Notre Dame in 2011: What makes this year different?


It was almost odd seeing it. Six years ago, a roster filled with the same guys that were trampled by USC and Purdue (Purdue!), edged by BYU, Boston College and Pittsburgh, and looked rudderless at the Insight Bowl after head coach Tyrone Willingham was dismissed, came out of the locker room eight months later transformed.

In an opening day grudge match between Charlie Weis and Dave Wannstedt, both fresh from the AFC East, the Irish ran the former Dolphins head coach out of his own stadium, as both coaches led their alma maters in decidedly different directions. Brady Quinn, a junior that looked the part his first two seasons but hadn’t delivered, transformed into a leading man. On the ground, an offensive line that was soft turned into a steamroller up front, leading an Irish cavalcade — five guys averaged more than five-yards a carry. Little used wide receiver Jeff Samardzija snatched a tricky touchdown pass in the end zone with six minutes left in the first half. As the Irish went to halftime, they had scored 35 first half points. It might as well have been raining manna from heaven.

The entire 2005 season still feels like a blur. Even when the Irish lost, it was memorable; storming back from a twenty-one point second-half deficit, the Irish lost a stunner in overtime to Michigan State 44-41. Then, an electric Saturday with the underdog Irish in green jerseys on a crisp October afternoon. When the numbness of USC’s improbable comeback wore off, Irish fans would never admit it, but the loss didn’t really matter: Notre Dame was back.

For a school that made a habit of waking up the echoes, the upcoming 2006 season felt different. It wasn’t just Irish fans that thought it could be the year. Sports Illustrated had bought in. So did ESPN. So did the entire AP Poll. That was Notre Dame sitting at No. 2 in the preseason, narrowly behind Ohio State and garnering 10 first place votes.

With 17 starters and 36 monogram winners returning, the banner Weis hung in the weight room that claimed “9-3 isn’t good enough,” didn’t feel like over-confidence from one of college football’s brashest coaches. The offensive backfield returned. Rhema McKnight replaced Maurice Stovall as All-American Jeff Samardzija’s partner-in-crime, protected by an offensive line with three returning starters. Even better, the defense returned nine starters and eight of the top ten tacklers. All four starters returned on the defensive line. The secondary was completely intact. Weis even inserted tailback Travis Thomas in at weakside linebacker (a move right out of Belicheck’s playbook), and an immediate athletic upgrade to a defense that looked a step slow against USC.

As Brian Kelly looked to build off the first winning season Central Michigan had completed in nearly a decade, Charlie Weis was set to return Notre Dame to college football’s promise land.



Leaves scatter on a football field on a glorious autumn afternoon. CHARLIE BROWN stands with his faithful companion SNOOPY. His friend LUCY approaches carrying a football.

Say Charlie Brown. I’ve got a football.
How about practicing a few place kicks?
I’ll hold the ball and you come running
and kick it.

Oh, brother. I don’t mind the dishonesty
half as much as I mind your opinion of me.
You must think I’m stupid.

Oh, come on, Charlie Brown. I’ll hold it steady.

Charlie is immediately distrustful of his friend in the blue dress.

You just want me to come running up to kick that ball
so you can pull it away and see me land flat on my
back and kill myself.

This time you can trust me.

Charlie seems skeptical until Lucy produces a DOCUMENT out of thin air.

Here’s a signed document. Testifying that I promise not to pull it away.

Lucy hands him the document. Charlie marvels at the development as he peruses the contract.

It is signed… It’s a signed document! I guess if you have a signed
document in your possession, you can’t go wrong. This year,
I’m really going to kick that football.

Filled with belief, Charlie looks down at the document. He’s convinced. With a running start, he charges toward Lucy, who holds the ball for his kick. Charlie SWINGS HIS LEG, ready for the triumphant strike when… THE BALL DISAPPEARS.

Lucy has done it again, pulling the ball out from under an unsuspecting Charlie Brown. Charlie SCREAMS in agony as he LANDS FLAT ON HIS BACK.

The signed document floats into Lucy’s hands.

Peculiar thing about this document. It was never notarized.



Charles Schulz got it wrong when he chose yellow and black for Charlie’s shirt colors. Our favorite optimistic lad might have felt far more comfortable wearing blue and gold, surrounded by the thousands of alumni and subway domers gearing up to once again take the leap after five seasons of frustration.

