aaron lynch Sack

IBG: Getting ready for the Irish Wake


Okay people, don’t worry — nobody died. But while some of you might be mourning the fact that they decided to stack Notre Dame-Wake Forest at the exact same time as LSU-Alabama, I wouldn’t be insulted if you simply followed me on the live-blog Saturday night while flipping back and forth between the two games. I’m willing to be your eyes and ears, as always.

This week’s Irish Blogger Gathering is hosted by our friend Blog Davie at the GameDay 40 blog. I can’t confirm the spray tan or the propensity to run a QB draw on 3rd and 6, but you should check out he and the GameDay 40 team’s work, if only because they also support Kirk Ferentz and Iowa, which means they must be feeling pretty terrible about themselves these days.

On to the questions…

I don’t know anything about Wake Forest except that Tim Duncan went there.  Who is the Tim Duncan of the Wake Forest footballers, i.e., one guy that the Irish must game plan for on Saturday and why?

You’re looking for another Tim Duncan? The guy was a 6-foot-11 swimmer from the Virgin Islands who walked from college to the NBA and immediately averaged 20 and 10. Not to go all Bill Simmons on you, but there’s nobody on the Wake Forest football team that even belongs in the same pool as Duncan. People tend to forget it now, but Duncan was a total freak in college, and I remember watching those games and listen to hecklers call him Spock, which I thought was spectacularly funny.

That said, if I had to call one guy a freak of nature on this team, it’s definitely Nikita Whitlock. He’s a 5-foot-11 (just one foot shorter than Duncan) nose guard that has 12 tackles-for-loss already this season — which is more than Manti Te’o. He also has the best action hero name I’ve heard in a long time.

(I don’t know how good of a swimmer he is.)

Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray have been a solid running back tandem this year with Gray coming on strong in the last couple of games.  With a finite amount of opportunities for each back, how do you think BK should split the carries in the coming weeks?  Explain.

At this point, they should be splitting the carries pretty evenly, though I’d probably give Cierre more snaps, only because he’s more versatile in the passing game. What Jonas Gray has done this year after a tough opening drive is pretty incredible. That he’s been able to dig himself out from the shallow grave most Irish fans dug for him has been a testament to the kid’s really hard work.

When you opened the season, I don’t think after 8 games many people would’ve thought Gray would be chasing one of George Gipp’s rushing records. That said, after seeing Wood put his head down and run hard against Navy after a few slips in the open field, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him have a breakout game either.

Andrew Hendrix did not play against Navy.  Without speculating as to the reasons why he didn’t play against the Midshipmen, do you think he’s being underutilized?  Why or why not?

I actually think he’s being utilized perfectly. The kid just isn’t ready to start throwing the ball up the seam and running this entire offense, at least not the vertical part of it. While I get that everybody really wants a quarterback that can run the ball and make the offense a true spread running attack, the coaching staff knows what its quarterbacks can do, and if BK and company aren’t ready to let Hendrix throw a complete route tree, then I think everybody should trust them.

There’s no reason to speculate why Kelly didn’t use Hendrix against Navy. He essential said it: He didn’t think he needed him to win. (That, and I think it was more important to get Dayne Crist’s mojo back after the way his playing time against USC ended.)

Most importantly, this is an important lesson for Irish fans wishing for a stable football program. R-E-L-A-X! Andrew Hendrix is basically a freshman! He’s got three full seasons left in this program. If you want stability, stop demanding to see what a redshirt freshman can do on offense and openly worrying that if you don’t see it soon that Hendrix might transfer.

After inheriting a program that had zero healthy scholarship quarterbacks, Kelly has finally built some depth at the position. He’s likely losing Dayne Crist after this season, so there’ll be three quarterbacks left, and potentially one more if Kelly can convince Gunner Kiel to come to South Bend. That’s the way it should be. Remember, Matt Leinart was a third-stringer at this point in his career at USC. That’s what happens when you’ve got good depth.

What do the following series of statements mean—if anything— for Notre Dame versus Wake Forest this weekend?  Wake Forest beat NC State.  NC State beat Virginia. Virginia beat The U. The U beat Ohio State. Ohio State beat Illinois. Illinois beat Arizona State. Arizona State beat USC. USC beat Notre Dame.

I think the transitive property has gone mad.

