Santa

Holiday Mailbag: Answers and Presents

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Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Here’s hoping you’re all spending these next few days finishing up work and getting closer to friends and family.

And as teased, we’re doing our first ever Holiday giveaway, thanks to LCP and Skybox Press. It’s the Official Illustrated History of Fighting Irish Football.  The book features 20 essays from former Notre Dame greats like Joe Montana, Paul Hornung, Dave Casper, Brady Quinn, Ken MacAfee, Ross Browner, Tony Rice and John Huarte.

It’s perfect for a coffee table and features over 300 photos. My niece Sydney picked the winner (don’t blame me!) but all of our readers are able to get the book on sale here, using the promo code “ND230” to cut the price from $75 to $39.95, which includes free shipping.

Here’s the mailbag. Sydney’s pick for the free book is at the bottom.

@Ontario_Bill: What is the greater loss with Diaco leaving…..schematics or recruiting? BD seemed to really connect with high school kids…

Bill, I’m going with “none of the above.” While I think Diaco was excellent as both a schemer and recruiter, his presence and energy in the locker room will be missed the most. We tend to forget that he took over a defense that wasn’t just mediocre, it was horrible. Probably even worse was the morale of the group, players that had seen coaches and systems come and go.

Diaco rebuilt the psyche of this group, starting with a “B.I.A.” chant (Best In America) that people started by chuckling at, but ended up almost achieving in 2012.

@DanFree5: can you explain the “Pot of Gold” craze? I think I managed to figure it out. Wondering where it started and the point.

During the recruiting quiet period, Notre Dame has managed to build momentum with the remaining recruits on the board. A smart initiative by the recruiting office and football staff, and it’s helped build an awareness during a usually slow period, and allowed Kelly to focus on prepping the team for the bowl game and vetting candidates for his coaching staff.

@IrishPhog: who are you hearing about for coordinators? Simply Cooks and Denbrock?

As you’d expect, there’s a pretty tight lid on this search. Talking to people inside the program, they’ve got no clue either. If I had to guess, I think Denbrock gets a promotion and a QB coach is brought in. Cooks might share the title with Mike Elston, but this is the one place where Kelly might bring in someone new to a leadership position.

I put together a pretty comprehensive look at this last night, working into the wee hours of the morning reading about coaching buyouts and contracts.

notthatconfused: Do you think Kelly will continue as quarterbacks coach, or will he hire someone (George Whitfield) to perform those duties?

George Whitfield isn’t coming to South Bend. He’s doing what he wants to do and he’s got a pretty good gig living close to the beach in San Diego and working with quarterbacks from all around the country.

tonyricemajorharris: Besides 5th year seniors, who else might be transferring?

That’s a good question. I’m not entirely comfortable speculating on who plans on leaving the program, but I think the biggest group will be graduated players with immediate eligibility. It’ll be interesting to see if these guys go join one of four coaches they had a connection with: Charlie Weis at Kansas, Charley Molnar at UMass, Chuck Martin and Miami or Bob Diaco at UConn.

I do think you have to look at guys buried on the depth chart and wonder if they’ll stick with it. The running back and safety depth chart is pretty daunting. Some veteran cornerbacks have been passed as well.

newmexicoirish: Keith this week has been a pretty good one for Irish recruiting. Of the remaining top targets for Notre Dame (Matt Elam, JuJu Smith, Michiah Quick, Terry Godwin) who do think the Irish have a realistic chance of signing? Is there room for Dalton Schultz or do you think we’re pretty well stocked at tight end?

In the next two years, Alex Welch, Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack will all depart. Does that mean Notre Dame will take three tight ends? I don’t know. But I expect them to take a full class and if they can fit Schultz, maybe they’ll take him.

NotreDan: We bounced it around a bunch this year, but in your opinion; how damaging was lack of leadership in the absence of Teo and Kappy, and who are the emerging team leaders for next year?

I don’t know that leadership was the reason this defense regressed. I think we probably overvalued the team’s personnel, and the loss of Danny Spond, the early season injury to Stephon Tuitt and Dan Fox, and some struggles in the secondary did it.

That Te’o was able to be a tackling machine and a turnover creator is really astounding. Many people forgot about the season he had because of the catfishing. But there’s a reason he was the most highly decorated defensive player in the modern era.

irishdodger: can you please lend your perspective as to where ND stands now in the CFB landscape versus the post Holtz era. With the Texas coaching search, it really puts into perspective how important it is for any school to make the right hire. Just thinking back to the Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis eras makes me glad ND finally got it right w/ Kelly.