While two BCS appearances since 2005 is hardly grounds for a eulogy, it’s been a winding road filled with plenty of detours that’s led Notre Dame back to this not-quite familiar place. The rug was pulled out from beneath the program in 2007. A year later, a 5-2 start was erased by a humbling conclusion. While Weis seemed to have the Irish building for the future after a much-needed bowl victory, 2009 was a different version of the same song. After a four game swoon ended the regular season in dramatic fashion, an expensive plug was pulled on a Charlie Weis era that started with a bang but went out like a whisper.

Brian Kelly didn’t come out of the gates swinging. He won his debut in unimpressive fashion, but the Irish limped out of the gate, starting 1-3. Steadfast in his 20 years of experience as a head coach, Kelly didn’t panic.

“There’s going to be a lot of 1-3 football teams across the country,” Kelly said after the Irish were beaten soundly by Stanford 37-14. “Some are going to finish 1-11, some are going to be 8- or 9-3. It’s what you decide to do from here on out. There’s going to be success down the road for them if they stay with it, and I’m certain that they will.”

It got worse before it got better, with the Irish losing in humiliating and shocking fashion to Navy and Tulsa respectively. But with a bye week to regroup, a funny thing happened. Notre Dame started playing good football. November had been particularly unkind to Weis’ Irish squads (1-8 record the past two seasons), but last season’s Irish vanquished demons of seasons past, ending the year on a four-game winning streak that included wins over Utah, Army, USC and a convincing defeat of Miami in the Sun Bowl.

An 8-5 finish doesn’t get you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but there are plenty of people that see big things in store for the 2011 campaign. While it may be hard for some to dust themselves off and get ready to kick off another season, here are four reasons why this season will be different.*

1. The Irish have the size in their defensive front seven.

There aren’t many football teams that have the sheer size of the Irish in their front seven. When LSU pushed Notre Dame all over the football field in the Sugar Bowl ending the 2006 season, it was obvious the Irish were undermanned physically.

Let’s take a quick look at the front seven of both the 2006 defense and the 2011 Irish, and you’ll quickly get the picture.

2006 Opening Day Front Seven

DE: Victor Abiamiri: 6-4, 270 – Sr.
DT: Trevor Laws, 6-1, 283 – Sr.
DT: Derek Landri, 6-3, 277 – Sr.
DE: Ronald Talley, 6-4, 262 – Jr.
OLB: Travis Thomas, 6-0, 215 – Sr.
MLB: Maurice Crum, 6-0, 220 – Jr.
OLB: Mitchell Thomas, 6-3, 232 – Sr.
Key Reserves:
DL: Chris Frome, 6-5, 262 – Sr.
DL: Dwight Stephenson, 6-2, 248

2011 Opening Day Front Seven

DE: Kapron Lewis-Moore: 6-4, 300 – Sr.
DT: Sean Cwynar: 6-4, 285 – Sr.
DE: Ethan Johnson: 6-4, 300 – Sr.
OLB: Darius Fleming: 6-2, 255 – Sr.
ILB: Manti Te’o: 6-2, 255 – Jr.
ILB: Dan Fox: 6-3, 240 – Jr.
OLB: Prince Shembo: 6-2, 250 – So.
Key Reserves:
NT: Louis Nix: 6-3, 326 – So.
LB: Carlo Calabrese: 6-1, 245 – Jr.
DE: Aaron Lynch: 6-6, 265 – Fr.
DE: Stephon Tuitt: 6-6.5, 295 – Fr.

If you’re looking for mathematical proof that the Irish are stronger up front than they have been in a long time, take a look at the difference in sheer size between the 2006 front seven and the unit from this year. Even with Sean Cwynar playing as an undersized defensive tackle, he’d still be the largest guy on the 2006 roster.

With proper weight training and physical conditioning, this isn’t a team you’re likely to see on rollerskates at the end of the season, like you did with Irish team’s of the past. Size may not be the only determining factor, but for the first time in a very long while, the Irish can control — and dominate — the point of attack at the line of scrimmage.

2. The Irish will be better balanced and more productive on offense.

It’s hard to believe it, but even with the Irish breaking in an entirely new system, losing their starting quarterback, All-American tight end, two different starting wide receivers and a starting right tackle, the Irish offense wasn’t all that bad.

