Brian Kelly

Tuesdays with BK: One more time


As Brian Kelly, the head coach of the No. 1 ranked team in the country, stood at the podium for his final game week press conference of the season, he was candid when he spoke of Notre Dame’s rivalry with Southern Cal. Frankly, it hasn’t been much of one.

“Well, it’s not a great rivalry right now. We haven’t won enough games. They’ve had the upper hand on this.  We need to make this a rivalry,” Kelly said. “To me, a rivalry has to go both ways. We’ve got one win out of ten.  That, to me, is getting our butt kicked here.  We need to win some games.”

As if you expected Kelly to talk about the good fortune of having Matt Barkley sidelined with a shoulder injury and the Trojans losing three of their last four games. With Notre Dame just one game away from punching their ticket to the national title game, let’s run through Kelly’s Tuesday comments.

As usual, you can watch 30 minutes worth below. I’ll clip some interesting tidbits.


On Sunday, Brian Kelly talked about the importance of tackling this Saturday. It wasn’t hard to figure out one of those key targets is wide receiver Marqise Lee, who has just had a phenomenal sophomore season. Kelly talked about what made Lee so dangerous.

“Oh, boy. Incredible just acceleration after the catch. You know, if you look at what he does after the catch, that’s where it gets really scary,” Kelly said of Lee. “Secondly, they do a great job and their offensive staff does a great job of setting up formations to get him one‑on‑one matchups. They’re always prodding your defense to get him matched up where they get some great one‑on‑one looks.”

Last year, USC found a way to get their other star receiver, Robert Woods, in a key one-on-one match-up in the red zone against Lo Wood. That play resulted in a touchdown pass. With freshman KeiVarae Russell on the wide side of the field and Bennett Jackson sometimes flipping to help out, expect the Irish to do their best to protect their cornerbacks against tough one-on-one match-ups.

When asked what contributed to Lee surpassing Woods, another player that had Heisman aspirations early in his career and may have his ticket already punched for the NFL Draft, Kelly explained the problem with scarcity.

“We thought he was a terrific player, no question about it,” Kelly said. “But there is only one football, so it just seems like he’s gotten more of the catches, whether by design or not.  Either one those guys can beat you by themselves.  The numbers just have gone his way this year. But, you know, you’re talking about two of the best in the country.  I don’t know that you can really choose.  They’re both terrific players.”


In a really nice moment, Kelly talked about his interactions with past Notre Dame coaches as the season continues to head down a historical path. For Kelly, that means a weekly card from Ara Parseghian, multiple conversations with Lou Holtz, and a nice note from… Charlie Weis.

“I get my weekly card from Ara.  Each week he hand writes a note to me. The great thing is he’s so unassuming.  He’s done this and been there, but he’ll write a note like he doesn’t want to assume anything, you know what I mean?  Like he’s never given any advice, just talking as a Notre Dame fan and alum.  Great to just get that communication with him.

“As it relates to Lou, I talk to him about some specific things that I would like his opinion on.  Ara is much more of a fan, supportive.  I invite him up every home game to my box, and he politely declines because he thinks he’s got the best seat in front of his television. That’s our conversation.  With Lou, it’s more about some specific things.

“[Lou] knows Notre Dame, and Ara does as well.  Those are great assets. But a number of coaches, Charlie Weis knows Notre Dame.  I got a wonderful note from Charlie last week.  It was heartfelt and talked about the seniors, wishing them the best.  It was really a terrific note from Charlie.  Very classy. So we get a lot of that communication with the former Notre Dame coaches, and it’s really nice.”

It’s nice to know that there isn’t any scorched earth between Weis and Notre Dame, and just as important, that Kelly recognizes the contributions Weis made to this program, especially with the senior class. While Kelly built this program into a consistent winner, he certainly wasn’t left an empty cupboard.


If you’re tracking the Cierre Wood will he / won’t he return story, Kelly was incredibly complimentary about Wood, while continuing to talk about running north and south, a pretty consistent criticism by the Irish head coach.

But almost more interesting was Kelly’s evaluation of where Wood has evolved the most this season.

“Route running. Ball catching. Those are two huge areas where he has elevated his game,” Kelly said. “Practice, he practices with a purpose every day now.  He is locked in.  He’s getting more north and south in his running.  The inside‑outside zone scheme is set to run north and south. We don’t want a lot of cutting.
We ran the option play on Saturday, and he was looking to cut off of somebody. You know, he was resisting the temptation.  When he runs north and south, we all know what he’s capable of. So those three areas he’s really made great improvement.”

It’s interesting that Kelly cites Wood’s improvement in the passing game because the veteran running back has hardly gotten a chance to contribute in the pass game, with Theo Riddick acting almost exclusively in that role. A year after catching 27 balls, Wood has only two catches, both coming against Miami.


Lastly, Kelly was asked to consider Manti Te’o wearing the garnett and gold of USC, where he almost ended up playing his college football. It was the first time he’d ever thought of game-planning against his star linebacker.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever changed my brain over to think about it in those terms,” Kelly said. “Not very comforting. I know he’s a pain in the butt when we go against him in the spring. You know you can’t do certain things with him. He’s kind of eliminating certain plays already just because of his instincts.  You’re going against a great competitor, you know. That would be difficult plan against, yeah.”





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.