Nyles MorganAAA

Kelly on the recruits: Front Seven


One of the more impressive hauls in this year’s recruiting class was the work Brian Kelly and his staff did on the front seven. Needing to replace starters at every position with the exception of Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day, the group was key in rebuilding the team’s depth chart.

Considering Notre Dame needed to replace their defensive coordinator (who also served as the linebackers coach) and transition in Brian VanGorder during the home stretch of the process, it’s hard to be too tough on this group.

Let’s walk through the signees, with Kelly’s comments from his introductory press conference:

BK on Grant Blankenship

“He just continues to grow.  He’s about 265 pounds.  We loved him in camp.  We had a hard time with anybody blocking him.  He was a guy that just stood out right away for us when we saw him in our summer camp working out.  Had a great senior year, and again, a guy that continued to just grow.  I think he’s just starting to hit his potential level, and it’s only going to get better and better.

“Grant is going to be really a solid player for us with great size, somebody that’s really going to grow into that position at the defensive line.”

BK on Jonathan Bonner

“We really project him to be an outside player for us, an edge player, rush player, a guy that gets after the quarterback, and really was impressed with Jonathan, his personality, his character.

“Has a bit of a connection here with Notre Dame, as well.  When you talk about the right fit to Notre Dame, Jonathan possessed all of the right characteristics, academics, socially, and then as a football player. When he came up here, again, a lot of these guys we see firsthand, so our evaluations in a lot of these young men, we got a chance to see them.  Jonathan really impressed us in all of those areas.”

BK on Daniel Cage

“This guy is a ferocious player.  He’s an inside player, and we love the way he got off the ball.  His strength, lower body strength, he’s a guy that’s going to play the shade, he can play the nose.  He’s a guy that’s very disruptive inside.

“As you know, it was not a long recruiting process. We told Daniel, the circumstances, because of losing a player and then having a couple of guys go early, we had to recruit him in a shorter window, but we were able to show him why we thought Notre Dame was the right fit for him, and he got a chance to see Notre Dame, and he signed with us today.  Daniel Cage, we’re excited about having him at Notre Dame, as well.”

BK on Jay Hayes

“One thing I’ll say about Jay is that he has been probably one of our, I would say best recruiters in a sense from day one.  He’s talked about Notre Dame and why you make a decision to come to Notre Dame.  I remember one of his quotes when I was with him was, Coach, some of these guys don’t get it.  They don’t really understand why you would come to Notre Dame.  And he’s such a thoughtful kid at his age that he understands why he would come to Notre Dame for all the right reasons, getting a degree and opening up doors for him for the rest of his life.

“Having said that, he’s a heck of a football player.  Long, and he’s long.  He’s 6’4″, long arms, about 275 pounds.  He’s got multi‑position capabilities.  He can play inside, he can play outside.  Really like the way he plays the game, ferocious attacking player and a guy that we have a lot of trust in their head coach.  He’s a defensive line coach by trade, and he’s one of the best he’s ever had.  Really excited about Jay Hayes coming into our program.”

BK on Kolin Hill

“Colin was a young man that we offered when he didn’t have a lot of action, but we saw a young man that we thought we could develop into just an outstanding football player.  First of all, we loved him as a person.  Again, a right fit for Notre Dame, character, high energy, yes, sir, no, sir, had all those things that we really liked.  He was engaging.  Really impressed our admissions people.  He had all the things that we were looking for as well as somebody that we felt we could develop.

“After we offered him, of course then he got a million offers after that.  Another kid from Texas that was offered by Texas, but he saw the reasons that he chose Notre Dame and fought through that late recruitment.  Again, I thought Kerry did a great job of recruiting Colin and getting him here to Notre Dame.

“Here’s a guy that really will continue to just develop.  He has not even seen his ceiling yet.”

