Five things we learned: Notre Dame’s Media Day

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It was the standard Media Day dog-and-pony show in South Bend on Tuesday, with national reporters descending on Notre Dame to pay proper respects to the Irish football program, all while likely wondering if this is indeed “the year.” And perhaps it’s because Brian Kelly already delivered a lengthy state of the union address to open camp—or more likely—because he’s already sick of talking about the enhanced expectations for his sixth team, Tuesday afternoon felt like a redundancy that coaches and players alike wanted to put in the rearview mirror.

That’s not to say there was any visible frustrations as coaches and players answered a similar question asked a few dozen different ways. Rather, it’s just beyond plainly clear that this football team is starving for a game.

The win against LSU has long been forgotten. Facing off against your own guys has become stale. This team needs to see an opponent, and to a man appear to be counting the days until Texas, their first opportunity to play as well as they think they can.

To that point, it’s clear that certain messages have taken hold inside the program. You can’t spend sixty seconds talking to a player or coach without a leadership discussion, all but an acknowledging that last seasons failures may have happened because of injuries but were allowed to mount not just because of the body count, but because of a deficiency in culture.

That’s not something that Brian Kelly will allow to happen again. Nor will his assistant coaches, or the players who have emerged as potential captains. It’s a more crowded field of candidates than the Republican party is trotting out there.

With that in mind, let’s do our best to cut through the Crash Davis cliches and coachspeak we heard on Tuesday. Here are five things we learned after a two-hour open practice and interviews with assistant coaches and players.

 

Brian Kelly believes this team is more talented than the one he took to the BCS Championship game. 

Since camp opened, you need to credit Kelly for repeatedly acknowledging that talented components don’t necessarily lead to winning teams. But as we try to get a grasp on what he thinks the ceiling is for this roster, Kelly all but summed it up when Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman asked him to compare this team to the 12-1 team that played for the national title.

“It’s a faster team. It’s a more athletic team. We were deeper at virtually all positions across the board, both on the offensive line and the defensive line,” Kelly said.

That’s certainly not pulling your punches.

Kelly went on to talk about the singularity of a star like Manti Te’o and the unique traits that turned that 2012 team into a group that’s be remembered in school history. But if you’re looking for a main idea from Tuesday, it’s that Kelly is openly acknowledging this team is faster, more athletic and deeper than the one he ran the (regular season) table with, and he’s not afraid to acknowledge it.

 

The competition on this roster is fierce. 

Showtime is scheduled to air their first episode looking inside Notre Dame’s program on September 8th. And if I were a betting man, a large focus of that pilot will be the constant competition that takes place in every facet of a Notre Dame football practice.

I am not a regular on the practice scene. So it took me a while to get adjusted to the number of players running in and out, skill players and front-seven defenders that came and went at the blink of an eye, intermixing between the first and second team.

So while I was doing my best to keep up, here are a few battles worth watching as we move closer to Texas.

*  Don’t assume that Elijah Shumate has been handed the starting strong safety job opposite Max Redfield. (And according to Brian VanGorder, you can’t assume Redfield has won his job, either—even if I don’t believe him.) Cal transfer Avery Sebastian took the majority of first-team reps with the defense, and from talking to people today, this isn’t a motivational ploy. While they’re both going to play, Kelly acknowledged late last week that Sebastian has impressed him. And while it’s hard to say the strong safety play jumped out today, Sebastian is going to take a lot more snaps than many expected.

*  Freshman Josh Adams is taking No. 2 reps at running back with C.J. Prosise on the mend, and he doesn’t look like he’ll be redshirting at this point. Adams’ is a taller back, but runs with much more fluidity than Justin Brent, who looks really stiff and rigid as a runner. Dexter Williams may very well be a better long-term player, but he doesn’t seem to have a great grasp of things just yet, completely fair for a freshman.

