Rees Kelly

Mailbag: Season kickoff edition


Welcome to the Mailbag.

Consider this a new weekly forum where I try to get to the questions you all inevitably ask me (or each other) in the comments or on Twitter, but have a hard time getting to in the weekly flow of things.

With the season set to kickoff, you could also consider this a column to hold over my head in the future, as I’ll inevitably show how very terrible I am at making predictions, guessing breakout stars, etc.

All caveats aside, I think this will end up being a place where we can have some good interaction and maybe (hopefully?) clean up the comments a bit and turn it into a community resource.

Ready, set go!


@JMset3: Why am I getting up at 3 am worried about Temple, but totally relaxed that my wife is a very 9 months pregnant?

It just means you’re a Notre Dame fan. Two nights ago I woke up from a dream that had TJ Jones fumbling the very first punt return of the season, a mirror image of the USF game from ’11 that set back Notre Dame special teams for two seasons.

So you’re definitely not alone.

@IrishPhog: Will Rees’ arm be able to take advantage of Brown’s speed

That’s definitely a good question. Listening to Chuck Martin talk about Rees, he was really candid about opposing defenses challenging Rees to beat them over the top, which is either Chuck telling the truth or being very smart about daring team’s to put eight in the box.

What’s different with this team than the ’11 team that Rees piloted is the personnel at wide receiver is a lot better. Sure, there isn’t a Michael Floyd, but the entire two-deep at wide receiver is probably better than anything Notre Dame was running out there minus Mr. Floyd.

Being a good downfield thrower and having a rocket arm aren’t the same thing. Rees definitely needs to improve his downfield accuracy, but getting one-on-one matchups with talented speedsters like Chris Brown or human mismatches like Corey Robinson will make the QB look a lot better.

Old Miami QB Ken Dorsey had a noodle arm and it didn’t stop him from throwing down the field.

@ndfanwabashman: At what point does Hendrix see the field this season? How short is the Rees leash?

This is Tommy’s job. I think the leash is fairly long, though he’s not going to be able to have those ugly three interception games that would turn the stomachs of ND Nation. That said, what leads Irish fans to believe that Hendrix will be any safer with the football?

For better or worse, this offense goes the way Rees goes, when it comes to turnovers. The only difference is that there’s a talented group of runners and receivers there to support him that have big play potential.

@irishfanjames: Which FR has bigger impact this year Robinson or Bryant? Which has better overall career?

I think we’re probably over-valuing Corey Robinson at this point of his career, or at least the hardcore ND fans are. Sure, he could become a true weapon at wide receiver, but to think he’s going to be better than Greg Bryant — a five-star running back that could start making an impact from day one — is a little bit of a reach.

I’ve written about it a few times, but Bryant’s recruiting cohorts are scary. Guys like him come in and make an early impact. Even elite WRs, take Dorial Green-Beckham, take a while to get started. Irish fans have every right to be excited about Robinson. But let’s not put too much on his back so early. It’s unhealthy.

@jpeter14nd: Will tarean folston redshirt? You talked earlier about using him on special teams, but will they use a year for that?

My Magic Eight-Ball seems to be cloudy right now. Kelly said all five running backs are going to contribute, but it’s hard to tell if he was talking about Will Mahone, who is out with a high ankle sprain, or Folston.

Saving a year of eligibility wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but if Folston is able to contribute on kick or punt returns (he isn’t listed in the two deep at either spot as of now), then he’s worth using this season.

@kevroe67: Which underclassman will step up this year to be a big contributor going forward unexpectedly?

Good question. Can I tell you in week six? The obvious suspects are Bryant and Jaylon Smith, with Smith being my pick. Though that’s hardly unexpected. Perhaps the biggest surprise could be Steve Elmer already taking rotational reps at right tackle.

@cboudin: How on Earth was Tommy Rees not named a captain? Senior QB with multiple years of starting experience… what gives?

Sometimes a C isn’t needed to be a team leader, but I get where you’re coming from. Let’s just say that Zack Martin was a given at captain. Then TJ Jones makes a ton of sense, especially with the adversity he’s overcome. Do you name three offensive players captains to one defender? Why not Louis Nix then?

Having great leadership doesn’t necessarily mean you need every guy to have a title. Rees is the leader of the offense almost by default. It’s his group and the team and staff know that.

Justin Farrell asks: As an ND grad student, and committed irish believer, I want to ask you if you’ve placed your trust in Reesus as the savior to lead us into eternal BCS championship life?

