SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish passes against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Pregame Six Pack: Notre Dame (and Mother Nature) head to Clemson

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As the East Coast braces for Hurricane Joaquin, Notre Dame prepares for a gigantic football game. The Irish head to upstate South Carolina on Friday, ready for the elements, not to mention a football game with No. 12 Clemson.

The Irish practiced with a wet ball this week. They worked out on natural grass. They drilled down and tried to cover everything, from squib kicks to rain delays, any potential scenario they might face, on or off the field.

“We booked a hotel for a couple extra days just in case,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “We’ve got a place Sunday or Monday, we’ll be down there and ready to play.”

After a week of work, Kelly is confident that his team won’t be worried about the weather. After all, the Tigers seem to be challenge enough.

So as DeShone Kizer gets ready to lead the Irish into Memorial Stadium and a rain-soaked Death Valley, let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. (Hopefully you brought an umbrella.)

 

Forget about Hurricane Joaquin. All Irish eyes should be on DeShone Kizer.

There is no single player more important to the Irish’s fate this weekend than quarterback DeShone Kizer. The sophomore is coming off three performances where he’s looked at home in the pocket, never displaying any of the shakiness you might expect from a first-time performer.

But traveling to Clemson will be different. As will the elements. Kizer covered both parts of this equation on Wednesday, sounding not all that worried about any slickness that might come with a wet football.

“I’ve never really had too big of an issue when it came to rain. I have pretty good-sized hands where I can grip the ball pretty well,” Kizer said this week. “We’ll definitely prepare for that with using wet balls in our practice and understanding that the wind is going to come into play and things like that. But it’s all going to be a mental mindset.”

Dealing with the crowd is another point. After recalling the feeling that came when he heard his first Tomahawk chop at Doak Campbell Stadium, Kizer expects this crowd to be even louder, giving him all the more reason to do his best to quiet them down quickly.

“Doing the extra small things—making sure you’re being quick in getting up there and relaying the play a couple times down. And getting back into your stance so you can be able to make a check,” Kizer said. “Also with that being said, the best way of quieting a crowd down is making big plays…so we’ve got to make sure that we get things rolling as soon as possible and hopefully at least take it down a couple of notches on the loudness scale.”

 

It’s been since 1977 since Notre Dame and Clemson did battle. Let’s hope this one is as good of a game as the one 38 years ago. 

It’s a trip beyond Memory Lane for me, but the last time Notre Dame traveled to Clemson, Joe Montana led the Irish to an epic victory that helped spring a national championship. Trailing by 10 heading into the fourth quarter, Montana put the team on his shoulders, running for two touchdowns to pull out a 21-17 win, their closest game in their national championship season.

(Fun fact: Montana faced off against his professional teammate, TE Dwight Clark, that evening in Clemson, collegiate opponents before becoming one of the game’s historic QB-TE connections, including “The Catch” from the 1982 NFC Championship game.)

But while Montana’s comeback is all that remains in most stories, one controversial call still stands above the rest. On a critical 4th-and-goal from the one-yard line, Clemson looked to be stuffed just shy of the end zone (feel free to watch for yourself). But the referee found a way to block Notre Dame’s defender from making the tackle, allowing Clemson’s Lester Brown to get to the pylon before the Irish could chase him down.

It’s the type of play that would’ve likely melted the internet (certainly more controversial than the illegal pick called last season) today, with screams of home-cooking surely to last for years to come. Instead, the Irish pulled the victory out, rallying from the 10-point deficit to turn the play into a forgotten footnote.

Are we in for a game as memorable as that one? Check out this spooky stat:

 

Keep your eye on the trenches. While the Irish offensive line is stout, Notre Dame’s front seven might hold the key to victory.

Clemson’s offensive line is a work in progress. While the Tigers skill talent is among the best Notre Dame has faced, the guys protecting Deshaun Watson are still figuring it out.

So while most of us have wondered if Harry Hiestand’s boys can continue their dominance up front, take a look at Notre Dame’s front seven, because there’s a chance this group is the one that wins the game for the Irish.