*  The 1-on-1s between receivers and defensive backs was a joy to watch. And the best rep I saw wasn’t between KeiVarae Russell and Will Fuller (who did do battle), but between freshmen CJ Sanders and Shaun Crawford. Sanders won, pulling down a really well thrown pass in the corner of the end zone, and it put Crawford in a rotten mood. (And even if he’s only 180 pounds, you don’t want to see him play football in a rotten mood.)

There was great competition taking place around the goal line as the receivers and defensive backs went to war, and it was really fun to hear both Mike Denbrock and Todd Lyght coach up their position groups. For as talented as the receiving corps is, they didn’t dominate the secondary.

 

I don’t care what the recruiting rankings say, this freshman class is an elite group. 

It’s very clear that Notre Dame’s freshman class is a loaded group. While we’ve talked about a transcendent talent like Jerry Tillery, it’s also clear that top-to-bottom this group is going to find a way to help this football team win.

Receiver Equanimeous St. Brown has opened eyes thus far in camp. Listening to Mike Sanford, you’d think he found a new sports car in his garage. He’s got straight-line, vertical speed that’ll show itself this year, especially if defenses are going to focus on some of the Irish’s other weapons. In single coverage going vertical, that’s a 50-50 ball I want my quarterback’s throwing. Fellow freshmen receivers Miles Boykin and Jalen Guyton also looked really smooth, and Sanders might play more than all of them.

Defensively, Nick Coleman was a steal. That the Irish saw a great potential cornerback in a high school running back shows some great scouting. Crawford drew a compliment from Sanford, an offensive coordinator marveling at how a freshman defensive back manages to always find his way to the football. (That’s a good sign.) Ashton White isn’t likely to play, nor is Mykelti Williams ready to fully absorb VanGorder’s defense, but both have nice skill sets. And while Josh Barajas has been limited almost from jump street, Te’von Coney is a guy that this staff thinks the world of. There isn’t a recruit in this group that looks every bit as good as advertised.

And right now, I’m buying the Justin Yoon hype. He kicked a rocket from 46-yards that would’ve been good from the mid-50s, and his accuracy was all that was advertised.

(Lastly, you want to sound smart around your die-hard friends? Get ready for the legend of Chris Finke. The freshman walk-on (and Coleman’s high school teammate) drew some praise from Kelly last week, mostly for his sure hands as a punt-safe return man. But Finke can do a heckuva lot more than that, a lightning bug receiver and a pretty dynamic return man. His high school highlight tape tells you the story, and with a 31 ACT and a 1360 SAT, Finke could be tearing up the Ivy League right now. Instead he’s opening eyes on the LaBar Practice Fields.

 

No, players and coaches weren’t interested in talking about defending the option or hurry-up offenses. But rest assured that this coaching staff has spent a lot of time working on both deficiencies. 

I spent a lot of my day on Tuesday trying to get a feel for how the Irish planned to slow down their two triple option opponents. I might as well have been asking where Jimmy Hoffa was buried. Talking triple option clearly wasn’t a part of the approved talking points on Tuesday, and while I wasn’t asking for any trade secrets, you can’t blame VanGorder or his players from wanting to get to the next question as quickly as possible.

There’s no doubt that this group understands the challenge ahead of them, especially with elite-level triggermen in Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas and Navy’s Keenan Reynolds. And while the details on the recon work Bob Elliott did this summer were left out, Kelly did drop an interesting nugget to Jack Nolan on the UND.com broadcast.

You won’t likely hear Rob Regan‘s name called on a broadcast or see him take the field anytime soon. But Regan will play a critical role for the Irish this season, recruited by Kelly to be the scout team quarterback who’ll pilot the option attack. Regan was a two-year starter for Hinsdale South, an All-Area performer and the quarterback who led his team to their first Illinois state quarterfinal appearance in a decade. So while that’s not necessarily an option quarterback that’s as elite as Thomas or Reynolds, he’s certainly a much better proxy than a fourth-string running back or a converted wideout for the week.

