Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl

Mailbag: All about the quarterbacks

80 Comments

For as much as we’re ready to move on from the quarterback talk… we’re not really ready to move on from the quarterback talk.

So let’s tear the band-aid off one last time (who are we kidding?) and talk about the situation behind center for the Irish.

 

bearcatirishfan: Do you think there is any risk that Zaire will stop trying to improve, or just won’t get pushed enough without Golson’s there to provide extra incentive/competition?

Malik Zaire is not the kind of kid that needs someone to push him. While his success remains to be seen, his intangibles and off-field profile are everything you could ask for. So while the departure of Golson makes Zaire the starter with no real competition, there’s not much risk of Zaire deciding to coast now that the team is his.

If anything, I think the tendency will be the opposite. The last two seasons, I think there was a “check-out” factor, especially when it was clear that this was Golson’s offense and nothing Zaire did during practice could change that. This is Zaire’s team now. And he’ll be ready.

 

irishkevy: Is there any worry with Malik Zaire getting injured? The worst possible situation is that happening and Wimbush giving up his redshirt. I’ve seen Wimbush in person and as a three year starter he’ll be very legit.

Zaire getting hurt is probably the biggest X-Factor of the season. I don’t think it was ever possible for Zaire to run the ball 20+ times a game, like he did against LSU. But looking back at Mike Sanford’s play calling at Boise State, he ran his quarterback 10 or more times in a game eight times, and Zaire is a far more dangerous runner.

He’s a big kid, likely pushing 230 pounds, so that’ll help. But how Kelly and company decide to protect Zaire now that the back-up QB situation is an unknown will be interesting.

Last thought on Wimbush: Redshirting is obviously preferred. But this football team is too good to hold somebody back with the hopes of having a great season in 2020, especially when you consider how unrealistic it is for a head coach to spend a decade as the man on top of the Notre Dame football program. So if Wimbush is ready (and needed), he’ll play if he’s good enough to be the No. 2 quarterback.

 

robtrodes: Keith, I keep seeing comments that Zaire isn’t all that good of a passer, and the (admittedly meager) stats available don’t appear to support the position at all. Is this just something that everyone says because everyone else says it, or is there evidence of it?

Good question. Compared to Golson, Zaire isn’t necessarily as accurate. But the position comes mostly from hearing Brian Kelly talk about Zaire needing to improve in the intermediate and short passing game, not from anything we’ve seen.

One thing that I’ve noticed in Zaire’s passing game that I think needs to be fixed: The tendency to slow his arm down when throwing short or underneath. A little like a baseball pitcher, you can’t change the speed of your arm when throwing shorter or softer.

But watching him hit Will Fuller for 70 in the Blue-Gold game, and do a nice-enough job against USC, it’s like a lot of inexperienced quarterbacks. We want them all to be more accurate.

 

onward2victory: Keith, how do you think Zaire compares to Johnny Manziel (on the field only)? Personally, I see some similarities and in my most optimistic moments believe that Zaire could see that kind of production so long as Kelly lets the reigns loose. Would love get your take.

I’m going to ask you to pump your brakes, Onward. I actually think Zaire’s body-type and mental game makes him a far more durable quarterback, but we’ve seen this kid run for 96 yards against LSU and play a nice second half in a blowout loss to USC.

He’s a little bit behind the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback that made the SEC look like a sandlot.

 

ajw21: Keith, Did you alter expectations now that Golson is gone. you have said before you believe ND could be in the final four. Do you still feel that way with Zaire the starter and the only qb who plays barring an injury? Also does Wimbush redshirt if Zaire is out for let’s say 2 or more games.

Notre Dame has a chance to win every game on their schedule. They get USC at Notre Dame, which should help. And that doesn’t change just because Everett Golson disappeared, so there’s every reason to believe the Irish are a legit contender for a spot in the CFB Playoffs.

But without Zaire? I have no clue how good Wimbush can be, and Kizer sure didn’t look like a guy who was ready to run a team in his limited Blue-Gold game action. But it’s May.

 

scoli: With the transfer of Golson, most of the concern seems to be that Zaire is too “inexperienced”. Having watched college football closely for more years than I should admit, I have seen MANY teams be successful, and actually win championships with “inexperienced” QB’s. Some have actually done it with true freshman.Look at Ohio States success last year with 2nd and 3rd string.

My question to you then is, DO you think that Coach Kelly’s system is too complicated? ND has some of the highest admission standards of any D1 school, so you know these kids are not dummies, why does it take so long for them to understand/get a handle on the playbook?

I kept the statement part of your question in because it’s correct. Last year’s national champ? First-year quarterback. Two seasons ago? First-year starting quarterback. It can—and does—happen.

Is Kelly’s system too complicated? I don’t know it, but I also don’t think so.

To your point about the academics/grasp of the playbook, I don’t think that’s necessarily fair. ND is definitely not running the type of offense where a QB looks to the sidelines, gets a play and then runs it regardless. But trying to make a grand statement on speed of proficiency in a system in comparison to other programs with varying degrees of academic difficulty is a tough one to make.

What I will say: Notre Dame’s offense has been too quarterback reliant. The one season that it wasn’t (2012) was the year the Irish rode their defense and running game to an undefeated regular season. That’s not to say it’ll happen every year, but it’s hard not to see what Urban Meyer did last year and wonder how the Irish would look utilizing that style of offense. And I’m guessing Kelly and his staff took note.

 

irishdog80: What makes Golson believe that he will not have the same competition issues at his next stop?

I don’t think Golson transferred because of competition. Because every football team he plays on for the rest of his life will offer significant competition.

 

notrebob: Keith,what could you tell us about the Kelly /Golson relationship especially towards the end surely you some authentic info you can share tired of all the speculation

That’s too hard to say for sure. But from talking to people in and around the situation, I do think that part of the issue was their relationship, at least from Golson’s point of view.

On the flip side, I’ve also heard from people inside the program that getting to Golson was difficult. He’s a unique kid, and any issues in the relationship wasn’t for a lack of trying.

In the end, Golson earned his degree. That allows him to transfer. He did. End of story. (For now…)

 

 

 

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)
Getty
27 Comments

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)
35 Comments

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)
107 Comments

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)
AP
117 Comments

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.