Mailbag: Welcome to the offseason edition


Okay folks. We’ve got a few months to go before we see some actual football. That doesn’t mean it’s time to hibernate. So we’re going to keep the train rolling here, and a weekly mailbag is a good start.

Let’s get to the fun stuff:

don74: Tommy Rees has been the lightening rod for fan’s comments for four years. Who takes his place as the guy who most incites the fans?

This is a great question. It was looking like a runaway opportunity for George Atkinson, but with the inconsistent running back off to the NFL this makes a tough choice.

I’ll give you two answers: On defense, I think it’s got to be Ishaq Williams. He’s been in the program for too long and still hasn’t made an impact. On offense, I think it’s — dare I say it — Everett Golson. He’s Notre Dame’s quarterback. He’s no longer the new kid in town. And as long as there’s a QB people like behind him, watch out.

In reality, I don’t think there’s anybody on this roster that’ll be anywhere near the lightning rod that Rees was. But somebody will take over as the scapegoat, and it’s hard to look much farther than quarterback.

jerseyshorendfan1: When do you think we see Zaire’s first meaningful minutes? Does he play against Rice in mop up if we’re way out in front? Seeing what you’ve seen, when would you start to bring him along in the process?

Also, I think it is huge but what is your assessment of how important the Michigan game is to our season; how important to BK’s future?

I think you see Zaire against Rice. Get him experience as soon as you can. I think you’ll see him before halftime, just to get a series in and get a few snaps before it’s a situation you can’t script.

As for Michigan, I think it’s an important game, but I’m not sure if it’s going to dictate Brian Kelly’s future. (Don’t get me wrong. It’s a GIGANTIC game for Notre Dame, especially with Michigan going off the schedule.) But it’s Brady Hoke on the hot seat after underachieving. While the early season game has gone the Wolverines way lately, if Hoke keeps melting down against Big Ten competition, AD Dave Brandon might be starting another coaching search.

@Okerland: how many incompletions until I can request that Zaire be in the game?

After the first three and out it’s fair game.

irishinmich: The receiver and TE corps seem crowded and convoluted at first glance. Assuming Daniels leads the team in receiving this fall, who is the second leading receiver, and why?

I’ve gone on record that I think Will Fuller is going to be the guy. But if not him, I think it’s Corey Robinson. The case for Fuller is fairly simple. With TJ Jones’ 70 catches gone, somebody is going to be the beneficiary. Averaging 26.7 yards per catch means you should touch the ball more.

It could be Robinson. An all-around impressive kid and athlete, Golson is an accurate enough thrower that can start using Robinson as a post-up option, and the 6-foot-5 receiver will simply go up and get the football.

kmic000: Why wasn’t Romeo redshirted his freshman year? And, what’s the latest on Grace? Is he going to be able to help us much this year?

Okwara wasn’t redshirted because the roster had zero depth at outside linebacker. Obviously having three seasons left as opposed to just two would be key for Romeo as he transitions to defensive end, plus he is still really young for a college football player. But just like Kona Schwenke, the depth Kelly inherited played a large role in his decision-making, and it’s tough to save a player’s eligibility when you’re down to three outside linebackers.

As for Grace, we haven’t heard anything other than Kelly’s optimistic update after his additional surgery. But I think getting anything out of Grace next season would be a win, and you’ve got to think the Irish are expecting to spend the first half of the season without their inside linebacker.

irishdodger: While I’m not dismissing a break out year for Ishaq Williams, is it fair to say that a 5-star from NY (or the entire Northeast…save maybe Jersey) isn’t equivalent to a 5-star from Florida, Texas, Cali or Louisiana? Personally, I’d welcome a 3-star from FL, TX or Louisiana vs a 4-star from New York

I see where you are going with this, but not sure I can agree. Look at Notre Dame’s luck in Minnesota. Michael Floyd turned out to be a pretty good player, and it’s not as if people are confusing Minnesota high school football for Texas. Then look at Dayne Crist. Five-star QB from a top California program. Complete whiff.

Where I will agree with you is when it comes to evaluating elite talent. Williams was a five-star prospect based on projections, as playing football in Brooklyn isn’t the best measuring stick.

bernhtp: In an alternate universe where Tuitt and Nix stayed for their final year of eligibility, would BVG still have made the same change in base defense, or is the change mostly a capitulation to the (dis)abilities of this team?

