Holiday Mailbag: Answers and Presents


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.


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.



Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”