Lynch prepares for football (finally) after Notre Dame


It’s been a long time since we’ve seen defensive end Aaron Lynch on the football field. After a freshman All-American season for the Irish, Lynch left South Bend in the middle of spring practice and headed home to South Florida.

The soap opera surrounding the decision to transfer, which included social media pleas to stay by his mother, New York Giants All-Pro Justin Tuck, a young fiance in South Florida, and a firm line held by Irish head coach Brian Kelly, ended with Lynch enrolling at South Florida after finishing his spring semester at Notre Dame.

Lynch expected to play for USF head coach Skip Holtz. But after a disappointing 2012 season where the Bulls staggered to a 3-9 record, Holtz was relieved of his duties and South Florida hired Willie Taggart to run the program.

After a nice run at Western Kentucky, Taggart has energized the Bulls program. And while the media has raved about the work Taggart has done since taking over, the best recruit Taggert landed was the transfer student he inherited.

CBS Sports’ Bruce Feldman caught up with Taggart, who had some interesting things to say about Lynch’s maturation and preparation while discussing the state of his football team. The whole interview is worth a read, but here’s a snippet that really caught my attention.

Q: (Aaron Lynch) was this five-star recruit and a freshman All-American at Notre Dame. How was he compared to what your expectations of him were once you get him out on the field?

Taggart: He was even more. Some of things he does. He just has a natural feel for the game. He plays with fanatical effort. He just goes. I know if he continues to play with that fanatical effort, the sky is the limit for him.

He is really good with his hands. He’s quick and really long. And the other thing that was impressive was he was doing things with knee braces on. I make all of our linemen practice with knee braces, and he was still getting it done.

Q: I noticed you guys list him at 244 (pounds). Did he lose a lot of weight when he got there?

Taggart. Yes, he did. He played at 270 at ND. In the year that he had off, he wasn’t really motivated to do anything, from what I was told and heard from everyone. He’d tell you that he wasn’t really locked in, knowing that he couldn’t play. Now, doing what he’s doing and hearing some of that noise about how he can be this or be that, he’s really taking pride in trying to be the best football player he can be.

Q: Do you want to see him back up in the 260s?

Taggart: I’d like him in the 250-260 range. He’s well put together. When he walked in the door the first time I saw him, I was like, ‘Wow!’ Without even watching him on film, you could see what everybody’s talking about. Then you watch him on film — Jeez!

He’s built like Jevon Kearse. He’s long and lean and athletic but he can put on the weight. In the spring he actually played at like 235. I think he’s at 245 now.

He has not been an issue at all. He sees the future in front of him and knows that he has a really bright future if he keeps his head on straight. He goes in the weight room and he works.

It’s probably not a surprise to Notre Dame fans that Lynch dropped 35 pounds during his self imposed sabbatical. That Taggart would openly say that Lynch, “wasn’t really motivated to do anything, from what I was told and heard from everyone,” is some pretty open candor about a player that never seemed the most disciplined to begin with, and points to a pretty inactive year off, after playing at a still-room-to-grow 270 pounds as a freshman.

What’s also no surprise are the rave reviews Lynch gets from the USF staff. Taggart talked about the lessons he’s been giving Lynch since he arrived in Tampa, especially with Lynch now a young married man with a future that’s very much in his hands.

The new USF coach probably puts it best when he tells Feldman, “I don’t talk about football much with him. I don’t think he’d fail at football. It’d either be something either academically or socially that could get in his way. In football, he’s a beast out there, so you just try to make sure he has everything else in perspective and help make sure that he’s a great husband because that’s something that is important to me. We talk about that constantly.”

Lynch’s on-field development took a major detour last season. It’s hard to imagine that he’d still be worried about adding bulk — Taggart wants him playing in the 260 range — if he had stayed in the Irish development cycle.

Yet after all the drama that’s surrounded Lynch and his departure from Notre Dame, it’ll be fun to get a chance to finally play football again, even if it isn’t for the team Irish fans hoped.


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 Irish247.com 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.