CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 12: Wide receiver William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates a third quarter touchdown against the Virginia Cavaliers at Scott Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won, 34-27. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 34, Virginia 27

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With the clock ticking below half a minute and Notre Dame’s offense tossing away precious seconds as backup quarterback DeShone Kizer tried to get the Irish back to the line of scrimmage, Kizer made the wisest decision of his young football career when he turned to Will Fuller to bail the Irish out of season-destroying calamity. The sophomore looked left and saw Fuller streaking down the sideline, delivering a perfect throw to a receiver who was inexplicably in single coverage. Fuller pranced into the end zone for his fourth score of the season and Brian Kelly’s team escaped Charlottesville by stealing a victory in the game’s last dozen seconds.

That’s the good news.

The bad? Well, where to start?

Kizer was thrust into the role of hero after starting quarterback Malik Zaire fractured his ankle on a run up the middle, ending the junior’s season in mid-September. In consecutive weeks, the Irish have now lost pillars of the offense, with the Irish M.A.S.H. unit now including starting running back Tarean Folston, Zaire and nose guard Jarron Jones.

If Zaire’s hard-luck injury was the worst of the news, perhaps the biggest disappointment of the afternoon was the performance of Brian VanGorder’s defense. The Irish surrended 27 points to Virginia’s offense, taking a unit that looked inept last week in the Rose Bowl and turning them into world-beaters.

Leading the way for the scrappy Cavaliers was quarterback Matt Johns, who had his way with the Irish secondary, exploiting the continuous man-coverage looks that VanGorder threw at him. Johns nearly played the home-team hero in Scott Stadium when the Hoos scored with just 1:54 left in the game.

But Fuller could not be stopped. And while the Irish emerge 2-0, in seven days, Notre Dame went from having all the ingredients of a playoff team to a team quarterbacked by one very big question mark.

Notre Dame escapes the Commonwealth of Virginia with a surprisingly hard-fought victory. But Kelly’s football team will return to South Bend with a slew of questions that didn’t exist when the sun came up.

Let’s find out the five things we learned.

 

Without Zaire, Brian Kelly, Mike Sanford and Mike Denbrock will need to reinvent Notre Dame’s offense. 

Let’s not lose sight of the big picture: DeShone Kizer rallied Notre Dame to a victory with a game-winning touchdown drive in his very first two-minute drill. That’s pretty special.

But as the dust settles on the Irish’s 34-27 victory, Notre Dame’s coaching staff might as well sweep up what’s left of the Irish’s offense and chuck it into the recycling bin. It’s time to rethink some things.

Saturday afternoon was hardly a good one for the Irish’s play-calling collaboration, with Notre Dame’s schematic design nearly as poor as its execution. After missing only three throws on Saturday, it took four passing attempts for Zaire to miss three times, with the Irish starter off from the start.

The entire Irish offense seemed off its game minus C.J. Prosise and Fuller, converting exactly zero of its ten third-down attempts, consistently losing in short yardage situations and having little success in the red zone. Want a recipe for losing football? Jon Tenuta might have slipped Betty Crocker into the Irish playbook.

With Kizer behind center, the Irish will likely reboot the offensive game plan for the season. Gone is Zaire and his ability to carry a significant part of the load in the running game. Enter Kizer, a 6-foot-5 quarterback who can run the football but certainly doesn’t make for the ideal zone-read signal caller. Especially with only true freshman Brandon Wimbush behind him.

When Kelly brought in Mike Sanford from Boise State, he attracted the rising star with an opportunity to have a seat at the table and “turn things upside down.” Well Zaire’s injury did all the turning upside down the Irish ever needed. Now Sanford, Denbrock and Kelly will need to rearrange things and find a way to cobble together an offense that still has elite pieces.

Kelly has done that before, most notably at Cincinnati when he rode five different quarterbacks to a Big East title. But Notre Dame isn’t playing the Big East this season. And to survive the short-term, this coaching staff is going to have to earn its salary.

