TJ Jones, Taylor Richards

Michigan State mailbag


Another week, another mailbag.

I’ve been enjoying the camaraderie in the comments section. It’s starting to feel like our big, dysfunction, happy family is starting to get along. Maybe 12-win regular seasons really help the spirits!

As usual, I’ll do my best to answer your questions. Feel free to correct me in the comments (also as usual).

@dickasman: Will Tuitt and Nix breakout this game? How’s MSU OL?

Ah, Dicky. A football question! So nice of you. I think this is one of the more interesting match-ups going because the offensive line for the Spartans has been pretty shaky. Just a quick glance through their depth chart and you’ll see five underclassmen in their two deep, including starters at left tackle, center, and right tackle.

So if there’s a game for the Irish to get some pressure on a young quarterback who up until last week was 12 for 27 for 74 yards, this might be the game.

@JoshHyde: Why does the o-line look worse than last year?

Are you sure it does? This group has only given up one sack in 112 passing attempts. While the rushing average is a meager 4.1 yards per carry, I think it’s a product of the running backs trying to find some rhythm while looking to establish “the guy” and work through five ball carriers.

Let’s turn back the clock so you can remember where this offensive line was at the same time last year. After beating Navy like a drum and running all over them, the run game ran for 1.4 yards a carry against Purdue and 3.6 yards a carry against Michigan State. And through three games, the Irish gave up a whopping eight sacks last season while breaking in Everett Golson.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I disagree with your assertion.


@JCirba: Does Tuitt, Shembo, or anybody reach double digit sacks this year?

Can I tell you after Saturday? I think you’ve obviously hit on the two guys that can do it. But we’ve yet to see Shembo get on track, even though he was mighty close to three or four sacks against Temple. (That said, his sacks come in bunches.)

This weekend looks like it could be a favorable match-up for both guys, but you might see a bunch of max protect looks to make sure this doesn’t happen. Before the season started, I thought both Tuitt and Shembo could get to double digits. We’ll know better after this weekend.

@mfmitchell88: Do you think it would be beneficial for Kelly & co. to eval. their own tendencies? We seem to be very predictable/scouted.

Every coaching staff self scouts. Brian Kelly’s does too. (Bill Belichick came in during the offseason and did some evaluation of how the Irish systems ran, so it’s not for lack of brain power.)

That said, I think the one criticism that’s been valid so far of the offense is that it’s been a bit predictable with some of it’s formational looks. Now Oregon is mighty predictable with its formations and tendencies, too. Stopping it is another story.

The offense will likely continue to add wrinkles as the season progresses. They did against Michigan and opened things up in the second half against Purdue. But yeah — I get that when you see Daniel Smith and Troy Niklas spread wide with TJ Jones in the slot that the Irish are likely throwing a screen to Jones. And the Irish’s screen offense wasn’t all that effective against Purdue. So a few change-ups are probably necessary.

don74: Of the following what group is most likely to “break out” this week: The coaching staff (BK, CM, BD), the ILB’s, the secondary or the RB’s? OL not mentioned, if the RB’s break out they did their job.

I’m going to say that the inside linebackers could have a nice Saturday. It’s going to be a physical match-up between the front sevens, and I think Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox and Jarrett Grace should log quite a few tackles.

One thing to keep an eye on: Connor Cook. He’s an elusive kid and that’s given this defense some pains. A big play free secondary performance would also be very nice, and could spell victory for the Irish.

BlackIrish23: Looking beyond Daniels and Jones, who else do you see as having the potential to create additional match up problems from all these teams daring Rees to beat them with his arm?

I think this is the best personnel Notre Dame has had at wide receiver since the early Weis days, and probably much deeper. Forcing any team to look past their best two receivers is a mixed bag, but I think ND feels confident that a guy like Chris Brown can do some damage against defenses, especially as a third option. And just because we haven’t seen much of him yet, Corey Robinson is a guy that’ll be a real headache to defensive coordinators.

What about Troy Niklas? A 6-7, 270-pound Thor lookalike doesn’t seem all that fun to cover. And we’ve seen James Onwualu and Will Fuller get their chances as well. And CJ Prosise had a big catch after having a nice spring in the slot.

If Michigan State tries putting their secondary on an island with the Irish receivers, it could be a long day if Tommy Rees is accurate.