Some fancy wordplay here, Bern. I’ll do my best to follow. If Nix and Tuitt stayed, ND would still probably tweak their system, as Brian VanGorder wouldn’t have taken over and not installed his own system. But a three-man front of Nix, Tuitt and Day would’ve stayed on the field a lot more, even if BVG likes to play with a four-man front.

coachtemp: Keith, what has been done to improve the absolutely anemic punt return game as well as the punt coverage team?

What Kelly and his staff did: Ask for help. Kelly took his special teams tape and showed it to coaches in both the NFL and college football. It’s also worth pointing out that at Notre Dame’s coaching clinic, three of the guest speakers were special teams experts.

The punt return game wasn’t really the problem last year. The cover units were. But I’ll be watching carefully if Greg Bryant or Amir Carlisle can upgrade the return teams.

dickasman: Hey Keith, I saw a guy that looked like you stuffing his gym bag full of chlorine stained white towels stealing them at Equinox in Hawthorne. Who dat?? Dat you???

I haven’t taken a towel from that Equinox in months! I gave up my membership there a few years back… and keep the workouts more local (Shoutout to Level 10 Fitness, where I shared a session with former USC quarterback Matt Leinart last week).

But are you allowed to be monitoring locker rooms, Dick? I thought that was against the court order.

idratherbeinsouthbend: Given the SEC’s new schedule format, will Swarbrick get a few phone calls?

In my opinion, it was a bit of a gutless move by the SEC. But yes, it’ll technically open up a potential game for Notre Dame. But I expect an SEC game to be announced sooner than later against Georgia, as Jeremy Fowler of CBS Sports reported a few weeks back.

steincj36: Keith, has the Northwestern unionization talk been heard anywhere around South Bend?

It’s been heard, it’s been followed, and it’ll likely never take root.

I’m conflicted about the unionization plans. As a former scrub college athlete, we had countless conversations about the one-way street that college athletics sometimes felt like. But it’s hard for me to feel like a group of athletes getting a free education at one of the best schools in the country is getting taken advantage of, especially at a school like Northwestern, where the football team doesn’t sell out and they’re routinely one of the least popular teams in their own conference.

Leave it to the kids getting a free education at Northwestern to be the ones feeling like they’re being taken advantage of. Meanwhile there are Dean’s List students walking out of Evanston with $250,000 in student loans.

1notredamefan: What are your thoughts about this new playoff system? Are the best 4 teams going to make It? and what have you heard through the grape vine about our chances are of qualifying?

What’s not to like? Nobody’s been hosed yet, there haven’t been any problems, and we don’t have to listen to BCS projections ever again. I think it’s a great step forward, but one that’ll be monitored and tweaked. And the pressure to expand will be immense.

Notre Dame’s chances of qualifying? They can’t lose more than one game. But with their schedule, if they can win them all, they’ll be in for sure. If they lose one, it’ll take some style points and politicking.

jonnybrooklyn: I have an utterly random trivia question for you Keith, this one goes back to somewhere between 1998-2002 (when I was an ND undergrad, and I think you were too?). There used to be a player on special teams, maybe a walk-on, who during the kickoff would literally throw his body sideways into as many opposing players as possible and just take them out like bowling pins. He never really got any mentions on TV or from the live announcer because he didn’t often tackle whoever had the ball, he was just mostly a destroyer who mowed people over indiscriminately. I remember watching him during live games and I’d pick him out because just before kickoff he would take this huge stretching jump into the air, maybe to pump himself up or something. I always got a kick out of it (no pun intended) and I was always amazed that he walked off the field in full health. Any idea what his name is and what his story is?

I actually think I know who you are talking about. It might be former walk-on safety Matt Sarb, who made 13 tackles in his two seasons as a special teams gunner. Sarb was the “tip of the spear” on coverage units and provided a few gigantic collisions as he ran himself into harms way on kickoffs.

He also won a Bengal Bouts title as a senior, shredding down to 180 pounds and brawling his way to a belt.

