Nelson Agholor

Irish head down recruiting home stretch


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. 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.








How we got here: Roster Attrition

Rees Golson Kiel

There is the team you recruit and then the team that you coach. And for Brian Kelly, the team he could be coaching certainly isn’t the one that’s taking the field.

Turnover on the Notre Dame roster is by no means exclusive to the Kelly era. For as long as you’ve likely been following Irish football, players have been coming and going–often times sooner than four or five years.

But as we look at the sources of this disappointing season, how this became Notre Dame’s youngest roster since 1972 is worth a look. Because as Brian Kelly struggles to win with a team that’s playing a stack of underclassmen while his fourth and fifth-year classes are all but gone, it’s amazing to see the attrition that’s struck this roster, especially considering this should be when the Irish are feeling the benefits of their national title game appearance.

From fifth-year candidates to sophomores, 20 signees have left the Irish program. That includes transfers, dismissals, withdrawals, injuries or walking away. (It doesn’t include leaving early for the NFL.)

The talent drain has taken big names and small, included five-star prospects like Gunner Kiel, Eddie Vanderdoes, Greg Bryant and most recently Max Redfield. It’s featured shortened career of projected 2016 starters Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson, and shown the bad luck the Irish staff has had bringing in pass rushers.

Let’s look at how this team got so young.


Gunner Kiel, QB — 5 star
Tee Shepard, CB — 4 star
Davonte Neal, WR — 4 star
Will Mahone, RB — 3 star
Justin Ferguson, WR — 3 star

Recap: The second phase of Brian Kelly’s star-crossed quarterback run came after Gunner Kiel transferred after a redshirt season, leaving before Everett Golson was declared academically ineligible. Had Kiel stuck around, who knows what would’ve happened. The departure of Tee Shepard was also costly, the highly-touted cornerback never dressing for the Irish after his early enrollment didn’t help clear up academic issues that seemed to plague him for the rest of his football playing career.

Neal reemerged at Arizona, moving to the defensive side of the ball. Mahone’s high-profile dismissal came after an ugly incident in his hometown of Youngstown, but resulted in a life-changing turnaround. Add in the early departures (though successful careers) of Ronnie Stanley and CJ Prosise and you begin to see how this group certainly accomplished plenty, but left a ton on the table.


Greg Bryant, RB — 5 star
Max Redfield, S — 5 star
Eddie Vanderdoes, DT — 5 star
Steve Elmer, OL — 4 star
Corey Robinson, WR — 4 star
Mike Heuerman, TE — 4 star
Doug Randolph, DL — 4 star
Rashad Kinlaw, DB — 3 star
Michael Deeb, LB — 3 star

Recap: This group could’ve redefined the roster. While Bryant and Redfield never played up to their potential before being cut loose from the university, a front-line defensive lineman like Vanderdoes would’ve changed the complexion of the Irish defense.

Below the radar, the losses of Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson certainly hurt more than we expected. Neither were breakaway talents, but both more than good enough to been veteran starters on a team that clearly needed a few more of them.

The bottom half of this list almost stands out just because they were big swings and misses. With the Heuerman, Kinlaw, and Deeb, the Irish took shots on a few less-than-elite names and came up empty, with Heuerman and Deeb never able to shake off injuries before eventually going on medical hardships. A big recruiting class coming off a historic season, this group had plenty of success, but could’ve been more.


Nile Sykes, LB — 3 stars
Grant Blankenship, DE — 3 stars
Kolin Hill, DE — 3 stars
Jhonathon Williams, DE — 3 stars

Recap: Four defenders, four front seven players, three pass rushers. When Irish fans wonder where the pass rush is, it’s misses like this that end up really hurting. Sykes, Hill and Williams were hardly national prospects. Blankenship was an early target with modest offers, though a strong senior season brought interest from Texas.

Hill’s pass rush skills were evident from his situational use as a freshman. His departure left a hole, and he’s now the second-leading tackler behind the line of scrimmage for Texas Tech. Sykes never made it onto the Irish roster, and is now the sack leader for Indiana. Williams is now in the mix at Toledo, a reach by the Irish staff who saw him as a developmental prospect.


Mykelti Williams, DB — 4 star
Jalen Guyton, WR — 3 star
Bo Wallace, DE — 3 star

Recap: Three wash outs that seemed like promising prospects when they committed. Williams was especially important, a key piece at a position of need who is now reviving his career at Iowa Western CC. Guyton is also taking the Juco route, the leading receiver at Trinity Valley CC in Texas. Wallace is an edge rusher now at Arizona State, never making it to campus after Brian Kelly spoke highly of the New Orleans prospect on Signing Day.


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.