Notre Dame at USC

Weekend Notes: Dial, Pac-12 refs, and Russell’s journey


We’re still 24 long days away from Notre Dame’s date with Alabama in the national title game. While following the daily rumblings on the recruiting trail or coaching carousel has been enjoyable, it’s time to get to the holidays so we can make the calendar move a little bit quicker.

Starting next week, we’re going to look back at the regular season, and take a 30,000 foot view of what we learned from each of the 12 Irish victories. While it’s easy to get swept up in national title game mania, the evolution of this football team is fascinating to look back on.

But before that, here are a few stories that caught my eye:


File this one under “Shocker!” — Alabama’s Quinton Dial won’t be suspended for his violent hit against Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. If you need a refresher, Dial, a 6-foot-6, 304-pound defensive tackle, threw an absolutely vicious block on Murray after an interception, launching himself (and his helmet) into the helmet of the Georgia quarterback, who didn’t see the hit coming.

SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw said that Dial’s hit should have been ruled a penalty after the SEC Championship game. He also said that conference commissioner Mike Slive would review whether Dial should be suspended for the flagrant hit, something the SEC has tried to crack down on.

“By rule, you can’t hit a defenseless player above the shoulders,” Shaw told the Birmingham News. “What the determination needs to be is was this a defenseless player and was contact initiated above the shoulders? When we go through video review of it, that’s what we’ll have to determine. And then you as you break it down, did he lead with the head or lead with the shoulder? From game action, it was a personal foul regardless of how we break it down frame by frame.”

Shaw was candid in the case of Dial’s hit.

“We missed the call,” Shaw said, who also talked about the decision-making process on a suspension.

“As you’ve noticed, Commissioner has been vigilant on this and he did it (suspend players) when warranted and didn’t when it wasn’t,” Shaw told the Birmingham News. “I’m not sure the upcoming opponent is ever a condition in the decision. I think it’s more based on the facts in the play.”

As hard as it is not to chuckle when reading that statement, Yahoo! Sports’ Dr. Saturday blog took a look at two hits that led to one-game suspensions. You be the judge if you think the upcoming opponent and the enormity of the game factored into the decision.


It was announced that the Pac-12 will supply the officials for the BCS Championship game. On average, Pac-12 officials have thrown more flags than any conference in the country this season.

This from the Press-Register:

Officials from the six automatic-qualifying conferences work BCS bowls on a rotation. The Big 12 officiated last year’s BCS Championship Game so it won’t work any of the five BCS bowls this season. Officials get recommended by their conference coordinator to work bowl games and can’t be assigned to any game involving a team from the conference they represent.

Because of the SEC’s seven-year streak in the national championship game, SEC officials have not worked the title game since USC-Oklahoma in the 2004 season. The SEC will officiate the next championship game not involving the SEC.

Irish fans harbor some resentment against Pac-12 officials way back to David Grimes (non) catch of the century, but they’ve also been the beneficiary of some 50/50 calls, like the contested goalline stand against Stanford.

Alabama is one of the best teams in the country with just 3.85 penalties per game. Notre Dame averages 5.67 a game.


Notre Dame has finally take the gag off freshman KeiVarae Russell, and the early returns are as expected. The rookie cornerback, who arrived in South Bend expecting to enter the running back depth chart, immediately propelled himself into the conversation for best quote of 2013, as the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Kuc detailed.

Russell, who got beat for a touchdown pass in the season’s opening game against Navy, but played fearlessly against the dynamic duo of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, grew as much as anybody this season, playing a crucial role in the untested Irish secondary.

More from the Trib:

Russell’s journey began rather ignominiously when he was beaten badly for a touchdown during the Irish’s first game of the ultimately undefeated campaign. The deke to the outside and then deep slant across the middle of the field from Navy receiver Shawn Lynch had left Russell chasing and finally flailing both arms while hitting the turf as Lynch caught the ball cruising into the end zone for a 25-yard scoring strike Sept. 1 in Dublin.

The moments that followed helped shape Russell’s — and the Irish’s — storybook season.

“I was hurting,” Russell recalled. “Bennett (Jackson) came to me and started laughing, saying, ‘Man, pick your head up. We have more football to play.’ Then coach (Kerry) Cooks and Manti Te’o came up to me laughing and said, ‘You have a long season, let’s go. Don’t worry about that one play.’ After that, throughout the season whenever I’d make a mistake or miss a tackle, I’d say, ‘Let’s go, forget it; next play.'”

The sequence began a rapid maturation process for the 19-year-old who not many months earlier was roaming high school football fields in Everett, Wash.

“I wasn’t a freshman after the first game,” Russell said. “I had to grow up real quick. I learned that you can’t use excuses of being a freshman. Once you get to college football, age is nothing. When I first got here I was making excuses during camp. I was like, ‘OK, this is my first year’ but I grew out of that real soon. They offered me a scholarship for a reason. I was one of the best in the country so I had to show why.”

Confidence like that helps build a team. While many Irish fans were worried about inserting a converted running back into a starting corner, Brian Kelly made mention to Russell’s uncanny ability to just perform, and the freshman rewarded his head coach with a tremendous season.

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.