As for up-tempo solutions, there wasn’t much disclosure when asking for an explanation, either. But in one practice period, the Irish offense moved at hyper-speed, and the defense countered. It looked nothing like the fire drill that took place when North Carolina moved up and down the field, nor did it necessitate defensive linemen sprinting to the sidelines to get a subpackage in. So while we’ll need to see that practice pay off come Saturdays this fall, it looks as if this group has done its share of self-scouting.

 

This team will not be looking backwards. 

If you thought last year’s swoon served as motivational material during grueling summer workouts, I didn’t get that vibe. VanGorder essentially shook off the question, and Mike Elston was particularly interesting when asked if he thought his young linebackers—Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini—were better for being thrown into the fire last season. Elston wasn’t sure.

That’s not to say that the experience won’t take away some of the growing pains when it’s time for Morgan and Martini to step onto the field. But any Freshman All-American kudos or talk of Morgan being a returning starter or potential impact player isn’t how either of the young, ascending players are viewed—either by their teammates, their coaches or by themselves.

Believe it or not, this team likely sees last season for purely what it was: a young defense forced by injuries to play guys who weren’t ready; and an offense that lost its ability to win games when its quarterback lost his self-confidence and control of the football.

In many ways, this team felt like the one Kelly was asked to compare it to—eerily similar to the 2012 team that entered that season will a large chip on its shoulder. After giving away a bowl game to Florida State and facing a schedule that most thought was unwinnable, this group rallied around stellar leadership and self-belief.

This team has done the same thing, with Kelly rebuilding the psyche of this group brick by brick, not coincidentally focusing on leadership principles derived by the military. That’s why you see a guy like Marcus Lattrell in training camp or you find out that the final two days of summer workouts were military training exercises designed to form cohesive bonds.

So while Notre Dame fans might be quick to flinch the moment things go wrong, don’t expect the team to do the same. That’s not to say a roster that’s essentially unchanged from last year forgot what happened. But they’ve long let it go.

 

Talking Irish: What comes next?

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, center, watches as his players run off the field during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Texas , Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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Another week, another chat with CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz. Let’s jump in.

KA: So JJ – Last we chatted, we weren’t all that comfortable speculating on the dismissal of Brian VanGorder. 12 hours after the game ended, he’s out of a job.
Any final thoughts — that you haven’t already covered over at CSN Chicago — on the move and the timing?

JJ: I thought it was interesting that Brian Kelly came out Saturday and said he was pleased with Notre Dame’s defensive coaching, then fired BVG on Sunday.
The tape of that game was awful, of course, and maybe he didn’t realize Jay Hayes didn’t play a single snap right after the game. But that seemed like an interesting 180. Kelly said he doesn’t like criticizing individual coaches publicly, which he didn’t do with VanGorder up until the release that he fired him. What were your thoughts on that whole process?

KA: I talked about this with John Walters, but I actually completely follow BK’s logic. I think after he watched the tape, and he saw his defense do the same things wrong — he had to pull the trigger. I just don’t think a coordinator can survive that Duke offensive explosion. And there’s absolutely no explanation for the way he allocated snaps and game planed 400 levels deep, when that game could’ve been won with vanilla.

JJ: Oh man, you’re just TEEING me up for the Bob Diaco reference.

KA: GO FOR IT!

JJ: Here’s something I can picture him saying: “Say you’re tasked with baking a cake. You need the cake to taste good. But you decide to get fancy and start throwing all these different ingredients in there and try to make a seven-layer cake. Maybe you accidentally grab the green chilis and throw them in there, and all of a sudden, people you don’t like your cake. And if you just went with the simple vanilla cake with regular chocolate frosting, people might’ve liked your cake.”

…Is that what you expected? Bobby D loves his cake analogies.

KA: Bob literally went with a cake reference on Jim Rome the week before the season.

JJ: He gave us the cake/green chilis reference after Manti left too!

KA: And man — I thought Tim Prister hit it right when he was talking to BK this week — he essentially asked him, “aren’t you describing (when talking about what he wants in a defense) a Bob Diaco defense?”

