Belk Bowl - Cincinnati v North Carolina

Spring update: North Carolina


Notre Dame enters the teeth of October with North Carolina sandwiched between Stanford and Florida State, two likely Top 10 teams. But overlooking the Tar Heels is the last thing the Irish should do, with Larry Fedora’s team coming off a strong finish to 2013.

Fedora enters his third season as the head of the North Carolina program, on his way to turning around a program that was in disarray when Butch Davis was relieved of his duties after an academic scandal shook Chapel Hill.

With the Tar Heels back on the Notre Dame schedule for the first time since 2008, we reached out to Brian Barbour of SBNation’s Tar Heel Blog to get up to speed on what to expect from North Carolina next season.


After losing five of their first six games, the Tar Heels looked like a different team, winning six of their last seven games, including the Belk Bowl over Cincinnati. What changed? Is the late season push one of the biggest reasons for the optimism heading into 2014?

The schedule in 2013 was frontloaded. UNC played South Carolina, Georgia Tech(an offense UNC struggles against), an ECU team that ended up winning ten games, Virginia Tech on the road then Miami. Compare that to the back half where the best team UNC saw was Duke. The 1-5 start was not necessarily shock with the loss to ECU at home being the notable exception. Of course winning a bowl game and returning most of your personnel always sets a team up to “have momentum” going into the next season.


Larry Fedora is one of the more intriguing coaches in college football. Can you assess the work Fedora has done in his two seasons in Chapel Hill? Considering the circumstances he inherited, has his short tenure been a success?

Fedora’s tenure has been on course for the most part. There is a sense he has done a better job putting together a solid coaching staff and the recruiting is rolling along. He isn’t bringing the same quantity of Butch Davis-type talent but doing well enough in his own right. At this point much of the talent from the Davis years is gone so the next season or two offer a true test of his tenure. What can Fedora do with “his guys” who have been recruited for and played from the first day in his system. The transition to that period will be worth watching.


Seth Littrell comes in from Indiana to replace Blake Anderson as offensive coordinator, after Anderson took the Arkansas State head job. After spring practice, does it look any changes will be implemented to the offense?

Despite the change in offensive coordinator this is still Larry Fedora’s offense system. I would expect there could be some subtle changes in what UNC does, perhaps even more attention to passing downfield and stretching the defense out. Otherwise nothing jumped off the page during the spring game other than a fairly healthy competition at quarterback.


How is the quarterback position shaking out? Is the job Marqise Williams’? On paper he looks ready, though he seems to have struggled against Duke? Who do you think is behind center when the Tar Heels come to South Bend?

There is really no way of knowing. Mitch Trubisky played well in the spring game and rumor has it that he is Fedora’s preference since he was recruited by Fedora specifically to play in this offense. At the same time, Marquise Williams brings experience to the table and brings that mobility dynamic that can be so effective at the college level. The knock on Williams is the passing game simply isn’t as refined whereas Trubisky is probably more accurate. There is also that element of keeping everyone happy, especially Trubisky who could transfer and still have two seasons left whereever he goes. At this stage there is the possibility Fedora uses both quarterbacks in a game. This happened with Williams and Bryn Renner last season after Renner missed a game. The issue with the dual QB system is there were times when the rotation seemed haphazard and counter intuitive to the flow of the game. If they can iron that out, using both players could be effective.


Defensively, Vic Koenning and Ron West’s unit seemed to have found their stride around midseason. While they need to replace Kareem Martin, there’s a lot of talent back. Are there a few defensive players Notre Dame fans need to keep an eye out for?

Cornerback Dominque Green showed some chops as a walk-on freshman last year. Green had five pass break-ups and three interceptions in thirteen games. Norkeithus Otis and Darius Lipford, both linebackers, are expected to be solid contributors. Otis had 8.5 sacks last season and 14 tackles for loss which was second behind NFL draftee Kareem Martin. Lipford has 2.5 sacks and six TFLs.


How did Elijah Hood look this spring? Between he and Gio Bernard, the Irish have had a tough time holding onto running backs against the Tar Heels. (But then again, Kelly poached Everett Golson late in the game from the Tar Heels.)

Will Hood be an immediate contributor in the North Carolina backfield?

Elijah Hood didn’t do much in the spring game collecting just 15 yards on nine attempts. T.J. Logan did the bulk of the rushing for the Blue Team with 108 yards. Hood will face some stiff comeptition for carries. Logan returned from injury last season to produce in the last half of the schedule and Khris Francis, a small but quick back, will get this share of carries but also be used in quick throws to the sideline. Hood certainly has the talent and with Fedora pressing the tempo, there will be plenty of carries to go around not to mention opportunities to catch passes out of the backfield.


