DeShone Kizer , C.J. Prosise

Pregame Six Pack: On to November (almost)

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Trick or Treat. As Notre Dame prepares to take on undefeated Temple in a game that might be the biggest in the home team’s history, Halloween night could be good old fashioned fun… or a house of horrors.

Coming back from a much-needed weekend off, the Irish now need to show they’re capable of being the program that turned November into a month of dominance, not the team that burst at the seams in 2015.

While the calendar doesn’t turn until postgame, head coach Brian Kelly expressed the sentiment correctly.

“I think for us, it will be October is for pretenders and November will be for contenders,” Kelly said on Tuesday. “And we’ll show ourselves in that regard because of our schedule in November.”

That begins with Temple. The American Conference leader, the Owls are unexpectedly among the nation’s undefeated team—courtesy of Matt Rhule and a tremendous defense.

With the Irish unexpectedly playing in the week’s highest-profile matchup on the college football slate, let’s get on to the Pregame Six Pack.

 

After growing comfortable in the starting job, DeShone Kizer has set the bar high. Very high.

It didn’t take long to understand that DeShone Kizer wasn’t your average backup quarterback. Nor did it take long for the sophomore to find the same comfort level and maturity he displays off the field between the lines.

Back to campus rested and ready for the final five-game stretch, Kizer talked about the elevated goals he has for the season—making it clear he wants to play like the best quarterback in the country.

“I think that my biggest adjustment that I’ve evaluated for myself is having a mindset, of not only being a good quarterback, but to take it to greatness,” Kizer explained Wednesday. “I need to be able to prepare to be the best quarterback in the nation every week.

“I was in the position the first half of the year where I was a replacement. I was a guy who was able to manage a game and accomplish a mission in that sense. Now I want to take it into the second half of the year and be the best quarterback in the nation every time I step on the field. Because I know that after evaluating the first half, that I have the ability to.”

That type of confidence shouldn’t come as a surprise. And while Kelly joked after being told about Kizer’s comments on Thursday evening that he half-expected Kizer to go third-person with comments like that, he also said the quarterback is backing up those words with his focus and play in practice.

“I thought his communication and his presence today with our offense was like a fifth-year senior,” Kelly said Thursday. “He is a very confident player right now.”

 

With Alex Bars lost for the season, the offensive line has needed to mix and match. 

When you look back at all the injuries Notre Dame suffered this season, the broken ankle Alex Bars suffered against USC wasn’t necessarily the most impactful. But it has certainly forced the Irish to make some significant moves along the offensive line.

Bars may have been playing behind Quenton Nelson at guard, but he was likely Notre Dame’s third tackle, even if he wasn’t listed on the depth chart. And while Nelson’s through the woods after missing a full game with a high ankle sprain and gutting out the majority of the USC battle after Bars went down, there are still dominoes falling as Harry Hiestand reshuffles the Irish depth behind the starting five.

Junior Colin McGovern appears to be the next man in. He’ll cross-train not just at guard, but work outside as Mike McGlinchey’s backup. (Hunter Bivin is Ronnie Stanley’s backup.) And while John Montelus is listed as the backup to Steve Elmer, backup center Sam Mustipher also took reps at guard during practice this week, giving some flexibility if McGovern’s number is called on the outside.

Kelly explained the entire adjusted operation on Thursday.

“McGovern has to play inside and out. Bivin will be at tackle. McGovern will play a little bit of guard and a little bit of tackle if we need him to go in on the right side. Sam Mustipher is playing a little bit of guard as well. We have cross-trained him at the backup center position and the guard position. We are really working with three guys and two guys at the guard position with McGovern and Mustipher.”

With Mustipher working away from center, true freshman Tristen Hoge worked as the No. 2 behind Nick Martin. While it wouldn’t make any sense to burn a redshirt this late in the game, Hoge is traveling with Notre Dame to Temple, a nice perk after a good week of practice. (Even better? Working with the two-deep before the battle to replace Nick Martin begins this spring.)

All spring, Notre Dame’s coaches talked up the Irish depth along the offensive line. We might have to see it go into action, no easy task against a veteran and disruptive front seven for Temple.

 

The Showtime experiment? An early success, according to Jack Swarbrick. 

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick sat down and talked with Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister about “A Season With Notre Dame,” Showtime’s much-discussed docuseries chronicling the Irish’s 2015 season. And while the entire interview is very much worth the read, it’s fairly easy to say that the university views it as a huge success.