I think the coaching search at a place like USC ends the idea that prestigious programs can just pluck an elite coach from another top-level program. Notre Dame fans would have rioted if the Irish hired Sark, a guy that only now just won eight games.

Looking back, Notre Dame got caught institutionally napping at the worst time in college football history. It’s never good when you’re the last to realize the arms race has begun, and hiring Bob Davie has to go down as an all-timer. A big-time hire there and it would’ve been a very different 20 years.

bernhtp: Will we see an article titled “Tribute to Tommy” at the end of the season?

I think we’ve written about Tommy quite a bit. Let’s wait until after the season to take a closer look at all the departing seniors.

chadwalters425: How does Greg Bryant participating in bowl game practice not violate his medical redshirt?

You can practice. You just can’t play.

mediocrebob: How has Zaire’s growth and development gone thus far? I remember during spring ball people mentioning that he was very eager to learn. Has he gained weight? Is there a big difference between when he arrived last winter and now?

Bob, if someone in the media can tell you how Zaire is progressing, he’s got a secret view into practice that most of us don’t. He’s likely gained weight, gotten stronger and learned the playbook. We’ll get a better idea come spring ball, when an updated roster is released and a closer look at the team.

One thing I haven’t liked? Zaire’s propensity to get on Twitter and speak his feelings. Kelly already put the young quarterback on notice when he let it slip he was battling mono. But Zaire’s initial reaction to Chuck Martin’s hiring at Miami was hardly the type of response you want from the potential face of the Irish offense.

Still, these past few weeks have been a great opportunity for Zaire. He’s had a ton of one-on-one time with Kelly, and if there’s a way to jump start his career, this is it. With Tommy Rees departing, and Andrew Henrix quite possibly as well, Zaire’s gotten more time than he could dream of with his head coach during preparations for the Pinstripe Bowl.

jcodaniels: first time commenter, long time reader of your work. Love it. Well it looks as though I will again be depending on Amazon to get my wife’s Christmas gift to my house on time this year as I am terrible at getting something ahead of time. My question to you is, do you think it is OK that I got her something Notre Dame which is basically for me. Last year it was an electronic that was basically for me as well that had an ND background on it when she opened it. I think my love for Notre Dame is taking affect on my marriage. 

That’s why there’s Amazon Prime! But on a serious note, this offseason can’t come soon enough for you. Take a couple months away from it and come back refreshed in the fall. Don’t forget Bobby D’s poem.

chejoe: It seems to me that Kelly has been snake-bit by quarterbacks during his entire time at ND: first, Clausen graduates early, rather than play for him; next, Crist was not as good as we all thought (neither was Hendrix) and Dayne was injury prone; then, Kiel decides to transfer *right before* Golson gets kicked out of school. While Rees did all he could, and it was better than most (including me) give him credit for, he was obviously thrust into this role (repeatedly) despite simply not being the right man for the job. As we head into Rees’ final game in an ND uniform, I cannot help but wonder what the future holds for the ND offense. The one year that Kelly had as least *most* of his wishes at QB the Irish played for the title. How do you see it playing out?

I’m not sure there’s a question there, but I think you’re on to something. It’s worth noting that for the first time, Kelly will have a depth chart of quarterbacks that he recruited.

rocket1988: Alright here are some questions Mr. Arnold
Better beach: Hermosa or Manhattan? — Manhattan, of course.
Steak or Sushi? — Why not both. But I could eat sushi seven nights a week.
Ducks or Kings? — Gimme the Canucks. Lotta ND blood in the front office.
Favorite ND athlete of the past, present, or future? — Too hard. I’m partially to the CDH Raiders: Rashon Powers-Neal, Ryan Harris, Marcus Freeman, Michael Floyd, James Onwualu, and hell — baseball legend J.P. Gagne.
And last, your dream venue to cover and ND game? Dublin was pretty slick. But Fenway should be cool, too.

irishpuma: Seriously who are your favorite posters and who are your least likely to read or have a drink with.

You are each like my own — eh, special children.

ndfenian: For Keith or anybody that has a thought: why didn’t we see the offense employ screen passes to the running backs this year? Does Kelly not believe in the screen game to backs?

