing gunners. Finally, Elston and head coach Brian Kelly didn’t feel all that good taking risks in the return game with the personnel they had available.

That won’t be the case in 2011.

“We think we’ve got the kind of personnel that will allow us to be a lot more aggressive in special teams,” Kelly said before kicking off the season.

After Saturday’s practice, Kelly opened up a bit more on a few of the options that are in play.

“We’ve got four or five guys in mind,” Kelly said. “We were an up and down special teams unit. Poor sometimes, excellent in others. We have to be much better and our return men have to be part of that.”

When pressed for some options, Kelly threw out some names you’d expect while also bouncing around a few wildcards.

“Theo Riddick has got to be back there, no question,” Kelly continued. “Goodman can catch the ball back there, Harrison can catch the ball back there, Robby Toma. Those are the sure-hand guys. Now the guys who have a chance to make something happen. I’ll put Theo Riddick out there for one. I’m going to take a look and see if there’s another wide receiver. Maybe Michael Floyd can do something back there. A lot of different options when it comes to Cam McDaniel. He was a punt returner in high school and was very dynamic. We’re going to look at George Atkinson, we’re going to look at Everett Golson. We’re going to look at young guys that can be exciting with the football in their hands and see how that pans out.”

Here’s a quick breakdown of the Irish options at punt returner, and my hunch on whether or not it’ll happen.

John Goodman: For better or worse, Irish fans and Brian Kelly already know what they’ll get out of Goodman, and it likely entails a lot of fair catches and retaining possession. He’s far from the daring choice, but he’s safe — and likely a better returner than his numbers (1.3 yards per return on 13 punts) showed.

Theo Riddick: The logical choice and a prototypical punt returner. Whether it was already having a full plate with the move to wide receiver, or a lack of familiarity returning punts, Riddick probably was the next best option after Armando Allen last season.

Robby Toma: Consider him the compromise option, and he’ll at least be able to remind Irish fans of Joey Getherall, another diminutive and speedy wideout turned return man. Getting Toma some return touches might be a good way to give the team’s leading yards-per-catch wideout more opportunities.

Cam McDaniel: We’ll likely know pretty quickly if McDaniel is ready for the speed and intensity of college football. He played amongst the best high school football competition in the country and he was an elite return man then. If BK and Elston decide to go young, he’s my guess.

George Atkinson: Another frosh, Atkinson also has elite speed, something that sets him apart from the rest of this group. (Atkinson ran a 10.6 100m in high school.) He’s a versatile athlete that played a ton of different positions in high school, and his speed might make him a dangerous return option.

Michael Floyd: At best, Kelly could have Floyd channeling his inner-Tim Brown. At worst, it’s a dangerous decision to put the lifeblood of the offense in the return game, where crazy things have been known to happen. Floyd doesn’t fit the mold for a WR/punt returner type, but I certainly won’t be the one doubting his abilities.

Harrison Smith: There’s no questioning Smith’s athleticism, but the decision to put the defense’s centerfielder on the field in the return game is a risky choice.

Everett Golson: A complete wildcard. The freshman quarterback struggled to hold onto the football in the spring game. Putting him out there as a punt returner is an even bigger risk, though it speaks to Kelly’s belief in Golson’s athleticism that he’s even lobbing his name out there.

KA’s odds for opening day returner:

Theo Riddick — 5:2
John Goodman — 4:1
Robby Toma — 6:1
Cam McDaniel — 8:1
George Atkinson — 10:1
Michael Floyd — 15:1
Harrison Smith — 25:1
Everett Golson — 30:1
Stephon Tuitt — 100:1


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.