Moshood Adeniji, Stephon Tuitt

Mailbag: Leaving early and early predictions edition

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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.

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Duke

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Anthony Nash #83 of the Duke Blue Devils runs for a touchdown during the second half of a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s move was emphatic. Brian VanGorder’s departure confirms that a 1-3 record is unacceptable. And the demise of this team was as swift as the departure of a colleague Brian Kelly has known for the bulk of his 25-plus year coaching career.

But that’s the job. And the move likely wasn’t easy for a head coach who saw himself as close to tenured as any man this side of Lou Holtz had been, and is now clearly in uncharted territory.

“I’m under review, as well,” Kelly acknowledged on Sunday afternoon. “We’re all in this together: All the players, coaches, everybody. So players’ jobs are on the line. Every job is being evaluated as the players. All coaches’ jobs are on the line as well.”

With Greg Hudson now directing the defense, and Syracuse having run more offensive plays than every program but three, the challenge this weekend is stark. So let’s move forward ourselves and finish off the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter WilliamsBrian Kelly gave him credit, so let’s start there. Williams ran hard, looked explosive and flashed on special teams.

It’s time for Williams to get some more reps, even if it means taking away from Josh Adams’ leading load as well as Tarean Folston‘s.

 

Donte Vaughn. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback wasn’t perfect—he got beat inside a few times on slant routes that everybody in the building saw coming. But he came up big and made a play, something Notre Dame’s defensive backs haven’t done since Shaun Crawford went down for the season.

His length and cover skills should be put to the test again next weekend when Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo looks to replicate his monster 270-yard performance against UConn. The focus will be on Cole Luke, Vaughn, Julian Love and Nick Coleman.

 

Kevin Stepherson. The freshman only caught three balls, but all of them were big gainers,  including his beautiful 44-yard touchdown catch. With Torii Hunter unable to push the lid off opponents, Stepherson might be a better fit for the X moving forward, assuming he continues to learn the playbook and run precise routes.

 

The Weather. Looked like a heckuva day in South Bend, at least from a weather perspective.

 

THE BAD

The tackling. That was one of the worst tackling performances I can remember. Especially against a team that was anemic on offense heading into the weekend. Name a defender and you’ll recall a missed tackle.

Drue Tranquill held on to a few early, then had some ugly whiffs. Cole Luke, a guy Brian Kelly called the team’s smartest football player last week, sure looked lost a few times, too. And with hopes that Devin Studstill is the answer at free safety, Studstill did his best to make us wonder about that, too. He took some horrific routes to footballs, a difficult day at the office for a young kid who needs to learn quickly.

When your senior captain outside linebacker is getting run over by a quarterback for a first down and you’re thinking, “at least he made the tackle,” the bar has been lowered pretty significantly. But another week of “thudding” at practice might be needed—even with heavy installation coming soon.

 

The special teams. A missed field goal proved costly. So did some horrific tackling and coverage on the kickoff return that let Duke back into the game. And for the fourth time this season, Tyler Newsome flubbed his first kick of the game. (All but asking for the nickname Mulligan to emerge.)

Scott Booker has a ton of kids on his run teams. But they’ve got to get some consistency out there if they want CJ Sanders to help turn this into a positive, not another unit to hide.

 

The pass rush. Yes, the drought is over, with Nyles Morgan getting the first sack of the season for the Irish. But man—this team has a gigantic hole on it and finding any type of pass rush is critical.

Sure, Duke’s quick passing game took advantage of the Irish’s leaky secondary and didn’t let Notre Dame get to the quarterback. But at this point, every snap you’re giving Andrew Trumbetti over a kid who can get to the quarterback—Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, or anyone—feels lost.

 

The coaching. Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said the following, when asked about an evaluation of his defensive coaching and game plan.

“That’s probably the one area that I feel better about today. We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today,” Kelly said.

That was likely a time-buyer until a long night of thinking, because morning brought clarity for the head man.

 

THE UGLY

The State of the Program. With the game tied 28-28 heading into the fourth quarter, one team was jumping around like they’d won the lotto. The other was all but biting their fingernails, kicking dirty and looking lethargic.

If anything set off Kelly postgame—even more so than the defense his troops were displaying—it was the lack of effort.

“There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth,” Kelly said. “You’re playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it’s work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.

“There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s where we got to go.”

In Kelly’s first few seasons in South Bend, he was criticized for having his team celebrate victories, even the ugly ones. But somewhere this program lost track of the ultimate goal and that likely falls on the head coach to fix that problem as soon as possible.

 

Firing a staffer. Notre Dame’s head coach likely saw what many of us saw as well. But a decision like that from the cheap-seats is one thing, a decision from inside the program is another.

Follow Notre Dame long enough, and you’ll tire of thinking about the carousel that’s come and gone—Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis, armies of loyal assistants who have spent years working to climb the summit. And for most, life after Notre Dame isn’t the same.

Sure, there’s Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong. But there are a few dozen others who have come to a program with noble ambitions—willing to do it right and win on and off the field—but they fail too often on Saturdays.

So as ND Nation almost united in celebration of the move, it’s worth a quick word to a fanbase that always fashions itself as possessing proper etiquette.

Few come to your office and celebrate the worst day of your professional career. Less dig into your family’s Twitter account, hoping to break a story or confirm news they celebrate jubilantly. Sure, some of that comes with the territory. And certainly VanGorder was well compensated for his time in South Bend.

But ultimately, this Sunday hopefully provided some perspective. Baseball lost one of its brightest young stars. Golf lost one of its icons. And many many more things of consequence took place—inside the sporting world and out.

But when it comes to VanGorder, a quick reminder of something that has nothing to do with sports. A man has lost his job. A family will uproot once again. And the dynamics on the current football team—where Montgomery VanGorder still plays an important role—won’t ever be the same.

“I will tell you this: Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there. He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn’t working.”

There should be no harm in that.

VanGorder out as defensive coordinator

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)
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Brian VanGorder has been fired. Notre Dame’s third-year defensive coordinator was relieved of his duties after just four games.

Brian Kelly made the move official Sunday morning, less than an hour before his weekly Sunday teleconference. He’s replaced VanGorder with defensive analyst Greg Hudson, a former Notre Dame linebacker who joined the Irish staff in June and spent the last three seasons as defensive coordinator at Purdue, a position he also held at East Carolina and Minnesota. The rest of the defensive staff remains unchanged.

“Obviously, this is a difficult day for our coaching staff, but I’m excited and honored about the opportunity that Coach Kelly has afforded me,” Hudson said in the team’s statement. “We’ve got to improve on defense, without a doubt, and I’m confident that we will. We have great student-athletes and a tremendous defensive coaching staff. I can’t wait to get started with our group.”

The VanGorder era ends with the Irish ranked 101st in scoring defense, 96th in rushing defense and 87th in pass defense. The Irish are dead last in sacks, the last FBS team to get one when Nyles Morgan finally got the team’s first sack against Duke.

Hired after Bob Diaco left Notre Dame for the head job at UConn, VanGorder brought with him an NFL system and a multiple, attacking scheme. But after injuries derailed his first season, it was a defense best known for its maddening inconsistency, with even last season’s talented outfit plagued by the big play and mistakes.

As late as Saturday night Kelly pledged allegiance to his defensive coordinator, calling the staff’s game plan the least of his concerns after the 38-35 loss.

“We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective,” Kelly said.