In fact, it was essentially a mirror image of the 2006 unit.

Looking back at the stat-line for both squads, it’s shocking to see how similar the offensive outputs were between the ’06 squad many saw as one of the most high-octane in college football, and Kelly’s ’10 team that was learning the ropes with Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees.

Here’s a breakdown of the run/pass ratio for both teams, along with their scoring average.

2006 per game output

36 passing attempts, 7.3 yards per pass. (11.8 per catch)
32 rushing attempts, 3.9 yards per carry.
Points per game: 31.0

2010 per game output

37 passing attempts, 6.8 per attempt (11.5 per catch)
32 rushing attempts, 4.0 yards per rush
Points per game: 26.3

If you’re looking for the major difference between the two teams, look at the red zone efficiency. Weis’ 2006 squad cashed in 90 percent of their chances, scoring touchdowns on 76 percent. Kelly’s first squad only scored in 82 percent, with touchdowns coming at only a 58 percent clip.

With another year in the system for Crist (and Tommy Rees), a running game that’s got four returning starters along the offensive line, and a team that showed an offensive identity in the final month of last season, if the Irish can build in their second year under Kelly and stay reasonable healthy, the offense will be in great shape.

3. Consistency in coaching a system and fundamentals fuels player development.

If there was a knock on Charlie Weis, it was his strident belief that he could out-scheme anybody. That “decided schematic advantage” became a punch-line to detractors when Weis was under fire, but also went a long way towards explaining why player development stalled out, as Weis consistently tweaked his coaching staff, schemes, and base knowledge for players in hopes of gaining an edge.

“I’ve had three different defensive coordinators, three different position coaches,” Ethan Johnson said. “This is the first time I’ve gone into a system for two consecutive years and known what to expect. In that respect, we’re going to have a much more productive year because we’re not dealing with a new coaching staff and a new system.”

Many questioned Kelly’s approach to hiring a staff when he brought with him a handful of coaches from Cincinnati and a group that was low on Q-rating but high on familiarity with Kelly’s system.

The “one-voice” approach was a stark contrast to Weis’ hiring philosophy. When the Irish defense struggled, Weis replaced coordinator Rick Minter‘s 4-3 defense with Corwin Brown‘s 3-4 system, only to bring in Jon Tenuta and go back to a four-man front. A roster already assembled for a system it was no longer running was forced to add another level of complexity to it, and the results on the defensive side of the ball were self-explanatory.

Kelly’s name hasn’t been too far away from the “genius” moniker, but the brilliance in his system is also in its simplicity. It’s that simplicity, both on offense and defense, that allows players to develop quickly on his rosters, fueling growth and improvement throughout the season.

4. Momentum.

For the first time since this football team enrolled in school, the Irish had an offseason where they were able to build off of an impressive finish and continue developing. Where as Weis’ last two rosters collapsed at the first sign of adversity, Kelly’s 2010 team picked itself off the mat twice, ending the season on a high note.

With a healthy spring practice session, an incredible recruiting haul on the defensive side of the ball, and the return of Michael Floyd from disciplinary purgatory, the Irish are poised to build on a season that had every player and coach on the roster doing an awful lot of self-examination.


There will always be questions on a roster. Can Dayne Crist carry the offense? Will Cierre Wood be able to last the season? Can the Irish secondary stay healthy? We’ll find all that out over the next three months.

But as the days get shorter, summer turns to fall, and Saturdays become a communal exercise in hope, there’s plenty of reason to think this year might be better than the last. And while all of this could be shot to hell by the time the calendar hits October, Notre Dame is once again poised to make a run in college football.

Now come on, Charlie Brown. I’ve got a football. Let’s practice a few kicks.

* These reasons were not notarized.

Kelly thinks simplicity might aid offensive production

Notre Dame quarterback Kizer DeShone makes a throw during the Blue-Gold spring NCAA college football game, Saturday, April 16, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. (Michael Caterina/South Bend Tribune via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
South Bend Tribune via AP

Back to the basics. If there’s a refrain we’ve heard—or one that’s made its way through the echo chamber these past few weeks—it’s that Brian Kelly and his coaching staff are drilling down, looking for any way to pull this team out of their slump.

We saw the changes defensively, a gigantic detour away from the scheme and philosophies of Brian VanGorder. And while that’s helped jump-start the defense, the impact of the move may have hit the offense’s productivity.

