Pregame Six Pack: No place like home

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The Irish are home. After failing to get through an opening weekend stress test in the unfriendly confines of Darrell K Royal Memorial Stadium, Notre Dame gets a chance to get back to normal with a Saturday in South Bend.

Even on short rest and a compressed preparation schedule, the Irish are hopeful to leave behind the sting of last weekend’s double-overtime defeat and get healthy—both mentally and physically—against a Nevada team that is young and needed overtime to beat FCS opponent Cal Poly.

With DeShone Kizer named as the teams starter and adjustments made to the lineup on defense, Brian Kelly feels that even with a tweaked run-up to the weekend, his team is ready to go.

“We were able to make up for the short week by really spreading the practice out,”  Kelly said Thursday. “We got all our work in and (Friday) we’ll have about 50 minutes on the field and we’ll be ready for Nevada on Saturday.”

To get all of us ready for Saturday, let’s turn the Pregame Six Pack on its head. Here are six players to focus on as the Irish get back to the basics against the Wolf Pack.

 

DESHONE KIZER

He’s clearly earned the starting job on the field. Now it’ll be up to Kizer to navigate the tricky dynamics of unseating a veteran leader who has a ton of respect in the locker room.

The good news is that Kizer lit up Texas, accounting for six touchdowns while giving up three series to Malik Zaire. That settled any debate on the field. So with a body of work that only picked up where it left off last season, Kelly’s expectations for the junior’s performance are unchanged.

“My expectation is that he’s the starter for this game and we know that based upon what he’s done in the past that he’s been very effective as a starting quarterback,” Kelly said. “I expect him to continue in that role. If he’s not effective, if he’s not what we’ve known him to be, we’ve got one heck of a good quarterback ready to play.”

That other quarterback, Malik Zaire, will have a lot of focus on him. And while Kelly is uninterested in the subplots that seemed destined to start after the camera found Zaire after nearly every good play Kizer made, the head coach was happy that his senior back-up went to work this week with his mind in the right place.

“I thought he had two really very good days,” Kelly said of Zaire. “I thought he was really focused, locked in, and is ready to lead our football team. That’s all I’ve asked him to be—ready to lead our team.”

 

JARRON JONES

The fifth-year senior made one of last week’s critical plays, blocking the extra point that Shaun Crawford returned for the game’s tying two points. But Notre Dame needs more from Jones, who is healthy after a season lost to injury, but still clearly working through the mental side of recovery.

“I don’t see that there’s anything that’s holding him back from a physical standpoint, Kelly said. “If anything is holding him back, it’s perceived. There’s nothing from a training room perspective that’s on my report that would put him back.”

One of the big surprises of last weekend was the loss in the trenches to the Longhorns. Some of that can be attributed to the three-man front the Irish deployed. Some should be focused on the lack of impact Jones made, playing only 26 snaps in a time share with Daniel Cage.

“He’s got to give us some quality snaps in there at the shade with Daniel, that’s his role,” Kelly said. “Continue to be a good technician. He doesn’t have to be a guy that gets a lot of tackles for a loss but he’s strong. Play physical and play with great technique.”

Irish fans expect more than just a technician. Especially after seeing the impact he had when he was healthy and motivated in 2014.

 

DEVIN STUDSTILL 

Notre Dame’s young free safety made it through his first game without any hiccups. And after the decision to start Drue Tranquill in his place backfired, it’s time to throw the early-enrollee freshman into the fire and see how he comes out.

Even with Avery Sebastian cleared through the concussion protocol, Studstill is moving into the lineup. And while Nevada won’t test Notre Dame’s personnel quite like Texas’s athletic receiving corp, it’s a great test for the Irish free safety, who’ll be doing and seeing things for the first time inside of Notre Dame Stadium, all while needing to be the stabilizing force of a secondary that had multiple busted coverages.

“He will see a lot of playing time this week,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We will have to continue to give him the opportunity to get out there and play and experience the scenarios that you can’t really duplicate in practice.”

 

Corey Holmes

Torii Hunter will take the practice field Friday, his status on Saturday still up in the air. But regardless of Hunter’s return, Holmes needs to seize the opportunity ahead of him, one of spring’s big surprises all but absent in Austin last weekend.

With C.J. Sanders locked in as the team’s dynamic slot receiver, Holmes will have to do his damage at the X receiver, lined up on the wide side of the field and often times on an island against defenders asked to run with the Irish’s fastest receiver. Now it’s time to see Holmes’ track speed translate to the football field. Because for the veteran to stay in the mix at receiver, he’ll need to make a few plays down the field, especially in the vertical passing game, a key part of the Irish offense last season thanks to Will Fuller.

K.J. Stepherson will also get a chance to contribute. But his knowledge base is still a work-in-progress, Kelly acknowledging what most of us saw during crunch time at Texas. That leaves an opportunity for the third-year veteran, a chance to build a niche role in the Irish offense as Hunter recovers from a nasty concussion.

 

QUENTON NELSON

Notre Dame’s All-American candidate at left guard didn’t play his best last weekend. He graded out negative against the Longhorns according to PFF College, struggles as a run blocker that are antithetical to what are believed to be the strengths of his game.

Expect some frustrations to be taken out on a Nevada front seven that’s breaking in six new starters. And Nelson, a 330-pound cinder block, needs to take a tough opening week and get back on track.

It’s hardly analysis to say that Notre Dame’s offense is better when the run game is humming. But to make things easier for a still-inexperienced receiving corps, the ground game needs to be the engine, opening up opportunities down field when Nevada adds an extra hat in the box to slow down the Irish running backs.

Billed as one of the best pairings in college football, Nelson and Mike McGlinchey didn’t put up the performance expected of them last weekend. That’ll change quickly on Saturday.

 

DRUE TRANQUILL

Back at home at strong safety, Tranquill needs to recapture his confidence. Because while his limitations in coverage seemed to be exploited last week, he’s far too important of a defender for the Irish to be thrown aside after one week.

“He was put in a situation where he fully understands what’s expected of him, things that he has to work on. He’s a guy that is very conscientious and works hard at his craft,” Kelly said.

Against triple-option opponents like Navy, his skills jump out — a sure tackler in the box and a great safety working inside out. But the Irish defense needs more from him than specialty work, and he’ll be given another chance this week to expand his repertoire.

“He’s not just a downhill box safety,” Kelly explained. “He has to play on the hash, he has to play man-to-man, he has to do more than roll down and be a flat-foot safety making tackles as the extra hat.”

Nevada loves to run the football, so there’ll be plenty of chances to make an impact in the ground game. But if he can’t survive in space and hold up against the pass, the Irish will need to make some big changes to their defensive alignment.

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.