during their game at BB&T Field on October 30, 2015 in Winston Salem, North Carolina.

And in that corner… The Wake Forest Demon Deacons

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It’s a special Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium, as the senior class will play their final football game on campus. A group that’s put together a tremendous home field advantage will have to reclaim their winning ways on Senior Day, a streak tarnished during last season’s loss to Louisville.

The Demon Deacons come into Saturday as heavy underdogs. Nearly four touchdowns separate the two teams, the gulf a product of a gut-job renovation undertaken by second-year head coach Dave Clawson.

Clawson has worked his way up the coaching ranks, managing to gain experience as a head coach at smaller programs like Fordham and Richmond before landing a MAC job at Bowling Green. Four good seasons there led him to Winston-Salem, where he took over the Wake Forest program from Jim Grobe.

Joining us from Blogger So Dear is Griffin Kurzius. We traded Q&As (so head over there), and Griffin did a great job getting us up to speed on the state of the program as Dave Clawson rebuilds.

Hope you enjoy.

 

When we had a discussion this summer, concerns about a young roster and a difficult schedule existed. So sitting at 3-6, can you assess this season against the expectations? Any struggles more disappointing than expected? Any progress feel ahead of schedule?

Before the season, many of us at BSD asserted that Wake would be improved in every department except wins. Last season, Wake limped its way to three wins. With remaining games against Notre Dame, Clemson and Duke, getting three wins again is highly likely. This season, however, youthful mistakes thwarted the Deacs from a fourth. As such, the Demon Deacons are lightyears ahead of last year’s team and right on schedule. Last season, Dave Clawson + Co tore down the house.

This year, with 75 percent of the team comprised of freshmen and sophomores, the foundation for the house is being built. Clawson + Co are building the walls and have the roof in place, so to speak. The pieces are on the roster to turn bring Wake back to a bowl game for the first time since 2011. Some fans believe that this will occur as soon as next season, but they will assuredly be back in the bowl conversation by 2017.

As for right now, the fanbase understands where the program is and the current expectations. They are thrilled with Clawson’s recruiting and that he progressed one of the worst offenses in the last twenty years (in 2014) to respectability. This offense actually (believe it or not) moves the ball. Right now, the fanbase isn’t concerned with the color of the front door or the living room fireplace, Deacs fans are content with building a brick foundation with a slate roof.

 

One look at the advanced stats for the Deacs and it’s pretty clear that the offensive line is a mess. Is it just youth? Is that the spot that feels like a game-wrecker, especially with Sheldon Day so disruptive at defensive tackle for Notre Dame?

The starting left and right tackles are both freshmen, which, uh… doesn’t bode too well for our quarterbacks and running backs. Remarkably, this line is STILL better than the revolving doors on the line in 2014. Last season, the Deacs led the nation in sacks allowed. So any improvement is improvement, right?

But in all seriousness, this is a good question. Both Justin Herron (LT) and Phil Haynes (RT) were sought after three-star recruits, Wake’s bread and butter to consistently return to bowl eligibility. With more experience and time in the weight room, the team should be fine. But until then, I sit on the edge of my couch with my fingers crossed for the safety of our dear and running backs.

Yes, like with most of our ACC foes already, Notre Dame’s overall size and experience up front will cause more problems than Mike Myers on Halloween night. With absolutely no wiggle room for the running backs and no time for the quarterbacks, Wake is cornered into calling short-to-intermediate passing plays. Wide receivers KJ Brent and Cortez Lewis both possess impressive speed, size and catching prowess. The question always remains: will they have enough time to get open before the quarterback feels the pressure?

 

On the flip side of that, Wake Forest’s defense is really good. Brandon Chubb is having a monster season. Marquel Lee is disruptive. The Deacs have seen some good offensive personnel—Florida State, North Carolina to name two. What worries you about the matchup this weekend against the balanced Irish attack? Stopping the run? Will Fuller in the deep passing game? (All of the above?)

Like you alluded to with Brandon Chubb and Marquel Lee, Wake boasts arguably the best linebacking core in the ACC. They hit the gaps like a battering ram and have a great sense for which hole the running back wants to attack.

Overall, Wake’s front seven does a great job at eating up run plays and keeping the quarterback in the pocket. The biggest concern this season is big plays in the passing game. Speedy receivers have had success getting behind the defense and striking on home-run plays. DeShone Kizer clearly has a rocket arm and has the confidence to swing for the fences. With Will Fuller, averaging 20.5 yards per reception, the secondary will have more than their hands full.

In Saturday’s game, I expect the Demon Deacons to be stout against the run for three quarters, but allow several big plays to Irish wide receivers. In the fourth quarter, the front seven will wear down and the running backs will close the game out.

 

Talk me through what’s happening at quarterback with John Wolford and Kendall Hinton. Does the adage, “If you have two quarterbacks, you really have none” apply? What’s the difference in Wolford and Hinton’s games? And if you had your druthers, who would be taking most of the snaps on Saturday?

After observing this situation unfold, the adage is absolutely correct. To quickly provide a back story, sophomore John Wolford entered the season as the starter. Wolford is adept at reading defenses and has pinpoint accuracy on short-to-intermediate routes. He got injured and true freshman Kendall Hinton quickly proved his worth.