For more coverage of North Carolina before the Irish and Tar Heels do battle on October 11th, check out the Tar Heel Blog or follow on Twitter @TarHeelBlog.

Kelly thinks simplicity might aid offensive production

Notre Dame quarterback Kizer DeShone makes a throw during the Blue-Gold spring NCAA college football game, Saturday, April 16, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. (Michael Caterina/South Bend Tribune via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
South Bend Tribune via AP

Back to the basics. If there’s a refrain we’ve heard—or one that’s made its way through the echo chamber these past few weeks—it’s that Brian Kelly and his coaching staff are drilling down, looking for any way to pull this team out of their slump.

We saw the changes defensively, a gigantic detour away from the scheme and philosophies of Brian VanGorder. And while that’s helped jump-start the defense, the impact of the move may have hit the offense’s productivity.

Kelly talked about some of those aftereffects this week, the changes on one side of the ball leaking over to the other.

“We’re keeping the points down, but we’re limiting possessions,” Kelly explained. “We went from 15 possessions earlier in the season to this past game we had four possessions in the first half. That’s like playing an option team. We’re going to keep the points down, we’re probably not going to get off the field quite as quick as we did earlier in the season.”

Those lack of opportunities have shown up in the box score. Throw away the game played in hurricane conditions and it’s still clear that the Irish offense didn’t capitalize on their chances against Stanford. And whether it was DeShone Kizer’s interceptions, Malik Zaire’s three short-circuited series or a general lack of running game, Kelly is taking a similar approach with his offense that he did with the opposite side of the ball—though not running anybody out of town.

“We have fallen into a similar trap that we were dealing with earlier defensively. We’re probably doing a little too much,” Kelly said. “When you do the things that you practice every single day, it becomes second nature. You can play free, you can play fast.

“I think from an offensive standpoint, we can just be who we are. Let’s practice what we’re good at and let’s be better at execution in this kind of game.”

Do what you do, but do it better. It’s an approach that’s worked under Greg Hudson’s direction, with a defense mastering the bare essentials as they try to stop the bleeding. Offensively, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen this unit struggle. And while pointing in one direction usually takes the focus off of a multi-faceted problem, cutting down the inventory and letting the Irish talent play fast and loose could be a big help for a group that’s still really young.

“I think there’s an understanding now that we have to figure out what we are doing well and put emphasis on that,” Kizer said. “In the first half of the season there were some specific looks that are more successful than others, and we have to put emphasis on those looks.”

Behind the Irish: Leaders eat last


Leaders eat last. As the 2016 season continues to be a struggle for the Irish, holding firm to leadership mottos like the above is more than just lip service or an empty slogan.

In our latest Behind the Irish feature, several Notre Dame players talk about this season’s slogan and how it helps guide the team as they look to stay united through this stretch run.

And in that corner… The Miami Hurricanes


Sure, the high-wattage match-up might have lost some of its preseason luster. But even with both Notre Dame and Miami entering the weekend limping, bringing the Hurricanes and the Irish together—two of college football’s premier programs with quite a bit of history together—is always a game worth watching.

As the Irish return from an off week healthy and looking to rebound after two-straight losses, Mark Richt’s Miami team poses quite a challenge. Especially as the Hurricanes do what they can to stop a three game slide. They’ve got the ammo to do it, with junior quarterback Brad Kaaya one of the best Notre Dame will face this season and a defense that’s done a 180 under new coordinator Manny Diaz.

To get us ready for a very big weekend, Isaiah Kim-Martinez joins us. A sophomore studying broadcast journalism who also writes for the student-run Hurricane (in circulation since 1929!), Isaiah took time away from his busy schedule to answer some questions from on the ground in Coral Gables.

Hope you enjoy.


This season started with a four-game winning streak and gave way to a three-game losing streak—all ACC opponents. What do you make of the season so far, and how do you evaluate a Hurricanes team that has just one win against a Power Five opponent?

I would say that this season has brought what most fans were expecting – inconsistency. The team is just not quite there yet. This season isn’t a failure, nor is it really a success. There was supposed to be growing pains with a new coach and a new system, and we are seeing it now as the Hurricanes have played tougher opponents.


Before we get to the play on the field specifically, what’s the transition to Mark Richt been like? Getting a tenured head coach with connections to the university looked like a coup from a far. Is that the reaction amongst Canes faithful? What’s surprised you so far through seven games?

The transition has been great. The school and the fans have welcomed him with open arms. There is a general understanding that bringing the U back to national prominence would take some time, even with someone of Richt’s track record. So, Canes faithful is generally being patient with the head coach, understanding that this is a process.