Kelly talked about some of those aftereffects this week, the changes on one side of the ball leaking over to the other.

“We’re keeping the points down, but we’re limiting possessions,” Kelly explained. “We went from 15 possessions earlier in the season to this past game we had four possessions in the first half. That’s like playing an option team. We’re going to keep the points down, we’re probably not going to get off the field quite as quick as we did earlier in the season.”

Those lack of opportunities have shown up in the box score. Throw away the game played in hurricane conditions and it’s still clear that the Irish offense didn’t capitalize on their chances against Stanford. And whether it was DeShone Kizer’s interceptions, Malik Zaire’s three short-circuited series or a general lack of running game, Kelly is taking a similar approach with his offense that he did with the opposite side of the ball—though not running anybody out of town.

“We have fallen into a similar trap that we were dealing with earlier defensively. We’re probably doing a little too much,” Kelly said. “When you do the things that you practice every single day, it becomes second nature. You can play free, you can play fast.

“I think from an offensive standpoint, we can just be who we are. Let’s practice what we’re good at and let’s be better at execution in this kind of game.”

Do what you do, but do it better. It’s an approach that’s worked under Greg Hudson’s direction, with a defense mastering the bare essentials as they try to stop the bleeding. Offensively, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen this unit struggle. And while pointing in one direction usually takes the focus off of a multi-faceted problem, cutting down the inventory and letting the Irish talent play fast and loose could be a big help for a group that’s still really young.

“I think there’s an understanding now that we have to figure out what we are doing well and put emphasis on that,” Kizer said. “In the first half of the season there were some specific looks that are more successful than others, and we have to put emphasis on those looks.”

Behind the Irish: Leaders eat last


Leaders eat last. As the 2016 season continues to be a struggle for the Irish, holding firm to leadership mottos like the above is more than just lip service or an empty slogan.

In our latest Behind the Irish feature, several Notre Dame players talk about this season’s slogan and how it helps guide the team as they look to stay united through this stretch run.

And in that corner… The Miami Hurricanes


Sure, the high-wattage match-up might have lost some of its preseason luster. But even with both Notre Dame and Miami entering the weekend limping, bringing the Hurricanes and the Irish together—two of college football’s premier programs with quite a bit of history together—is always a game worth watching.

As the Irish return from an off week healthy and looking to rebound after two-straight losses, Mark Richt’s Miami team poses quite a challenge. Especially as the Hurricanes do what they can to stop a three game slide. They’ve got the ammo to do it, with junior quarterback Brad Kaaya one of the best Notre Dame will face this season and a defense that’s done a 180 under new coordinator Manny Diaz.

To get us ready for a very big weekend, Isaiah Kim-Martinez joins us. A sophomore studying broadcast journalism who also writes for the student-run Hurricane (in circulation since 1929!), Isaiah took time away from his busy schedule to answer some questions from on the ground in Coral Gables.

Hope you enjoy.


This season started with a four-game winning streak and gave way to a three-game losing streak—all ACC opponents. What do you make of the season so far, and how do you evaluate a Hurricanes team that has just one win against a Power Five opponent?

I would say that this season has brought what most fans were expecting – inconsistency. The team is just not quite there yet. This season isn’t a failure, nor is it really a success. There was supposed to be growing pains with a new coach and a new system, and we are seeing it now as the Hurricanes have played tougher opponents.


Before we get to the play on the field specifically, what’s the transition to Mark Richt been like? Getting a tenured head coach with connections to the university looked like a coup from a far. Is that the reaction amongst Canes faithful? What’s surprised you so far through seven games?

The transition has been great. The school and the fans have welcomed him with open arms. There is a general understanding that bringing the U back to national prominence would take some time, even with someone of Richt’s track record. So, Canes faithful is generally being patient with the head coach, understanding that this is a process.

What’s surprised me most has been the ups and downs of the offense. Miami averaged over 40 points through the first four games, and that quickly dropped to under 20 for the next three. I understand that the difficulty of the opponent was higher over the last three weeks, but that is more of a drop off in offensive production than I expected.


When we looked at the 2016 Notre Dame season in August, Brad Kaaya looked like the best quarterback the Irish would face. The junior has a big-time national profile and has nice numbers so far, 12 TDs, 5 INTs, completing almost 62 percent of his throws. Evaluate Kaaya’s junior season.