I’m paid to be a little bit more objective than that. But I’m all for people making funny Reesus logos and t-shirts, and as a guy that’s been a long time Rees supporter (while being picked on here), I’d love to look right and have him put together a really impressive senior campaign.

baldyscotsman: Are you buying the Devin Gardner Hype? 

If you’re looking for an X factor on the Irish schedule, Devin Gardner is it. Part of his skillset should scare the crap out of a Notre Dame fan, especially in the house of horrors that The Big house has become.

I’ve heard nothing but good things about Gardner, but then again — what are we supposed to hear? We’ll find out next Saturday, but if there’s a reason to DVR the Michigan game against a cupcake like Central Michigan, this is it.

andy44teg: What the heck happened with Elijah Hood?? He seemed like such an RKG….

Good question. But I’m guessing a lot of it is family pressure, hometown pressure, and the general challenges Notre Dame faces when they go into opponents’ back yards and try and pull away their prized recruits.

Trusting reports like this always come with a grain of salt, but I thought this was a particularly telling quote from a report last week when Hood decommitted:

“Sources have informed THI this week that Hood and his family were especially concerned about the distance from Charlotte to South Bend, along with the likelihood that his path to the field and early playing time would be significantly longer at Notre Dame compared to UNC.”

If Notre Dame’s depth chart played a role in Hood stepping away from his Notre Dame commitment, then the program has hit a next level, inching closer to the Pete Carroll/USC, “always compete” model than the “we need you to get to the next level” phase that the Irish seem to have been in for the past two decades.

Hood made this comment about his commitment that I think rang particularly crafted by someone much older and mature than a 18-year-old five-star prospect that once flushed a recruiting letter from Alabama down the toilet.

“This decision will allow not only my family but also my community to continue to be a part of me as I grow not only academically and physically but in faith and maturity as well,” Hood said. “This is entirely my decision based on what I view life and football to be about.”

You win some, you lose some. We’ll find out in a couple years if it’s a big loss or not.

italianirish: What’s the level of panic if Tommy Rees tears an ACL during the first series of the Temple game? Would an injury to him have the biggest negative impact to our final record of anyone on the team?

I think it would. Crazy to think that, but outside of a Zack Martin injury, Rees is probably the most irreplaceable player on the offensive depth chart right now.

shaunodame: Whats your gut feeling on this ‘BK to the NFL’ talk? Is he content here, do you think he seeks another, higher level, challenge? Do you REALLY read all the comments here on your articles?

Nudeman: Keith, can you please give us the straight scoop on BK and his contract?

It has been “imminent” for 5 months now. The season is 3 days away.

If I told you 5 months ago that we’d be 3 days away from kickoff and no new contract, there’d be a collective “WTF?”

Personally I’m starting to believe they are unable to come to terms and he’ll be gone sooner rather than later.

I’m still willing to take BK at his word, especially since he was so unequivocal in his preseason comments that the deal is finished, but the lawyering is not. But you’ve got to think things like Camp Shiloh and new assistant coach contracts are all proof that things are moving along.

There’s been quite a bit of behind the scenes change in the athletic department over the past year so Brian Kelly’s contract is far from the only thing that’s dragging along. But yeah — Notre Dame fans will feel a lot better when the press release hits

All that being said, it’s another new era for Notre Dame. As Kelly said, don’t expect the NFL rumors to stop if the Irish keep winning.

NotreDan: Under what circumstances would we see MZ @ QB? Details please. I guess the other side of the question is… exactly HOW committed is the staff to preserving his redshirt?

They are as committed as they need to be. But an injury to Rees or Hendrix obviously ends that plan.

Hakuna Budi: What happened to CJ Prosise after his spring and why is Chris Brown listed as the starter on the depth chart after Kelly spoke of his lack of consistency in his presser?

Because Chris Brown has sprinter speed and the ability to outrun just about everyone in college football. I was a little bit surprised to see Prosise drop off the two-deep, but remember that Kelly uses spring practice for position switches, experimentation and motivation. It wasn’t too long ago that Kona Schwenke “out-played” Louis Nix in spring ball.

There are reps to go around for everyone, and I think we’ll see Prosise. But as a converted safety learning wide receiver on the fly, he’s a raw prospect. And with the freshman group of James Onwualu and Corey Robinson, perhaps Prosise just got caught in the shuffle.

ngoldandblue: Do you think we’ll get a Luke Massa sighting on Saturday (and I’m not talking about a camera shot of the red army)?

Massa is the team’s starting holder. I get the feeling you’ll probably see him seven times on Saturday.