Clemson starts a true freshman at left tackle. Mitch Hyatt was a blue-chip recruit and a Top 100 player, but at this time last year he was playing at North Gwinnett high school, not in the ACC. A matchup with Sheldon Day or Isaac Rochell might be a good one for Notre Dame.

Starting center Ryan Norton is out with a knee injury, replaced by junior Jay Guillermo. Even veterans Eric Mac Lain and Joe Gore, both fifth-year seniors, hardly inspire much confidence.

In their preview of the offensive line before the season, Shakin’ the Southland had this to say about the veteran duo.

Eric Mac Lain was a failed tackle experiment that moved inside to guard and has still struggled at times in the pass pro department. Joe Gore looks like Tarzan but for the most part has played like Jane throughout his career.

Notre Dame’s front controlling things could be key this weekend. And facing an offensive line that finished last season ranked 101st in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards and has had to deal with injuries and replacing two key starters? This might be a place where the Irish could take control of the game.

For all the join a conference talk, Notre Dame is still plenty comfortable in the ACC. And they should be, considering the Notre Dame alums running athletic departments across the conference. 

It’s not exactly a story that’ll impact the play on the field this weekend. But Dabo Swinney’s non-comment comments about Notre Dame and the ACC stirred up a bunch of old news, namely complaints from other coaches that the Irish should join a conference.

The Irish did join a conference, in all sports but football. And Notre Dame’s made a quick home in the ACC, a partnership that has all parties involved saying nothing but good things. That ACC commissioner John Swofford accepted partial-admittance in exchange for five regular season football games raised a few eyeballs. But no group of athletic directors likely understand the value of the Irish to the conference more than the ACC.

We see that this week, in ticket prices. We saw that in Notre Dame’s trip to Virginia. And as the Irish continue their tour of ACC opponents, they’ll play to packed houses, not always the norm for an average Saturday in a conference that isn’t as rabid as the SEC.

In this week’s game notes from Clemson, Tigers Assistant AD and football SID Tim Bourrett (a 1977 Notre Dame grad) points out the Irish alums in leadership positions inside the conference, likely a reason the move was such a good fit to begin with.

Georgia Tech’s athletic director Mike Bobinski is a 1979 Notre Dame graduate. Florida State’s AD Stan Wilcox graduated from Notre Dame in 1981, playing for Digger Phelps on the 1977-78 basketball team that reached the Final Four. North Carolina’s Bubba Cunningham played golf for the Irish and earned both a bachelors degree and a master from Notre Dame. He also spent over 15 years in the Irish athletics department.

So while some head coaches inside the conference may not understand why Notre Dame’s allowed a unique relationship with the conference, don’t worry—their bosses do.

Going up against a tough Clemson defense, Notre Dame’s offensive line knows it has a chance to make a statement. 

Notre Dame’s running game has taken college football by storm. Expected to be a backup, C.J. Prosise‘s 600 yards are the most in school history through four games. His yardage, touchdowns and average per carry all are within the nation’s best dozen statistically.

That work has been fueled by the offensive line. Both Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin look like top NFL prospects. The Irish rank 12th in the nation in rushing offense at 284.8 yards per game, the most through four games for an Irish team since 1992, exactly 23 seasons ago. (Another fun fact: Not a single player on Notre Dame’s team was alive for that season.)

Center Nick Martin talked about the mindset the Irish offensive line has as they head into their most challenging environment of the year, facing their most capable opponent.

“It’s a sense of pride. As an O-lineman we love to run the ball. We like when we have success,” Martin said. Our running backs, the way they run, you guys have all seen it. It’s unbelievable.

“Up front, we work our butts off to try and make holes and do our best. But beyond that also, it’s about the people that come before you, too. The O lines, having guys like Chris Watt, Zack Martin, Christian Lombard, those guys, and even before that, the O line at Notre Dame, especially in the 90s and ever since then, has always been a sense of pride, and we just try to carry that on.”

Saturday evening, with a 99 percent chance of rain in the forecast, the offensive line will be asked to dictate terms. After earning the game ball last week, Martin and his linemates couldn’t be happier for the opportunity.