The good, the bad and the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Clemson

Will Fuller, B.J. Goodson

For a variety of reasons, Notre Dame’s 24-22 loss stings a little bit more than usual. The self-inflicted mistakes. The horrible start in an electric environment. The dropped passes and the missed blocks. Not to mention the two failed two-point conversions.

On a night where Notre Dame needed to bring close to their best to leave Death Valley a victor, they brought nothing near it for the game’s first 45 minutes. And while they very nearly fought their way into overtime, it wasn’t enough to emerge victorious.

“If you told me we were going to turn the ball over four times, I would tell you that we were going to lose,” Kelly said to open his postgame comments. “You wouldn’t have to be a genius to figure that out. We turned the ball over four times and we lost.”

With that, the Irish drop to 4-1 on the season, and need to immediately turn their focus to Navy and their triple-option maestro Keenan Reynolds. So let’s put this one in a body bag and do our best to move on as we tackle the good, bad and ugly.



DeShone Kizer. The sophomore quarterback showed a lot of pose and resiliency on Saturday night, able to keep his cool when many of his teammates couldn’t seem to do the same. Kizer lead the Irish to a furious fourth quarter comeback that came up just short when he called his own number on a run-pass option play on Notre Dame’s second failed two-point conversion play.

“At the end of the day, we want to be a championship team, but champions don’t lose,” Kizer said after the game. “It sucks that we end the game the way we do after fighting back the way we fought back.”

Kelly had positive things to say about his sophomore quarterback, who threw for 321 yards, a large portion of those coming in the fourth quarter, when everybody in the stadium knew he’d be throwing the ball.

“I’m really proud of him. I’m proud of the way he competed,” Kelly said. “He played well enough for us to win, let’s put it that way.”


C.J. ProsiseNo, he couldn’t get on track in the running game—held to just three yards in the first half. But Prosise once again showed he was the team’s most reliable playmaker, getting loose out of the backfield and notching a 100-yard receiving game on just four catches.

Yes, his fumble to begin the second half didn’t help. But Prosise’s evolution as a football player—contributing big things even when the ground game was stuck in neutral—was a nice step forward. Keeping him involved in the short passing game could be a huge part of this offense moving forward.


Max Redfield. We’ve spent a lot of time demanding the former 5-star recruit start playing like one. And on Saturday night, I thought he did. Redfield led Notre Dame in tackles notching 14, including an astounding 11 solo stops. Kelly talked about Redfield’s performance on Sunday.

“This past weekend [was] probably played his best game since he’s been here at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “There’s a standard for him now on film for how he can play this game and hopefully we can continue on this track.”

Most wondered if the safety play was going to be Notre Dame’s demise on Saturday evening, especially matched up against Clemson’s talented skill talent. Redfield took a major step forward on Saturday night, playing physical as a tackler, a nice step forward considering the cast on his hand.


Resiliency. No moral victories. But I was impressed by the resolve this football team showed, especially when they seemed so overwhelmed early in the football game.

If the Irish end up getting into a beauty pageant for a spot in the College Football Playoff, it’s worth noting that their one loss is a narrow defeat on the road, against what looks like one of the ACC’s top teams.

Of course, a close loss doesn’t matter if Notre Dame loses again. And Kelly shared that message with his captains postgame, acknowledging that there’s zero margin for error now.

“I met with the captains after the game and told them what they need to do to continue to work towards their goals and what their vision is for this football team,” Kelly said. “You can’t lose another game. You know, you’re on the clock now. Every single weekend you’re playing elimination football.”


Fifty-three minutes of defense. We touched on the play of the defense in our Five Things, but it’d be unfair to not mention it here. Outside of the first two series, Notre Dame’s defense played very well.

Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell were tough in the trenches. Jaylon Smith was active at linebacker. Cole Luke made up for some early missed tackles with a game-turning interception and when Clemson got conservative in the fourth quarter protecting a lead, the Irish defense held strong.

“We can’t go on the road and be tentative defensively to start a game. After that, we played the kind of defense we expect to play here,” Kelly said postgame. “We played well enough after that first quarter, if you don’t have four turnovers.”



The first seven minutes. Notre Dame lost this football game not because Brian Kelly made a few controversial decisions on two-point conversions, but rather because the Irish showed zero composure in the game’s opening minutes.

Nothing went right in the game’s first seven minutes. Not on offense, not on defense, nor on special teams. And the result was a 14-point hole that Notre Dame just couldn’t dig itself out from.