Trying to contain the elusive Hinton is like trying to put a cat in a cage. He has a huge arm but has suspect accuracy and makes some freshmen reads. They both offer vastly different looks and finally are both healthy. What has been dumbfounding is how they are rotating playing time. Let’s be clear: this isn’t Florida in 2006 where Chris Leak ran the offense and Tim Tebow played near the goal line.

Wolford will get three drives, then Hinton will sub in for three, then Wolford will take two and then Hinton will get his turn. Given their different skill sets, the offense and the playcalling depend on the quarterback. With the frequent rotations, the quarterbacks don’t have enough time to get into a rhythm. Meanwhile, this constant change prevents the other 10 players on the field to feel comfortable.

Against a Notre Dame team that will get frequent pressure on the quarterback, Wake should start a player who will get outside the pocket and make plays out of thin air. This is Kendall Hinton. Does he give Wake the best chance to win every week? No. But against the No. 4 team in the country, he can extend plays and keep the Irish off balance. Overall, it’s an awkward situation and Clawson doesn’t want to isolate either player and facilitate a transfer. This controversy likely won’t get handled until Summer 2016.

 

Everybody knew it’d be a renovation for Dave Clawson. There was optimism during the offseason, even after a 3-9 season. Wake Forest hung tough with Indiana, Florida State, and are coming off a really tough loss to Louisville. The home stretch looks brutal for this team, with ND, Clemson and Duke. But does it still feel like there’s light at the end of the tunnel?

I spoke about this above, but absolutely. As they say in Batman “The night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you, the dawn is coming.” Last season was the darkest point of the night. This season, there is a semblance of talent. It will take time for them to blossom, but there are clear flashes of raw talent on this roster. The same couldn’t be said last year. As I said above, many fans believe next year-with an easier schedule (no Notre Dame in a non-conference game)- that Wake has a good chance to reach a bowl. If not next year, the Demon Deacons will return in 2017. There is too much athleticism, youth and development for a turnaround to not take place.

 

Vegas has this a pretty lopsided game with the Irish a 27-point favorite on Senior Day. That feels like a lot of points to lay against a defense that’s pretty stingy. How do you feel heading into Saturday? Is there a morale victory out there to be had?

Our basketball coach Danny Manning doesn’t believe in morale victories. Me? At 3-6. In South Bend. Against the No. 4 team in the nation? Absolutely. Ideally, the Demon Deacons put up an admirable fight and keep the game within striking distance in the first half. But more than that, this is a huge opportunity on NBC and I just hope the Deacs don’t put up an embarrassing goose egg on national TV. Finally, I hope our team gets out of South Bend alive, spirits high, and healthy.

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.

Drue Tranquill named first-team Academic All-American

Drue Tranquill
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Drue Tranquill was named a first-team Academic All-American. The junior safety, who returned from his second major knee injury during his three-year career, earned the honors after posting a 3.74 GPA in mechanical engineering.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s first academic All-American since Corey Robinson earned the honor after the 2014 season. He finished second on the team in tackles with 79 and lead the team in solo stops with 52. He also had two TFLs and an interception.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s 60th Academic All-American, the third-most of any school behind Nebraska and Penn State. He’s active in the university community, serving as a mentor for the Core Leadership Team for Lifeworks Ministry, and is a member of Notre Dame Christian Athletes. He is a also member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) and Rosenthal Leadership Academy.

 

Postseason Mailbag: Now Open

SAN ANTONIO, TX - NOVEMBER 12: Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly leads his team onto the field before the start of their game against Army in a NCAA college football game at the Alamodome on November 12, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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It’s been too long. Let’s talk about the season, the decisions ahead and where Notre Dame stands after its nightmare of a 2016 season.

Drop your questions on Twitter @KeithArnold or in the comments below.

 

***

If you’re interested in hearing my recap on the USC game and where Notre Dame’s goes now that the season is over, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, with Newsweek’s John Walters. 

 

Report: Zaire set to depart with graduate transfer

Malik Zaire
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The wheels are in motion for Malik Zaire‘s exit from Notre Dame. What felt like an inevitability after Zaire lost out to DeShone Kizer after the Texas game is now a reality, as the Ohio native is expected to receive his release tomorrow, according to a report from Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated.

Sampson identified four programs as potential landing spots for Zaire: Florida, Pitt, Michigan State and Wisconsin, Power Five programs that all had better seasons (minus the Spartans) than Notre Dame. All have uncertainty atop their quarterback depth chart, though none look like guaranteed jobs.

With Notre Dame out of a bowl, Zaire can get a jump start on looking around, capable of taking visits and finding a home after the semester. That would let him join a program in time for spring drills, where he’d compete and be able to play out his final year of eligibility.

When Zaire leaves he’ll join a line of recent quarterbacks to finish their eligibility elsewhere. Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix, Gunner Kiel and Everett Golson all either played or were recruited by Brian Kelly and finished their careers elsewhere. That could leave a scenario—one many predict—where the top-two on Notre Dame’s depth chart depart, Kizer to the NFL and Zaire elsewhere, turning the keys over to Brandon Wimbush who redshirted this season.