Bob Diaco hat

Bye-week Six Pack: Enjoy the rest


The week off couldn’t be coming at a better time for Notre Dame (and its fans). Brian Kelly gave his team a break from practice this week, letting bodies mend before a very important date with BYU. It also gives everybody else a chance to catch their breath and enjoy a weekend of stress-free football.

The point of our headline is two-fold. Enjoy the week off. And enjoy the rest of the season. Because we’re inching closer to the abyss, when we’ll have nine long months to talk about what next season will look like.

With that, here’s your bye week six pack.

Time to get healthy. 

Nobody wants to complain about injuries. But the reality of any critique of Bob Diaco’s defense should include the fact that Diaco has been without some key contributors for much of the year.

If the off-week is kind to the Irish, getting back Kona Schwenke and Ishaq Williams would be a huge help to a front seven that’s going to need to bring a hardhat next weekend against BYU. It’ll give Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Sheldon Day a much needed (and productive) back-up in Schwenke, and allow Williams to take some of the crossover snaps at defensive end and Cat linebacker.

Can this team get off the mat like Brian Kelly’s first three?

It’s hard for some to remember just how dark it was before Notre Dame’s undefeated regular season. The loss to Florida State kicked off a toxic offseason where even the most sensible Irish fans started to wonder if Brian Kelly was the right guy for the job.

A Herculean schedule awaited. An unproven quarterback was thrust into play. And a group that disappointed the previous season galvanized and put together one of the most unexpected seasons in Notre Dame history.

There is a mental toughness that’s been instilled in Kelly’s first three seasons. We saw it early, when the Irish rallied after a heartbreaking loss to Tulsa and came out of a bye week to stomp No. 14 Utah 28-3. We’ve seen in the past few seasons, spearheaded by leaders like Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert.

Will this team take the emotions of Senior Day and channel them towards putting together a complete performance?

Will a leader emerge on the field in these final three games?

The Irish are in desperate need of a leader to carry this team on their shoulders. That’s not to say that the three captains on this team, Zack Martin, TJ Jones and Bennett Jackson, aren’t carrying their weight in the locker room, but this team is in desperate need of a leading man. 

TJ Jones has played the best football of his career these past few weeks, catching touchdowns in last seven games. But Jones wasn’t sharp against Pitt (even if he was prolific), opening the game up with a drop on a screen pass, then fumbling a ball deep in the Pitt red zone.

Martin’s play along the offensive line has been what it always has: rock solid. But the unit hasn’t carried the offense the way they’re needed to, especially late in the year when a running game is at a premium.

Jackson has had an up-and-down season. He’s been exposed some in coverage while missing some tackles after a very physical and clean-tackling year. Part of that is playing in a secondary with safeties still learning their jobs, but taking away the football is at a premium this time of year and the Irish are the only ones doing the giving.

These three guys should have the best opportunity to lead, but if the Irish want to turn this season into something more than just average, a dominant performer will need to emerge on both sides of the ball. It could be a veteran (Tommy Rees, Prince Shembo) or a newcomer (Tarean Folston, Jaylon Smith). Whoever it is, they’ll need to step up.

With the week off, the Irish staff gets a jump-start on the final push to recruiting. 

A nice benefit to the off-week is the ability to hit the recruiting trail. Irish coaches have scattered across the country, checking in on prospects new and old, and extending some offers at positions that still seem like needs for next year’s roster.

Mike Denbrock hit the West Coast. Kerry Cooks was in Texas. Our friends over at Irish Illustrated have the scoop on a busy week, but expect to see some moves sooner than later on the Big Board.

While it might not be possible to watch BYU, get an early peek at Stanford this weekend. 

There’s not much to learn this weekend from BYU, who will be battling Idaho State, a FCS team with a 1-6 record in the Big Sky conference. But last weekend gave a good blue-print for beating the Cougars, as Gary Andersen’s Wisconsin Badgers beat BYU 27-17 in a game that wasn’t really that close.

But if you’re looking for another chance to watch Stanford, they’ve got an intriguing matchup with USC slated for prime time Saturday evening. A week after storming out and dominating Oregon, then holding on for dear life, it’ll be an interesting test for David Shaw’s team against a USC squad that’s got plenty of talent, but more than a few deficiencies.

Enjoy the weekend. 

After a few stressful football Saturdays, forgive one writer for getting away from the keyboard this weekend. (Unless something big happens, of course.) With Thanksgiving around the corner and the season coming to a close, it’s a good reminder that this crazy game we all follow is a lot of fun, but can be a bit too all consuming.

As I finalize my trip to South Bend for the final home game of the year, it’d be great to get started on an Inside the Irish meet-up, with a few friendly watering holes in South Bend likely to welcome any/all of us for a few cold ones.

So if anybody plans on being in South Bend next weekend, drop a note in the comments or hit me up on Twitter and we’ll find a place for Friday evening.

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)
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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.