This didn’t seem like a football team capable of a horrendous start. But Notre Dame didn’t answer the bell, and allowed Clemson’s crowd—and aggressive defense—to dictate terms for the first 30 minutes.


The turnovers. Kelly’s comments said it best. Notre Dame wasn’t winning a game where they turned it over four times. Worst still, it seemed like Irish ball security was faulty in critical times, with youngsters and veterans alike making the mistakes.

“If I knew, we certainly would’ve coached it more. But you’re talking about veteran players and rookies,” Kelly said. “[C.J. Sanders] looks dynamic on the first return, then turns it over…  Arguably two of your most veteran and decorated players, C.J. [Prosise] and Chris Brown, they know how to hold onto a ball, and they turn it over. And then DeShone tries to force a ball in there… If you turn it over, we’re not going to win games.”


The Drops. Yes, it was slippery and miserable out there. But it was for both teams. Notre Dame’s heralded receiving corps dropped a half-dozen passes, a crippling set of miscues that left a lot of yards (and points) out there.

Kelly calculated that the Irish left roughly 125 yards on the field, a number that certainly would’ve added to DeShone Kizer’s yardage total and would’ve turned Saturday night into a different outcome.

Corey Robinson has been known for his velcro hands. On Saturday, two drops arguably cost the Irish a touchdown and a must-have two-point conversion. Will Fuller was held to two catches, letting a third down conversion go through his hands. Fuller’s drop highlighted the one deficiency in his game, something former NFL director of college scouting Greg Gabriel pointed out on Twitter last night.

It was Fuller and Chris Brown who started some of the trash-talk opportunities with their Twitter comments. They couldn’t back it up this week.


The Offensive Line. This was probably the most disappointing part of Saturday night. Notre Dame’s offensive front got absolutely mauled in the first half, getting zero push and giving up nine tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Clemson’s defensive ends had seven TFLs themselves. Yes, the Tigers loaded the box and played aggressively downhill. But there wasn’t a single soul inside or out of the Notre Dame program that didn’t expect that.

After being able to dictate terms through four games, the Irish turned into a one-dimensional, finesse front five. We spent all offseason saying that wouldn’t be the case with this group. While they were playing in mud and slop and in conditions that were deafening, the Irish just couldn’t establish the running game early, a necessity to winning.

With the game on the line and Kizer showing confidence in his offensive front, Notre Dame chose to run for the tie. They couldn’t get it done.



The pain of losing. It’s been since November since Notre Dame lost a football game. And in those 10-plus months, we forgot what it was like to watch a team fail to win.

If you’re looking for people to blame, you had a fun night. Most have turned to the man atop the program. They’ll say Kelly failed to prepare his team, or blew the game by chasing points. They’ll cite a seven-figure salary when complaining about unoriginality near the goal line or a failure to read a two-point conversion chart.

In hindsight, it’s certainly hard to argue with the detractors, especially when two Justin Yoon extra points would’ve pushed the game into overtime. (Then again, if Corey Robinson reels in a wide-open two point try, Yoon’s kicking for the win.)

Yet in torrents of rain and a game that seemingly went wrong at every early turn, Notre Dame nearly pulled it out. And that says a lot about the program Kelly has built, as much anything Kelly did wrong from his spot on the sidelines.

In a close football game, many of the 50-50 decisions that are made determine the difference between winning and losing. But focusing on the minutiae distracts you from the autopsy results.

Notre Dame lost because of the blunt force trauma that comes from four turnovers. And from a half-dozen dropped passes. Not to mention an offensive line that couldn’t win at the point of attack and a slow start by the defense.

So while everybody’s looking for someone to blame, that’s the pain of losing. And we might have all forgotten that over the last 10 months.



Five things we learned: Clemson 24, Notre Dame 22

CLEMSON, SC - OCTOBER 3: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish is sacked during the game against the Clemson Tigers at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Photo by Tyler Smith/Getty Images)

Notre Dame walked into Memorial Stadium saying they weren’t worried about Hurricane Joaquin. But they sure should have been more worried about the Clemson Tigers.