JJ:  Pretty much. And Diaco played Syracuse last week (and lost). I gotta imagine when Kelly says he’s going to draw from certain parts of the inventory, it’s the simplest, least complex elements of it. So maybe you won’t see D-linemen dropping into coverage as frequently on Saturday?

KA: I hope I never see another defensive lineman drop into coverage. I mean, it stops being a surprise when it happens every game.

So let’s go to a question…

What do you expect to see from Greg Hudson. Because when BK described what he needed from him, he essentially said, “Enthusiasm.” And “love of Notre Dame.” That sounds like, “I don’t want to move my entire defensive staff, I want someone who can implement my ideas and organize them.”

JJ: Pretty much. I think Mike Elston will be relied upon heavily for planning the scheme along with Kelly, given Elston’s pre-BVG experience.

KA: Agree.

JJ: I don’t think Kelly wanted to throw DC duties onto Elston given he’s already the recruiting coordinator (and doing a good job at that).

KA: Yeah, and I also don’t think Elston wants to earn a DC job by doing it through an interim tag.

JJ: So to answer your question, if Hudson is the guy that can effectively communicate the defense, that’s a positive.

KA: Let’s finish this coordinator talk with this question: Do you think there’s an internal promotion possible — do you think it’s Hudson, or Elston? Or are you fairly certain ND is going national to bring someone in?

JJ: I think they gotta look nationally to a current college coordinator.

KA: Me, too. More Mike Sanford hire, less BVG hire.

JJ: So with Les Miles out, and that whole situation in flux, you gotta make your first call to Dave Aranda.

KA: I’m guessing they probably already did. And if they were paying BVG a reported 900k, Aranda’s $1.2 isn’t that hard to swallow.

JJ: BVG made over a million in 2014, per ESPN, so yeah.

KA: Good gig if you can get it.

JJ: The offense is in such a good place right now, even if Sanford were to leave for a coaching job, that you expect it to be pretty good to great next year.
But if the defense doesn’t get fixed, BK’s tenure will be defined by almosts instead of successes.

KA: So what do you think the personnel changes are? Playing more depth? Kicking Trumbetti from the starting lineup? Any other bold predictions?

JJ: If I can shill for a second, I wrote about seven players who could see more time going forward on CSN. But yeah, Jay Hayes is near the top of the list. I’m guessing you’ll see some Asmar Bilal, too, along with Jalen Elliott. And they gotta get Daelin Hayes on the field.

KA: We’ll pause this chat momentarily for you guys to read…

JJ: [plays jeopardy music]

KA: And we’re back. I agree with Elliott, Hayes and Hayes.

JJ:  You got anyone you want to see?

KA: I do — on both sides of the ball. I’m 100% on board with the youth movement. For me, that means Donte Vaughn at CB, Daelin Hayes at DE, and then seeing if KJ Stepherson can ascend at the X. I know it’s probably an unpopular opinion, but I’m still waiting to see if Torii Hunter can do anything beyond ordinary. Us expecting a TJ Jones senior season out of him might have been setting the bar WAY too high. He doesn’t challenge anybody down the field.

JJ: Perhaps, but he’s the most reliable guy out there when you need a first down.  Though I’ll say this, the TD catch Stepherson made vs. Duke…he doesn’t catch that ball five months ago. (Literally, he doesn’t. He dropped an over the shoulder pass in the spring game from Kizer.)

KA: Agree. That’s why I like sliding him inside as opposed to being way out wide. Don’t want him off the field, just want him off the island. Stephenson’s TD catch felt like an embodiment of BK’s early comments on him — how well he tracks the ball.

JJChase Claypool deserves an extended look, too.

KA: I was disappointed that Claypool didn’t make more noise, especially after flashing against Michigan State.

***

KA: So you had a chance to talk to the players made available on Wednesday.
Play psychiatrist for me. How did they respond? Did they look like a group ready to play better football? Or a team that’s still in a funk?

JJ: They kept saying how much fun practice was Tuesday and Wednesday.
Which, for a team that’s 1-3, maybe is good?

