Nelson Agholor

Irish head down recruiting home stretch

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Next Wednesday, thousands of college football fans around the country will wake up with it feeling like Christmas morning. That’s because after over a year of building relationships with high school prospects, fax machines across the country will get their annual workout as Letters-of-Intent roll into football offices, with Notre Dame expecting to receive fourteen letters (Sheldon Day, Gunner Kiel and Tee Shepard are already enrolled), with the potential to add another handful of elite players that could turn this class into one of the best in the country.

Next Wednesday, we’ll have a chance to roll out the players who have inked with the Irish. Until then, let’s take a look at the players still up for grabs.

With Gunner Kiel leaving LSU at the altar, the Irish managed to pull arguably the nation’s best quarterback into the fold at the eleventh hour, another amazing recruiting victory by Brian Kelly, who personally recruited Kiel for much of the process.

That said, if the Irish are going to move the needle at Signing Day, it’ll be because they added to their recruiting class with a last minute commitment from some of the most highly touted targets left on their board:

Nelson Agholor, WR: If there’s a big fish left on the offensive board, it’s Agholor. Unfortunately for the Irish, if they don’t end up reeling him in, they’ll likely still see him every season, as it’s looking more and more like Agholor could be heading to Southern California to play for the Trojans.

Agholor reminds me a bit of George Farmer, another all-everything recruit that ended up at USC, and bounced between running back and wide receiver this past season. Rivals.com has him in the top three at his position, among the top 20 players in the country, and he fits the academic profile of a Notre Dame student perfectly.

What he’d bring to ND: Teamed with Greenberry, Agholor would give the Irish the most celebrated recruiting class at the position in the country. (It can’t hurt that the Irish have been the landing spot for high profile transfers from both USC and Florida State, two finalists for Agholor’s services.)

Davonte Neal, WR: Notre Dame was able to get the first official visit for Neal, one of the Southwest’s premiere playmakers, who waited until after winning the Arizona state championship to take any official visits. The Irish are in good shape, but will likely battle through Signing Day for Neal, who plans on taking his time making a decision.

Expect Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes to be the team to beat, with Neal having family in Ohio and getting the Meyer sales pitch that he’ll play the role of Percy Harvin. (That said, don’t count out Rich Rodriguez, now for the hometown Arizona Wildcats.)

What he’d bring to ND: It’s almost ridiculous to imagine the Irish landing both Neal and Agholor, giving the Irish three of the top players in the country at their position. Neal would immediately be the Irish’s most dangerous athlete in the slot, and his recruiting tape is about as impressive as it gets.

Arik Armstead, DL: What happens with Armstead (not to mention his brother Armond) is anyone’s guess. The mammoth prospect did the smart thing and passed up early enrollment, with just too many variables still in play. Already graduated, but not set to attend any school until summer, Armstead will likely attract visitors from every corner of the country, but Notre Dame will be there until the very end. As a two-sport athlete, Armstead will play basketball and football in college, and while talent evaluators can’t decide whether he’d be better on the offensive or defensive line, he’s the kind of prospect the Irish would just welcome in the door and figure out where to put later.

What he’d bring to ND: If Armstead ends up in South Bend, that’s another recruiting class where Notre Dame cherry-picks one of the nation’s top defensive linemen, after struggling to get anyone since what feels like the Holtz era. Armstead likely brings his brother Armond, who needs medical clearance for an undisclosed ailment, but is an NFL caliber defensive end with one year of eligibility remaining.

Ken Ekanem, LB: After loading up at the linebacker position, the Irish only have Romeo Okwara committed at the outside linebacker spot in the 2012 recruiting class. One name that might still jump on board is Virginia’s Ken Ekanem, a middle linebacker that tore his ACL during the state playoffs. The injury forced Ekanem to delay his official visit, finally set for this weekend. The Irish will likely battle Virginia Tech for Ekanem’s signature, and it still remains to be seen if they’re at a place where they’ll accept his commitment.

What he’d bring to ND: With Manti Te’o returning for his senior season, Ekanem would be a luxury item, and likely one that’d come to ND if the Irish miss on other targets that fill greater needs. Either way, Ekanem will likely spend 2012 getting healthy, especially with depth in the middle plentiful.

Ronald Darby, CB: Notre Dame long counted Darby among its most high profile commitments. But after staying true to his commitment for much of the process, Darby opened things up after the Under Armor All-American game, while still keeping the Irish in play along with Clemson, Florida State, and Auburn. Darby is among the fastest players in the country and Brian Kelly will be in his household to try and get Darby back in the fold.

