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The Commits: Secondary

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Part six of our series recapping the recruits ready to sign letters-of-intent with Notre Dame next Wednesday. (Or already on campus.) Previous installments include the running backsoffensive linewide receiversquarterbacks, and the front seven.

Taking a look at Notre Dame’s 2011 depth chart, it’s pretty clear that the Irish secondary needs reinforcements. Gone are Harrison Smith, Gary Gray, and Robert Blanton, three long time contributors that felt like they had been in Notre Dame uniforms forever.

In Brian Kelly‘s first season, it was the defensive staff’s job to get production out of a talented Irish secondary that wasn’t playing near its potential. A unit that was giving up an abysmal 8.0 yards a passing attempt was playing far beneath their potential. From a strictly star-rating perspective, the recent secondary Kelly inherited was plenty talented, yet had struggled to get much from the rankings bestowed on them coming out of high school:

Darrin Walls — No. 3 CB in country, No. 51 overall (Four-star ranking)
Gary Gray — No. 9 CB in country, No. 78 overall (Four-star ranking)
Robert Blanton – No. 22 safety in the country (Four-star ranking)
Harriston Smith — No. 25 all-purpose athlete in the country. (Four-star ranking)

More to the problem, Kelly needed to solve a bigger issue: A shocking lack of depth. While it wasn’t discussed much then, Notre Dame just didn’t recruit enough defensive backs in the last three seasons of Charlie Weis‘ regime. In 2007, the Irish landed Smith and Gray. In 2008, they landed Blanton, McCarthy, and Jamoris Slaughter. In 2009, they only signed E.J. Banks, who would become an academic casualty before the 2010 season and enroll at Pitt after first semester.

In the 2010 class that Kelly inherited, the Irish already had commitments from Spencer Boyd and Lo Wood at cornerback and Chris Badger at safety. Boyd would enroll early, but head back home to Florida before ever playing a game. (He’s now at USF.) Kelly quickly added Austin Collinsworth as his first commitment. He flipped wide receiver and special teams dynamo Bennett Jackson to cornerback after he freshman season, joined by Collinsworth in the secondary after the two were special teams stalwarts their freshmen season.

Even adding Josh Atkinson, Jalen Brown, and Eilar Hardy to the depth chart, Notre Dame knew it needed to make the secondary a priority after what looked like years of neglecting to understand the sheer volume needed at the position grouping. With a few wildcard possibilities still out there, let’s take a look at the five players (including one already on campus) that plan on signing with the Irish tomorrow.

NICKY BARATTI
High School: Klein Oak — Spring, Texas
Measureables: Six-foot-two, 215-pounds
Other major offers: Arizona State, Kansas State, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Northwestern, Texas Tech
Fun Fact: Went from quarterback to wide receiver for his Klein Oak team, but will play safety at Notre Dame.
On choosing Notre Dame: “Notre Dame is an amazing place,” Baratti told Irish Illustrated. “It’s just Notre Dame. What I’ve found out is no other school compares to Notre Dame, facility-wise and even coaching-wise.”
What he’ll bring to the defense: In many ways, Baratti is a perfect developmental recruit. After a senior season derailed from a concussion in the season’s opening game, Baratti switched from quarterback to wide receiver for his Klein Oak team, while also playing safety on defensive. That versatility brings a diverse pallet to South Bend, where he’ll be developed by new safeties coach Bobby Elliott and co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks. Perhaps the one thing most intriguing about Baratti is his combination of size and speed. Already a prototype safety, Baratti will benefit from a collegiate strength and conditioning program, and will also bring top-flight speed to South Bend. In an era of fake 40 times, Baratti’s speed seems legit, but more impressively, his quickness is off the charts. Bryan Driskell of IrishSportsDaily.com points out that while Baratti’s 4.52 40 time was impressive, Baratti ran lightning quick 10-yard and 20-yard dashes, faster than elite burners like Brian Kimbrow, Marvin Bracy, and even Ronald Darby (1.36, 2.42 vs. 1.52, 2.57 head-to-head with Darby). His offers aren’t the flashiest, but Baratti will be a fun one to watch develop.

