Florida State Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston throws a pass against the Auburn Tigers in the fourth quarter during the NCAA BCS Championship football game in Pasadena

(Post) Spring update: Florida State

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After a bit of a break, we’re back with another update on Notre Dame’s opponents. And this one might be the stiffest of them all.

The Irish will play their first true away game in one of the most formidable venues in college football, visiting Tallahassee and Doak Campbell Stadium to take on the national champs, Florida State. Jimbo Fisher’s team returns the Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and a slew of talented players expecting to take another run at a national title.

In the most optimistic of scenarios, the game against Florida State will have national implications. Even if doesn’t, it’ll be the highlight of an Irish slate that has a handful of premiere matchups.

To get us up to speed, Warchant.com’s Ben Jones took some time and answered some (I hope) good questions from me.

Let’s get to it:

On first glance, it’s striking to see the talent that’s returning to this roster. Per FSU’s spring prospectus, seven starters return on both sides of the ball. But there were a lot of key departures as well. Help put into context how this team looks on paper compared to last season’s national champs.

You’re right; there are some big pieces coming back and also some key roles that need to be filled. Offensively, FSU returns a Heisman winner at quarterback, four of five linemen, and a senior who has led the team in receiving in each of the last three years. They lose a Rimington winner at center and their first 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn, but the roster is well constructed and those shouldn’t be major issues. Replacing Kelvin Benjamin, a 6-foot-6 wide receiver with 15 touchdown receptions last year, is a big deal, but there are enough other receiving options to believe it won’t be too big of an obstacle to overcome.

On defense, FSU has to replace vocal leaders in linebacker Telvin Smith and defensive back Lamarcus Joyner. Safety Terrence Brooks was an impact player also, but again, strong recruiting for several years has restocked the roster and there should be players to pick up their production. Like many teams in June, this team has some questions. But it also has plenty of potential answers.

 

The Seminoles scored more than 50 points a game last year. Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston returns behind a very experienced offensive line. Is there anything that can hold this unit back?

Losing Benjamin, a first round draft pick, is a big deal. He had 10 touchdowns in the final six games, including the game winner in Pasadena, and was nearly impossible to cover. FSU also lost slot receiver Kenny Shaw, who had over 900 yards and was quietly productive as an outlet for underneath passes. With them gone, expect tight end Nick O’Leary (557 yards, 7 TDs in 2013) to take an even bigger role in the red zone and on short routes across the middle.

Having Jameis Winston eliminates a lot of problems, but there’s no veteran behind the redshirt sophomore. Clint Trickett transferred to West Virginia and Jacob Coker left for Alabama, meaning sophomore Sean Maguire (21 career pass attempts) is the only player with any experience behind him. He might be able to keep FSU afloat, but he’s an unknown for now.

 

Seems like a similar song for the defense. The nation’s top unit needs to replace (at least one) key starter at every level, but seems primed for a reload. What concerns do you have for Charles Kelly’s defense?

The biggest concern for the defense is replacing defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan. It’s not often a nose tackle is disruptive enough to finish third on the team in tackles (63) and lead the team in TFLs, but that’s what Jernigan did as a junior before leaving for the NFL. There’s no defensive tackle behind him who’s as explosive, and that’s a concern.

FSU will have to find someone on the defensive line to draw double teams and give the linebackers a chance to make plays. The best candidate might be junior Mario Edwards, a five-star recruit who’s always had incredible physical ability but hasn’t tapped his full potential. If he develops into a star, the defense should be strong at every level again.

 

For the past few seasons it felt like Jimbo Fisher had one of the nation’s top rosters and a schedule that set up perfectly for a championship game run. Yet the Seminoles always seemed to trip themselves up. Does last year’s championship win — against an SEC team no less — feel like it could open the flood gates?

It absolutely felt like a breakthrough for a program that had fallen into a lull in the last decade toward the end of the Bobby Bowden era. As you observed, beating an SEC team for the title was a significant achievement for a team that considers Florida its biggest rival and regularly competes with Georgia, Alabama and Auburn for recruits. Considering how the roster has been built, FSU fans are hopeful they can follow up with another strong season. The Seminoles open the season with a game against Oklahoma State in Dallas, and their goal is to finish the season in Dallas for the national championship.

 

Can you give Irish fans an idea of how Jimbo Fisher is viewed? While it looks like the coach-in-waiting tab was obviously successful now that the Seminoles have won a title, there had to be some impatience there for a while? Do Seminoles fans view Fisher as an elite head coach or a guy that is merely running one of college football’s flagship programs built by Bobby Bowden?

There were some questions earlier in Fisher’s tenure as the Seminoles had head-scratching losses against teams like N.C. State and Wake Forest. Finishing an undefeated season and winning a national championship quiets a lot of questions though, and his success in the draft (18 players chosen in the last two years) has shown that he can identify and develop talent.

Bowden will always be considered the architect of the program, but this is Fisher’s team now. FSU went 24-16 in Bowden’s last three years, while Fisher has gone 45-10 in four seasons. The decision to remove Bowden was difficult and awkward, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone now who doesn’t think Fisher is the right man to lead the program.

 

It’s hard to write about Jameis Winston without getting into some of the off the field controversy. The embarrassing shoplifting situation, the other minor police blotter material, and the very serious rape charges. None garnering more than a slap on the wrist.

As someone much closer to the situation, what do you make of it? Are we past the youthful indiscretions? The New York Times had a rather unflattering portrayal of the entire situation that the school disputed, but have you noticed any changes in Winston or the program since the allegations late last season?

Frankly, this is difficult to answer. It seems that we never know the athletes we cover as well as we think we do, and that’s true with Jameis as well. There were some media restrictions placed on him this spring during baseball season and football practice. He spoke before spring football started and after the spring game, but not between those two for a full month, if memory serves.

Winston told reporters in New York at the Heisman ceremony he knew he’d have a different life going forward and wouldn’t be able to do some things he could normally do, but the crab legs incident does make you question his judgment. FSU has tried to keep someone around him when he’s in public — for example, he had a campus police officer with him at all baseball road games. But you can’t have someone with him 24/7. It wouldn’t surprise me if this summer and fall passes quietly off the field with no new incidents for him, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if there’s another indiscretion.

Either way, there will continue to be noise around the rape allegations. There may be a civil suit coming (against Winston, FSU, or the Tallahassee police), and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating the university for Title IX violations connected to the incident.

 

Turning the subject back to football, getting Notre Dame and Florida State together is always a big deal. Is this the highlight game of the schedule for Noles fans, too?

It’s absolutely one of the highlights. The home schedule this year is very strong, with Clemson and Florida also visiting Tallahassee. The end-of-season game with the rival Gators is probably bigger, but Notre Dame might make more FSU fans more nervous. As of now, it’s my upset pick for this season.

I’m curious to see what Everett Golson in his return to Notre Dame. There are questions for the Irish to answer, but you also saw FSU slow down a bit towards the end of last year. Duke gave FSU some trouble early in the ACC Championship, and Auburn was just a play or two away from winning. If teams can look at those games and see what was successful, they might be able to create a game plan that will really do some damage.

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Special thanks to Ben for going above and beyond. For more from him, you can find his writing work at Warchant, and follow him on Twitter @WarchantBen

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.