 

The offense shouldn’t be the only group rethinking their game plan. Brian VanGorder’s unit needs to take a hard look in the mirror. 

Just a week ago, Virginia fans would’ve packed the moving vans for head coach Mike London and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, chipping in enough gas money to make sure the duo took its vanilla scheme outside state lines. On Saturday, Fairchild had the Irish defense on a string, consistently wreaking havoc with motion, formation shifts and play-action passing.

After spending all offseason talking about how ten returning starters had a better understanding of what VanGorder’s scheme demanded, the Irish reverted back to a unit that found ways to get as little as possible for their production. The Irish struggled in man coverage against Virginia’s wide receivers and playing woeful defense in the red zone. They made Matt Johns look like a big-time quarterback and failed to take advantage of multiple 50-50 balls that hung dangerously in the air.

Now 15 games and two offseasons into VanGorder’s scheme, it’s time to start wondering if the former NFL defensive coordinator is getting the most out of his personnel. We can talk all about the mad scientist designs and his exotic schemes. But they don’t matter if the Irish continue to struggle to execute.

Communication issues seemed to plague the Irish all afternoon. On a critical 3rd-and-short in the first half, Drue Tranquill ran straight into Jaylon Smith, the collision leading to a Virginia first down. The very next play, the Irish got beat over the top for a touchdown, a trick play that young, inexperienced teams fall for, not a defense like Notre Dame’s.

Add to that the difficulties the Irish had playing Virginia’s Canaan Severin straight up, and you can help but project those struggles forward, especially against teams like Georgia Tech, Clemson and USC.

The focus shifts as soon as the Irish get back to South Bend, with VanGorder taking on Paul Johnson’s triple option and the Georgia Tech coach out to settle old grudges. So for now, maybe we can give the Irish defense the benefit of the doubt and say hey were just looking a week ahead. But a unit that looked like world beaters just a week ago played poorly on Saturday, and it’s time to examine some of the bedrock assumptions for the defense.

 

C.J. Prosise looks at home as a feature back. 

Playing in front of family and friends, C.J. Prosise put on a show on Saturday, running for 155 yards on 17 carries. Breaking the 100 yard barrier by halftime, Prosise responded to Zaire’s season ending injury by matter-of-factly running 25 yards for a touchdown on Kizer’s first snap and extending the Irish lead to double digits.

No, the lead didn’t last. But the Irish found their new offensive engine in Prosise, with the senior playing just his second game as a running back looking up to the task.

As you’d expect, Kelly didn’t put much on the shoulders of his freshmen backs, never wanting to do so in road games. And while the Irish struggled in short yardage (we’ll get to that in a second), Prosise found big lanes early and often and could’ve put up a monster number had the Irish offense found a way to stay on the field by converting some third downs.

With Folston and Zaire gone, there’s no other option to trigger the ground game. But Kelly’s big spring decision—one that looked like a head-scratcher to many, me included—has paid off big time, with Prosise now Notre Dame’s first offensive option.

 

Harry Hiestand’s offensive line is going to have one uncomfortable Sunday. 

Lost in all the snickering about Jon Tenuta the last seven days, Irish fans forgot that Virginia’s defense was one of the more disruptive in the ACC last season. Forcing turnovers and making big plays behind the line of scrimmage, the former Notre Dame defensive coordinator did plenty of good things for a Cavaliers team that was searching for positives in 2014.

After a tough Saturday last weekend in Los Angeles, the Virginia defense gave the Irish fits, especially in the passing game. They made five tackles for loss and had two sacks, disrupting the passing game from the opening bell. And while it’s hard to take many positives out of blowing a victory in the game’s final seconds, Tenuta’s defense was incredibly disruptive on Saturday, slowing down the Irish offensive juggernaut in short order.

No, they couldn’t stop Will Fuller. But they certainly gave Harry Hiestand’s offensive line their share of problems.  Notre Dame’s veteran offensive line coach will likely spend the evening breaking down tape and showing his troops a lot of plays where improvement is desperately needed, especially with a new quarterback behind center.

