Moshood Adeniji, Stephon Tuitt

Mailbag: Leaving early and early predictions edition


A good set of questions from you guys. Let’s get to them:

@ontario_bill: KA, with the ascent of Martin his senior year to becoming a 1st round pick, do you think ND guys will see that and be more ikely to stick around? I can’t help but think about the difference 1 more year could make for Tuitt, Nix and Niklas.

I know one person who hopes so: Brian Kelly. After keeping six-star recruits Manti Te’o and Michael Floyd, the odds were in the favor of a few tough coin-flip decisions on whether to stay or go. But in the case of Stephon Tuitt, it sure feels like his decision to go pro cost him millions of dollars.

The farther Tuitt slides down draft boards the less guaranteed money he’s going to get. Sure, he’ll be earning money a full year earlier than he would’ve had he stayed in school. And yes, he’ll be a year closer to his second contract, but the difference in money between a top ten pick and a guy that goes in the middle of the second round is sizable.

If fear of injury were the biggest issue, Tuitt was eligible for an insurance policy that could’ve guaranteed him millions if he were hurt during his senior season at Notre Dame. But to think that jumping to the NFL after a super disappointing junior season (where he put a lot of bad reps on tape for NFL talent evaluators) made sense, he must’ve had someone whispering sweet nothings into his ear.

@mfmitchell88: do you expect to see more up tempo offense with this year’s personnel and new OC?

I do. But then again, we’ve been hearing that every spring since Brian Kelly arrived. But why I think this year will actually be different isn’t necessarily Mike Denbrock or the receiving personnel, but rather the fact that both of Notre Dame’s quarterbacks can run a version of the offense that utilizes the zone read running game.

@steincj36: Any chance we can progress reports on the turf installation? And has there been talk of paint schemes for the field, or will it stay ND traditional?

There won’t be any progress until after graduation weekend, when the natural grass will be torn out and installation will begin. As for the paint schemes — there’s been plenty of talk about it. None of it coming from inside Notre Dame.

But a note on the “traditional” schemes. You’d be surprised at some of the looks Notre Dame displayed in the past. It hasn’t always been hashmarks and diagonals.

irishdodger: Keith, with the least experienced team of the Kelly Era, what are the “musts” in getting this team to 10 wins?

A few musts:

* Win the easy ones: (Rice, Purdue, Syracuse, Navy)
* Win most of the ones they should: (Syracuse, North Carolina, Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville)
* Win half of the ones that are coin flips: (Michigan, Stanford, Florida State, and USC)

That alone gets you to ten wins. But for a few less macro “musts:”

* Dictate terms offensively.
* Improve Red Zone scoring.
* Don’t give up any 30+ yard touchdowns
* Fix special teams coverage units.

@TheCaptain11: I don’t know to be pumped for this new defense or scared to death. Which way do you lean?

I’d be more pumped than scared. Just because this will be a completely different version of Notre Dame’s defense, with smaller, faster, more attacking schemes compared to the heavyweight techniques utilized under Bob Diaco. Do I think the group will be better? No, not with the lack of experience up front. But I do think it’ll be more exciting.

But as Owen Wilson said in Armageddon: “I got that “excited/scared” feeling. Like 98% excited, 2% scared. Or maybe it’s more – It could be 98% scared, 2% excited but that’s what makes it so intense, it’s so… confusing. I can’t really figure it out.”

bernhtp: With good coaching and development, you can turn a bunch of three and four star recruits into a very, very good football team, but it seems hard to break into the elite group (i.e., those making the playoffs) without getting your unfair share (3-5) of five stars as powerhouse teams like Alabama do every year. Furthermore, many of the five-star recruits ND has signed, didn’t last (e.g., Lynch, Kiel, Neal, Vanderdoes). Does this limit the ceiling for the program?

That’s a question that probably requires a few months of research, not 45 minutes. But I can’t help but think your knowledge of Notre Dame’s success rate with five-star prospects far outweighs your knowledge of how other program’s five-star players pan out, making this one a little bit tougher to prove. Cruise through the past few Rivals classes. For as many guys that “made it” and played to that talent level, there are just as many that you never heard from again.

I’m of the mind that Notre Dame lands more than its share of five-star players. And I also think that while landing elite prospects is critical to success, the teams that become consistent playoff competitors won’t be doing so on the strength of elite recruits, but rather by the strength of the middle of their roster.

Washouts like Lynch, Kiel, Neal and Vanderdoes sure don’t help a program. But nobody holds a success rate like you’d expect or hope.

mtflsmittyI’m not crying wolf here, and I realize ranking of recruits has plenty of flaws. But I’d like your thoughts on the health of our 2015 recruiting efforts.

A few observations:
– At this point in the 2014 recruiting cycle ND had secured commitments from eight recruits. One 5-star, five 4-star, and two 3-star.
– The 2015 class seems not to be shaping up as well. Zero 5-star, four 4-star, and four 3-star players. Until yesterday, we had gone for five months without anything but 3-star commitments.
– I expect we’ll have a smallish class this year (16-19 recruits). Therefore, I would have expected us to be more selective than usual. I also don’t see us in play with any 5-star guys.

Are we having issues, or am I making an issue out of nothing?

Smitty — Deep breaths, brother. Get back to me in August. Notre Dame isn’t taking a full freight class, likely capping this group in the high-teens. So while this group might not be shaking out as quickly as some of the earlier efforts Kelly and his staff put together, it’s also a bit more surgical.

almostbrian: Are fans coming into September down to earth regarding expectations? Or with Golson back do they have visions of Championships dancing in their heads? FSU, USC 2.0, Stanford, ASU and Michigan’s one great performance of the year. If they make it to the playoff, I’m dancing. If they make it to the Championship, I’m quite my day job to make and sell busts of Brian “Ditka” Kelley

What the fun of tampering expectations before the season begins? One free tip: Before you get those busts started, make sure you spell check the head coach’s name.

irishdog80: How much of a positive impact will the new turf have on the team both offensively and defensively? Negative impact? During winter weather? In the past, was recruiting negatively impacted by our natural grass field?

Good question. A quick straw poll of players showed almost universal love for the decision to go to an artificial surface. For one, they practice on it already every day. Secondly, it allows the team to actually hold practices in the stadium. And most importantly, it allows the speed and athleticism this roster has to actually be utilized, not held back on a sloppy track.

As for any negative impact, I don’t see it. This isn’t retro 1980s turf that gets slippery (or more slippery than natural grass) in the rain. And nobody was recruiting against Notre Dame Stadium, even if the grass wasn’t up to snuff.

oldestguard: How does a top 10 – 20 football program scout the entire country effectively ? Do they rely on any of the recruiting sites at all ? …or is it strictly in-house ?

I cut down your question a bit, but it’s a good one. Most coaching staff’s utilize some type of outside service. Is it Rivals, Scout or 247? No. But what makes a coaching staff valuable is the relationships they develop around the country. They rely on high school coaches to alert them if they see a great player, and that’s part of the reason they hit the road during evaluation periods, to kick the tires on the well-established prospects and to unearth the guys not yet on the radar.

As for the delicate dance of making offers and accepting commitments, that’s a line that always needs straddling and one that the Irish staff has done a great job on. It’s no secret that Notre Dame has cast a wider net for prospects, but they’ve also had to make sure that they’re able to get in the running for players early, while also making sure they’ll gain acceptance into school.

For the most part, the Notre Dame staff succeeds with honesty. They’ll tell a player where they are on their board, and for the most part kids appreciate the candor. Does it always work out? No. But then again, in recruiting it never does.

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

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.