Mailbag: Transfers, death of the 3-4, and more

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Let’s get down to the Friday Mailbag. (That’s what the kids are calling it, anyway.) The questions are much appreciated.

sfnd: Ty Isaac?

First, kudos for the brevity. It’s a skill (believe me, one I’m still working on, too).

If we’re to take BK’s comments from yesterday at face value, you’ve got to think this was basically saying, “Yes, we want Ty Isaac. We wish you signed with us to begin with.”

Here’s what he had to say while talking to the media assembled at the Irish Legends golf fundraiser.

“For a traditional transfer, my preference is they have three years of eligibility and they’re the right academic fit and of course positionally, it makes sense,” Kelly told JJ Stankevitz of CSN Chicago. “There’s not a backlog of players at that particular position.”

Let’s check the boxes:

* Three years left of eligibility for Isaac, who played as a true freshman for the Trojans.
* Notre Dame finished bridesmaids for Isaac in his original recruitment.
* With Cam McDaniel departing and running back a need in this recruiting class, here’s no backlog — especially for a big back.

It wasn’t certain that Isaac would consider Notre Dame, or that USC would allow him to transfer to their rivals. But this Tweet seems to make both things a possibility.

The decision will come quickly, with Isaac needing to be in summer school and conditioning at whatever program he chooses.

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@HayesBean: How many recruits will we take this cycle? Thought it was fewer this year, if so it seems like were settling, other than top 3.

I’d guess the Irish take a class in the high-teens. But it’ll also depend on who comes back for a fifth year. Here’s a quick breakdown of who is eligible to return:

Everett Golson
Amir Carlisle
DaVaris Daniels
Nick Martin
Conor Hanratty
Matt Hegarty
Chase Hounshell
Tony Springmann
Ben Councell
Anthony Rabasa
Jarrett Grace
Joe Schmidt
Jalen Brown
Eilar Hardy
Matthias Farley

Who stays? Who goes? At this point, who knows — though I think it’s a really important year for the heralded recruiting class of 2011.

But I’m not sure I’d agree with you on the Irish “settling,” especially with Kelly’s track record on early identification of prospects. Barnett is a national QB target that just about every program wants. Tillery and Hoge look like they’ll be top linemen at their respective positions. Fertitta is a bit off profile, but ND has kicked the tires on him more than once, and the other skill players are guys who I trust the staff’s evaluation tools better than any website.

The short answer: My guess is 18. But how they get there will be interesting.

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irishdog80: Which of the ND player that were drafted, other than Zack Martin, will have the longest and most productive career in the NFL?

Which undrafted FA from ND this year will have the longest and most productive career…if any?

Good questions. I’d aim at one of the offensive guys, just because I think playing along the defensive line makes for a pretty short shelf life.

Troy Niklas is a guy that — if he stays healthy — has the body and skillset to last forever in the NFL. I also could see TJ Jones carving out a niche as a slot guy, someone who is that No. 3 receiver with punt return skills who sticks around a decade in the league.

As for undrafted free agents, I’m going to go with Dan Fox. I think his ability to run as an inside linebacker will make him valuable to a team as the league because more of a passing, spread-it-out game.

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mediocrebob: Any word on Springmann and Grace recoveries?

Expect Springmann to be good to go for summer workouts. Grace isn’t quite figured out, but I don’t know how it’s going to be possible for him to be ready for the start of the season, if at all.

Kelly gave a mini-update on Grace yesterday, which was essentially no update. He said that he and head trainer Rob Hunt were going to get together to discuss Grace’s healing sometime next week, in advance of summer school and workouts beginning in June.

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shaunodame: Your best guess at a LB Depth Chart (both 4-3 and 3-4) w/ Mike Sam and Will or Cat Dog Mike and Will, and a Wide Receiver Depth Chart w/ X, Z and Slot.

I’m honestly going to punt on this question, at least from the linebackers perspective. Right now, I think Jaylon Smith is going to play every snap at Will. Joe Schmidt will be the team’s primary Mike, though there’s hope that Grace could be ready and obviously Nyles Morgan is coming in this summer.

But then how this staff decides to use guys like Ben Councell, John Turner, Michael Deeb, Kendall Moore or any of the other freshmen is just too hard to figure out.

If the Irish are playing a 3-4, I think you’ll be seeing heft in the lineup, with a guy like Moore or Councell in there to go toe-to-toe with an opponent, but again — I don’t know how realistic that is, or how often that will be.

At receiver, I think the breakdown is already starting to happen:

Outside receivers: DaVaris Daniels, Corey Robinson, Will Fuller, Chris Brown
Slot: Amir Carlisle, CJ Prosise
Guys in the mix: Torii Hunter, maybe freshman Justin Brent or Corey Holmes.

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steincj36: Does the fact that BK will be calling plays scare anyone else besides me? Am I just apprehensive to this because of the Weis era?

I think Kelly has proven himself to be a true head coach. Charlie Weis was a long-time coordinator thrust into his first head job when he was at ND.

But outside of 2007, what year did you have a problem with the offense? Sure, the running game wasn’t very explosive, but Weis’ offense didn’t struggle to put up points, it was his defense that let him down, especially in his last two seasons.

Kelly had the tag of being an offensive innovator, but that was never one that he gave himself. But he’s got the personnel he wants to run his system this year and knows that style of offense better than anyone else on staff. I think the arrangement will work quite well.

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ndlv: Based on what Coach Kelly has accomplished at ND, where does he rank relative to earlier coaches at ND? Where do you think he ranks relative to other coaches currently in college football? Is he in the top 10?

He’s automatically behind anybody that’s won a national title. And he’s the best coach the Irish have had since Lou Holtz. Outside of that evaluation, I’m not a good enough historian of ND football to place him anywhere else.

As for his place in college football’s elite, I think he’s squarely in the top 10. He’s probably hovering right around the top 5, falling behind guys like Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and maybe Bob Stoops and Steve Spurrier?

(The Sporting News has been doing this exercise for quite some time and has Kelly ranked fifth.)

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kmic000: When ND is in the 3-4 this year, who do you think the DLine and linebackers will be?

I’ve already punted on the linebackers, but here’s how I’d expect a 3-4 look to play out.

Sheldon Day
Jarron Jones
Ishaq Williams/Tony Springmann

Romeo Okwara
Joe Schmidt
Jaylon Smith
Ben Councell (big) / John Turner (little)

Again, I don’t think this is going to turn out to be correct — nor do I think you’ll see Notre Dame with a legit three-man front too often. But I think it’ll be dependent on guys like Springmann and Hounshell to recover from their injuries and give legitimate reps.

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.