The point of attack was won too often by the Cavaliers. And the interior of the offensive line struggled too, especially in short yardage. A week ago, center Nick Martin was Notre Dame’s highest-rated offensive lineman, according to ProFootballFocus. I don’t expect that to be the case after the tape gets graded.

It’s hard to be too tough on this group when the Irish ran for 253 yards and 7.4 yards per carry. But Tenuta wreaked havoc in the passing game with pressure and the Irish receivers struggled to find space working against the Cavalier’s secondary. That all stems from line play.

Mediocre isn’t going to cut it next weekend against Georgia Tech, especially when moving the chains and controlling the clock will be vital. So Hiestand and his guys need to get back to work.

 

 

It may not have helped, but Brian Kelly tried his best not to let the Irish start flat. 

Yes, he’s the head coach. But I’m not sure how much blame you can give Brian Kelly for Notre Dame’s lethargic start. Kelly did everything he could to jump-start the Irish, including a bold fake field goal that went for Notre Dame’s first touchdown.

You watch football long enough, and trap games start to feel like watching a car crash in slow motion. You see it coming. I see it coming. We all see it coming. Unfortunately, the college kids laughing in the car and passing around the snacks and the Big Gulps don’t realize things are going to go very wrong until it’s too late.

Kelly looked like a cagey baseball pitcher, doing his best to work through the early innings without his fastball. As the Irish bumbled their way through the early going with two blown timeouts and a field goal operation that took a delay of game penalty, Kelly pulled a rare rabbit out of his special teams’ hat to score the Irish’s first touchdown.

On a day where touchdowns weren’t easy to come by, those six points (the two-point conversion attempt was unsuccessful) came in handy. And with the Irish now looking to ham-and-egg their offense with Kizer (and true freshman Brandon Wimbush) in the two-deep, Notre Dame’s head coach needs to be as cunning as ever.

We saw that on display last week when he burned two timeouts before halftime and waited out Texas kicker Nick Rose for a long-range miss. So hopefully the sixth-year head coach has learned some magic (and maybe some dark arts) from friend Bill Belichick, as the Irish are going to need every edge they can get.

For all the Irish fans who’re certainly grumbling about Notre Dame once again letting an average team hang around, her Lady’s team hardly has a monopoly on that habit. Arkansas just nuked its season with a loss to Toledo. Auburn slid by Jacksonville State thanks to an FCS punter and an overtime score. Even Urban Meyer’s Ohio State team looked sluggish for three quarters against Hawaii before pulling away late.

A win is a win is a win. Dominating Texas and sliding by against Virginia counts the same in the history books. But after starting this season with great expectations, Kelly now needs to find a way to squeeze every ounce of goodness out of this team if the want to achieve their goals.

 

Tommy Rees officially joins Kelly’s staff

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 28:  Head coach Brian Kelly talks to Tommy Rees #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the New Era Pinstripe Bowl against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Yankee Stadium on December 28, 2013 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame has made official what Keith Arnold first reported Jan. 2: Tommy Rees will join Brian Kelly’s staff as the Irish quarterbacks coach.

Or, to adhere to Notre Dame’s release, “Tom” Rees will join Kelly’s staff as the quarterbacks coach.

“When I finished my playing career and graduated from Notre Dame, I wanted to do two things,” Rees said in the statement. “First, I wanted to coach, and second, at some point in my career I hoped to get an opportunity to return and do it at my alma mater.”

Rees spent 2016 as an offensive assistant with the San Diego Chargers, working with coach Mike McCoy to keep afloat an offense plagued by injuries, beginning with receiver Keen Allen’s ACL tear in the first week. Nonetheless, the Chargers finished seventh in the NFL in passing, ninth in scoring and 14th in total offense.

Rees will need that experience working with rising junior Brandon Wimbush, the only quarterback on the roster with any college game experience, though not a single start under his belt.