The Irish may have lost when DeShone Kizer’s version of student-body right failed to convert a two-point conversion that would’ve forced overtime. But Notre Dame was beat in the game’s opening minutes, knocked woozy by two quick Clemson scores and a shocking lack of poise by all phases of the game.

In more than difficult conditions, the Irish struggled on offense, defense, and special teams, each digging a hole that turned out to be insurmountable. While the Irish never stopped fighting, Kizer’s failed two-point attempt was a fitting finish to an evening not soon forgotten in upstate South Carolina.

The Irish had their shot to steal back this victory. But instead, it was another devastating road loss that breaks an unbeaten season. With monsoon-like rains falling and the Death Valley crowd rocking, the Tigers suffocated the Irish for three quarters, but had to hold on for dear life as the Irish mounted a furious comeback, made even more miraculous considering the mistakes Notre Dame made.

As the Irish try to find a way home to South Bend amidst a tropical storm, Notre Dame leaves as a 4-1 team, battered and bruised. While they should be proud of the fight they put up at the end, they’ll likely spend the next few days wondering how a veteran and confident team failed to answer the opening bell.

Let’s find out what we learned in Notre Dame’s 24-22 loss to Clemson.


Notre Dame just couldn’t dig itself out after a completely horrific start. 

You can draw up the perfect start to a football game. Or you can take that game-plan, rip it to pieces, douse it with lighter fluid and set it on fire. Unfortunately, Notre Dame chose Option B on Saturday night.

For the first four games of the season, the Irish have gotten off to fast starts and followed a winning script. They’ve outscored opponents 47-6, giving up just one score, a touchdown on the final play of the first quarter against UMass.

But Saturday evening, the Irish dug themselves a deep hole from the start. They gave up a nice kickoff return to open the game. Deshaun Watson caught the Irish defense out of alignment on a run that went for 38 yards. A Cole Luke missed tackle allowed the Tigers to convert a 3rd-and-5 in the red zone. Three plays later, Clemson was winning 7-0.

Offensively, the Irish started miserably. Two predictable runs went backwards, the front five blown off the line en route to a three-and-out. A shanked punt by Tyler Newsome set up the Tigers on a short field and four plays later Clemson had a 14-point lead.

Brian Kelly said multiple times that his team needed to start quickly, not giving the Death Valley crowd any reason to make things even more difficult for the Irish. Well Notre Dame did the opposite and those early 14 points sure proved critical considering the Tigers only scored 10 more the rest of the night.



The Irish tried to put the game on the backs of their offensive line. It didn’t work. 

For the first four games of the season, Notre Dame’s offensive line was the engine that powered the Irish attack. With Malik Zaire and Tarean Folston out of the starting lineup, the Irish offense didn’t miss a beat, with Harry Hiestand’s gang creating huge running lanes for C.J. Prosise and plenty of time to throw for DeShone Kizer.

But it didn’t take long to see that things were very different on Saturday evening, with Clemson turning the Irish one-dimensional as an offense and completely shutting down the ground game. Prosise was held to just three rushing yards in the first half. The rebuilt Clemson front-four was swarming, collecting nine TFLs against the Irish, with defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd combining for a ridiculous seven stops behind the line of scrimmage.

While the Irish offense rallied, mostly via the pass and checking down to underneath crossing routes, Notre Dame just couldn’t win the battle at the line of scrimmage. And after the game, when head coach Brian Kelly discussed the controversial two-point play call, he said there were both run and pass options in the call.

Kizer thought he had numbers in his favor up front, and he counted on his offensive line to get a push and help him bring the game into overtime. Instead the Tigers shut down another run and Notre Dame’s comeback was finished.


Notre Dame’s wide receivers came into the game talking a big game. They left it with some questions to answer. 

Clemson’s team made a mountain from a molehill this week, turning tweets by Chris Brown and Will Fuller into a rallying cry. So whether or not you understand what’s so inflammatory about tweeting #savage, it was up to Brown and Fuller—not to mention the entire receiving corps—to back up their words.

They didn’t.

On one of the wettest nights you’ll ever see a game played, only one team was plagued by the drops. Will Fuller let a huge gain slide through his hands, a critical first-half drop. Torii Hunter Jr., too.