How we got here: Roster Attrition

Rees Golson Kiel

There is the team you recruit and then the team that you coach. And for Brian Kelly, the team he could be coaching certainly isn’t the one that’s taking the field.

Turnover on the Notre Dame roster is by no means exclusive to the Kelly era. For as long as you’ve likely been following Irish football, players have been coming and going–often times sooner than four or five years.

But as we look at the sources of this disappointing season, how this became Notre Dame’s youngest roster since 1972 is worth a look. Because as Brian Kelly struggles to win with a team that’s playing a stack of underclassmen while his fourth and fifth-year classes are all but gone, it’s amazing to see the attrition that’s struck this roster, especially considering this should be when the Irish are feeling the benefits of their national title game appearance.

From fifth-year candidates to sophomores, 20 signees have left the Irish program. That includes transfers, dismissals, withdrawals, injuries or walking away. (It doesn’t include leaving early for the NFL.)

The talent drain has taken big names and small, included five-star prospects like Gunner Kiel, Eddie Vanderdoes, Greg Bryant and most recently Max Redfield. It’s featured shortened career of projected 2016 starters Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson, and shown the bad luck the Irish staff has had bringing in pass rushers.

Let’s look at how this team got so young.


Gunner Kiel, QB — 5 star
Tee Shepard, CB — 4 star
Davonte Neal, WR — 4 star
Will Mahone, RB — 3 star
Justin Ferguson, WR — 3 star

Recap: The second phase of Brian Kelly’s star-crossed quarterback run came after Gunner Kiel transferred after a redshirt season, leaving before Everett Golson was declared academically ineligible. Had Kiel stuck around, who knows what would’ve happened. The departure of Tee Shepard was also costly, the highly-touted cornerback never dressing for the Irish after his early enrollment didn’t help clear up academic issues that seemed to plague him for the rest of his football playing career.

Neal reemerged at Arizona, moving to the defensive side of the ball. Mahone’s high-profile dismissal came after an ugly incident in his hometown of Youngstown, but resulted in a life-changing turnaround. Add in the early departures (though successful careers) of Ronnie Stanley and CJ Prosise and you begin to see how this group certainly accomplished plenty, but left a ton on the table.


Greg Bryant, RB — 5 star
Max Redfield, S — 5 star
Eddie Vanderdoes, DT — 5 star
Steve Elmer, OL — 4 star
Corey Robinson, WR — 4 star
Mike Heuerman, TE — 4 star
Doug Randolph, DL — 4 star
Rashad Kinlaw, DB — 3 star
Michael Deeb, LB — 3 star

Recap: This group could’ve redefined the roster. While Bryant and Redfield never played up to their potential before being cut loose from the university, a front-line defensive lineman like Vanderdoes would’ve changed the complexion of the Irish defense.

Below the radar, the losses of Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson certainly hurt more than we expected. Neither were breakaway talents, but both more than good enough to been veteran starters on a team that clearly needed a few more of them.

The bottom half of this list almost stands out just because they were big swings and misses. With the Heuerman, Kinlaw, and Deeb, the Irish took shots on a few less-than-elite names and came up empty, with Heuerman and Deeb never able to shake off injuries before eventually going on medical hardships. A big recruiting class coming off a historic season, this group had plenty of success, but could’ve been more.


Nile Sykes, LB — 3 stars
Grant Blankenship, DE — 3 stars
Kolin Hill, DE — 3 stars
Jhonathon Williams, DE — 3 stars

Recap: Four defenders, four front seven players, three pass rushers. When Irish fans wonder where the pass rush is, it’s misses like this that end up really hurting. Sykes, Hill and Williams were hardly national prospects. Blankenship was an early target with modest offers, though a strong senior season brought interest from Texas.

Hill’s pass rush skills were evident from his situational use as a freshman. His departure left a hole, and he’s now the second-leading tackler behind the line of scrimmage for Texas Tech. Sykes never made it onto the Irish roster, and is now the sack leader for Indiana. Williams is now in the mix at Toledo, a reach by the Irish staff who saw him as a developmental prospect.


Mykelti Williams, DB — 4 star
Jalen Guyton, WR — 3 star
Bo Wallace, DE — 3 star

Recap: Three wash outs that seemed like promising prospects when they committed. Williams was especially important, a key piece at a position of need who is now reviving his career at Iowa Western CC. Guyton is also taking the Juco route, the leading receiver at Trinity Valley CC in Texas. Wallace is an edge rusher now at Arizona State, never making it to campus after Brian Kelly spoke highly of the New Orleans prospect on Signing Day.


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.