BK on Greer Martini

“Greer Martini is one of the smarter defensive players we signed.  We got a chance to spend some time with him here on campus.  His leadership skills, his ability to recognize and really‑‑ you have to have leaders.  He’s a really good player, and he’s a really good leader, and he’ll be a very good linebacker for us here at Notre Dame and will also be a guy that makes others around him better.

“He’s a good size at 6’3″, 225.  He’s only going to get bigger and stronger while he’s here.  He’ll be an inside linebacker for us, and again, a position of need for us moving forward.”

BK on Pete Mokwuah

“Pete was a great fit for us, and looking for to augment our defensive line position, we wanted to find the right profile young man.  He’s Nigerian.  We’ve had a great Nigerian connection here, Romeo Okwara, Prince Shembo, just to name a few, and then Pete was able to connect Catholic institution, goes to a Catholic school.  That profile fit very well for us.  A kid that’s serious about his academics here at Notre Dame.  All very good profiling for us in terms of the right fit here at Notre Dame and a 6’4”, 315‑pound defensive lineman, pretty good fit there, too.

“So all of those things together, we really liked his personality.  His mom got a chance to come up with him and see Notre Dame.  He’s got a couple of sisters, one at UConn, one at St.John’s, so the family really understands about college and getting a great education and so it was a really good fit in getting Peter here at Notre Dame.”

BK on Nyles Morgan

“One thing that stands out about Nyles is his thirst for knowledge of the game.  Every time I’m with him, he just wants to talk about football, and he’s a good student, and his mom and dad want him to just talk about academics, and he’s a good student and he recognizes the value of getting a degree at Notre Dame.  A couple of his choices were Notre Dame and Vanderbilt, so he understands that clearly, but every time he’s with me he just wants to talk about football.  He is a student of the game.

“He couldn’t wait for today because after today he gets to talk a lot more football, and on a daily basis he’s going to be talking about football.

“Just got a great nose for the football, plays downhill, plays fast, great instincts, and when he arrives, he arrives with a bad attitude when he gets to the football.  He’s just that kind of player.  Very, very talented.  You know, I think from our standpoint, an inside guy that certainly has the physical tools to be an exceptional player here at Notre Dame.”

BK on Nile Sykes

“Just a great addition to our class.  Really like Nile and his personality.  He’s got a great family.  Mom and dad, really excited about being a part of the Notre Dame family.  Listen, that matters, too.  We want people that want to be part of Notre Dame and be part of our family, and to bring Nile and his family in, he’s a versatile player.  He can play inside, he can play outside.  He is a physical player.  He’s got very good ball skills, instincts, and again, another versatile player in our front seven that’s going to add to the depth of our football team.”

BK on Andrew Trumbetti

“The thing that I would say about Andrew, the thing that really put him over the top for us is when we were watching his film, he was returning kickoffs in high school, and not many times do you see a defensive lineman returning kickoffs.

“We knew about his athletic ability right away, and certainly we loved the fact that he was a multisport player, was a track athlete, and when we got a chance, when Coach Diaco was here before he moved on to Connecticut, got a chance to see him in track practice and got a chance to see his footwork and his quickness and all those things, and that started the recruiting process for us, and then obviously getting a chance to see him up on campus in our summer camps.”

BK on Jhonathon Williams

“Here’s a young man that just started play the game, 6’6”, 230 pounds, and who knows what his future is going to be.  There’s no ceiling on Jhonny Williams’s future.  He’s an engaging young man.  He just recognizes that he’s got a great opportunity at Notre Dame, and we’re excited to provide him that opportunity.

“You know, he’s one of the top players in the state of Michigan, and I think from our perspective, we’ve got one of those guys that if you call him a sleeper or whatever you want to call it, he didn’t play great competition, but he’s going to get an opportunity to play against the very best competition here.  But we’ll take that any time with his athletic skill set.

“At his size, his athletic ability, we’re really excited about developing Jhonny Williams.  He’s the kind of guy that you want to have on your team because of his personality, who he is, his story, his family background, and then a guy that you feel like you can develop down the road.”

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 ESPN.com.

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.