 

With the hype machine turned up to an 11, every little thing counts. And it’s certainly added some fuel to the matchup of Will Fuller against Clemson’s talented secondary.

We’ve already talked about Will Fuller vs. Mackensie Alexander. Clemson’s top corner is ready for the receiver that Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables is calling perhaps “the best receiver in America.”

Alexander’s teammates are also ready. They took this tweet by Fuller and used it as fuel, a slight only understandable with an advanced degree in social media and youthful hashtags.

“I actually ‘favorited’ the tweet,” Clemson safety Jayron Kearse told local media on Monday. “They’re talking a lot. Obviously they don’t know what we do down here in Death Valley, so I’m looking forward to this.”

The Tigers have put together quite a winning run at home over the past few years. But Fuller has also dominated college football these past two seasons as well, scoring more touchdowns than any other receiver in college football since the start of 2014.

So Saturday night, something’s got to give. And with the weather, the Irish and the Tigers all set to do battle in Death Valley, it’s got the ingredients to be a classic.

 

ESPN’s Kiper & McShay: Kizer should return to Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 29: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish drops back to pass during the game against the Miami Hurricanes at Notre Dame Stadium on October 29, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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It’s evaluation season. With college football’s regular season over, the focus now turns to the stay-or-go decision that faces many of college football’s best players. Return for another season? Or head to the NFL?

That’s the big question facing DeShone Kizer. Viewed as a can’t-miss prospect by some earlier in the season, Kizer now awaits feedback from the NFL’s advisory board, who’ll give him either a first-round grade, a second-round grade, or none — essentially serving as a message to return to school.

That feedback is something Kizer’s requested, with Brian Kelly revealing that Kizer is one of four underclassmen requesting a review, joined by Mike McGlinchey, Nyles Morgan and Quenton Nelson. 

And while most still think it’s merely a formality before Kizer heads to the NFL, two of the media’s most well-established pundits, ESPN’s Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, are among those who actually think Kizer should stay in school.

In ESPN’s 25 questions about the 2017 NFL Draft, Kiper and McShay focus their attention on potential first-round quarterbacks:

There’s really only one guy right now, and he might not even enter the draft. That’s North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, a fourth-year junior who is in his first season as the starter. Trubisky has thrown 28 touchdown passes to only four interceptions, but he’s still green — with another year of seasoning, he could be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft. He’s not ready to play right away in the NFL.

I don’t see any other first-rounders in the group. Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, a third-year sophomore, has to go back to school. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson has taken a step back this season. Underclassmen Luke Falkand Patrick Mahomes could use another year in school, and they don’t project as first-rounders.

McShay echoed Kiper’s evaluation of Kizer, stating: “Kizer needs another year.” And if the Irish get that, it means they’ll have a 1-2 depth chart of a third-year starter in Kizer and junior Brandon Wimbush, who saved a year of eligibility in 2016 and has three remaining.

Kizer’s been clear that he hasn’t made up his mind, planning on talking with his family about the decision in the weeks following the season. And with the year-end banquet this weekend with Notre Dame hosting the “Echoes,” that decision might come sooner than later.

Last year, the NFL draft wasn’t kind to the Irish roster. Four key players gave up eligibility to head to the NFL, with Ronnie Stanley going in the Top 10 to the Baltimore Ravens and Will Fuller joining him as a first-round selection after going to the Houston Texans. Even injured, Jaylon Smith was taken near the top of the second round by Dallas and C.J. Prosise was a third-round selection of the Seattle Seahawks.

Underclassmen have until January 16th to declare.

 

Swarbrick discusses the state of Irish football program

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Jack Swarbrick spoke extensively about the state of the Notre Dame football program. Released last Friday and a part of Swarbrick’s weekly podcast, the Irish athletic director covered the laundry list of hot-button issues, including Brian Kelly’s status, the NCAA order to vacate wins that Notre Dame is appealing, and the challenge of winning football games in today’s environment.

