Oklahoma v Notre Dame

Counting down the Irish: 15-11


When Brian Kelly was hired to take over Notre Dame’s football program, he developed a reputation not just as an offensive mastermind or spread offense guru, but rather that of a “program builder.” For all the traits Jack Swarbrick was looking for, an architect to tear down and rebuild the university’s most prized asset was a critical find.

Over the past few years, we’ve heard bits and pieces of the methodology Kelly has used. We’ve run through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and developing unconscious competence. We’ve seen Kelly’s recruiting philosophy, trending away from positions, but moving to types: Skill, Power, Big Skill. And we’ve heard him talking about the difference between playing winning football and championship football.

At this point in our rankings, every player on the list needs to be capable of playing Championship Football. (Caps for intent.) And as we roll into Year Five of the Kelly era, the players ranked 15-11 on the list seem to fit that criteria.

Let’s continue our run down the rankings.


25. Will Fuller (WR, Soph.)
24. Joe Schmidt (LB, Sr.)
23. Chris Brown (WR, Jr.)
22. Jarrett Grace (LB, Sr.)
21. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.)
20. Ishaq Williams (DE, Sr.)
19. Cole Luke (CB, Soph.)
18. Cam McDaniel (RB, Sr.)
17. Jarron Jones (DT, Jr.)
16. Corey Robinson (WR, Soph.)

15. Christian Lombard (OL, GS): A big reason why Lombard sits at No. 15 was one panelist giving the fifth-year senior an eye-opening vote as the team’s second-best player. While I’ll let him explain that logic, you can make the argument that Lombard — if healthy — is one of the team’s best players.source:

Entering his third season as a starter, Lombard’s versatility allowed Ronnie Stanley into the lineup in 2013, when Lombard shifted from right tackle to guard to make room for the talented youngster. And if Lombard’s healthy enough to hold down a starting job on the inside, he’s the type of player that provides a talented, veteran safety net who is capable of playing multiple positions.

After making it back from a back injury that ended his season early in 2013 for spring drills, only to suffer a fluke wrist dislocation suffered in March, Lombard needs to shake the injury bug and put together a dominant final season in South Bend.

He’s capable: A big, strong, veteran guy with the talent to play just about anywhere on the line. And while Nick Martin seems to have assumed the leadership role up front, Lombard’s got a lot of experience to pass along, and a future playing on Sundays if this year goes according to plan.

Highest Ranking: 2nd. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Three ballots).


14. Cody Riggs (DB, GS): For all the banter that’s turned “SEC” into an adjective, Riggs gives Notre Dame a football player that’s started 26 games over his three years playing in Gainesville. But beyond the affirmation of being a multi-year starter in the best conference in all the land, Riggs has come into South Bend and meshed incredibly well on a Notre Dame team that’ll only have his services for a few months.

Notre Dame missed out on Riggs as a top-shelf high school prospect. But he’ll have 13 games to play for the Irish, filling a key role in the Irish secondary as a versatile defender that can play as a cover corner or a safety in the box.

Cody Riggs

Riggs’ ceiling remains to be seen. While challenging himself academically was a big reason he came to Notre Dame, so was an opportunity to prove himself at cornerback, with former five-star talents Vernon Hargreaves and Jalen Tabor projected as starters in Gainesville.

Right now, it looks like Cole Luke is the “starter” at corner. But in Brian VanGorder’s system, Riggs will get all the opportunities he could hope for, earning a graduate degree off the field and utilizing the year in South Bend to prove to NFL talent evaluators he has the ability to play cornerback at the next level.

Highest Ranking: 5th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Two ballots).


13. Kyle Brindza (K/P, Sr.): If ever there was a specialist who deserved an elite grade, Kyle Brindza’s the man. Serving as the team’s kickoff man, punter and place-kicker, Brindza has moved well past the role of specialist into being one of the team’s more respected football players. source: AP

That comes with his propensity to nail clutch field goals. And his ability to boom long, hanging punts. But entering his final year of eligibility, Brindza needs to refine his skills, upping the consistency to a level where he’s in consideration for postseason awards.

The beauty of Brindza’s value to Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame football program is his singular ability to get the scholarship count back under control. Brian Kelly entered the Gug with a handful of scholarships committed to kickers and punters — and that was before walk-on David Ruffer won the placekicking job and a scholarship of his own. Brindza took over an entire position room, helped stabilize the roster, and leaves Notre Dame in a better place than he found it.

A big senior season will further solidify Brindza’s spot in the Irish record books.

Highest Ranking: 8th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (One ballot).

source: AP

12. Max Redfield (S, Soph.): That Redfield finds himself at No. 12 means a whole lot of panelists are believing the hype when it comes to the former five-star recruit.

And while his freshman season was essentially washed away on special teams as he tried his best to learn Bob Diaco’s system (and more importantly, earn his trust), Kelly pushed his chips behind Redfield before the Pinstripe Bowl, giving him a starting job and a ton of reps in December’s bowl preparations.

That confidence seemed to have paid off this spring, when Redfield earned the ultimate respect by being one of the earliest defenders pulled from the field in the Blue-Gold game. While we’ve only seen bits and pieces of Redfield in our three days of practice footage, he looks every bit the back line centerfielder (with an ability to play enforcer as well) that’s essential in VanGorder’s man scheme.

After missing the play of Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta to solidify the safety position, it looks like Redfield is the next very good one (at least) anchoring the back end of the defense.

Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: 20th.


11. Steve Elmer (OL, Soph.): Elmer played his way into the starting lineup last season as a true freshman, capitalizing on early enrollment and Lombard’s injury. While he was recruited as a player who could be Zack Martin’s heir apparent at left tackle, Elmer spent spring playing left guard, a jumbo-sized Chris Watt next to Ronnie Stanley, a jumbo version of Martin at left tackle.

But Elmer opened up fall camp at right tackle, with Matt Hegarty getting the first opportunity at left guard and Mike McGlinchey the odd man out, for now. That type of versatility, especially in a second-year offensive lineman, is rare, and speaks to the high IQ and top-shelf physical ability that Elmer possesses. source: AP

At his best, Elmer projects to be a high draft pick and a versatile lineman with the size and ability to play at either guard or tackle. Right now, he’s a no-brainer starter for Kelly, giving he and Harry Hiestand the ability to mix and match assets around Elmer, Stanley, Nick Martin and Lombard, four really impressive starting pieces.

Highest Ranking: 6th. Lowest Ranking: 17th.


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)

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”