That said, I’m not sure if you’re hinting at it, but you’ve hit on one of the essential problems that college football has right now — it’s a lack of connectivity. If you scratch your head like I do when the polls come out every week, it’s because the voters have a really hard time comparing teams, other than using a flawed process like the one you used above.

Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders, hit on the issue on his website BCFToys.com over a year and a half ago when he looked at the 2009 college football schedule as compared to the slate from 1989.

In 1989, there were 106 Division 1A (now called FBS) teams. A total of 582 games were played between those teams, including 18 bowl games. 52 of the total games (8.9 percent, or about 1 in 11) were played between teams ranked in the Associated Press final top-25.

In 2009, 120 FBS teams played a total of 714 games against one another, including 34 bowl games. Only 38 of the total games (5.3 percent, or about 1 in 20) were played between Associated Press final top-25 teams. (EDIT: Actually, 39 games were played in 2009, 5.5 percent, or about 1 in 19. The infographic doesn’t reflect that Clemson and Georgia Tech played twice).

The AP final top-25 was significantly more connected in 1989 than 2009. Only nine ranked teams played at least four games against other ranked teams last season; in 1989, 18 ranked teams did so. Twenty years ago, the AP top-10 either played or shared a common opponent with an average of 17 other ranked teams. In 2009, the AP top-10 either played or shared a common opponent with an average of only 12.6 other ranked teams.

In twenty years, the frequency of games played between top-25 teams has been cut by nearly 40 percent. The primary reason for the decline has been conference expansion. In 1989, 25 teams were independent, including AP final Nos. 1, 2 and 3 and six of the top-25 overall. In 2009, only 3 FBS teams were independent, none of which were ranked. Additionally, there were 94 FBS vs. FCS games played last year, 17 involving AP top-25 teams. Only 50 such games were played in 1989, two by AP top-25 teams.

In simple terms: People just aren’t playing each other that often. I mean — look at the blueprint shown by Nebraska or Penn State. In their non-conference slates, each only played one BCS conference team, for Nebraska it was Washington, for Penn State it was Alabama. In Penn State’s case, they lost, but have then rolled through a mediocre stretch of conference games like Indiana, Iowa, Purdue, Northwestern and Illinois — Forrest Gumping their way to wins while building an 8-1 record. By default they’re ranked No.16, even though if they were to face Notre Dame on a neutral field they’d be almost a touchdown underdog.

Like in everything else — people have learned how to manipulate the system, or at least stack the front-side of their schedule as easy as possible. But Penn State will now face Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin, before playing in a potential Big Ten Championship game. We’ll find out if they’re the real deal or like Michigan State was last year — incredibly exposed by Alabama in a bowl game.

What’s your prediction for Saturday’s game against the Demon Deacons and why?  Bonus points if your answer is a Haiku.

I hate making predictions on games, especially with this Irish team. If good Notre Dame shows up — expect a comfortable win. If bad Notre Dame shows up — expect a nail-biter. I’m inclined to think that the Irish can overwhelm Wake Forest on offense, while unleashing pass-rushers like Aaron Lynch on Tanner Price. But expect the loudest 32,000 people you’ve ever heard on Saturday night and a very fired up Wake Forest team.

Here’s my attempt at a haiku:

Night games on the road
No I won’t change the channel
Just don’t beat yourself

Swarbrick: Kelly will be back in 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly will be coaching Notre Dame in 2017. That’s according to his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So even with a 2-5 record and a difficult slate still to come, there will be no change atop the Irish football program.

“Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year,” Swarbrick told ESPN.com.

Swarbrick’s vote of confidence is nothing new—he’s taken a similar stance in his weekly appearances the past few weeks. But it likely became necessary as the season continues to frustrate, and Notre Dame’s head coaching position becomes part of the hot seat discussion.

But even with plenty to accomplish during this week off, both on the field and in the classroom, Kelly was out front and on the ESPN airwaves, openly shouldering the blame of this season’s failures, while also mentioning this is the youngest team at Notre Dame since 1972.

See the entire segment here:


Bye Week Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.

Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.

How we got here: The Defense

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week. 


Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.

How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?

Let’s look back.



When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.

That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.

That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.

Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.

Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.

But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.



The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.

But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.

[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]



Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.

The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.



Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.

“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”



While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.

Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.

Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.

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 Irish247.com 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.