There were plenty of screen passes in this offense, but I agree, I’d like to see more running back screens. I’ll dig into this during the offseason.

dudeacow: Flashback: back when Kelly was hired, was this where you envisioned the program would be four years in? Include specifics (i.e., recruiting, offensive/defensive production, team speed, etc.)

That’s a pretty impossible question to answer. But to see the team make it to the BCS National Championship Game in their third season, and to see the defense rebuilt and an offense come together with such young, promising talent, there are on track.

Nudeman:  Many here and elsewhere have scratched their heads this year at the play calling. Too pass-happy for most of us. I could cite specific examples, but it’s not necessary. Personally I’ve never been 100% convinced that BK isn’t still calling the plays, but can’t prove that. Some have surmised it’s Rees audibling into passes; some have blamed Martin.

With a new OC next year and a new QB who doesn’t audible everything, not to mention Folston & Bryant being a year older and stronger, to what degree does this problem go away?

What a wonderfully loaded question. The bottom line is that Kelly’s offense can’t run optimally if the quarterback can’t run the ball. I tackled this a few days ago if you want to read more.

goirish3590: A phrase we frequently heard in reference to Bob Diaco’s style of defense was, “bend, don’t break,” and 2012′s defensive unit came to embody that sentiment. My question is this: do you think we’ll see a philosophical shift to perhaps a more aggressive defense, or do you think Kelly sticks closer to the idea of avoiding big plays?

That phrase was assigned by fans. The phrase that Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco used was “limit points.” And they did a very good job of that. While I think the defense needs to do a better job of taking away the football, avoiding big plays is pretty much the only proven way to keep scoring down.

THE WINNER:

TonyRiceMajorHarris. Congratulations on your Christmas present. Please send me an email with your mailing address (through the link) and we’ll get you a book.

 

 

Pregame Six Pack: Back to the beginning

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Jarron Jones #94 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates with teammates after recovering a fumble in the second quarter against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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With the Irish heading east to New York, Notre Dame faces a true big-city conundrum—sink or swim. Because this season is on the brink. And with a defensive coordinator already out the door, there are no other anvils for Brian Kelly to pull off of his ankle.

The Irish need to win on Saturday. They need to find a way to stop a Syracuse offense that’s moving at hyper-speed, while also taking advantage of an Orange defense that’s allowed offenses to do the same.

More than anything, this team needs to find stability. Whether it’s from the enthusiasm of interim defensive coordinator Greg Hudson or from the head coach pulling the strings on a defense that is beyond in need of a rebound, Kelly has steered this program out of rocky waters before, and his athletic director has given him the clear message that he trusts he’ll do it again.

Let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. Because at 1-3, let’s face it—we need one. Here are six solutions that the Irish could use before high noon in the Meadowlands.

 

When in doubt, play aggressive. If there was a true sign that Brian VanGorder’s time at Notre Dame was up, it was the fact that as the veteran coach tried to seek a solution, he went further and further away from the things that gave his defense a chance to be successful.

As this unit found new and painful ways to give up points, they also threw gasoline on the fire. Because as they tried to protect against the big play or the painful drive, the defense spent more time on their heels and less time attacking.

There isn’t a world where this group will stop giving up big plays. Not with the young, inexperienced players learning on the job. And not with Syracuse moving so fast that even gutting the playbook’s inventory won’t stop the Irish from getting caught in some bad looks.

So if you know that, you might as well embrace it. You might as well hope that your defense can create some chaos in addition to absorbing it.

It may sound simple, but every big play this defense can create will be one more than we’ve seen of late. And even if “live fast, die fast” isn’t exactly the most inspiring mantra for your team’s defense, this team is way better off gambling on the big defensive play this scheme was supposed to provide, knowing that if it backfires, it’ll be no different than what we’ve seen and if it succeeds it’ll get Syracuse behind the chains.

 

Get your best 11 players on then field. Kelly has talked about an idea this simple in the past, and likely pulled his hair out when he realized that the variety of sub-packages, scheme tweaks and mental computation essentially limited the personnel that VanGorder even got to put on the field.

That explains why Andrew Trumbetti played 57 snaps last week and Jay Hayes played none. That explains why Joe Schmidt led the defense in snaps last season and Nyles Morgan couldn’t get on the field.

