Brian Kelly

Tuesdays with BK: Bring on the Spartans


Before Brian Kelly turned his focus to No. 10 Michigan State, the head coach succinctly wrapped up the Irish’s fairly unimpressive 20-17 victory over Purdue.

“Collectively as a team, we did not play our best football,” Kelly said. “There’s a higher standard for the way we should play offensively, defensively. But again, I will tell you that any time you beat a Big Ten opponent, you’re pleased with the outcome. I told our team this: Winning is not easy, and we found a way to win the football game. But we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

You can watch the entirety of the press conference below, but here are a few things that stuck out to me.


Each opponent brings along its own specific challenge. With Michigan State, it’s pretty clear that after two seasons, Kelly knows what to expect.

“I think the team that can control the football, minimize the turnovers, is going to be the team that has the best chance to win,” Kelly said. “So if Michigan State can exert their will on both fronts, the offensive line and defensive line, I think we probably know how that game is going to go. We felt like we have to be able to exert our same kind of presence on both sides of the ball and then do all of the other things that require you to win.

“I think that we know playing at Michigan State and playing them last year, it’s going to come down to a couple of plays and it probably will this year, as well. I think our focus has strictly been on each and every play to make a difference in the game, as evidenced in 2010.”

Both teams are trotting out fairly raw quarterbacks. After two weeks, it appears Everett Golson has the upperhand on Andrew Maxwell, who threw three interceptions against Boise State before righting the ship in the Spartan’s easy victory over Central Michigan. Kelly gave his assessment of Golson’s play after two weeks.

“I think he’s a work‑in‑progress. He’s somebody that’s had two starts,” Kelly said. “He was on scout team at this time last year. He continues to get better. We expect him to start and finish the game. We don’t go into the week with any thoughts other than he’s going to start it and he’s going to finish for us.”

To that point, Kelly spoke more pointedly about removing Golson from the field when the Irish were in their two-minute offense late in the game. After a second half of largely ineffective offense and a playclock that seemed to be getting away from the young quarterback, Kelly talked about the process of playing quarterback, not just the physical act — which Golson has done quite well.

“Some of it is housekeeping if you will,” Kelly said. “Getting the play, getting it communicated, all of those things, which he is learning. And he’s seeing it for the first time. He’s look at it and he’s going, ‘wow, it took me seven seconds to actually get up there, maybe I need to speed up — I call it housekeeping. Getting the play, verbalizing it, getting everybody set, making sure everybody is set.

“I’d rather be doing that than worry about whether my quarterback has the ability to play the position.”


After having many people worry about a young and unseasoned Irish secondary, the Irish went and held the Purdue passing game below 200 yards, a nice afternoon against two veteran signal callers. When asked what he expected to see out of his defense after a shaky opening performance against Navy, Kelly sounded confident that he knew what he had in cornerbacks Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell.

“I wasn’t panicked,” Kelly said after reviewing the team’s performance against Navy. “We were in some option defenses that stressed us and put some guys in positions that normally they wouldn’t be in. We felt very comfortable going into the Purdue week that we were going to play the kind of pass defense necessary. Bennett came up with a couple interceptions. KeiVarae played solid football. We got good play from Elijah Shumate, who broke up a third down conversion opportunity. Matthias Farley had to play a ton of football when Jamoris went down. All in all, we were pleased with their development, but we were confident that as we continue to progress, and they are going to get better and they are not there yet, but we feel like they are the right guys for us and they are going to get the job done.”
Kelly also praised the work safety Zeke Motta did, running the back end of a defense filled with incredibly raw players after Slaughter went out.

“Zeke Motta was outstanding,” Kelly said. “Not only does he have to get himself in the right place, but you have to get three other guys lined up, as well.”


Kelly talked about getting a better performance out of his offensive line. While Mike Golic Jr. seems to be taking the brunt of the criticism for his play against All-American Kawann Short, the entire line needed to do a better job against a physical front, and Kelly admitted that the staff needed to put the players in a better position to succeed.

“We were not in a great position to run the football most of the time. I think in retrospect we could have done a better job as a staff and finding ways to just lock some runs in there and get after it,” Kelly said. “But clearly we are going to have to play better up front against Michigan State. Our guys are capable. We still feel like we have a very, very good group. We did get beat on some individual moves but again, we think that as a group, and I know coach Harry Hiestand believes that, that this group together can get the job done at a high level for us.”


On a personnel news, it appears the Irish got nothing but good news on the injury front. While wide receiver Davaris Daniels was in a protective boot over the weekend helping his ankle heal, the Irish should be all hands on deck this Saturday night, and will also welcome Danny Spond back to the fold, perfect timing as the Irish preparing to play a lot of defense where both Spond and Ben Councell will be utilized playing the ‘Dog’ linebacker.

“I think the big addition would be Danny Spond. He’s been cleared to practice today, which should clear up that drop position for us a lot better,” Kelly said. “We can go back to our original plan of Councell and Spond at the drop position. And that would be the hope moving forward that we are able to stabilize that dropped position with Danny.”


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.


Irish suffer first recruiting defection with Donovan Jeter


After five losses, Notre Dame suffered their first consequence of a poor season in recruiting. Donovan Jeter, a four-star defensive lineman, has stepped away from his verbal commitment.

Jeter made the news public on Tuesday, taking to Twitter to send Irish fans into a tailspin.

The sky isn’t quite falling. Jeter called the Irish his top school, likely just getting ahead of the news that he’ll start taking official visits to other schools, something Notre Dame’s recruiting staff has worked well to slow down the past few cycles. Also helping the Irish’s cause is his proximity and connection to fellow Western Pennsylvania prospects David Adams, Kurt Hinish and Josh Lugg.

Still, after making it through last recruiting cycle without a defection, finding a way to win back Jeter is priority No. 1, a versatile defensive lineman who had an elite offer list and picked Notre Dame after basically dismissing them over the summer. The Irish have done it before, getting Stephon Tuitt back in the fold after Georgia Tech sold him on staying home. They won a battle with current defensive coordinator Greg Hudson when he was at Florida State for Aaron Lynch, though Lynch only lasted a season in South Bend.

Usually a decommitment—especially this time of year—isn’t ground for a news story. But as all eyes focus on Brian Kelly and his grasp on the Irish program, this serves as ammo for those looking for cracks in the foundation.


Jeter posted a Tweet that essentially confirmed my speculation. And also should serve as a reminder—DO. NOT. TWEET. AT. RECRUITS.