“I’m very excited to have Tom join our staff,” Kelly said. “He possesses an understanding of the game, and most importantly the quarterback position, that’s unique. He’s a true student of the game and great communicator that will offer immediate dividends toward guiding our quarterback room.”

Rees should not need much time to get up to speed with Kelly’s playbook or system, having operated within it in 46 games over four seasons, including 31 starts. He finished with a 23-8 record as a starter, 7,670 career yards and 61 touchdowns, highlighted by 3,257 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2013 alone. Only Rees, Brady Quinn, Jimmy Clausen and Everett Golson have ever exceeded 3,000 passing yards in a single Notre Dame season.

With this hire, Kelly completes his retooling of his coaching staff. The newcomers include:
Defensive coordinator: Mike Elko
Offensive coordinator: Chip Long
Special teams coordinator: Brian Polian
Linebackers coach: Clark Lea
Wide receivers coach: Del Alexander
Quarterbacks coach: Tom(my) Rees

Brent’s transfer makes sense for both sides

Justin Brent, Devin Butler
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Justin Brent’s pending transfer makes sense on the surface if for no other reason than his complete lack of game action in the last two seasons. A slightly-deeper look, however, explains the move even further.

The rising senior running back had no logical path to playing time at Notre Dame given the performances of some of his peers. Both in the backfield and at receiver, younger players shined this past season while Brent rode the bench.

RUNNING BACKS

– It may have taken four games for rising junior Josh Adams to find the end zone, but he finished the season with 933 yards on 158 rushing attempts, carrying the ball at least eight times in all 12 games. Most notably, Adams finished the season with 350 yards and three rushing touchdowns over the last three weeks. That strong close shows Adams was not worn down in his second season of consistent use (2015: 13 games, 117 carries, 869 rushing yards, six touchdowns) and can be expected to provide the same bellwether output next season.

– Adams’s classmate, Dexter Williams, has not had the same success, but he did provide some relief throughout the season – most notably against Nevada (eight carries for 59 yards) and Syracuse (eight for 80 and a score) – on his way to 212 yards and three touchdowns on 39 carries.

Between Adams and Williams, combined with NFL-bound Tarean Folston’s steady output and quarterback DeShone Kizer’s mobility in the past and the possibility of Brandon Wimbush’s in the future, there were not carries for Brent to showcase his potential. This is before even factoring in rising sophomores Deon McIntosh and Tony Jones, both of whom preserved a year of eligibility in 2016, or any incoming recruits.

WIDE RECEIVERS

– Rising junior Equanimeous St. Brown proved worthy of learning to spell his first name in 2016, catching 58 passes for 961 yards and nine scores, but St. Brown looks to be far from alone in the receiving corps moving forward. Classmates C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin each found the end zone this past season, despite competing with senior Torii Hunter, Jr., for both snaps and targets. Sanders finished with 24 receptions for 293 yards and two touchdowns while Boykin caught six passes for 81 yards and a score.

– Rising sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Chris Finke and Chase Claypool add to the depth at the position. Stepherson scored on an even 20 percent of his 25 receptions for 462 yards. On a personal note, he did not actually reach the end zone on his 53-yard catch-and-dash against Miami, but I will still never forget that particular play because the accompanying roar convinced my nine-year-old niece it was well past time to leave Notre Dame Stadium to watch the game on a television where the noise would not be so surprising.

Finke chipped in 10 catches for 122 yards and two scores, and Claypool caught five passes for 81 yards.

– Again, this listing does not account for players such as rising sophomore Javon McKinley who saw action in seven games but has not yet contributed to the passing game or any incoming recruits. (We’ll get to the recruits later in the week, and even more so next week when, you know, they have signed.)

It should also be noted: Brent enrolled early at Notre Dame, and thus, he has already completed six academic semesters, not to mention time spent in class each summer as is typical of most, if not all, of the football roster. If he does indeed graduate from the University this spring, he will be eligible to play elsewhere immediately thanks to the NCAA’s stance on graduate student transfers. More than that, though, he will have two years of eligibility remaining.