Namely, because Swarbrick feels like the open-door policy to Notre Dame’s football program can serve to take on the skeptics who feel like college athletics’ amateurism model is broken and beyond repair.

Here’s Swarbrick, when asked about the early response to the show:

“It’s been really positive. Very, very positive, and it goes to the reservations I had. The decision to do it for me was about principally one thing, and that was in the national debate that’s going on about college athletics, the level of cynicism that has emerged in this debate and the one-sidedness of it from my perspective, I thought it was really important to have a voice in that discussion through this show. To be able to say, ‘You can be as much of a cynic as you want, but these are real students having this experience at our university.’

“I was very motivated to create for people – not just Notre Dame fans – but people across the country to see this. Every day is another story about something college sports is doing wrong, and I sort of viewed this as almost an obligation we had to tell the other side of the story.”

While Kelly has had his share of fun during press conferences or media appearances talking about the additional layer of scrutiny that comes with a video crew following his every move, it’s interesting to point out that the Showtime opportunity came via the head coach himself, approached through talent agency CAA, where Kelly is a client.

That’s another datapoint that leads you to believe that Kelly is a guy who is fast finding his comfort at Notre Dame, not secretly maneuvering for one of the man open jobs that round him up among the usual suspects of candidates.

 

Notre Dame’s defense has been “boom or bust.” But Brian Kelly still believes the Irish have a solid four quarters ahead of them. 

As we try to decode just what type of defense Notre Dame has, it’s easy to point to the maddening lapses… as well as the dominant spurts of play. The good? Notre Dame ranks 15th in the country in forcing three-and-outs. The bad? Well, they’re usually either getting off the field immediately or giving up a touchdown.

Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders has come up with a intriguing new stat by looking at Boom or Bust rates for offensive and defensive performances. Specifically, what percentage of drives end up in touchdowns or three-and-outs. Notre Dame is in Fremeau’s Top 15 “Boom or Bust” defenses—not exactly a badge of honor. The Irish are one of just two programs with a winning record against FBS opponents (NC State is the other) among those 15.

When asked about the defensive performance of the team and what he expects to see in the coming weeks, Kelly sounded like Brian VanGorder’s group was trending up.

“I just think they have not put the four quarters together they are capable of,” Kelly said. “I think that’s going to happen. I really do. I’m not just wishing. When we’re playing together and not making some of the correctable mistakes, we can play really good football.”

 

This might be the biggest game in Temple history. But Matt Rhule and his players are doing their best to treat it like any other Saturday. 

Buses will leave campus at 4:45 a.m. Saturday morning, shipping Temple students to ESPN’s set at Independence Hall. And an NFL town has taken a decided turn this week, subbing Owls in for Eagles (especially with Chip Kelly’s struggles).

Most of Temple’s veteran roster experienced the 2013 visit to Notre Dame. And while they certainly expect something far rowdier on Saturday night, they’re trying their best to treat this like any other game.

“We don’t pretend it’s not here,” Rhule told reporters earlier this week. “We don’t pretend GameDay’s not coming. We don’t pretend that we’re not playing Notre Dame. All those things are great, but they don’t help us play better. All we can do is control how we play. That’s the message.”

That message has been heard by a veteran roster that features 10 returning starters on defense, and only one underclassman in either the offensive or defensive starting lineup. And while the Irish have been the biggest game on every opponent’s schedule thus far in 2015, Rhule feels like his team won’t let the moment impact the way the Owls play.

“I’m not concerned that the moment will be too big,” Rhule said. “Are we good enough to hang with Notre Dame? That’s the concern.”

 

Max Redfield or Matthias Farley? Kelly’s not saying. But both need to play better football. 

Notre Dame’s safety play has been less than satisfactory this season. Derailed early by a thumb injury to Max Redfield and season-ending losses of Shaun Crawford and Drue Tranquill, Elijah Shumate has provided some stability at strong safety, but Kelly has all but acknowledged that the defensive staff is trying its best to get an elevated level of play from Matthias Farley and Redfield.

“Honestly, what I want and what we have are two different things,” Kelly said Tuesday, when asked about the position. “Both those kids are committed to being the best players that they can be and we are coaching them every single day… We’re working hard with them every day.”

Redfield earned the start against Navy and was replaced early by Farley. Farley earned the start against USC and was replaced by Redfield. So going against Temple, Kelly was open that both would play and contribute. But he wasn’t ready to say you was starting.

“We just feel like I think both of those guys are going to give us what we need at the position and it’s going to be one where both of them are going to have to help us win.”

 

 

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.

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)
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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)
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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.