Amir Carlisle

Pregame Six Pack: More similar than different


As Notre Dame and USC get set to do battle for the 85th time in the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football, it’s time to acknowledge that both programs see a lot more of themselves in the other one than they care to admit. For the Trojans, that means swallowing their pride and starting over, something Pat Haden did after Lane Kiffin lost seven of his last eleven games and watched his team drive away without him after giving up 62 points. (They can certainly look to Notre Dame for advice on that, the Irish have done it four times in the last 12 years.)

For the Irish, that means acknowledging their envy of the past decade of dominance that Pete Carroll created, a head coach with the type of charisma and strategic intellect that Irish fans have yearned for since they let Lou Holtz walk. Brian Kelly may just be that man, even if he doesn’t get the media cooing like Carroll did with his care-free attitude and surfer vibe.

After breaking an eight-game losing streak, Brian Kelly is hoping to build one of his own, winning against the Trojans for the second straight year, and his third time in four attempts. And while another monster recruiting weekend and home night game have the distractions at an all-time high, Kelly stated very simply the priority of his football team.

“The atmosphere, the game, the people around will take care of the environment,” Kelly said when asked about the circus surrounding the game. “Just win the damn game.  Win the game.  That’s what you need to do.”

In a game where nearly two dozen players chose between playing football in South Los Angeles or South Bend, we’re having a special edition of the Pregame Six Pack. Instead of leftovers, tidbits and miscellaneous musings, we’re looking at six players who very easily could have been playing for the other team.



USC’s sophomore sensation was one of the Notre Dame coaching staff’s most coveted recruits. While Tony Alford spent months building a relationship with the Tampa native, and the Irish rolled out the red carpet for an official visit in October, Agholor ultimately decided to go west and join the Kiffins, where both Lane and Monte played equal roles in landing the five-star athlete.

Kelly talked about how much he liked the way Agholor played the game earlier this week.

“We love the fact that he could go all day. He’s one of those guys that just runs all day, plays fast every snap,” Kelly said. “That’s the kind of player he was.  That’s what we saw.  A guy that plays every single play.  He was a very good defensive player too in high school. So that’s the kind of player, that tenacious, every play, and elite speed and size.  So just a complete player from that standpoint.”

Agholor is coming off a career day, catching seven balls for 161 yards and a touchdown against Arizona. He’ll likely carry much of the load against the Irish as well.



An Orange County native, Niklas could’ve joined a large handful of Southern California natives that find it too tough to turn down a USC offer. But the 6-foot-7, 270-pound tight end will instead play against the Trojans, battling against a team that could’ve used another big body on either side of the football.

Niklas talked a little bit about the decision making process with

“In the end, it was between Notre Dame and USC,” Niklas told ISD. “They were both up there, but in the end it was a clear decision on where I was going.

“It was one of those ‘forks in the road’ that you encounter in life.”

Ultimately a late recruiting visit the weekend before Signing Day was enough to get Niklas to pick the Irish, a moment celebrated by the Irish coaching staff live during the Signing Day show, and a revealing look into how this program evaluated Niklas.

Expect a big Saturday from the Irish’s tight ends, where Ben Koyack has finally joined Niklas as a weapon.



With Jarrett Grace hurt and the Irish likely depending on former walk-on Joe Schmidt to take major snaps, the Irish almost pulling Hutchings out of California and into the Midwest would’ve been huge for Bob Diaco’s troops.

Hutchings has already worked his way into the two-deep at inside linebacker, a position with a lot of talent at Southern Cal. He talked about the pull that was close to bringing him to South Bend, and also the fellow recruit that would’ve teamed with him to make one of the elite linebacking groups in the country.

“Jaylon has been in my ear a lot about Notre Dame,” Hutchings told back during his recruitment. “He just tells me that if I go there, the two of us won’t have to worry about playing the same position since we’re both being recruited at different linebacker spots. Notre Dame will need linebacker help after this year, and the two of us will be playing right next to each other.”

It turns out the Irish needed that help sooner than later. Missing on Hutchings hurt especially bad with the last minute defection of Alex Anzalone, who has played in four games for Florida, notching just one tackle.



If the Irish are going to get the type of offensive balance they want, they’ll have to get a nice Saturday night out of George Atkinson. The California native had an offer in play for Southern Cal, but ultimately decided to head to South Bend, where he could play with his brother Josh.

Atkinson has seen some big moments in the rivalry, his kickoff return in ’11 ignited the crowd and helped jumpstart the Irish after they had fallen behind 17-0. That was something the Trojans’ coaching staff pitched to Atkinson when he was offered a scholarship back in August 2010.

“They want to get the ball in my hands, so that’s good,” Atkinson told back during his recruitment. “They didn’t really say where they were recruiting at specifically. I said I’d like to play offense, so I think they see me as a wide out.”

Many expected Atkinson to play wideout at Notre Dame as well, but the switch to the backfield looks like the correct role for the big back with speed. He’ll reaffirm that choice with a strong second half of the season that should get started Saturday night.



The Trojans leading tackler was once one of West Coast recruiting wiz and now Nevada head coach Brian Polian’s key recruiting targets. The Irish got Pullard onto campus for an official visit during the Irish’s overtime win over Jake Locker and the Washington Huskies, but couldn’t close the deal.

The Parade All-American made a difference quickly at USC, averaging almost 90 tackles a season in his first three seasons. Charlie Weis wasn’t quite sure what they saw in Pullard, hoping he could play either linebacker or running back.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Pullard told Irish Illustrated’s (AND live-blog contributor) Steve Hare. “They said they’d decide when I get there.”

Ultimately the Irish never got that opportunity, and instead have watched him rack up ridiculous numbers, making 13 tackles last year against Notre Dame and eight in 2011.



Nobody can say they’ve seen both sides of this rivalry like Amir Carlisle, who chose USC narrowly over Notre Dame during the recruiting process, played one season under Lane Kiffin, then transferred to Notre Dame. After sitting out the last opportunity to play the Trojans with a broken ankle, Carlisle admitted that this was a different game than most he’ll play.

“I’m not gonna lie, yeah, there’s an excitement for me personally to be able to face my former team,” Carlisle told reporters on Wednesday. “I’m going to approach this game like any other game, but there’s a little extra there.”

Finding a job for Carlisle, who has slipped out of the primary game plan these past couple weeks, could be important. After struggling against Purdue and coughing up a late game fumble, Carlisle’s struggled to get much of anything going, something he’d desperately like to change against USC.

The Irish would embrace it as well, with many believing that Carlisle is the team’s answer at slot receiver.

Carlisle stays in touch with some Trojans from Irish Illustrated on Vimeo.

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.