Chuck Martin, Everett Golson

Martin’s evolution key to Irish success


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — In need of an offensive identity, Brian Kelly turned to his safeties coach.

Read that again. Nevermind the coach of the entire secondary, just the safeties. It was a move that should have raised more eyebrows. Could you imagine Mack Brown turning to his DB coach after his most recent offensive crisis? Would an SEC team — now throwing around seven-figure contracts to top coordinators — take a foot soldier from the defensive side of the ball and put him in charge of the entire offense?

Yet that’s what Kelly did. And the fact that the fans and the media didn’t raise more eyebrows says an awful lot about Chuck Martin, the man tasked with straightening an offense that graduated the school’s all-time leading receiver and was dead set on hitting the reset button on the offense and starting anew with redshirt freshman Everett Golson.

Entering his third season in South Bend, this was a move that could have backfired easily. With ten losses in two seasons, Kelly wasn’t on a trajectory that built statues, but rather one that found coaches selling homes. But in a season filled with gutsy moves, the choice to move Martin to offensive coordinator ended up being a key decision that helped crown Kelly the consensus national coach of the year.

For Martin, it was just another turn in a coaching career that’s seen him wear a lot of hats, and win a lot of football games. And like most things, it was a challenge Martin felt confident about.

“The confidence comes from doing it before earlier in my career when I spent 12 years on defense and moved to offense, when I didn’t know anything about it really,” Martin said.

Martin’s last transition was also courtesy of Brian Kelly. When the Grand Valley State head coaching job opened up when Kelly moved to Central Michigan, it was Martin who jumped from being a defensive coordinator to the head coach, where he — just like his predecessor — called the offensive plays and coached the quarterbacks. It was a job he found challenging. And one he learned as he went.

“When you’re the head coach you can pretend you know something about anything,” Martin quipped.

If he was learning on the fly, it was a pretty successful run. Under Martin’s watch, Grand Valley went 74-7 and won two national championships. After taking over Kelly’s offensive system, the Lakers offense continued to churn out prolific numbers, producing All-American quarterbacks and a thousand yard rusher in each of Martin’s six seasons.

With an offense in disarray and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar departing to take over the UMass football program, Kelly tapped Martin to take on his most important task, and implement a system both knew inside and out.

“Chuck is a very talented coach that will make our offense better in the future due to his knowledge of our offensive system as well as how defenses like to attack it,” Kelly said in January after announcing the change. “I wanted someone that knew the system I’m familiar with and our experience coaching together will make for an easy transition. Chuck did a great job directing the Grand Valley State offense after I left and led the program to unprecedented heights. I look forward to witnessing the impact he’ll have on our offense.”

Statistically, the switch hasn’t transformed the Irish’s production. This year’s offense ranks a modest 48th in the country, gaining around ten yards more per game that last season’s outfit. The biggest uptick has been in the running game, where Martin has juggled the champagne problem of trying to find enough touches for a talented trio of runners in Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood and George Atkinson. And while the passing game has fallen to 74th in the country, Martin has done his best work finding a way to limit mistakes, taking the Irish from 11oth in the country in turnovers to an astounding 11th.

Working together to fix the offense, Martin and Kelly led a rookie quarterback to an offensive turnaround that continued to evolve all season. In the beginning, that meant Kelly leading the charge with Golson and the quarterbacks. But as the season progressed, the head coach let his offensive leader take the reins, allowing Kelly to focus on big picture issues.

“I just think it’s been an interesting process this year,” Martin said. “It’s kind of morphed from a time where in the spring he was very hands on to where now he kind of likes the way things look out there.

“I think he was bound and determined to get some things corrected on offense, i.e. turnovers, and was really bound and determined to do that.  I think once everybody settled in, I think he’s a little bit more back to just running the whole outfit, which he’s pretty good at.”

It’s also becoming pretty apparent that Martin is pretty good at running an offense as well. And while the lights might not have been as bright at the D-II level, the goals remain the same at Notre Dame.

“I know it’s a bigger stage. There’s more people in the press room. There’s more fans running around. But it’s the same deal,” Martin said. “It’s a football game and it’s a National Championship game, and fortunately for me it’s seven times in 12 years we’ve gotten to go try to win it all.”



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.