Corey Robinson could’ve reeled in a game-changing touchdown catch late in the first half, but he dropped it when he hit the ground. And after causing DeShone Kizer to waste a much-needed second half timeout when he wasn’t on the field for a two-point conversion attempt, Robinson could bring in Kizer’s high throw, either. Another pass, just sliding through an Irish receivers’ hands.

Brown broke loose for 83 yards, the most for any receiver in the game. But the South Carolina native fumbled the ball inside the 5-yard line late in the fourth quarter, jarred loose by safety Jayron Kearse (who also took offense to the tweets) with a little more than two minutes to play. While the Irish managed to get the ball back and score to have a chance to send the game to overtime, that’s the second time Brown has gotten to the shadow of the goal line and coughed it up, matching his back-breaking fumble against Northwestern last season.

Fuller’s absence was probably the most disappointing. Spending a lot of the evening going against Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander, Fuller only managed to catch two passes for 37 yards, his 23-yard big play coming on a screen pass. Alexander talked a big game this week and backed it up on the field.


The conditions were terrible. But big-time players make big plays in big games. And the Irish receiving corps just couldn’t do it.



After a terrible start, Notre Dame’s defense held its ground… and made enough big plays to keep the Irish in the game. 

Lost in the disappointment of the evening was a solid performance by Brian VanGorder’s defense. No, you can’t throw away the first two series of the game. But after settling in against the Tigers impressive array of skill talent, Notre Dame’s defense did everything it could to will the team back into the game, nearly pulling off the comeback.

Deshaun Watson was held to under 100 passing yards, completing just 50 percent of his passes. The Tigers ground game didn’t have a 100 yard rusher. The entire offense was limited to just 296 yards.

And after Notre Dame exited halftime and turning over the football on their first touch of the half and then followed it up by doing it again on their first play from scrimmage, it’s a credit to this defense that the Irish weren’t buried by the middle of the third quarter.

Notre Dame forced six three-and-outs tonight when Clemson only forced two. And while I wondered aloud on Twitter when the last time a VanGorder defense came up with a big, game-changing play, Cole Luke pulled in an interception in the end zone, essentially triggering Notre Dame’s rally.

Junior safety Max Redfield led the Irish with 14 tackles, including 11 solo stops. Jaylon Smith was productive while Isaac Rochell (seven stops) and Sheldon Day (two more TFLs) were disruptive in the trenches.

While there were missed opportunities and some breakdowns that’ll likely haunt this team, it’s tough to pin this loss on the defense.


There’s no such thing as a moral victory for this team. So we’ll see if the veteran leadership on this roster can stop this loss from being a season-ruiner. 

That the Irish even had a chance to pull even in the game’s final seconds is rather amazing. If you look at the root causes for losing in college football, Notre Dame’s game was littered with them.

Four turnovers, all but cementing Notre Dame’s fate. A dreadfully slow start. A run game that was stuck in neutral and a receiving corps that dropped a half-dozen easy catches.

So while the Irish managed to storm back and have a shot at victory in the end, Brian Kelly wasn’t willing to take any type of glass-half-full approach in the immediate aftermath.

“We’re not here for moral victories. We’re too far along in our program,” Kelly said.

But that’s not to say the season is lost.

Last year, Notre Dame went down to Tallahassee and nearly pulled off a season-defining victory. Instead, a controversial pass interference call turned a comeback win into a gutting loss. And the Irish never recovered.

Notre Dame absolutely can’t let a loss to Clemson derail their season. And after an offseason spent hammering leadership, resilience and and fortifying the attitude of his roster, it’ll be up to Kelly and his five captains to make sure this loss doesn’t sink the season.

Navy arrives in South Bend undefeated next weekend, coming off an impressive 22-point win over Air Force. A week later, USC arrives, with memories of an Irish curb-stomping in the Coliseum still fresh in their minds last November.

The Irish have managed to fight through six season-ending injuries. After doing just as much to beat themselves Saturday night as Clemson did, it’s up to the veteran leadership of this team to make sure they’re able to rally the troops and get this season back on track.

There is still so much football to be played. And with a Top 25 that looks as jumbled as ever, all the Irish can control is their own fate.

So save the oxygen, it’s not time to debate whether or not a one-loss Notre Dame team will make the playoff. It’s time for this team to prove they can dust themselves off and get back to winning. Everything else will take care of itself.