What he’d bring to ND: If Darby ends up at Notre Dame, he’ll team with Tee Shepard to be the most impressive cornerbacking duo in the country (in terms of recruiting rankings). With both Gary Gray and Robert Blanton gone, Darby would step onto campus an immediate candidate for playing time and could make an instant impact on special teams as well.

Brian Poole, CB: The Irish haven’t given up on Poole, a commit to the Florida Gators who has built a strong relationship with Tony Alford. Poole is in that same stratosphere with Darby and Shepard, one of the best players in Florida and a guy that could also immediately challenge for playing time in South Bend. He’s reaffirmed his commitment to the Gators every time he’s been asked about it the media, but don’t expect the Irish to go down without a fight.

What he’d bring to ND: Another elite cornerback that’d immediately make a mark in the depth chart. If the Irish were somehow able to sign Darby, Shepard, and Poole, Irish fans should be dancing in the street.

Anthony Standifer, CB: Far from a backup plan, Standifer was long committed to Michigan before mutually parting ways with the Wolverines and opening back up his recruitment. The Illinois native was on campus last weekend, and it sounds like only a foreign language requirement (something he could pick up this spring) is in between the Irish and this 6-foot-1 cover cornerback.

What he’d bring to ND: Standifer might not come with the prestige of the guys we just listed, but he’s far from a program body and has offers from Pitt, Iowa, and Wisconsin — nothing to sneeze at. Standifer would give the Irish another versatile athlete at cornerback, helping solidify a spot with a lot of balls in the air.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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)
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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.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Duke

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Anthony Nash #83 of the Duke Blue Devils runs for a touchdown during the second half of a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s move was emphatic. Brian VanGorder’s departure confirms that a 1-3 record is unacceptable. And the demise of this team was as swift as the departure of a colleague Brian Kelly has known for the bulk of his 25-plus year coaching career.

But that’s the job. And the move likely wasn’t easy for a head coach who saw himself as close to tenured as any man this side of Lou Holtz had been, and is now clearly in uncharted territory.

“I’m under review, as well,” Kelly acknowledged on Sunday afternoon. “We’re all in this together: All the players, coaches, everybody. So players’ jobs are on the line. Every job is being evaluated as the players. All coaches’ jobs are on the line as well.”

With Greg Hudson now directing the defense, and Syracuse having run more offensive plays than every program but three, the challenge this weekend is stark. So let’s move forward ourselves and finish off the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter WilliamsBrian Kelly gave him credit, so let’s start there. Williams ran hard, looked explosive and flashed on special teams.

It’s time for Williams to get some more reps, even if it means taking away from Josh Adams’ leading load as well as Tarean Folston‘s.

 

Donte Vaughn. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback wasn’t perfect—he got beat inside a few times on slant routes that everybody in the building saw coming. But he came up big and made a play, something Notre Dame’s defensive backs haven’t done since Shaun Crawford went down for the season.

His length and cover skills should be put to the test again next weekend when Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo looks to replicate his monster 270-yard performance against UConn. The focus will be on Cole Luke, Vaughn, Julian Love and Nick Coleman.

 

Kevin Stepherson. The freshman only caught three balls, but all of them were big gainers,  including his beautiful 44-yard touchdown catch. With Torii Hunter unable to push the lid off opponents, Stepherson might be a better fit for the X moving forward, assuming he continues to learn the playbook and run precise routes.

 

The Weather. Looked like a heckuva day in South Bend, at least from a weather perspective.

 

THE BAD

The tackling. That was one of the worst tackling performances I can remember. Especially against a team that was anemic on offense heading into the weekend. Name a defender and you’ll recall a missed tackle.

Drue Tranquill held on to a few early, then had some ugly whiffs. Cole Luke, a guy Brian Kelly called the team’s smartest football player last week, sure looked lost a few times, too. And with hopes that Devin Studstill is the answer at free safety, Studstill did his best to make us wonder about that, too. He took some horrific routes to footballs, a difficult day at the office for a young kid who needs to learn quickly.

When your senior captain outside linebacker is getting run over by a quarterback for a first down and you’re thinking, “at least he made the tackle,” the bar has been lowered pretty significantly. But another week of “thudding” at practice might be needed—even with heavy installation coming soon.

 

The special teams. A missed field goal proved costly. So did some horrific tackling and coverage on the kickoff return that let Duke back into the game. And for the fourth time this season, Tyler Newsome flubbed his first kick of the game. (All but asking for the nickname Mulligan to emerge.)