Kelly is a coach who understands basic principles. He’s won using them, beating teams that had more with less—doing it routinely at Grand Valley, Central Michigan and Cincinnati. So think of this less as a cliche than a reminder that a little garage logic sometimes helps.

Get your best guys on the field. Because good players usually win the battle in front of them. And ultimately, you need to be able to do more than handle the mental load of VanGorder’s scheme.

 

Get a dominant game from your offense. For all the heat Kelly took last week in his “call out” of players, he had a point about DeShone Kizer‘s play. Notre Dame’s star quarterback is too good to make the kind of mistakes he made last weekend.

More over, the offense, on whole, was rather unimpressive. The ground game couldn’t dominate. The turnovers killed momentum. And the fits and starts were enough to get Kelly as aggravated as we’ve seen him in years.

Notre Dame is a double-digit favorite for a reason. Because its offense is one of the country’s best when it’s clicking, and its quarterback is an elite player when he’s on. Noon starts against mediocre programs is when an offense like this should dominate. Let’s see them do it.

 

Win in special teams. Two straight weeks the Irish have been on the wrong side of a touchdown. First, one taken away against Michigan State. Then, a return gifted to Duke that brought them back into the football game.

Hidden yards will be critical on Saturday. That means Tyler Newsome will need to get his first bad kick out of the way in warm-ups, no breakfast ball allowed on Ryder Cup Saturday. Justin Yoon will need to convert when he’s called upon. And CJ Sanders should have opportunities, it’ll be up to him to seize them.

It’s worth remembering that special teams has been a place where Kelly has tried to jump start his team before. Against Utah in 2010 it was with a punt block by Robert Blanton and a forced fumble on kickoff coverage by Kyle McCarthy. Kelly also stole a touchdown in the Tulsa game, hoping that excellent fake punt conversion would buoy a team that was still reeling from losing and the tragedy of Declan Sullivan that week.

So if the timing is right, expect Kelly to try and steal something on special teams this Saturday, especially if it can be a momentum builder.

 

Find some kind of consistency in the red zone. Want good news? Syracuse stinks in the red zone. The not so good news? So have Brian VanGorder’s defenses.

But VanGorder is out and a simplified scheme is in. And perhaps the best thing to ask for isn’t a new scheme or installation, but rather some calm before the snap, knowing an assignment for at least a few seconds before it’s time to do battle.

The Irish defense has been known to be the cure to the common red zone ills, but it’s critical to keep the Orange’s touchdown rate down at the mediocre levels where it currently exists. Getting Kizer and the Irish offense to punch in their scoring tickets for seven points and not three and you don’t need to be a math major to understand the Irish would easily win that shootout.

 

Play the game like tough gentlemen. Remember that slogan? Kelly all but co-opted it from Stanford back in the day, but it had a nice ring to it. And on Saturday, the Irish need to play like tough gentlemen—willing to win the battle in the trenches on defense and exert their will on offense.

This season that toughness got lost in the defensive ineptitude and also disappeared as Kizer found comfort in the quick throws and piloting the ground game with an extra hat in the numbers game.

But the “mental and physical toughness” that we heard BK mention a few hundred times over the last few years, that’s been missing. And after a string of losses that have this program feeling down, it’s time to return to the basic tenets Kelly tried to install those first few years.

Football is a violent game A true contact sport. It’s time for Notre Dame’s talent discrepancy to be matched by their size and strength advantage.  They need to dominate mentally and physically.

Talking Irish: What comes next?

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, center, watches as his players run off the field during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Texas , Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
AP
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Another week, another chat with CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz. Let’s jump in.

KA: So JJ – Last we chatted, we weren’t all that comfortable speculating on the dismissal of Brian VanGorder. 12 hours after the game ended, he’s out of a job.
Any final thoughts — that you haven’t already covered over at CSN Chicago — on the move and the timing?

JJ: I thought it was interesting that Brian Kelly came out Saturday and said he was pleased with Notre Dame’s defensive coaching, then fired BVG on Sunday.
The tape of that game was awful, of course, and maybe he didn’t realize Jay Hayes didn’t play a single snap right after the game. But that seemed like an interesting 180. Kelly said he doesn’t like criticizing individual coaches publicly, which he didn’t do with VanGorder up until the release that he fired him. What were your thoughts on that whole process?