(Speaking of Tommy…)

@dudeacow: Tommy Rees would have passed 1000 yards already if not for a few drops. If he plays like he’s been playing for the rest of the season, his stat line will look like this: 4200 yards, 61%, 28-8 td/int. too early to include in an all-America conversation?

I believe the stat I saw this week is that Rees is leading all quarterbacks in the country in yardage against FBS teams. Project out those numbers for a full season and indeed — Rees will be having a very nice senior season, though I think it’s too early to talk about things like All-American awards.

I’m cutting this answer short until after this weekend. Then we can take another look.

andy44teg: How much stock do you seriously put into MSU having the top ranked D in the country this early in the year? Before last week Alabama had like the 115th ranked offense and we all saw how they spanked TAMU’s D.

Ah, good old sample size questions. Of course, there’s a big grain of salt along with that stat, but it sure sounds good. (Kind of like beating Michigan State when they were a “top ten” team last year.) No, they haven’t played anyone. But they’ve got really talented personnel and the defense has scored almost more points than the offense.

So underestimate them at your own peril.

@mtflsmitty: Based on your experience reading posts from the characters over the years, please write a short, fictional bio for:
– Historian
– Bern
– Dick
– Nude

I am staying so far away from this question it’s ridiculous. But I’d probably end up asking my mom for the answer to this one, as she spends quite a bit of time reading through the comments, asking me about the crew and worrying about all of you when skirmishes erupt and naughty things are said.

(Perhaps I’ll put her on the job and get back to you guys next week. But don’t get your hopes up, she’s a busy lady!)

I only step in once in a while. Most writers stay out of the comments section for their own mental health. And because, well — we’re writing the articles.

sm29irish: I know Prince and Ishaq are ahead of him but do you think Romeo Okwara could be used situationally to put more pressure on qb haven’t seen much of him this year? Also, what happened to the leprecat formation where Slaughter was successful. I think Shumate or Jaylon would really flourish in that position if it was implemented again at times.

This question was right on the brink of being too long to answer. But here goes: I don’t think Okwara is necessarily the answer as a situational pass rusher. He’s always the guy that swings over to the field side, which says more about his athleticism than his pass rush abilities.

What the leprecat Slaughter? I thought that was ND’s version of the Wildcat, which was used sparsely early in the Kelly era. What you’re likely thinking of is when Slaughter dropped down to play outside linebacker, taking over for Prince Shembo when he was at the Drop position. This was more of a product of personnel deficiencies, and Jaylon Smith is the answer there.

Smith’s been put in that spot already and done a nice job. As for Shumate, I think he’s finding life a bit more complicated than last season, where he covered slot receivers and let his athleticism take over. Don’t give up on him yet though. At this point in Harrison Smith’s career, Irish fans were ready to run him out of town.

sweetnd: 1) How much longer will Kiffin be coach at U$C? Forever (I hope). Or if he loses four games this season, until about December 1, after they get beat by UCLA again.
2) Why does Zahm suck? Why is the sky blue? (Love dorm rivalry questions…)
3) If Tommy throws for 4,000 yards and 28 td’s will he get drafted? If so what round? Good question. I don’t think so, but he’ll find his way to a training camp.
4) what’s your prediction? Will ND cover the spread? Predictions aren’t my thing. But if the past two seasons are any indication, this game will feel closer than the score is.

onward2victory: Coach Kelly won’t come out and say it, but do you think TJ Jones is healthy? He got banged up against Michigan and didn’t seem like himself against Purdue.

He looked pretty healthy making that circus catch near the pylon last week. I think Jones is fine, though he was a little banged up after the Michigan game. (I spoke with him then and he said he was fine, only that he got a pretty bad stinger, something he hasn’t had since high school.)

If Jones ISN’T healthy, you’ll probably see him come off punt return first. And if it’s an upper body issue, that’s far better than an ankle tweak or a sore knee. Let’s remember, Jones only hit 50 catches in a season for the first time last year. He’s already got 19 catches through three games.

lambda02750: Do you anticipate an increase in carries for the freshman backs this weekend?

Not really. But if one of the guys gets hot, they’ll keep getting the rock. But I just don’t think this is the type of game where you go out and force a ball into the least experienced guy on the team’s hands.

Let’s not turn this into another one of those only-at-Notre-Dame self-fulfilling prophesies, where fans get so upset that it turns Greg Bryant upset, and he starts looking around for better opportunities. We routinely saw Charlie Weis’s teams wilt down the stretch when the negativity just overwhelmed them.

(That and a lack of a defensive front…)

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.