Scott Booker has a ton of kids on his run teams. But they’ve got to get some consistency out there if they want CJ Sanders to help turn this into a positive, not another unit to hide.

 

The pass rush. Yes, the drought is over, with Nyles Morgan getting the first sack of the season for the Irish. But man—this team has a gigantic hole on it and finding any type of pass rush is critical.

Sure, Duke’s quick passing game took advantage of the Irish’s leaky secondary and didn’t let Notre Dame get to the quarterback. But at this point, every snap you’re giving Andrew Trumbetti over a kid who can get to the quarterback—Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, or anyone—feels lost.

 

The coaching. Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said the following, when asked about an evaluation of his defensive coaching and game plan.

“That’s probably the one area that I feel better about today. We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today,” Kelly said.

That was likely a time-buyer until a long night of thinking, because morning brought clarity for the head man.

 

THE UGLY

The State of the Program. With the game tied 28-28 heading into the fourth quarter, one team was jumping around like they’d won the lotto. The other was all but biting their fingernails, kicking dirty and looking lethargic.

If anything set off Kelly postgame—even more so than the defense his troops were displaying—it was the lack of effort.

“There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth,” Kelly said. “You’re playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it’s work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.

“There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s where we got to go.”

In Kelly’s first few seasons in South Bend, he was criticized for having his team celebrate victories, even the ugly ones. But somewhere this program lost track of the ultimate goal and that likely falls on the head coach to fix that problem as soon as possible.

 

Firing a staffer. Notre Dame’s head coach likely saw what many of us saw as well. But a decision like that from the cheap-seats is one thing, a decision from inside the program is another.

Follow Notre Dame long enough, and you’ll tire of thinking about the carousel that’s come and gone—Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis, armies of loyal assistants who have spent years working to climb the summit. And for most, life after Notre Dame isn’t the same.

Sure, there’s Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong. But there are a few dozen others who have come to a program with noble ambitions—willing to do it right and win on and off the field—but they fail too often on Saturdays.

So as ND Nation almost united in celebration of the move, it’s worth a quick word to a fanbase that always fashions itself as possessing proper etiquette.

Few come to your office and celebrate the worst day of your professional career. Less dig into your family’s Twitter account, hoping to break a story or confirm news they celebrate jubilantly. Sure, some of that comes with the territory. And certainly VanGorder was well compensated for his time in South Bend.

But ultimately, this Sunday hopefully provided some perspective. Baseball lost one of its brightest young stars. Golf lost one of its icons. And many many more things of consequence took place—inside the sporting world and out.

But when it comes to VanGorder, a quick reminder of something that has nothing to do with sports. A man has lost his job. A family will uproot once again. And the dynamics on the current football team—where Montgomery VanGorder still plays an important role—won’t ever be the same.

“I will tell you this: Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there. He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn’t working.”

There should be no harm in that.

VanGorder out as defensive coordinator

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)
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Brian VanGorder has been fired. Notre Dame’s third-year defensive coordinator was relieved of his duties after just four games.

Brian Kelly made the move official Sunday morning, less than an hour before his weekly Sunday teleconference. He’s replaced VanGorder with defensive analyst Greg Hudson, a former Notre Dame linebacker who joined the Irish staff in June and spent the last three seasons as defensive coordinator at Purdue, a position he also held at East Carolina and Minnesota. The rest of the defensive staff remains unchanged.

“Obviously, this is a difficult day for our coaching staff, but I’m excited and honored about the opportunity that Coach Kelly has afforded me,” Hudson said in the team’s statement. “We’ve got to improve on defense, without a doubt, and I’m confident that we will. We have great student-athletes and a tremendous defensive coaching staff. I can’t wait to get started with our group.”

The VanGorder era ends with the Irish ranked 101st in scoring defense, 96th in rushing defense and 87th in pass defense. The Irish are dead last in sacks, the last FBS team to get one when Nyles Morgan finally got the team’s first sack against Duke.

Hired after Bob Diaco left Notre Dame for the head job at UConn, VanGorder brought with him an NFL system and a multiple, attacking scheme. But after injuries derailed his first season, it was a defense best known for its maddening inconsistency, with even last season’s talented outfit plagued by the big play and mistakes.

As late as Saturday night Kelly pledged allegiance to his defensive coordinator, calling the staff’s game plan the least of his concerns after the 38-35 loss.

“We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective,” Kelly said.