PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 31: KeiVarae Russell #6 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish intercepts a pass intended for John Christopher #7 of the Temple Owls in the fourth quarter on October 31, 2015 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Temple Owls 24-20. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Last look: Secondary

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Notre Dame’s achilles heel looked like an area of strength heading into the season. That the Irish season would falter because the back end of the defense couldn’t hold up certainly didn’t seem like a possibility when accessing the personnel in first-year assistant Todd Lyght’s secondary.

KeiVarae Russell was back. Many assumed the Irish had an All-American-caliber cornerback returning from a year-long academic suspension. He’d join Cole Luke as one of the better (on paper) tandems in the country, with Luke coming off of a great 2014 season against a scheduled filled with NFL receivers.

At safety, the prognosticators were betting on Max Redfield, with Phil Steele naming him a preseason first-team All-American. Senior Elijah Shumate was a perfect battering ram at strong safety.

The depth was also there. Complementary parts like Drue Tranquill and graduate transfer Avery Sebastian looked like perfect pieces for Brian VanGorder’s sub-packages. Matthias Farley’s versatility was already well known, and now the Irish had freshmen Shaun Crawford and Nick Coleman making preseason noise as potential contributors.

On paper, the stats don’t show a disappointing season. The Irish finished 26th in the country giving up 195 yards per game in the air, while quarterbacks completed just 55 percent of their passes.

But as injuries stripped the depth chart, inconsistencies plagued the entire unit. And a group that started the season with high hopes saw their CFB Playoff chances go up in smoke when Stanford’s Kevin Hogan shredded the secondary in less than 30 seconds, allowing the Cardinal to kick a game-winning field goal that eliminated the Irish from consideration.

Shumate, Russell and Farley are gone, forcing the secondary will rebuild. So before we turn our focus to those efforts, let’s take a look at the final statistics and hand out some awards.

Secondary

 

 

MVP: KeiVarae Russell. Was it a great season? Probably not. Russell’s reputation—essentially hand-crafted by the loquacious cornerback—was that of a lock down coverman. That wasn’t the type of football he played, with Russell giving up completions at a far less stingy clip than Cole Luke.

But Russell was the rare playmaker in Notre Dame’s secondary. His clutch interceptions against USC and Temple were probably the two biggest plays made by the defense on the season. He was also an able tackler, unafraid to stick his nose in, as evidenced by his 60 tackles and two forced fumbles, the second the final play of his season when he suffered a fracture in his leg.

Would Russell have likely improved his draft stock had he stuck around for 2016? Yes. But with an NCAA appeal undetermined and a significant injury needing rehabilitation, Russell was ready to move on, accomplishing his goal of returning to Notre Dame for his degree and playing out his senior season with his classmates.

 

Biggest Disappointment: Drue Tranquill’s tough luck. Brian VanGorder might have a perfect weapon in safety Drue Tranquill. But we’ll never know because Tranquill’s bad injury luck keeps taking away one of the secondary’s best playmakers.

As a two-deep cover safety, Tranquill isn’t likely to be a huge asset. But as a third-down weapon and option specialist, Tranquill gives the Irish a versatile piece, capable of covering, blitzing or chasing down the pitch man, whatever his assignment may be.

The loss of Tranquill essentially robbed the Irish of any third-down flexibility, especially with their nickel back plan already foiled with the loss of Shaun Crawford in preseason camp. No Tranquill or Crawford meant keeping Joe Schmidt in the middle of the field on passing downs, a role that Jaylon Smith could’ve played had Tranquill been available after his freak knee injury.

With a second ACL injury in less than a year, the Indiana native is in the middle of another grueling rehabilitation. But Tranquill attacked the last detour with a conviction Brian Kelly had never seen. So expect to see Tranquill on the field pushing himself this spring again, even if they’ll keep him out of the action until fall camp.

 

Silver Lining: An energized Nick Watkins. Notre Dame’s last piece of injury bad luck hit just days before the Irish were set to take on Ohio State. And when junior backup Devin Butler suffered a broken foot that sidelined the Irish’s first two options at cornerback, sophomore Nick Watkins was thrown into action.

It was the first start for the once-highly touted cornerback recruit. And it was a matchup against one of the most talented teams in the country. Yet Watkins held his own in the Fiesta Bowl, playing all 86 snaps against the Buckeyes and possibly jump-starting his career at the same time.

Notre Dame needs Watkins to be a significant contributor in 2016. After competing his way into the mix last spring and during fall camp, Watkins suffered an August slide, falling behind Butler and spending his second straight season mostly relegated to special teams duty. Young cornerback Nick Coleman will do his best to challenge Watkins, as will Butler when he’s healed. But after holding up against a team filled with NFL talent, Watkins should understand the urgency of a career half finished and step into the spotlight.

 

 

Waiting for the Lightbulb: Max Redfield. An up-and-down season ended on a disappointing note for Redfield, with the junior starter sent home from Scottsdale after violating team rules. That type of mistake is understandable from a freshman like Jerry Tillery, but Redfield’s ouster left a lot of people inside the program scratching their head.

Physically, there’s no doubting Redfield’s impressive skill-set. But the Southern California native has never performed like a 5-star prospect, a recruiting designation that forced some considerable expectations on him. A thumb injury early this season might have contributed to some of this season’s highs and lows, but mental mistakes earned Redfield a few quick hooks, especially against run-heavy opponents.

With just a year left, Redfield’s most recent social media declaration has him intent on returning for his final season in South Bend. In a secondary badly needing a playmaking safety to emerge, its most obvious candidate needs to step forward before it’s too late.

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.

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.

 

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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.