The entire 25 minutes are worth a listen, as Swarbrick and Nolan cover just about every question and complaint that’s out there. And in case you don’t have that time, here’s a quick breakdown:

 

Swarbrick on the 2016 season. 

“It was an extremely disappointing year. Every player, every coach, myself, other administrators involved in the program, we all share the same view. There’s no way around that conclusion. It’s not bad breaks, it’s not a play here, a play there. We didn’t do what we need to do. So we do start from that perspective.

“I think there’s a danger in overreacting to any one piece of information that you get in the course of the evaluation of football programs. That begins with, it looks one way from a this-season perspective, but it feels a little different to me from a two-season perspective.”

 

Swarbrick on the evaluation process: 

“I’m looking at the program. Wins and losses are a huge indicia of where the program is, but it’s not the only one. More important to me, frankly, is the experience of our students. My interaction with them and what their interactions with the coaches, and the environment and are we meeting their expectations. Now, we clearly didn’t meet their expectations competitively this year, because they want to win, too. But on many of the other things, the program elements are in good shape.”

 

On the off-field issues, and the challenges that faced the football team this fall. 

“I don’t want to do anything to minimize the disappointments, whether they’re competitive or unacceptable behavior in the last game at USC by one of our players, obviously, which just isn’t acceptable, it isn’t okay. The disciplinary issues we had to deal with at the front of the year, none of those are acceptable, all of those go into the evaluation, but those are the only ones that sort of get the public scrutiny. I’m dealing with the other 120 young men who are for the most part like my co-host James (Onwualu), doing everything right, making every right decision, having a real positive experience. You’ve got to look at it all, not just isolated elements of it.

 

Discussing the disappointment of the NCAA’s ruling to vacate wins and why the university is appealing: 

“If you’d merely expelled the students, you wouldn’t get this penalty. But because you went though an educative process and kept them in school and adjusted credits and made those things, you subjected yourself to this penalty. That seems like a bad message to send, but that’s one that we’re continuing to advocate for down the road.”

 

On the challenges of winning in today’s college football, as opposed to 30 years ago. 

“I think undoubtedly it is harder. Now, people from that era may have a different view. But there are things that make it harder. But it doesn’t make any difference. It’s harder to win basketball games than it was back then. It’s harder to do a number of things.

“We don’t treat any of that as an excuse or a reason to have different goals. I sort of embrace that. Some of those things that you might view as obstacles are ultimately the things that we have to offer young people. It is the eliteness of the institution and the quality of the education. You can’t say it’s an obstacle and then talk about how great it is because it helps you. That’s the way it is. I wouldn’t trade anything for the circumstance we now compete in. I think it is exactly what it should be. We have to do a better job with it, that’s all.”

Report: Corey Holmes set to transfer

Irish Illustrated / Matt Cashore
Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated
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Receiver Corey Holmes is transferring from Notre Dame. The junior, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, will look for a new program after earning his degree this summer, Tom Loy of Irish247 reports.

Holmes told Irish247:

“It’s just the best decision for me. I’m graduating this summer and I’m just going to find the best fit for me to finish things up.”

Even after a strong spring, Holmes saw little action this season, though he played extensively against USC in the season finale. He had four catches against the Trojans, a large part of his 11 on the year, also his career total.

That Holmes wasn’t able to find a consistent spot in the rotation is likely a big reason why he’s looking for a new opportunity. After opening eyes after posting a 4.42 40-yard dash during spring drills, the Irish coaching staff looked for a way to get Holmes onto the field. But after losing reps at the X receiver on the outside, Holmes bounced inside and out, never finding a regular spot in the rotation, playing behind Torii Hunter Jr. and Kevin Stepherson on the outside and CJ Sanders and Chris Finke in the slot.

Holmes has two seasons of eligibility remaining, redshirting his sophomore season. Because he’ll earn his degree this summer, he’ll be able to play immediately next year. Irish 247 reports that Holmes is looking at Miami, UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona and North Carolina, though he’ll have a semester to find other fits.

 

Mailbag: All about BK

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17:  (L-R) Sam Kohler #29, head coach Brian Kelly, Grace Kelly and Hunter Bivin #70 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Welcome to a fairly action-packed Mailbag. Why didn’t one of you guys remind me to do these more often?

