NDFB practice

Irish eyes will be on the quarterbacks


Anyone that expected a tidy conclusion to the open four-man quarterbacking battle taking place under the close watch of Brian Kelly and new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin should’ve thought twice before making that assumption. With Kelly entering his third year in South Bend, a season that’s largely been a sink-or-swim proposition for Irish head coaches, Notre Dame will exit spring practice without having a starting quarterback.

It’s not lip service when Kelly says he’s giving every quarterback a chance to win the job. Whether that’s returning starter Tommy Rees, fellow junior-to-be Andrew Hendrix, redshirt freshman Everett Golson, or early-enrollee Gunner Kiel, the job is truly up for grabs. While many fans had hoped to see the stars align, it was never a battle the Irish staff expected to be resolve after 15 practices. Besides, you can’t blame the head coach for taking as much time as possible to make a decision that could likely have an impact on his fate as the face of the Fighting Irish.

“I need all those practices,” Kelly said, acknowledging that this race will bleed into August camp. “Now let’s go see who takes that and runs with it.”

Each quarterback isn’t without his own virtues. All four player bring something tangibly different to the table, and a logical argument can be made for every scholarship quarterback on the roster taking over the offense — an oddity that hasn’t existed in South Bend in over a decade. With talented players stocking the depth chart, spring wasn’t designed to be a competition, but rather a crash course on the fundamentals, this time applied by Kelly’s most trusted lieutenant.

“Each one of them has improved in the areas we’re looking for,” Kelly said. “The biggest point of emphasis was taking care of the football and not turning it over. We tracked all our throws, all of our decision-making, and I feel really good after the spring that our quarterbacks are well on their way to being the quarterbacks that we need, and that is very efficient, takes great care of the football, and can make the throws when necessary.”

There’s no exaggeration when Kelly claims the staff tracked every throw, and the progress made by a team that was a dreadful 118th in the country in turnover margin has been immediate. After throwing seventeen interceptions in 473 attempts last season, Irish quarterbacks have only thrown nine interceptions in 502 spring attempts.

We’ve spent thousands of words over the past few months looking at the candidates. Looking to get another perspective on things, I reached out to someone that’s probably been closer to these quarterbacks than just about anyone. Former Irish quarterback Matt Mulvey, the one-time captain of the Red Army, and Brian Kelly’s right-hand man on the sidelines, broke down the four quarterbacks with me, helping to give another look at the four-way battle that’ll likely continue until the Irish board a plane for Dublin.


The Skinny: Presumptive favorite to win the starting job after starting 12 games last season. Limited as a runner, and possessing the smallest arm of the four candidates, he’s got the best knowledge base of the offense, but needs to cut down a turnover rate.

Mulvey says: “He knows his job inside and out. Ninety-nine percent of those plays he made the right changes at the line. He’s got such a quick release and he protects himself so well that it’s hard to get to him. Right now, his knowledge of the playbook is far above the other three guys.”

My hunch: It’s Rees’ job to lose and Brian Kelly has all but said as much. While that might cause some bellyaching among the Irish faithful looking to break out one of the three shiny new cars in the garage, Kelly stated his opinion as candidly as possible: “Tommy’s thing was turnovers. If Tommy didn’t turn the football over at the rate he did last year, we’d be talking about this kid at the highest level. He did though, so that’s why it’s open competition.”


The Skinny: Possesses everything needed to be a top-flight collegiate quarterback. The best mix of runner and passer on the roster, Hendrix is a physically impressive athlete that is still a bit too mechanical as he finishes his third spring practice.

Mulvey says: “He’s capable of doing everything. He’s one of those Brady Quinn-type guys that’s a freak in the weight room. He’s a strong kid with an absolute cannon arm. That and his mobility are strengths. It comes down to knowing the playbook inside and out like it’s second nature. I think he’ll get more confidence with experience.”

My hunch: On paper, there’s nothing not to like about Hendrix. He tackles quarterbacking like he does his work in the classroom, with a tireless work ethic and diligence. But there’s an art to being a quarterback and the next evolutionary step for Hendrix is to find comfort in the uncertainty of the position. After missing out on the back-up quarterback reps last season with Dayne Crist still on the roster, he’ll benefit the most just by getting more time and comfort behind center.


The Skinny: The people’s champ, Golson’s skill-set is unrivaled. A natural athlete with preternatural instincts for the game, he’s got the athleticism of a point guard and an arm to make every throw on the field. Now the mental game needs to catch up to his abilities.

Mulvey says: “He’s so naturally gifted, he just grabs the ball and it comes out of his hands like a laser. It’s like watching Robert Griffin throw the football, just a flick of the wrist and it flies out of his hands. Sometimes you don’t know what’s going on in his head. He’ll run the right play, make the right read, and the right everything, but when you ask him about what his read and progression was he’ll hesitate. He’s come a long way with the playbook, and if he can instill some confidence in the coaches they will give him a shot.”

My hunch: A starting quarterback is in many ways an equity partner with the head coach. Golson has the biggest market cap of any of the competitors, but he’s also got the most risk. For a coach that just went through a season where erratic quarterback play sunk the offense, putting his team on the shoulders of a guy still learning is a big risk. He’s a true boom or bust candidate, but is the most intriguing player on the roster.


The Skinny: Early enrolled freshman is the first blue-chip quarterback Brian Kelly has every worked with. Swimming in the deep end for the first time, Kiel has an NFL set of talents that are just waiting to be developed.

Mulvey says: “He’s getting his fair chance and all the necessary reps. He’s coming in at the right time. They’ll give him his shot. Physically he’s got all the necessary tools, but high school is so much different than college. He needs to understand that he’s behind and he needs to catch up. Hopefully he’ll have a chip on his shoulder and work twice as hard as the other guys.”

My hunch: Kiel very well might be the quarterback of the future, but this spring as been a crash course in football, and Gunner’s head is probably still spinning. If Kiel emerges as a viable starting quarterback option, something has likely gone very wrong this season. There have been questions asked about Kiel’s potential by some analysts questioning his star rating. Those questions don’t exist on the Irish coaching staff, who know they’ve got a big-time prospect on their hands.

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.