Malik Zaire

Counting down the Irish: 25-21

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It’s time for the first installment of this year’s Top 25. As we count by five from the top of the list to the bottom, we’ll get our first peek at some of the young talent that’s going to be tasked with carrying the Irish forward this season.

Of the five players we’re covering today, only one seems to be a lock in the Irish’s opening day lineup. And his route there is perhaps the most unlikely of any on the roster. From a recruiting profile perspective, none of the five were seen as “elite” recruits, after last year’s 25-21 were all blue-chippers with sky-high expectations.

Let’s start the festivities by rolling out our 2014 rankings.

 

2014 IRISH TOP 25 RANKINGS

 

source: Getty Images
Will Fuller against Air Force

25. Will Fuller (WR, Soph.): After serving as Notre Dame’s designated deep threat in 2013, Fuller should see some diversity in his offensive role this season, a big reason why I think he’s primed to be one of the team’s breakout stars in 2014.

Fuller has perhaps the best top-end speed on the roster, as his 26.7 yards per catch average made evident. But he’s also got a great set of hands, is a better than you’d expect route runner, and is capable of playing in the TJ Jones mold, a versatile receiver who can do a lot more than we’ve seen.

While the depth chart at receiver is deep, Fuller is the type of player that can move inside and out, a situational weapon that Brian Kelly could use to break open the passing game, especially in one-on-one coverage. That’s why I predicted a 1,000 season out of Fuller, and rated him higher than any of the other panelists.

Highest Ranking: 14th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Six ballots).

 

source:  24. Joe Schmidt (LB, Sr.): While truly great players can transcend scheme, senior linebacker Joe Schmidt was perhaps the largest beneficiary of the defensive change from Bob Diaco to Brian VanGorder.

Schmidt, who at a shade above 6-foot and 235 pounds, didn’t have the bulk or length to play on the inside of a 3-4 defense. But he’s the starting middle linebacker for the Irish in VanGorder’s scheme, a tremendous rise after starting his career as a recruited walk-on and part-time special teams performer.

Of course, Schmidt’s opportunity came because of an injury to Jarrett Grace and depth chart issues. But after an impressive spring, Schmidt looks poised to be a very productive part of the Irish defense. A good athlete with solid sideline-to-sideline speed, Schmidt’s instincts and ability in space were apparent last season against USC, when the unsung linebacker made a huge play to break up a critical pass late in the game to seal a victory against the Trojans.

The walk-on tag will likely hang on Schmidt, an easy narrative for an undersized player who turned down other opportunities to chase a scholarship at Notre Dame. And entering his senior season, he’s likely to be one of the Irish’s most productive players. It might not be Rudy, but Schmidt’s story is mighty good, too.

Highest Ranking: 12th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Two ballots).

 

23. Chris Brown (WR, Jr.): Brown disappeared for most of his sophomore season until playing his best football in the Pinstripe Bowl, a breakthrough for a receiver who shows flashes of big play potential, but struggled to find productivity in his first two seasons.

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New York Post

Brown produced one of the biggest plays of 2012, when he connected with Everett Golson for a 50-yard bomb against Oklahoma. But after the deep threat role went to Will Fuller in 2013, Brown’s four starts and 13 appearances only produced 15 catches, with five coming in the bowl game, after putting up nine catches in the season’s first three games.

But if there was a receiver who consistently earned praise this spring it was Brown, with the junior taking on a leadership role with DaVaris Daniels exiled for the semester after academic deficiencies. Brian Kelly continued that praise for Brown last week after seeing his progress this summer.

At his best, Brown’s an explosive athlete who was an elite track star at the high school level and a junior national team member in 2011. He’s long at almost 6-foot-2, and has great leaping ability. Past the midpoint of his college career, the time is now for Brown to make his move, especially with talented young players surrounding him.

Highest Ranking: 16th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (One ballot).

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Jarrett Grace

22. Jarrett Grace (LB, Sr.): That Grace finds himself on this list is a product of a few panelists believing that the senior linebacker can put the crippling leg injury he suffered last season behind him. If he can, there’s no reason to believe Grace can’t be a defensive leader for the Irish. But even with positive updates coming from Brian Kelly as camp opened, Grace is still weeks away from being ready to play football, and he barely participating in any drill work on Monday.

While a long-term prognosis on Grace’s recovery sounds better than it’s ever been, the reality of the situation is that Grace still isn’t a year removed from breaking his fibula in multiple places, an injury so destructive that he stayed behind in Dallas for several days and had multiple surgical procedures, including one this spring, to help the healing.

Grace was once believed to be the heir apparent to Manti Te’o, given the first opportunity to step into Te’o’s spot at the Mike linebacker last season. But some rookie moments early in the season quickly tampered those expectations. Yet Grace was rounding into form at the time of his injury, the Irish’s leading tackler at the time of his injury.

Getting anything out of Grace in 2014 would be a bonus. But his placement in this list shows you the respect he’s earned from those that have watched him during his career in South Bend.

Highest Ranking: 12th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Six ballots).

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21. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.): After sitting through a difficult redshirt season, Zaire burst out of the gates during spring practice, making headlines when he said he fully expected to be the starter when Notre Dame played Rice on August 30th. That Zaire still has a chance to make that happen says quite a bit about the abilities (not to mention the confidence) that the exciting sophomore possesses.

After arriving relatively late on the recruiting scene, Zaire made waves at the Elite 11 camp, where he was one of the more impressive quarterbacks in attendance. As an option trigger man for most of his high school career, Zaire’s development as a passer has been recent, but he’s done a very good job in the limited reps we’ve seen from him.

Zaire out-played Golson in the spring game (though he faced a more basic defensive attack), and Brian Kelly says he plays his best football when the stage is biggest. That’s easy to say when it’s a Blue-Gold game, and quite another thing when it’s an opponent wearing a different jersey.

At his best, Zaire is a more dynamic running threat than Golson and his sturdier build makes him more capable as an option quarterback who will keep defenses guessing. While the reality of the situation will likely keep Zaire playing behind Golson for two more seasons, expect to see the young quarterback on the field early and often this season, with specialty packages designed to get the next man in a little experience.

Highest Ranking: 16th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Three ballots).

***

The selection committee for the 2014 ND Top 25:

Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals)
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune (@TJamesNDI)
Chris Hine, Chicago Tribune (@ChristopherHine)
Team OFD, One Foot Down (@OneFootDown)
Ryan Ritter, Her Loyal Sons (@HLS_NDTex)
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago (@JJStankevitz)
John Walters, Medium Happy (@JDubs88)
John Vannie, ND Nation
Keith Arnold, NBC Sports (@KeithArnold)

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.