Bennett Jackson 2

Counting down the Irish: 20-16


RECOUNT UPDATE: If there was any question whether I’ve been out of the finance game too long, your fearless leader messed up his Excel spreadsheet and jacked up the rankings. This changes a few of the players we’ve tallied and puts Zeke Motta in at No. 25. My sincere apologies.


Not surprisingly, the inclusion of quarterback Tommy Rees in the Top 25 rankled more than a few Irish fans ready to turn the page on the Rees era. I’ve spent a few thousand words talking about the pros and cons of Rees at quarterback and have no interest igniting that debate again.

Looking at our first five players, it’s worth noting that two back-up players are more highly regarded than incumbents. For football fans, the back-up quarterback is always the most popular. Apparently, that’s partially true for this panel as well.

If the first five names on this list were interesting, No. 20-16 are down right fascinating. Not one of the players has started a game. Only one is an upperclassmen eligibility wide. (Corrected because I messed up the math.) Yet if you were to look at the five names listed, you could argue these are five of the most important swing players on the roster. Get great seasons out of this group? Notre Dame should surprise some people. Don’t? It could be a long year.

Once again, here’s our voting panel:

Eric Hansen, South Bend Tribune @HansenSouthBend
John Walters, The Daily @jdubs88
John Vannie,
Eric Murtaugh, representing  @OneFootDown
Ryan Ritter, representing @HLS_NDtex
Keith Arnold,’s Inside the Irish @KeithArnoldNBC

Here’s the list as it stands:

IRISH 2012 Top 25
25. Zeke Motta (S, Sr.)
24. Tommy Rees (QB, Jr.)
23. Andrew Hendrix (QB, Jr.)
22. Davonte Neal (WR, Fr.)
21. TJ Jones (WR, Jr.)


20. Robby Toma (WR, Sr.) Ranking Toma ahead of Jones doesn’t make sense from a statistical point of view. Yet the senior slot receiver, whose best season has yet to yield 20 catches, saw lots of love by our voters, including two votes inside the top 15. Once thought of as just a throw in to help persuade high school teammate Manti Te’o to head to South Bend, Toma has made believers out of fans, players, and coaches, and is expected to hold down the slot receiver job during his final season in South Bend. Toma’s productivity, when given a chance, has always been among the best of the Irish receivers. He’s expected to get a lot of chances this season.

(Highest ranking: 11th. Lowest ranking: Unranked x 3)

19. Christian Lombard (OL, Jr.) It’s not a question of if Lombard is going to play, it’s a question of where. Lombard is the leader in the clubhouse at both right tackle and right guard, and the coaching staff seems comfortable with him at either spot. After sitting out his freshman year, Irish coaches were bullish enough on Lombard that they were fine letting tackle Matt Romine spend his final year of eligibility in Tulsa. Stuck behind veterans Taylor Dever and Trevor Robinson last season, Lombard still logged minutes in all 13 games. He’s a big, physical, ready-to-play grinder that looks to be an anchor along the line for the next three seasons.

(Highest ranking: 12th. Lowest ranking: Unranked x 2)

18. Davaris Daniels (WR, So.) Expectations for Daniels are sky high, as reflected here. We’ve been told he’s talented enough and athletic enough to be a difference maker, but sitting out his freshman season means there had to have been some rough edges that needed to be worked on. Expected to help fill the void left by Michael Floyd, Daniels has the size and speed needed to be a No. 1 wide receiver. We’ve just got no idea if he’s got the ability yet. The Irish coaching staff are certainly hoping he does. With the Irish desperately in need of making some more big-chunk plays down the field, Daniels is a guy that looks to fit the bill.

(Highest ranking: 13th. Lowest ranking: 25th)

17. Troy Niklas (TE, So.) After a promising freshman season saw Niklas contribute at outside linebacker and occasionally along the defensive line, head coach Brian Kelly made probably the most ambitious personnel move in his tenure by switching the 6-foot-7, 252-pound sophomore to tight end, where he’ll add another intriguing athlete to a position group that’s awfully talented. Early reports on Niklas have all been mighty impressive, yet the one big question mark is his health. Niklas missed a few spring practices after what was thought to be a concussion. But after being checked by a specialist in Southern California, there’s confidence that those concussions might be a form of ocular migraine headaches, somewhat of a relief. Limitations in the spring mean Niklas will need to take advantage of fall camp if he’s going to be the weapon many believe he’ll be.

(Highest ranking: 11th. Lowest ranking: Unranked x 2)

16. Bennett Jackson (CB, Jr.) If there’s a player I think might be underrated on this list it’s Jackson. Taking over at the boundary cornerback position, the Irish coaching staff is incredibly high on the converted wide receiver, who showed some dynamic athleticism and tackling ability on special teams the past two seasons, and looked at home in limited minutes in the secondary. There may be plenty to worry about in the Irish secondary this year, but Jackson isn’t one. He’s still a raw prospect out on the edge that’s learning the intricacies of the position, but his combination of speed, athleticism and physicality has some believing the Irish have an elite talent at corner. A lingering shoulder injury is something to keep an eye on this fall.

(Highest ranking: 13th. Lowest ranking: 22nd)


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.

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 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.