Barkley Woods

Opposition round-up


With college football kicking off this weekend, Notre Dame wasn’t the only program that got to see what their team was made of. With a schedule that looked to be one of the most daunting slates in the country, I did my best to keep tabs on all the future Irish opponents.

Here’s a quick rundown of the opposition and how they looked in their respective season openers.

PURDUE — Just hours before the game, coach Danny Hope suspended quarterback Caleb TerBush for the game, citing a violation of team rules. That opened the door for sixth year quarterback Robert Marve, who overcame an early interception to breeze by Eastern Kentucky 48-6.

Purdue threw the ball 47 times against the Colonels, but also turned the ball over five times, something the Boilermakers will have to clean up as they move to a considerably more legitimate opponent.

Trending: They were what we thought they were, though the suspension of TerBush, who had just won the starting job, makes things interest.

MICHIGAN STATE — The Spartans probably had the most impressive performance of any team in the Big Ten, holding Boise State to only 206 yards of total offense as they rode running back Le’Veon Bell to a 17-13 victory.

If there’s a concern for Michigan State fans, it’s the passing game, with Andrew Maxwell throwing three interceptions in his first start after replacing Kirk Cousins. Linebacker Max Bullough led the defense in tackles and added 1.5 TFLs as the Spartans defense kept an entirely rebuilt Boise State roster in check.

Trending: The defense sounded to be as good as advertised, though they didn’t get a sack on the Broncos. If Mark Dantonio thinks he can give Le’Veon Bell 50 touches an afternoon, that might be saying more about his trust in the passing game than his love for Bell.

MICHIGAN — It appears one top-ten program in the state of Michigan has been exposed as paper lions. In what was supposed to be the premiere match-up of the college football weekend, Alabama absolutely dominated the Wolverines, neutralizing quarterback Denard Robinson while dominating the line of scrimmage.

Losing to Alabama is nothing to be ashamed of, but the 41-14 defeat never even seemed close. Making things more troubling is an injury to left tackle Taylor Lewan. Cornerback Blake Countess also was injured.

Trending: After a season where everything went right, the opening game couldn’t have gone more wrong for Michigan. The Wolverines will have a chance to right the ship with back-to-back dates with Air Force and Charley Molnar’s UMass squad before they head to South Bend.

MIAMI — After a slow start, the Hurricanes ran away from Boston College 41-32. Touted freshman Duke Johnson ran for 135 yards on just seven carries as Miami battled back from an early 14-point hole. Quarterback Shane Morris completed 28 of his 45 throws for 207 yards with both a TD and interception.

Trending: Eh. Not sure what to make of this game, though young Johnson, one of the most highly touted running backs to come out of Florida, could be worth keeping an eye on.

STANFORD — Life after Andrew Luck might not be so easy after all. Quarterback Josh Nunes played well enough in his debut, but a year after rolling over San Jose State by 54 points, the Cardinal needed to hold on and win 20-17. Stepfan Taylor ran for 116 yards in the win.

Trending: A win is a win. But this is far from impressive.

BYU — It was a pretty resounding victory for Bronco Mendenhall’s squad, spoiling Mike Leach’s debut at Washington State and rolling to an easy victory 30-6. Riley Nelson threw two touchdowns and for 285 yards and the the BYU defense held Wazzu to minus-five yards of rushing.

Trending: This will be an interesting test for the Irish, especially if the BYU passing attack is rounding into form.

OKLAHOMA — It was far from an impressive opening statement for the Sooners, who needed 14 fourth quarter points to pull away from UTEP. Landry Jones started slow before rallying his squad, but UTEP doomed itself after missing three field goals and failing on a fake punt.

Trending: The Sooners were a horrendous 5 of 16 on third down and struggling with efficiency. It’s certainly too soon to panic, but a mediocre debut for sure.

PITTSBURGH — It was a total calamity for new head coach Paul Chryst, who lost his debut to Youngstown State in rather convincing fashion 31-17. Ray Graham returned from an ACL injury, but had a critical fumble. Pitt also gave up over 200 yards on the ground and let the Penguins convert 11 of 16 third downs as Youngstown won their first game against a BCS school.

Trending: This could be an ugly season for Pitt, who might secretly be wishing they never fired Dave Wannstedt.

BOSTON COLLEGE — See above. Lost to Miami. That said, there were signs of life in the Eagles’ offense, a unit that’s been horrendous the past few seasons. Chase Rettig had a big day and hit Alex Amidon ten times for 149 yards.

Trending: Better than expected. But that’s not saying much.

WAKE FOREST — The Demon Deacons just barely scratched by Liberty, a FCS opponent that was tied with the Jim Grobe’s team heading into the fourth quarter. The offense struggled for much of the afternoon after replacing four starters up front. Tanner Price completed 16 of 28 passes, though the Deacs couldn’t reach 100 yards rushing.

Trending: Wake is going to go through some serious growing pains.

USC — The Trojans look every bit the offensive juggernaut expected as they raced off to a 35-point halftime lead over Hawaii and then cruised to a 49-10 win. Marquise Lee had a ridiculous 10 catches for 197 yards and also ran back a kickoff 100 yards for good measure. Matt Barkley completed 23 of 38 throws for 372 yards and four touchdowns.

Trending: Yikes. The Irish secondary has plenty of time to prepare for the dynamic passing offense of the Trojans. They’ll potentially be susceptible on defense but it might not matter with Barkley running the show.



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.