KA: I talked about this with John Walters, but I actually completely follow BK’s logic. I think after he watched the tape, and he saw his defense do the same things wrong — he had to pull the trigger. I just don’t think a coordinator can survive that Duke offensive explosion. And there’s absolutely no explanation for the way he allocated snaps and game planed 400 levels deep, when that game could’ve been won with vanilla.

JJ: Oh man, you’re just TEEING me up for the Bob Diaco reference.

KA: GO FOR IT!

JJ: Here’s something I can picture him saying: “Say you’re tasked with baking a cake. You need the cake to taste good. But you decide to get fancy and start throwing all these different ingredients in there and try to make a seven-layer cake. Maybe you accidentally grab the green chilis and throw them in there, and all of a sudden, people you don’t like your cake. And if you just went with the simple vanilla cake with regular chocolate frosting, people might’ve liked your cake.”

…Is that what you expected? Bobby D loves his cake analogies.

KA: Bob literally went with a cake reference on Jim Rome the week before the season.

JJ: He gave us the cake/green chilis reference after Manti left too!

KA: And man — I thought Tim Prister hit it right when he was talking to BK this week — he essentially asked him, “aren’t you describing (when talking about what he wants in a defense) a Bob Diaco defense?”

JJ:  Pretty much. And Diaco played Syracuse last week (and lost). I gotta imagine when Kelly says he’s going to draw from certain parts of the inventory, it’s the simplest, least complex elements of it. So maybe you won’t see D-linemen dropping into coverage as frequently on Saturday?

KA: I hope I never see another defensive lineman drop into coverage. I mean, it stops being a surprise when it happens every game.

So let’s go to a question…

What do you expect to see from Greg Hudson. Because when BK described what he needed from him, he essentially said, “Enthusiasm.” And “love of Notre Dame.” That sounds like, “I don’t want to move my entire defensive staff, I want someone who can implement my ideas and organize them.”

JJ: Pretty much. I think Mike Elston will be relied upon heavily for planning the scheme along with Kelly, given Elston’s pre-BVG experience.

KA: Agree.

JJ: I don’t think Kelly wanted to throw DC duties onto Elston given he’s already the recruiting coordinator (and doing a good job at that).

KA: Yeah, and I also don’t think Elston wants to earn a DC job by doing it through an interim tag.

JJ: So to answer your question, if Hudson is the guy that can effectively communicate the defense, that’s a positive.

KA: Let’s finish this coordinator talk with this question: Do you think there’s an internal promotion possible — do you think it’s Hudson, or Elston? Or are you fairly certain ND is going national to bring someone in?

JJ: I think they gotta look nationally to a current college coordinator.

KA: Me, too. More Mike Sanford hire, less BVG hire.

JJ: So with Les Miles out, and that whole situation in flux, you gotta make your first call to Dave Aranda.

KA: I’m guessing they probably already did. And if they were paying BVG a reported 900k, Aranda’s $1.2 isn’t that hard to swallow.

JJ: BVG made over a million in 2014, per ESPN, so yeah.

KA: Good gig if you can get it.

JJ: The offense is in such a good place right now, even if Sanford were to leave for a coaching job, that you expect it to be pretty good to great next year.
But if the defense doesn’t get fixed, BK’s tenure will be defined by almosts instead of successes.

KA: So what do you think the personnel changes are? Playing more depth? Kicking Trumbetti from the starting lineup? Any other bold predictions?

JJ: If I can shill for a second, I wrote about seven players who could see more time going forward on CSN. But yeah, Jay Hayes is near the top of the list. I’m guessing you’ll see some Asmar Bilal, too, along with Jalen Elliott. And they gotta get Daelin Hayes on the field.

KA: We’ll pause this chat momentarily for you guys to read…

JJ: [plays jeopardy music]

KA: And we’re back. I agree with Elliott, Hayes and Hayes.

JJ:  You got anyone you want to see?

KA: I do — on both sides of the ball. I’m 100% on board with the youth movement. For me, that means Donte Vaughn at CB, Daelin Hayes at DE, and then seeing if KJ Stepherson can ascend at the X. I know it’s probably an unpopular opinion, but I’m still waiting to see if Torii Hunter can do anything beyond ordinary. Us expecting a TJ Jones senior season out of him might have been setting the bar WAY too high. He doesn’t challenge anybody down the field.

JJ: Perhaps, but he’s the most reliable guy out there when you need a first down.  Though I’ll say this, the TD catch Stepherson made vs. Duke…he doesn’t catch that ball five months ago. (Literally, he doesn’t. He dropped an over the shoulder pass in the spring game from Kizer.)

