Spring preview: Purdue


While much ado has been made about the ending of the Michigan-Notre Dame “rivalry,” the long-running intrastate rivalry between the Irish and Purdue Boilermakers will take a break after this season, after scheduling struggles for both programs forced a break to a series that’s been played annually since 1946.

Last year was the first for Darrell Hazell, and it was an ugly one. Outside of playing Notre Dame tough, the Boilermakers trudged through an ugly season, finishing 1-11 with their lone victory over Indiana State.

To give us a spring progress report on the state of Purdue football, I tracked down our old friend Travis Miller, the editor of Hammer and Rails, home to all things Purdue sports.

Miller gave us an in-depth look at the program as it exits a very important spring.


Can you give us an honest appraisal of the state of Purdue football right now? How painful was last year’s 1-11 campaign? Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Last year was brutal. Not only was Purdue 1-11, it wasn’t even a competitive 1-11. There were occasionally some sign of competence such as the Notre Dame and Michigan State games, but for the most part Purdue got drilled week-in, week-out. It certainly wasn’t fun.

Purdue is not going to get much better until its offensive line improves. Last year it could not protect the quarterback and could not block for the run. After seeing the spring game I am not exactly inspired. There are a few JuCo guys coming in the fall including 4-star tackle David Hedelin, but he may not be available. He played a few games for a club team in his native Sweden and is facing a possible NCAA suspension.

The good news is that it will be hard to get much worse. The schedule should be much easier with Western and Central Michigan instead of Cincinnati and a really good Northern Illinois team. If there is even a little progress Purdue should at least win its three non-conference games other than Notre Dame.


John Shoop’s offense returns 10 starters. Is that a good news/bad news sentence? Spring games aren’t necessarily a great indicator of future success, but it seemed like things are still out of sorts.

I am a big fan of the skill players, but again, the line has been awful, especially at the tackle spots. Hedelin and Corey Clements, another JuCo tackle, will likely come in and start from day 1. Robert Kuglar is pretty solid at the center position and the guards are at least coming along, but Hedelin and Clements need to be an answer at tackle. In the spring game none of the returning tackles looked all that good and Ryan Russell had more sacks than he did all of last season.


To that point, how has Danny Etling looked this spring? The decision to go with Etling last year pointed to a “the future is now” type of situation, but is the young quarterback ready to lead this team?

I think so. He just needs time to throw and I think he can do some pretty special things. The quarterback that impressed me most in the spring game, however, was true freshman David Blough. He reminds a lot of Purdue fans of another quarterback we recruited from Texas that was undersized, but was a diligent worker and ready to prove a point. Blough is a long way from being the next Drew Brees, but he has talked the talk so far and after graduating high school early to go through spring practice he showed enough to me that he can at least compete for the job.

For now, however, the job still belongs to Etling, and he will only show improvement as long as he is protected.


Greg Hudson’s defense had a tough season. But again, 8 starters return (though the loss of Bruce Gaston and Ricardo Allen has to hurt). How do you expect the defense to rebound?

I think the defense will be much better if it has an offense that can stay on the field for more than three plays. There were several games last season where the defense would be sound for a half, only to wilt in the second half because it was on the field far too much. Cincinnati, Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan State come to mind as games where Purdue looked great for a half but the offense did nothing to help out.

Help is on the way in linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley and Gelen Robinson. Purdue desperately need linebackers that can make a difference. We haven’t had anything close to an all-Big Ten linebacker in over 10 years, but Bentley and Robinson have a lot of excitement around them. Robinson is the son of former basketball player Glenn Robinson and younger brother of the guy playing at Michigan. He is a two-time undefeated state wrestling champion and also a champion in the shot put, so he is an athlete with a mean streak that is expected to play from day 1. We desperately need that.


 What’s a realistic bar for the 2014 Purdue Boilermakers? How do fans feel about Darrell Hazell after one really ugly season?

I think we need at least four wins. Beating Western Michigan, Central Michigan, and Southern Illinois should happen. I also think we should beat someone like Illinois because the Illini have one Big Ten win in its last 22 games and that barely came over Purdue last season. I don’t think it is a stretch that Purdue can win that game.

Outside of that, I think we just want to see a competitive football team again. Purdue’s most complete game last year came against Notre Dame and for two years in a row it has competed against a much better Irish team. The Irish are the first “real” opponent of 2014, so another competitive game would be a big step forward.


The Purdue/Notre Dame series is taking a break until 2020 after this season. How do Purdue fans feel about this? A product of realignment, and the B1G’s nine-game conference schedule and ND’s ACC commitment? Or the end of the world and just another data-point that money is ruining college football? (I suppose it could be something in between, too…)

Personally, I think it is ridiculous that the series is ending. All the factors you mentioned are bringing an end to a series that last almost 70 years without a conference affiliation. It could have been saved too. From Purdue’s standpoint all we needed to do was shift the home date from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years would have kept us with seven home game per season. With Notre Dame already losing Michigan and Michigan State there was room to work there too, at least from what I see.

I am going to miss Notre Dame because it is a showcase game for our program every season. When it is at Purdue it is almost always a night game so ABC/ESPN can put the Irish in prime time. When it is at Notre Dame it is a nationally televised game. Now Purdue coaches can’t go in and say to a recruit they have a guaranteed national game every season, something that is a nice guarantee for as bad as we are right now.

I feel like both sides are at fault here and it easily could have been saved.


For more from Miller, check out Hammer & Rails and follow him on Twitter @HammerandRails.

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.