Getty Images - Jonathan Daniel

BK talks: QB Derby, Theo, Te’o, Hercules and more


After a Saturday morning practice, the Irish boarded buses and headed to the lake, the second year Brian Kelly and his staff have taken the team for a little R&R and water activities.

But before he did, Kelly spoke with the assembled media, with the biggest news being that second-string tackle Tate Nichols was doubtful for the opener after dislocating his knee cap.With Nichols down, freshman Nick Martin moved up to the second-team offensive line, playing right tackle with Christian Lombard lining up on the left side.

Here’s more from BK:

On the quarterback derby:

“Too close to call at this point, which is kind of what we thought, we’d need that second week. They both have done very good things. Right now I’d say they’re neck and neck. Today, Tommy got a lot of the first team reps. Dayne’s been getting most of the first team reps. We wanted to be able to give a balanced evaluation. Where your second unit is around Tommy more than Dayne, it could obviously impact your decision. So, Tommy got a lot of those today. it’s still a battle between those two, not that Everett and Andrew haven’t made progress, they just haven’t got as much work.”

You’ve got to start getting the feeling that this quarterback competition is going exactly how Kelly wants it to go, and I’d be very surprised if anybody but Dayne Crist is under center when the Irish take the field against South Florida. Still, it’s a credit to Kelly that he understands that the process needs to be fair, and giving Rees the lion’s share of first-team reps when Crist has been getting more in the first week is only smart.

On the many hats of Theo Riddick:

“He’s an extraordinary athlete. I think we know what he can do. He was feeling his way through it last year, he was learning a totally new position. You just see his comfort level. It’s confidence for Theo Riddick. We’ll have the ability within our system to put him in the backfield if we see that as a need. We’ve worked on it. It’s available to us. Whether we need to do it or whether we feel it has to happen is another thing. But we’ll always be prepared if we ever get short handed that Theo can line up at the running back position and get reps for us.”

While he might not be quite as dynamic, Theo Riddick could be the Percy Harvin of the Irish offense this season, with Urban Meyer’s visit to Notre Dame this spring giving Kelly the chance to pick the brain of Harvin’s college coach for tips on how to use him.

It’s tough to really know how high Riddick’s ceiling is because his best work came in a down stretch for the Irish, and he injured his ankle just as his season was about to take off. From Kelly’s first comments at Notre Dame, he’s thought of Riddick as a dynamic player. If he can be that this season, the Irish offense could take a quantum leap.

On handling Manti Te’o as he enters his third season:

“I think we handle Manti a little bit different as a coaching staff. I think we know what he’s capable of doing. I think we’ve spent more time with him fundamentally more than, ‘Hey, get in there, show us what you can do.’ so I think his role is a little bit different. He still has the same leadership qualities that he brings to the table. I think we focus more on we want to see what he does in individual work and fundamental work than what he really needs to do in team time.”

While Te’o was likely 100 percent healed from a minor knee injury he suffered during the bowl victory against Miami, Kelly and the defensive coaching staff  knew there was no reason to temp fate with their star linebacker during spring drills, and will continue to keep him out of the physical fray during preseason camp. Te’o is as physically gifted of a linebacker as there is in the country, now it’ll be up to him to cut down on mistakes and missed tackles during his third year as a starter.

Freshman Troy Niklas is one to watch:

“He’s a guy that can play both the “cat” and the “dog.” His ability to play in space is extraordinary. Whatever adjective that you would use, you would throw one on that kid. His nickname is Hercules. He’s a pretty special kid.”

If there was one guy in the recruiting class that I thought was a sleeper, it was Niklas, the Los Angeles Times’ lineman of the year. It’s clear that the athleticism that had Cal, Stanford, USC and Florida interested in the freakishly sized athlete is something that could get Niklas on the field immediately. After a year or two in Paul Longo’s strength and conditioning program, Niklas could be doing some scary things on the football field.

A few quick bullet points:

* Good for Ben Turk, who Kelly credited as the specialist making the most progress.

“I would say of all the kickers, probably the guy that stands out is Ben Turk. He has been of all the specialists, the guy that has made the most progress and we needed him to. We needed to be more versatile. We weren’t able to rugby him at all last year and move him last year. It was not something we could do. Now we can do that. His camp has probably been of all the kickers, the one that I’d underline.”

I’ve been pretty tough on Turk, who has been a pretty mediocre punter in his two seasons as the Irish punter.

* Kelly detailed former wide receiver David Grimes‘ return to Notre Dame, giving us some information on what Grimes’ job in the program will entail.

“We wanted somebody that could really identify with what Notre Dame is about. David as a football player here, as a student, he can compare a lot of his experiences here with our players. In the role that he has, which is really student welfare, he can identify with a lot of the problems, transition and other wise, of a Notre Dame student athlete. He’s the perfect fit for that.”






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.