KA: Agree. That’s why I like sliding him inside as opposed to being way out wide. Don’t want him off the field, just want him off the island. Stephenson’s TD catch felt like an embodiment of BK’s early comments on him — how well he tracks the ball.

JJChase Claypool deserves an extended look, too.

KA: I was disappointed that Claypool didn’t make more noise, especially after flashing against Michigan State.

***

KA: So you had a chance to talk to the players made available on Wednesday.
Play psychiatrist for me. How did they respond? Did they look like a group ready to play better football? Or a team that’s still in a funk?

JJ: They kept saying how much fun practice was Tuesday and Wednesday.
Which, for a team that’s 1-3, maybe is good?

KA: Was that burned into their brain or do you think it was legit?

JJ: I’m very skeptical of a fun practice equaling better play. But maybe a little of both. Maybe players having fun = better tackling? I’m really just grasping at straws, though. It’s one of those for sure.

KA: Okay – so I’ll defend our picks last week by saying that we both were scared to death of the defense. But ND is a double-digit favorite against Syracuse. I don’t know if I even think they should be favored. How are you feeling about this one?

JJ: I’m like one of the 10 undecided voters in this country, just slipping back and forth on my prediction. But I came to Notre Dame 45, Syracuse 42.
I do think Syracuse is the worst defense Notre Dame will have faced this year, which is enough to overcome this offense.

KA: I actually think the scoring is going to be slightly lower, but I was thinking ND 41, Cuse 38. But my confidence in ANY OF THIS is zero. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the offense bottoms out and only scores like 28, too.

JJ: Oh yeah, if this were a confidence pick’em, I’d put about 2 points on this one.

KA: I’ll leave you with this one: Are there moral victories for this team now?
As in, what would you see this week that’d make you happy — or is it only a win?

JJ:  How emphatic can I say no?

KA: (With ALL CAPS)

JJ: They’re 1-3 and I don’t see an easy path to bowl eligibility. FINE THEN NO (shouts into computer)!

KA: It’s an ALL OUT WAR for Bowl Eligibility. Because those 15 practices are critical to the mission and to salvaging next season, too.

JJ: Especially for a young roster. And Brandon Wimbush. Plus, it’d be a massive, smoldering crater to not make a bowl game this year. That just can’t happen at Notre Dame. And if it does, it puts the coach squarely on the hot seat.

KA: I’m looking at the schedule and it’s pretty much razor-thin margin of error right now. So when I used to think back on the bear hug I watched between coaches from the Yankee Stadium press box in 2010, when they beat Army to clinch a bowl bid, I thought we’d never be back there.

Yet… Here we are.

JJ: S&P+ gives Notre Dame a 32% chance of being bowl eligible this year. Donald Trump has a better chance at becoming president than Notre Dame does at reaching a bowl at this exact moment.

(braces for the STICK TO SPORTS yelling)

KA: How appropriate that the Irish are in New York* this weekend then. But hey — I’m actually excited about a 1-3 team and what they can do, something I thought I’d never type.

JJ: There’s the positivity!

KA: So there you go. Leave it on a high note. Once again, we’re both picking a shootout victory for the Irish — one last leap of faith, at least for me.

JJ: Same here.

KA: Thanks buddy. Enjoy the game. Catch you next week.

JJ: Have a good one.

***

If you want more state of the program talk, John Walters and I dove into the state of the Irish on our Blown Coverage podcast. 

And in that corner… The Syracuse Orange

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Head coach of the Syracuse Orange Dino Babers speaks with quarterback Eric Dungey #2 and running back Dontae Strickland #4 during the first half against the Colgate Raiders on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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With the season at a tipping point, the Irish hit the road. Outside the friendly (or not so friendly, of late) confines of Notre Dame Stadium, Brian Kelly’s team hits the road and travels to New York, where Syracuse awaits.

New head coach Dino Babers has installed his up-tempo offense and the system is already taking hold. The defense hasn’t caught up, helping to launch Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign on the way to a very uneven start.

So before we get to this weekend’s shootout, let’s dig into the challenge that’s ahead. To get us ready, we’re joined by the Daily Orange’s Chris Libonati. He’s an assistant sports editor and football beat writer for one of the country’s premier student newspapers.

