Notre Dame at USC

Spring practice video breakdown: Part four


Let’s get back to the over-analysis!

As we examine another two minutes of ND football players going through drill work, here are a few things I picked up, from either talking to people close to the program or reading other reports:

* It’s interesting to note that a broken collarbone for Amir Carlisle doesn’t mean his spring is over. You can see Carlisle taking actual reps during the practice video, wearing a helmet and participating in practice. (Same for Bennett Jackson, who is recovering from shoulder surgery.)

Again, not to say this isn’t what other programs are doing (or what the Irish did in the past), but it’s good to see that an injury or surgery means a wasted spring of development.

* I’m guessing somebody will ask what’s wrong with Davaris Daniels, who wasn’t wearing pads in the latest video. Ditto with Danny Spond. Not that either player really needs to prove themselves this spring, but worth monitoring.

* In the same interview that Denbrock talking wide receiver roles, he discussed senior Daniel Smith. The man best known for dating Skylar Diggins and his blocking might have a surprise season in him, with Denbrock raving about Smith’s athleticism and ability to catch the football.

Smith might not have the high-end speed needed to be an elite receiver, but he looks like he’ll be a useful part of this offense, doing more than just getting PT on running plays.



0:14 — That’s Romeo Okwara (#45) breaking down the team. Also known as the biggest 17-year-old football player in the world. Do you think the guys are going to do something special for when he turns 18? Buy fireworks? Head to a riverboat casino? Hit up the voting booth?

Jokes aside, Okwara’s development will be really fun to follow. Could ND stash him on the sideline with a redshirt this season? Will he be too good to let them? (More unanswered questions?)

0:26 — Another video, another session of blocking drills! This one features Corey Robinson (#88) locking up with a DB about 1/3 of his height.

0:31 — That’s walk-on Gerard Martinez (#83) getting a rep.

0:35 — Keep those hands inside, CJ Prosise. That looks an awful lot like 10 yards from the spot of the foul.

0:40 — That’s John Turner (#31) doing a nice, physical job with Luke Massa (#14). Turner it the type of big bodied kid you expect to see on special teams this season. Wonder if he’s got the jets needed to play on the back line of this defense.

0:45 — James Onwualu (#17) has a big collision with somebody. (Looks like Matthias Farley.)

0:52 — Back-to-back reps of walk-ons getting reps. Nicely done guys. Use this YouTube clip to your advantage at Corby’s this weekend.

1:00 — TJ Jones (#7) does a nice job exploding on the block. Don’t look now, but Jones is primed to have a very nice senior campaign.

1:03 — KeiVarae Russell (#6) does a nice job of getting underneath Chris Brown (#2). Nice job initiating contact by Russell, who is on the fast track to becoming one of my favorite players.

1:06 — Another big collision with Onwualu.

1:17 — A better job by Prosise this time. (Still a ways to go, though…)

1:22 — Good to see Austin Collinsworth (#28) getting reps out there. He battles the lanky Robinson.

1:25 — Nick Martin (#72) gets the best out of what looks like Justin Utupo. I get the feeling we are looking at the Irish’s starting center.

1:28 — Christian Lombard (#74) guts out a tough collision with Kona Schwenke (#96)

1:38 — There’s something very graceful about the way Corey Robinson catches the football. Should be a fun four years.

1:41 — Isn’t that almost the story of Jalen Brown (#21) so far? Big kid, athletic kid. Let’s a receiver catch a ball in front of him and then tries to tackle. Then again, in this defense corners can give up short, underneath throws all they want.

1:45 — Keep running hard, GA3.

1:51 — Nice hole shot by Tommy Rees, into the soft spot of a two-deep zone. Rees hits freshman Mike Heuerman (#9).

1:59 — TJ Jones makes a nice catch through traffic. Imagine that’s a lot easier than doing it when the bullets are live, but Jones displayed that kind of courage against Alabama in a sneaky good performance.

2:01 — Cam McDaniel with another big gainer. O/U on Cam’s YPC in 2013: 4.9.

2:09 — Russell shows himself to be a savvy DB. Mugs Chris Brown, then gets his hands off him fast enough to sell the purity of the play. (Before anyone complains, that’s just proper gamesmanship for a cornerback.)

2:22 — How excited was Bobby D? Jumping back bump, that’s how.

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.