KA: Was that burned into their brain or do you think it was legit?

JJ: I’m very skeptical of a fun practice equaling better play. But maybe a little of both. Maybe players having fun = better tackling? I’m really just grasping at straws, though. It’s one of those for sure.

KA: Okay – so I’ll defend our picks last week by saying that we both were scared to death of the defense. But ND is a double-digit favorite against Syracuse. I don’t know if I even think they should be favored. How are you feeling about this one?

JJ: I’m like one of the 10 undecided voters in this country, just slipping back and forth on my prediction. But I came to Notre Dame 45, Syracuse 42.
I do think Syracuse is the worst defense Notre Dame will have faced this year, which is enough to overcome this offense.

KA: I actually think the scoring is going to be slightly lower, but I was thinking ND 41, Cuse 38. But my confidence in ANY OF THIS is zero. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the offense bottoms out and only scores like 28, too.

JJ: Oh yeah, if this were a confidence pick’em, I’d put about 2 points on this one.

KA: I’ll leave you with this one: Are there moral victories for this team now?
As in, what would you see this week that’d make you happy — or is it only a win?

JJ:  How emphatic can I say no?

KA: (With ALL CAPS)

JJ: They’re 1-3 and I don’t see an easy path to bowl eligibility. FINE THEN NO (shouts into computer)!

KA: It’s an ALL OUT WAR for Bowl Eligibility. Because those 15 practices are critical to the mission and to salvaging next season, too.

JJ: Especially for a young roster. And Brandon Wimbush. Plus, it’d be a massive, smoldering crater to not make a bowl game this year. That just can’t happen at Notre Dame. And if it does, it puts the coach squarely on the hot seat.

KA: I’m looking at the schedule and it’s pretty much razor-thin margin of error right now. So when I used to think back on the bear hug I watched between coaches from the Yankee Stadium press box in 2010, when they beat Army to clinch a bowl bid, I thought we’d never be back there.

Yet… Here we are.

JJ: S&P+ gives Notre Dame a 32% chance of being bowl eligible this year. Donald Trump has a better chance at becoming president than Notre Dame does at reaching a bowl at this exact moment.

(braces for the STICK TO SPORTS yelling)

KA: How appropriate that the Irish are in New York* this weekend then. But hey — I’m actually excited about a 1-3 team and what they can do, something I thought I’d never type.

JJ: There’s the positivity!

KA: So there you go. Leave it on a high note. Once again, we’re both picking a shootout victory for the Irish — one last leap of faith, at least for me.

JJ: Same here.

KA: Thanks buddy. Enjoy the game. Catch you next week.

JJ: Have a good one.

***

If you want more state of the program talk, John Walters and I dove into the state of the Irish on our Blown Coverage podcast. 

And in that corner… The Syracuse Orange

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Head coach of the Syracuse Orange Dino Babers speaks with quarterback Eric Dungey #2 and running back Dontae Strickland #4 during the first half against the Colgate Raiders on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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With the season at a tipping point, the Irish hit the road. Outside the friendly (or not so friendly, of late) confines of Notre Dame Stadium, Brian Kelly’s team hits the road and travels to New York, where Syracuse awaits.

New head coach Dino Babers has installed his up-tempo offense and the system is already taking hold. The defense hasn’t caught up, helping to launch Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign on the way to a very uneven start.

So before we get to this weekend’s shootout, let’s dig into the challenge that’s ahead. To get us ready, we’re joined by the Daily Orange’s Chris Libonati. He’s an assistant sports editor and football beat writer for one of the country’s premier student newspapers.

In addition to juggling his studies on magazine journalism and public policy, Chris breaks down what Notre Dame should expect from the Orange this weekend in the Meadowlands.

 

Dino Babers is four games into his tenure at Syracuse. The offense seems to have taken to his up-tempo attack. The defense… feels like a work in progress. Can you give us a progress report on the program since Babers took over?