CJ PROSISE
High School: Woodberry Forest School — Woodberry Forest, Virginia
Measureables: Six-foot-three, 195-pounds
Other major offers: Boston College, Maryland, North Carolina, Penn State, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Wisconsin
Fun Fact: Finished second in the state of Virginia with a 100m dash of 10.9 seconds.
On choosing Notre Dame: “I can’t wait to be around the great tradition and being part of a winning program,” Prosise told BlueandGold.com. “I’m ready to help bring the National Championship back to South Bend.”
What he’ll bring to the defense: Prosise is another under-the-radar recruit, but the more you dig in the more you like what you see. Looking for speed? He finished second in the state in the 100m dash. Looking for special teams ability? Prosise had five return touchdowns this season alone. Prosise had six interceptions during his senior season, where he was named Central Virginia’s defensive player of the year. He’s a tall and rangy athlete that at the very least could come in immediately and help in special teams. It’ll be interesting to see if Prosise is a good enough athlete to excel in coverage, which would make an athlete of his size even more valuable.

TEE SHEPARD
High School: Washington Union — Fresno, California
Measureables: Six-foot-one, 186-pounds
Other major offers: Alabama, Auburn, Cal, Oregon, Miami, UCLA, USC, Washington
Fun Fact: Forced to sit out senior season of high school football because of CIF transfer rules.
On choosing Notre Dame: “I’m really happy to part of the Notre Dame football family. This is a special place and I’m excited to finally be here. Getting a jump start on my training and in my classes can only help me for the future.”
What he’ll bring to the defense: A cornerback that should walk in and compete immediately for playing time. Has perfect size and athleticism for cornerback. After sitting out the entire season, Shepard had impressive showings on the All-Star circuit during the postseason. With the likely loss of Ronald Darby, Shepard became one of the most important recruits on the Irish board, as he’ll be looked upon to fill the vacancy at cornerback that’s now on the roster. Shepard might not have elite speed, but he’s shown excellence coverage skills at The Opening, the preseason Nike combine as well as during the Cal-State All-Star game, where he returned an interception for a touchdown.

ELIJAH SHUMATE
High School: Don Bosco Prep — West Orange, New Jersey
Measureables: Six-foot-one, 205-pounds
Other major offers: Georgia, Georgia Tech, Miami, Michigan, Oklahoma, Penn State, Rutgers, South Carolina
Fun Fact: Played at Don Bosco for coach Greg Toal, whose son Brian spurned an offer from Ty Willingham to play for the Irish and instead starred at Boston College.
On choosing Notre Dame: “I used to be a Michigan and Ohio State man,” Shumate told the Bergen Record. “My Dad always told me if I had a chance to go to college, Notre Dame would be my favorite school.”
What he’ll bring to the defense: Shumate looks like a wrecking ball out there, and he’ll immediately join Jamoris Slaughter as one of the most physical players in the secondary. From one look at his offer list, you can see that Shumate’s an elite player and the type of recruit that usually gets Irish fans excited, though his commitment came when people seemed more worried about who was leaving than who was coming on board. Long expected to end up elsewhere, Shumate’s recruiting turned on a dime when he visited Notre Dame, immediately turning his focus to the Irish. He’s also an impressive running back, where the Irish coaching staff has discussed giving him a look as well.

JOHN TURNER
High School: Cathedral — Indianapolis, Indiana
Measureables: Six-foot-two, 205-pounds
Other major offers: Minnesota, Indiana, Temple, Miami (OH)
Fun Fact: Turner’s Cathedral team drubbed Gunner Kiel’s Columbus East team 62-7 on the way to back-to-back state championships.
On choosing Notre Dame: “It just feels great that I worked for my offer,” Turner told Irish Illustrated. “Hard work pays off. I don’t think enough people realize how far you can get with just hard work and determination.”
What he’ll bring to the defense: Turner proved plenty of skeptics wrong when he received an offer from the Irish coaching staff after going to their football camp over the summer. Likely, some of those skeptics were on the Irish staff, unsure of whether or not the jumbo-sized defensive back had enough speed to compete in the secondary. Turner ran a 4.5 forty for the coaches, and likely answered enough questions for them with that performance, earning him a scholarship offer. Turner plays cornerback for Cathedral, was named first-team All-State, and offers elite size for a guy that’s currently playing cornerback. Every article we’ve read so far points to Turner being a safety, but don’t be surprised if the coaching staff gives him every opportunity to play on the outside of the defense.

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.