Terrel Hunt

Spring Update: Syracuse

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In the first game of Notre Dame’s ACC scheduling pact, the Irish will face Syracuse, a somewhat familiar opponent in recent years. The Irish and the Orange have only faced off six times in the programs’ histories, but three of those games took place in the aughts (or whatever we’re calling the 2000-09), with Syracuse winning two of three.

Much has changed in the past decade for the Syracuse football program. After becoming one of the premier teams in the Big East behind Paul Pasqualoni and the offensive firepower of Donovan McNabb, things have trended downward in the Carrier Dome. The hiring of Greg Robinson was a disaster, winning just three conference games in his four seasons. And just as Doug Marrone got the Orange on track, he left to run the Buffalo Bills after an 8-5 season in 2012.

Syracuse decided to hire from within when they replaced Marrone, promoting defensive coordinator Scott Shafer. And with a 7-6 season under his belt that ended with a promising win over Minnesota in the Texas Bowl, things look to be on the upswing.

Giving us an update on Notre Dame’s September opponent in Syracuse football blogger John Cassillo, from the wonderfully named website Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician. He was nice enough to spend some time talking about the state of the Orangemen (and also nice enough not to bring up the 2008 game).

 

Scott Shafer finished his first season at Syracuse with one more win than loss, thanks to a bowl victory over Minnesota. How was the decision to replace Doug Marrone with Shafer viewed by Syracuse fans? Has that opinion changed after one season?

The initial reaction for a lot of fans was “betrayal.” Considering Doug was one of our own, we kind of expected him to stick around for awhile (or at least beyond two winning seasons in four years). This is a condition created by the very long tenure of fellow SU alum Jim Boeheim, who as you all know, has coached our basketball team since 1976 (we’re aware this is our own issue to deal with). We liked Shafer at first because he allowed for staff continuity (Marrone did take most of our old staff with him to the NFL) and helped keep enough recruits in the fold — while also grabbing plenty of new ones — to keep our 2013 class intact. After one year with Shafer, though, I think we all sort of love the guy now. He’s incredibly personable, loves our tradition, our campus, the city of Syracuse and the kids he recruits. He treats us like family, and in return, we’ve done the same.

 

It sure looks like Terrel Hunt has taken control of the quarterback job. Is he the answer for the Orange offense? What’s the ceiling on Hunt’s talent? Is he the engine for the Syracuse offense?

Hunt, like most quarterbacks, is going to steer the ship for this offense, so yeah, we’re rising and falling based on his ability to step up. Last season saw both extremes of his talent, but with a very strong finish — big numbers while winning games against both Boston College and Minnesota — I believe he’s turned a corner and is the answer for us. His ceiling depends just as much on him as his supporting cast. If the O-line holds up and our other offensive playmakers take some steps forward, it should allow him to make plays at will, both on the ground and through the air. I’m not delusional enough to think he’s a Heisman candidate before his career’s up, but don’t be surprised to hear he’s one of the top senior QBs in the country when it’s all said and done.

 

The rest of the offense looks poised to take a leap forward. Jerome Smith needs to be replaced at running back, but there’s returning depth along the offensive line and at wide receiver. The scoring offense barely ranked 99th in the country. Are brighter days ahead?

Last year’s offense was… rough. But yeah, I think we’re going to see some better results this season. Hunt has a year under his belt, we return four of five offensive linemen and the only notable skill position players we’re without this year are Beckett Wales and Jerome Smith, who both graduated. Couple all that with offensive coordinator George McDonald having a full year of play-calling behind him too, and things could come together pretty nicely in 2014. The coaching staff has promised that the offense will pick up the pace this year, now we just have to hope that means picking up the rate of red zone execution as well. If Hunt gets a solid handle on throwing the deep ball (and you saw it improve by the end of last season), this offense could be a bit dangerous.

 

Defensively, there seems to be a lot of talent returning, though finding a replacement for Marquis Spruill will be vital. How will Chuck Bullough’s defense be?

Spruill was incredibly important, don’t get me wrong. But the most vital piece of our defense was defensive tackle Jay Bromley, who’s now a member of the New York Giants. So if anything, we’re looking to fill the void on the defensive line and figure out a way to generate the same type of pressure without him. As far as replacing Spruill, linebacker has become somewhat of a strength for this defense — a point only hammered home by Bullough’s own experience at the position. Dyshawn Davis and Cam Lynch were starters last year and bring back a ton of experience at the two outside linebacker spots. They should also help out whoever wins the middle linebacker role, as they’ll likely have a bit of a learning curve to start the year. That position is likely going to either Luke Arciniega (who’s been injured all spring) or Marqez Hodge, but honestly, they could end up splitting time as well to keep them both fresh. The defense, overall, will once again rise and fall with its front-seven, though expect some addition by subtraction with some new faces in the secondary (plus an improved Durell Eskridge).

 

Is there an offensive playmaker that Irish fans should look out for? How about on the defensive side of the ball?

On offense, Brisley Estime really came on at the H-Back spot late last year, and the speedy sophomore will likely do so again this season — expect this time, for a full year. Between him and Ashton Broyld, it should be quite a challenge stopping our incessant screen passes — which we’re still going to call close to 50 percent of the time. On defense, I mentioned Eskridge, but it’s worth expanding on him a bit. He’s a ball hawk at safety, who hits hard, tackles harder and might have the most pro potential of any starter on that unit. He was injured for the last couple games of 2013, but should be back at full speed this season and will be an impact player.

 

What’s the best case / worst case scenario for the Orange’s record in 2014?

Whether best- or worst-case, I actually think Syracuse’s game against Notre Dame should be telling for the rest of the season. Win, and the sky’s the limit (and by “sky” I mean, 9-3). Lose a close game, and we’re still on track for 7-5 or so. Get blown out, and suddenly, 6-6 or worse could be on the table. SU’s had one of the toughest schedules in the country for years now, and this season’s is really no different. I’ve already chalked up FSU and Clemson as losses in any scenario, with Notre Dame and Duke very likely defeats. But the rest? I’m not really worried the Orange are out-manned against any other opponent. So yeah, best-case is probably eight or nine regular season wins. And worst-case would be a five-win campaign that was derailed by injuries. Considering I was on campus during the Greg Robinson era, the fact that I can say five wins are a worst-case scenario is still miraculous to me. But the program has recovered from that tragic coaching tenure, and with luck, the rest of the country will finally start to see that with the product on the field this season.

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You can find more from John at both Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician and on Twitter @JohnCassillo.

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.