I think the offense has clearly improved from last season, and the defense has regressed. The problem right now is going to be cycling through Scott Shafer’s players that don’t really fit Babers’ systems or creating spots where they can fit. Although that seems a bit unfair, that’s the reality of coaching changes. It’s easy to see that the program could improve after this season, but it’s just speculation for the time being.

 

Notre Dame relieved defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder of his duties on Sunday following another poor performance. Syracuse is actually ranked BELOW Notre Dame in scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. Brian Ward came with Babers from Bowling Green. Is he overmatched? Or is the personnel just that bad?

I don’t necessarily think all of the defensive problems fall on Ward. Scott Shafer ran a high risk-high reward system that required players to be more aggressive in chasing big plays, big hits, etc. The Tampa 2 is almost a 180 for players that are used to that type of a system. For the most part, the Tampa 2 is a bend-don’t-break system, but it appears that the transition is going to take a little while.

One of the best examples is the very first Louisville touchdown. A ball fake easily made the safeties bite and Lamar Jackson threw a long touchdown over the top of the defense. Right now, it’s big plays that have affected Syracuse. Teams really haven’t put together consistent drives. It’s more three-minute drives and under that are killing SU.

 

Now the offense should terrify Irish fans. Specifically what Amba Etta-Tawo is doing. The Maryland transfer put up pedestrian numbers before coming to Syracuse, where he’s coming off of a historic game against UConn. How is he doing this? And how big of a surprise has his emergence been?

It’s kind of amazing to watch. You ask yourself if he can top a performance, and he just did it last week. That said, some of that is the system taking advantage of his best skills. He’s been very good in space, and he’s even better on deep throws. Several times, he’s been adjusted on the boundaries of the field, out-jumped corners or come back to an underthrown ball. And when he doesn’t do that, he burns the corner.

I haven’t seen him really run a crossing route or anything over the short-middle of the field (he has run a few screens and is good in open space), but he hasn’t really needed to. What defenses could try to do is shade a safety over the top, but the Baylor-style spread has its outside receivers almost out to the sidelines, which means safeties have to shade way over. That’ll open up the middle of the field for guys like Brisly Estime and Ervin Philips or potentially expose defenses in the run game.

 

Babers was candid about saying he’d have rather Brian Kelly didn’t fire VanGorder before they traveled to New York, and that he’d prefer the game be played at home in the Carrier Dome rather than the Meadowlands. Let’s talk about this neutral site game? Is it strictly economics? Or what’s the purpose of taking this game to the New York Metro area?

I think just talking about this probably reveals this project as a bit of a failure. Playing this game in the New York Metro area was supposed to expand Syracuse’s brand as “New York’s College Team.” Syracuse scheduled high-profile games against USC (2012), Penn State (2013) and Notre Dame (2014) at MetLife, but hasn’t won any of those games. When it comes down to it, SU put its brand against a national brand and the fan splits at those games were not in the Orange’s favor. This crowd will almost certainly be pro-UND and it’s considered a “home game” for SU.

What the series has done is take a home game away from the Carrier Dome and it pits SU against a top-level program when its still trying to make bowl games on a consistent basis. A smarter series would have been to play Rutgers, but Kyle Flood reportedly nixed that when he was RU’s coach.

 

We’ve seen just about every offense score points on Notre Dame. How many do you think Syracuse needs to score to beat the Irish this weekend?

A lot. I know that’s not specific, but SU’s defense has really struggled against good offenses. DeShone Kizer may have struggled at times this year, but I’d bet he has a decent game against Syracuse. I think the Orange would have to hang at least 40 points on UND to win on Saturday. That’ll be tough if Eric Dungey can’t play for some reason. He didn’t come out for interviews on Tuesday because he was getting treatment for an undisclosed injury. Dino Babers declined to talk about the injury on Wednesday. My guess is that Dungey plays, but if he can’t Zack Mahoney will have to step in for him. Mahoney’s deep ball isn’t quite as good as Dungey’s, which could limit Etta-Tawo’s deep-play ability.

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.