Matthias Farley

Position switches help depth chart come into focus


It was a slightly more newsworthy opening press conference than you might expect from Brian Kelly. While the usual introductory remarks were certainly there, Kelly also broke a fair amount of news as the 2014 Irish begin their work in earnest.

We’ve already talked about the tweaks to the coaching staff. But some significant roster moves also help set in motion what the depth chart will look like. Some moves are large, some are more subtle, but all are worth discussing.

First, there’s a move across the line of scrimmage for James Onwualu. After starting four games at wide receiver, Onwualu will spend the spring as a safety, a decision likely based on the production and aggression Onwualu showed on special teams.

Kelly talked about the decision-making process, a harder decision than you’d expect considering Onwualu made just two catches last season.

“That was a tough one for me because he’s so valuable offensively in a number of ways,” Kelly said. “He’s such a consistent player and he loves to compete. But he’s got great contact skills.  He’s a ferocious competitor and I wanted to take a look at him because he is such a physical player and he’s got an incredible volume to him in terms of his ability to play every play. So this was a time to take a look at him at safety.”

It’s hard not to think about the evolution of Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth when discussing Onwualu. At 6-foot-1, 215-pounds, Onwualu adds some size to the back line, and the chance to compete right away, even with some talent at the position.

While the safety depth chart added Onwualu, it subtracted two members. John Turner is listed as an outside linebacker, likely providing depth at a relatively thin drop position with Ben Councell out. Turner played in 13 games, logging mostly special teams minutes. But the surprise of the spring was Matthias Farley‘s transition from safety to cornerback.

Farley has essentially been a starter at the position the last two seasons, stepping into the lineup in 2012 after Jamoris Slaughter went down. He started the season as one of two regulars at safety, but an up-and-down season had Max Redfield starting opposite Austin Collinsworth in the bowl game.

Kelly talked about the rationale of the move for Farley, which turned out to be an interesting explanation.

“We’re going to give him an opportunity to play corner,” Kelly said. “As we’ve looked at the depth that we have back there, is that the one thing that we’re looking for and Coach VanGorder is looking for is ‘outside‑in’ players and ‘inside‑out’ players at that position.

“We think that he can be a very good player, especially a tackler from an ‘outside‑in’ position.  He’s been playing inside‑out right; he’s been running the alley ‘inside‑out.’

We think he can be a very good force player from an ‘outside-in’ position and he’s really a good athlete.  He can run and he’s got very good ball skills. So we are going to give him an opportunity out there to compete and take a look at him.  We are going to play more than two corners.  We are going to play as many as four.”

Farley had some high profile missed tackles last season, not necessarily a good thing for a player that’s the last line of defense. And as a safety that’s tasked with protecting the middle of the field, coming up the alleys to support isn’t a place where that’s acceptable.

With KeiVarae Russell comfortably locked onto the field (or wide) side of the formation, Farley is going to be given the chance to compete with Cole Luke for Bennett Jackson’s job. That might be a perfect place for his skill-set.

Farley’s a solid thumper and has solid wheels, but he might have a better chance to utilize those skills as a boundary cornerback, coming off the edge and playing as an attacker in Cover 2 sets.

With Cody Riggs entering the conversation this summer and Devin Butler returning this summer after shoulder surgery, there’ll be competition soon. But expect to see Farley getting plenty of reps in a somewhat new scheme.

Lastly, the running back depth chart thinned itself out. Even with George Atkinson leaving early, it was difficult to figure out how five backs were going to get a crack at the starting job. That’s certainly not the case anymore.

Will Mahone is listed as a slot receiver, quite an interesting spot for a 5-foot-11, 214-pounder, but a place where he got good reviews during 2013 camp. Amir Carlisle is listed as a RB/WR, giving him an opportunity to battle for snaps at the slot as well.

“We’ve got a good stable of backs there, and I’m just trying to get guys reps, and we don’t have as much depth at that position,” Kelly said about Carlisle’s added responsibilities. “I want to take a look at him at some slot receiver, too, so we’ll get a chance to get some reps with him, too.”

That puts the focus on three backs, with Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant taking center stage. That’s a manageable number, and one that certainly tells you how the coaches see things playing out. While Kelly wasn’t asked about running back, the changes to the depth chart likely say all we need to know.


Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.