What’s surprised me most has been the ups and downs of the offense. Miami averaged over 40 points through the first four games, and that quickly dropped to under 20 for the next three. I understand that the difficulty of the opponent was higher over the last three weeks, but that is more of a drop off in offensive production than I expected.


When we looked at the 2016 Notre Dame season in August, Brad Kaaya looked like the best quarterback the Irish would face. The junior has a big-time national profile and has nice numbers so far, 12 TDs, 5 INTs, completing almost 62 percent of his throws. Evaluate Kaaya’s junior season.

Kaaya has played well, but has clearly not met the expectations that most fans had set for him prior to the season. The numbers look fine on paper, but what is misleading about stats is that they don’t tell you when the touchdowns and interceptions happened. In the biggest games of the season, Kaaya’s touchdowns have mainly come with the team being down, which to me, negates some of the luster of them. Many of the touchdowns have not been that impactful. Kaaya hasn’t buried any team over the past few weeks with a series of plays he has made. He has also already thrown more interceptions this season than he had thrown all of last season.

That being said, it is not all his fault. The offensive line has not been good, so Kaaya has not had the adequate time to consistently throw in the pocket. It seems that part of the reason for the struggle has been the adjustment to the new system and the play-calling of a new coach, which is perfectly understandable. Once again, it is not all on Kaaya, however I do not believe he has taken a legitimate step forward to this point in the season. He has been good, just not great.


Defensively, Manny Diaz has done a stellar job, the Hurricanes defense taking a huge step forward from 2015. What’s the strength of the unit? And how will they attack an Irish offense that looks in a bit of a slump?

The strength of the unit, especially early on, has been the defensive line. It is getting pressure to the quarterback. I expect the team to do the same against Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer, thus forcing him to make errors.


On the other side of the ball, Kaaya’s struggled with protection and the ground game isn’t necessarily putting up great numbers. What are the keys for the Hurricane offense, especially with Notre Dame finding its footing on the defensive side of the ball?

The key is the offensive line giving Kaaya the time he needs in the pocket to be effective, and making holes for running backs Mark Walton and Joseph Yearby to rush in between the tackles, which they have not been able to do effectively since before playing Florida State.


This is a rivalry with some history, though not many games against each other. Neither team is playing particularly good football, but it still was a game Irish fans circled on the schedule. How big of a game is this for the Hurricanes and their fans?

Indeed, it can be agreed upon that both teams expected to be in better situations come this matchup, so the implications are quite different. However, this is a huge game for the moral of the Hurricanes’ team and fans. Miami may have lost three straight games, but all the losses have come to opponents with records over .500. UM as a whole is being patient with the program, but I doubt there will be much tolerance if the Canes lose to a team that is currently 2-5.


Any prediction on how this game goes? Any keys that’ll determine a victor in your mind?

The Hurricanes defense is dealing with the injury bug, but I expect it to come out with a vengeance after allowing Virginia Tech to drop 37 points on it. The defense will hold the Fighting Irish to fewer than 25 points, and the Canes run game will finally see some day light and have a big day.

Keys to the game:

· Establish offensive presence early (strike first blood)

· No big plays allowed on defense

· Offensive line must play strong

Score Prediction: Miami 31 – Notre Dame 21

Kelly stays in the moment

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)

Coming off a bye week, you could excuse Brian Kelly if he started looking ahead. To his impending hire at defensive coordinator, or his shifting focus to a recruiting class that suffered its first defection since Blake Barnett bolted for Alabama.

But the seventh-year head coach has his hands full fixing his current predicament, leaving any planning beyond Miami to the weeks after the regular season.

“My time is spent on the present right now. I don’t look too far ahead,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I think I’ve stayed with very similar thoughts about not mortgaging the future, not dwelling too much on the past, but living in the present right now.”

That commitment to right now hasn’t translated into wins yet. But it’s the best way to beat Miami, a talented football team with what might be the best quarterback the Irish will face, coming in on a three-game losing streak.

So while Irish fans wonder how this team will find a way to straighten out and win four of their next five to qualify for a bowl game, Kelly talked about the internal motivation this team has, playing for each other more than any postseason bonus.

“All these kids, they come to Notre Dame because they want to be challenged,” Kelly said. “They have incredible intrinsic motivation every day to get up, to go to class, to want to succeed. It’s why they come here. There’s an immense amount of pride. They want to freakin’ win. They want to win. They really don’t care whether they get a Visa gift card in the bowl game.

“They want to practice more. They want to be with their teammates. They want to be with their guys. They want to win football games. They want to be successful in the classroom. They want to be successful on the football field. That’s why they came here. That’s why I’m here. That’s all we talk about. That’s all we do every day, is think about how we can be more successful.”