Admittedly, such a confluence is rare and certainly adds reasoning to Brent’s maneuver, whether it result in him playing at UCLA, Miami, Arizona State, Indiana, Purdue or Ohio State, as he indicated to the South Bend Tribune were his top choices. Notre Dame does face Miami on Nov. 11.

Lament Brent’s decision if you must, but it was a logical decision by him, and Notre Dame’s shortcomings last season were rarely where Brent would have aided. Nor will the Irish appear to be wanting in those spots in 2017.

Report: Justin Brent to transfer

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Justin Brent has not seen the playing field since Notre Dame faced LSU in the Music City Bowl back in December of 2014. That now looks like it will be the last time Irish fans see him in a Notre Dame uniform, as well. Reports indicate the rising senior running back will transfer.

Irish 247’s Tom Loy broke the news, soon confirmed by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.

A consensus top-100 pick out of Indianapolis (Ind.) Speedway High School, Brent arrived in South Bend with high expectations, but will depart without an official statistic aside from snaps in nine games his freshman season. He recorded no catches, carries or tackles.

 

Thanks Keith, Now Dear Readers…

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 19: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish takes a hand off from DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on November 19, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Virginia Tech defeated Notre Dame 34-31.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Dear “Inside the Irish” fans, “Inside the Irish” foes and, of course, my parents –
Dear curious purveyors, my stand-alone predecessor and Tim Raines –
Mostly, dear Notre Dame fans, Notre Dame spectators and college students enjoying any and all hallowed traditions –

Yes, unfortunately for you and fortunately for me, Keith tossed me the keys to this 1971 Volkswagen Beetle known as NBC Sports’ “Inside the Irish” blog. Don’t worry, I know how to drive stick shift.

If I were feeling corny, I would tell you I first reported on Notre Dame football in the fall of 1996, shouting out the garage window to my father as Allen Rossum returned Purdue’s opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. If we are ignoring sentimental childhood stories, however, then it would be more accurate to call 2009’s home-opener against Colin Kaepernick’s Nevada my beginning on the beat.

Over the last few days I reached out to a few of you readers whom I know, asking why you enjoyed Keith Arnold’s coverage. So as to keep them honest, I neglected to tell them I would be stepping into this spotlight today.

Repeatedly, I heard buzz words such as readable, reasonable and realistic. Those will be my goals, as well. My predecessor at The Observer no longer dabbles in journalism, but I still trust his view on most things. His response strikes me as an admirable objective.

“We are smart, informed sports fans with an irrational passion for ND football, and appreciate writers who share those traits but are professional enough to step back from the irrationality and put things in perspective… We like a realistic take, not a knee-jerk reaction.”

On that note, you will not see me give a recruiting update with my every breath. You will also not see me dispense as much cinema advice as Keith did. I am simply not the film-nik he is, though I am listening to the “La La Land” soundtrack as I write this. You will find jazz increases your words per minute rate.

I will often speak of gambling terms, but not to encourage the vice. Rather, I find those odds to be a thought-provoking and informing means of evaluating things. Today, various books strongly expected President Trump’s inauguration speech to last longer than 15 minutes. Thus, I figured it would last longer than 15, but not by all that much since such was the over/under mark set. I could step away from the computer and watch it without losing too much of my day. It lasted 16:18.

I will try to be conversational, especially in these Friday letters/news-dumps/updates/recaps, should they become a recurring piece.

I intend to keep many, but not all, of Keith’s recurring features, as daunting as many of them seem. If I am to make this place my own, some will have to change. It’s okay, we’ll get through that together.

So ask questions, state your wonderings and pitch story ideas. This very format was a seed watered by one of you early this morning. Admittedly, prior to suggesting this he referred to me in terms I refuse to post publicly, but old drinking buddies have earned that right.

It’s late Friday afternoon. Grab a drink, and don’t you dare leave it unfinished.

– Douglas.