This one, as the title suggests, is all about Brian Kelly.

 

@chrise384: Do you think that silence from Swarbrick this week means anything or do you think it’s status quo and BK is back in ’17?

I think Swarbrick’s been silent because there’s nothing else to say. He made his comment to ESPN that Kelly would be back in 2017. Why would it benefit him to say anything else?

Kelly also made comments—10 feet away from his boss—that he’d be back and doesn’t want to go anywhere. So other than releasing a 2:37 a.m. tweet reiterating Kelly’s intentions—and essentially calling B.S. on the reports that BK was looking to get out—there’s no reason to respond to the noise, when there’s a ton of work to do and big decisions still to make.

Speaking of those…

 

Domer521: Keith – The banquet is next Friday evening. Do you expect any announcements regarding recruits or DC/assistant coaches before then?

I don’t. For a variety of reasons, I think Kelly is waiting to make any formal moves on his staff until after that evening. And in reality, any college assistant that’s going to come to Notre Dame is probably coaching in a bowl game, and won’t leave his program until after that game is played.

(That doesn’t mean that BK isn’t lining things up. I expect that he is.)

So while the idea of getting a coordinator on hand now might be ideal, the reality of the situation is that you need someone ready to hit the recruiting trail after the New Year, taking the world by storm for that final month and closing stretch until Signing Day.

 

@GhostAKG: Many are saying Charlie Strong for our new DC. Is that good/realistic? And what are some of the names you’ve been hearing more?

I was one of the people to speculate, but the more you think about it the less it makes sense. Charlie Strong is a head coach. And a good one. Any return to South Bend would feel incredibly temporary, with the circus following every job vacancy that opens up—with fans and media speculating, “Is this the one to get Strong back to the head job?”

That’s not a headache BK and company would want to deal with, especially when you consider how much this collective fanbase sweats out coordinator hires or parallel moves.

(Remember when Tony Alford left after Signing Day and it felt like someone died around here?)

Charlie Strong is a good man and a good coach. But that’s the wrong type of hire for ND. I think he’ll probably take a year off to examine the landscape, continue to cash those fat checks coming from Austin, and then get back into it next year.

 

irishwilliamsport:

Keith, I know this is an exercise in futility but I’ll ask a mailbag question… What would you guess BK’s combined job approval rating is among all fan bases ?

You’ve got me. No clue. Does anybody have a good job approval rating?

At this point, I don’t think anybody’s approval rating is all that high at 4-8, to the point that Jack Swarbrick—a guy who might be the most powerful and intelligent athletic director in the country—has seen fans turn on him as well.

I wasn’t quite sure what you were getting at with your question about “all fan bases,” but maybe you were talking about the perception of Kelly both inside and out of the program? If so, I thought Colin Cowherd’s take on Kelly, at least from a national perspective and a guy who watches a lot of college football, is interesting. (It’s a perspective that’s pretty common, I must say.)

 

codenamegee: 

What has Brian Kelly done to make you think he can win a championship at Notre Dame. Looking at his FBS coaching resume his teams have never beaten a top 5 team. I just don’t get why everyone thinks he’s a good coach. Notre Dame is poorly coached (too many mental breakdowns), offense lacks imagination (Running plays are too predictable, no tail back screens, no delay draws, lack of counters and traps). Yet all I hear how Brian Kelly is this great coach or Brian Kelly is a great offensive mind. If he is, he hasn’t showed it since he’s been in South Bend.

Well, first off—and this is a biggie—he played for one. So let’s not ignore that. And he was maybe one play away from getting invited to playing for another last year, a game-winning, last-second field goal against Stanford knocking the Irish from the playoff.

Now I get that playing for one isn’t the same as winning one. And when it comes to comparing this program to Alabama’s, frankly I don’t think Notre Dame has a chance to get to that level until Nick Saban retires… or the NCAA finds something illegal in his program. So if that’s the bar you’ll set, I’m not sure he can get there. And I’m not sure Notre Dame is willing to do what it takes to get there. And frankly, that’s something I’m okay with—especially as you

Last point for you—have you really heard anybody calling Brian Kelly a good coach lately? Is anybody following Notre Dame saying Kelly’s done a good job this season? Has the coach himself even said that? Have I?

