Irish running back Wood runs for a 68 yard touchdown against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the first half of their NCAA college football game at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend

Time for Cierre Wood to step up


With the NFL Scouting Combine beginning tomorrow, Manti Te’o isn’t the only former Notre Dame player that needs to answer some questions. While the media hordes will likely surround Te’o from the minute he steps foot in Indianapolis, there likely won’t be a soul asking Cierre Wood about the eventful six weeks that have taken place since he played his last football game for the Irish. But the truth is, there’s no Notre Dame player that needs to prove more this week than Wood, who could see his draft stock soar or plummet in the next few days.

Wood’s career at Notre Dame will be difficult to classify. From the moment he stepped onto the field, Wood played at a high level, though never seemed to capture the extent of his ability. It’s tough to look at Wood’s career stat-line — 2,447 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 5.4 yards-per-carry — and see a guy that doesn’t have the raw ability to play in the NFL. Yet the fact that he decided to head to the NFL now, after a senior season where he lost his starting job to Theo Riddick, raises more than a few questions.

There’s a nobility in Wood’s decision, with a key factor a young daughter that the Oxnard, California native wants to take care of and raise. But jumping to the NFL now, after a season that was a relative disappointment and included a two-game suspension for an undisclosed team violation, ups the importance of showing athletic ability and speed that is too good for an NFL team to pass up.

While it was hardly Pete Carroll openly questioning Mark Sanchez’s decision to leave school early, it was pretty clear reading between the lines that Brian Kelly wasn’t a fan of Wood’s decision to head to the NFL with a year of eligibility remaining. Kelly said many times this season — often when Wood’s decision to leave was already a foregone conclusion — that he thought there was still work to be done in the veteran running back’s game. And while you could say that’s a coach looking at the depth chart in 2013 and seeing only George Atkinson with any tangible experience, there’s plenty of truth to the statement. (It’s been reported that the Gug featured FatHead like images of the seniors on the walls this year. Wood’s wasn’t included.)

It’s no secret that in the biggest games of his career, Wood has sometimes struggled to make a difference. While he was hardly alone, his stat line against Alabama was nonexistent. The Southern California native also struggled to do much of anything against his hometown Trojans, running for just 25 yards on 13 combined carries in 2011 and 2012. Wood has played well on big stages — a bright spot in a loss against Michigan in ’11, key down the stretch against Michigan State, BYU, and Oklahoma in ’12, but also dodged a major bullet with his goal line fumble in overtime against Pitt. Those kind of mistakes kept Wood out of favor in the feature back category, putting the onus of the offense on Riddick, even though he lacked the explosiveness and skills of his counterpart.

Wood’s body of work can be looked at either way by NFL teams. He’s shared carries the past two years, keeping miles off of his tires. Or he’s given up the role of feature back in college, making it doubtful he’s got what it takes to carry the load in the NFL.

From the first day Brian Kelly stepped on campus, he believed in Cierre Wood. While Kelly wasn’t ready to say his starting running back was ready to say goodbye to his college career, Wood made the difficult decision to move forward, gambling on his speed and skill to fill in the blanks his final season left.

While all eyes certainly won’t be on Wood, he’s got a whole lot to play for.


Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”