Kaaya has played well, but has clearly not met the expectations that most fans had set for him prior to the season. The numbers look fine on paper, but what is misleading about stats is that they don’t tell you when the touchdowns and interceptions happened. In the biggest games of the season, Kaaya’s touchdowns have mainly come with the team being down, which to me, negates some of the luster of them. Many of the touchdowns have not been that impactful. Kaaya hasn’t buried any team over the past few weeks with a series of plays he has made. He has also already thrown more interceptions this season than he had thrown all of last season.

That being said, it is not all his fault. The offensive line has not been good, so Kaaya has not had the adequate time to consistently throw in the pocket. It seems that part of the reason for the struggle has been the adjustment to the new system and the play-calling of a new coach, which is perfectly understandable. Once again, it is not all on Kaaya, however I do not believe he has taken a legitimate step forward to this point in the season. He has been good, just not great.


Defensively, Manny Diaz has done a stellar job, the Hurricanes defense taking a huge step forward from 2015. What’s the strength of the unit? And how will they attack an Irish offense that looks in a bit of a slump?

The strength of the unit, especially early on, has been the defensive line. It is getting pressure to the quarterback. I expect the team to do the same against Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer, thus forcing him to make errors.


On the other side of the ball, Kaaya’s struggled with protection and the ground game isn’t necessarily putting up great numbers. What are the keys for the Hurricane offense, especially with Notre Dame finding its footing on the defensive side of the ball?

The key is the offensive line giving Kaaya the time he needs in the pocket to be effective, and making holes for running backs Mark Walton and Joseph Yearby to rush in between the tackles, which they have not been able to do effectively since before playing Florida State.


This is a rivalry with some history, though not many games against each other. Neither team is playing particularly good football, but it still was a game Irish fans circled on the schedule. How big of a game is this for the Hurricanes and their fans?

Indeed, it can be agreed upon that both teams expected to be in better situations come this matchup, so the implications are quite different. However, this is a huge game for the moral of the Hurricanes’ team and fans. Miami may have lost three straight games, but all the losses have come to opponents with records over .500. UM as a whole is being patient with the program, but I doubt there will be much tolerance if the Canes lose to a team that is currently 2-5.


Any prediction on how this game goes? Any keys that’ll determine a victor in your mind?

The Hurricanes defense is dealing with the injury bug, but I expect it to come out with a vengeance after allowing Virginia Tech to drop 37 points on it. The defense will hold the Fighting Irish to fewer than 25 points, and the Canes run game will finally see some day light and have a big day.

Keys to the game:

· Establish offensive presence early (strike first blood)

· No big plays allowed on defense

· Offensive line must play strong

Score Prediction: Miami 31 – Notre Dame 21

Kelly stays in the moment

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)

Coming off a bye week, you could excuse Brian Kelly if he started looking ahead. To his impending hire at defensive coordinator, or his shifting focus to a recruiting class that suffered its first defection since Blake Barnett bolted for Alabama.

But the seventh-year head coach has his hands full fixing his current predicament, leaving any planning beyond Miami to the weeks after the regular season.

“My time is spent on the present right now. I don’t look too far ahead,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I think I’ve stayed with very similar thoughts about not mortgaging the future, not dwelling too much on the past, but living in the present right now.”

That commitment to right now hasn’t translated into wins yet. But it’s the best way to beat Miami, a talented football team with what might be the best quarterback the Irish will face, coming in on a three-game losing streak.

So while Irish fans wonder how this team will find a way to straighten out and win four of their next five to qualify for a bowl game, Kelly talked about the internal motivation this team has, playing for each other more than any postseason bonus.

“All these kids, they come to Notre Dame because they want to be challenged,” Kelly said. “They have incredible intrinsic motivation every day to get up, to go to class, to want to succeed. It’s why they come here. There’s an immense amount of pride. They want to freakin’ win. They want to win. They really don’t care whether they get a Visa gift card in the bowl game.

“They want to practice more. They want to be with their teammates. They want to be with their guys. They want to win football games. They want to be successful in the classroom. They want to be successful on the football field. That’s why they came here. That’s why I’m here. That’s all we talk about. That’s all we do every day, is think about how we can be more successful.”