Listen, I get it. Losing seasons are terrible. They are really painful and this one came out of nowhere, making it worse. Then throw on top of that just how close the games were—each week a decision here or there, or a blown assignment or missed opportunity sometimes the singular difference between a win and a loss.

That all adds up. And it certainly will carry into next season, a direct reflection on the coach’s job status, regardless of the length of his remaining contract.

 

irishdog80: Can Brian Kelly truly survive and thrive as head coach at Notre Dame or is his best opportunity a fresh start at a new school or pro team?

I don’t think Kelly would’ve stayed if he didn’t think he could thrive. He could get another job if he wanted one. And I don’t think Swarbrick would’ve let him stick around if he didn’t have comfort that the football program—a team that he spends more time around than anybody outside the players and the coaches—was in good hands, and that this was a bad season, not a bad program.

That’s a really good question though, Irishdog. We’ve seen Bob Stoops rally. We’ve seen David Shaw bounce back, though neither pulled a four-win season. And for now, I think Kelly can, too. But it’s worth pointing out that the rumor everybody seemed to be fired up about, three-win & nine-loss Mark Dantonio, would be a huge coaching upgrade over Kelly is funny, considering Dantonio just took a College Football Playoff team and drove it off a cliff.

 

 

irishcatholic16: With reports that Brian Kelly is seeking job opportunities outside of Notre Dame then shortly after saying that he’s committed to Notre Dame along with him bolting Cincinnati in the same fashion (saying he would stay then leaving), do you think he will lose the trust of his team and could we see more decommits as a result? Will the team trust him knowing that he isn’t fully committed?

I have no belief that those reports are true. And I have no reason to think that Kelly’s team—seven years in—would have their trust of the man leading the program hinging on reports from national media pundits.

Are we still talking about the way he left Cincinnati? Because it sure looked to me an awful lot like every coach leaves their program—Tom Herman just the latest example of a coach left in an unwinnable situation, with the media ready to pounce by asking unanswerable questions.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt that Kelly’s agent was talking to teams. He was. He’s the same guy that reps Herman, and a handful of other top-shelf coaches. But that’s what agents do. They talk about their clients, 99% of the time without the client ever having any idea he’s doing it.

 

 

bjc378:

I’ll ask the obvious question. Sorry, I didn’t listen to the podcast.

Do you (still) think BK should be the Irish coach next year? If so, how long of a leash do you give him next year and what changes would you demand? If not, or if he decides to coach elsewhere, what’s your wish list look like?

No apology necessary, first off, on the podcast. It’s supplemental, but listen for John Walters’ wisdom, it’s basically like telling your friends you subscribe to Newsweek.

As for BK, yes I do think he should be the coach next year. I don’t think Notre Dame is a program that should fire someone for a single bad season—period. I didn’t like it when they did it to Ty (in retrospect it was the right thing to do), and I wouldn’t like it if they did it to Kelly, a year off a ten-win season and a Fiesta Bowl appearance.

(Also worth noting, they don’t do it in hockey, basketball, baseball, soccer, or any other sport.)

As for the leash? That’s hard to say. I think we’ll know quite a bit about this team at the end of next September. They’ll have played Temple (the potential AAC champ coached by one of the nation’s underrated head coaches in Matt Rhule), Georgia, Boston College, Michigan State and—don’t laugh—Miami (Ohio), who has got it going now under Chuck Martin. So if that month goes sideways and the season does too, I won’t have any problem with Swarbrick trying to upgrade and make a change.

As for the wish list? No clue. Not at this point. I’ll take Jon Gruden off of it, so cross him off before anybody asks me. And any other NFL head coach.

But I’d start by looking at someone like Willie Taggart, a young Harbaugh protege who coached at Stanford and has now done good work as a head coach at both Western Kentucky and USF.