Zack Martin

Appreciating the senior class


There’s still football to be played, which makes any goodbye a little premature. But as it’s Senior Day tomorrow, this is as good of a time as any to tip a cap to the graduating class.

There’s been so much great work done to take a look at this class. So consider this just a nice aggregator of material, and a standing ovation for the work that the student-run Observer has done as they once again profiled every member of the senior class.



Do yourself a favor and read every one of these columns (I did). But if you’re running short on time, I’ve linked to each article they wrote, with a favorite factoid from all of them:

Carlo Calabrese: This quote says is all about Calabrese: “Three or four times, we kept [Stanford] out of the end zone, and then the last time, I made the tackle, Calabrese told the Observer. “I know I’ll remember that forever.”

Kevin Carr: Hailing from a long line of family members that served in the Navy, Carr hopes to join after graduation, specializing in nuclear engineering.

Austin Collinsworth: Austin’s following his father’s footsteps both on and off the field. He’s producing five-minute video shorts on life in the locker room with Fighting Irish Digital Media.

Will Cronin: The walk-on quarterback went from stud interhall QB for Alumni to invited walk-on for the Irish for his senior season. Not too shabby.

Nick Fitzpatrick: Younger brother of former kicker DJ, the local product also doubled as Denard Robinson, before winning Scout Team Player of the Year in 2012.

Dan Fox: After celebrating Senior Day with his mother last year with a flying shoulder bump, look for another epic celebration between the veteran linebacker and his mom.

Bruce Heggie: A cult hero if only for his out-of-nowhere recruiting status, Heggie switched back from offensive line to defensive line to help out as injuries mounted.

Andrew Hendrix: The first word of Hendrix’s senior profile is “Allotropes.” Because of course it is.

Bennett Jackson: You might forget, but Jackson averaged 22 yards a kick return during his freshman season, when he was still a wide receiver.

TJ Jones: A great piece of writing here by the Observer’s Mike Monaco. The loss of Jones’ father truly shaped him.

Christian Lombard: A season-ending injury has Lombard already looking to next season, where he’ll likely stay at guard with Steve Elmer first in line at left tackle.

Zack Martin: He’s been captaining football teams since middle school, and will likely continue after his college career is finished.

Arturo Martinez: After battling cancer, Martinez decided to walk-on to the Irish football team after just one season in high school.

Luke Massa: Position changes and ACL tears haven’t slowed Massa down, one of Brian Kelly’s first big scholarship offers.

Kendall Moore: Next Man In might be more than just a mantra. It might be what brings Kendall Moore back for a fifth year.

Louis Nix: Somehow Nix has shrunk since he arrived in South Bend. Literally.

Tyler Plantz: Grew up with a panoramic poster of Notre Dame Stadium in his bedroom.

Tommy Rees: So many words have been dedicated to Rees’ run here in South Bend. Here are a few more definitely worth reading.

Jude Rhodes: The little kicker with dreadlocks grew up in the highlands of Kenya.

Joe Romano: His grandfather, Buddy Romano, was a member of the 1949 national championship team.

Kona Schwenke: He may be one of the more underappreciated players in this class. But he could end up playing on Sundays, too.

Prince Shembo: For a guy that didn’t seem to have a position, he became a key cog on this football team.

Daniel Smith: Talk about the ultimate “glue” guy. A local product who made a career of doing the little things, fulfilling a dream come true by playing for Notre Dame.

Danny Spond: Injuries and early retirement won’t take away from what Spond brought to the program.


Tyler Stockton: Both Brian Kelly and Stockton were rewarded for bringing back the veteran leader this season.

Nick Tausch: While you wouldn’t probably remember it, Tausch’s name is all over the Irish kicking record books.

Justin Utupo: Better late than never for Utupo, who has feasted on opportunities that have opened up because of injuries.


Chris Watt: Seeing the Irish offensive line without Watt and Martin on the left side will be a very weird thing.

Alex Welch: Continued an impressive pipeline from Elder High School to Notre Dame. Don’t be surprised to see Welch back in an Irish uniform next year.

Lo Wood: An Achilles tear robbed Wood of a chance to start. But Wood hasn’t stopped grinding.

Alex Wulfeck: Wake Forest transfer has found his way onto the field as one of the true specialists on the roster.





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.

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.