In addition to juggling his studies on magazine journalism and public policy, Chris breaks down what Notre Dame should expect from the Orange this weekend in the Meadowlands.

 

Dino Babers is four games into his tenure at Syracuse. The offense seems to have taken to his up-tempo attack. The defense… feels like a work in progress. Can you give us a progress report on the program since Babers took over?

I think the offense has clearly improved from last season, and the defense has regressed. The problem right now is going to be cycling through Scott Shafer’s players that don’t really fit Babers’ systems or creating spots where they can fit. Although that seems a bit unfair, that’s the reality of coaching changes. It’s easy to see that the program could improve after this season, but it’s just speculation for the time being.

 

Notre Dame relieved defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder of his duties on Sunday following another poor performance. Syracuse is actually ranked BELOW Notre Dame in scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. Brian Ward came with Babers from Bowling Green. Is he overmatched? Or is the personnel just that bad?

I don’t necessarily think all of the defensive problems fall on Ward. Scott Shafer ran a high risk-high reward system that required players to be more aggressive in chasing big plays, big hits, etc. The Tampa 2 is almost a 180 for players that are used to that type of a system. For the most part, the Tampa 2 is a bend-don’t-break system, but it appears that the transition is going to take a little while.

One of the best examples is the very first Louisville touchdown. A ball fake easily made the safeties bite and Lamar Jackson threw a long touchdown over the top of the defense. Right now, it’s big plays that have affected Syracuse. Teams really haven’t put together consistent drives. It’s more three-minute drives and under that are killing SU.

 

Now the offense should terrify Irish fans. Specifically what Amba Etta-Tawo is doing. The Maryland transfer put up pedestrian numbers before coming to Syracuse, where he’s coming off of a historic game against UConn. How is he doing this? And how big of a surprise has his emergence been?

It’s kind of amazing to watch. You ask yourself if he can top a performance, and he just did it last week. That said, some of that is the system taking advantage of his best skills. He’s been very good in space, and he’s even better on deep throws. Several times, he’s been adjusted on the boundaries of the field, out-jumped corners or come back to an underthrown ball. And when he doesn’t do that, he burns the corner.

I haven’t seen him really run a crossing route or anything over the short-middle of the field (he has run a few screens and is good in open space), but he hasn’t really needed to. What defenses could try to do is shade a safety over the top, but the Baylor-style spread has its outside receivers almost out to the sidelines, which means safeties have to shade way over. That’ll open up the middle of the field for guys like Brisly Estime and Ervin Philips or potentially expose defenses in the run game.

 

Babers was candid about saying he’d have rather Brian Kelly didn’t fire VanGorder before they traveled to New York, and that he’d prefer the game be played at home in the Carrier Dome rather than the Meadowlands. Let’s talk about this neutral site game? Is it strictly economics? Or what’s the purpose of taking this game to the New York Metro area?

I think just talking about this probably reveals this project as a bit of a failure. Playing this game in the New York Metro area was supposed to expand Syracuse’s brand as “New York’s College Team.” Syracuse scheduled high-profile games against USC (2012), Penn State (2013) and Notre Dame (2014) at MetLife, but hasn’t won any of those games. When it comes down to it, SU put its brand against a national brand and the fan splits at those games were not in the Orange’s favor. This crowd will almost certainly be pro-UND and it’s considered a “home game” for SU.

What the series has done is take a home game away from the Carrier Dome and it pits SU against a top-level program when its still trying to make bowl games on a consistent basis. A smarter series would have been to play Rutgers, but Kyle Flood reportedly nixed that when he was RU’s coach.

 

We’ve seen just about every offense score points on Notre Dame. How many do you think Syracuse needs to score to beat the Irish this weekend?

A lot. I know that’s not specific, but SU’s defense has really struggled against good offenses. DeShone Kizer may have struggled at times this year, but I’d bet he has a decent game against Syracuse. I think the Orange would have to hang at least 40 points on UND to win on Saturday. That’ll be tough if Eric Dungey can’t play for some reason. He didn’t come out for interviews on Tuesday because he was getting treatment for an undisclosed injury. Dino Babers declined to talk about the injury on Wednesday. My guess is that Dungey plays, but if he can’t Zack Mahoney will have to step in for him. Mahoney’s deep ball isn’t quite as good as Dungey’s, which could limit Etta-Tawo’s deep-play ability.

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.