Author: Keith Arnold

Notre Dame v Arizona State

No contingency plans at safety


In Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate, the Irish have their starting safeties. The success of Notre Dame’s defense will depend on if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

On paper, the duo of Redfield and Shumate match any other back line in recent memory. Redfield’s 5-star pedigree has been well discussed. Shumate’s blue-chip status was well-established as well, an Army All-American and Don Bosco Prep star who chose the Irish over a slew of elite offers.

But the duo has yet to play to expectations. Never was that more apparent than in 2014, when both were given every opportunity to win—and hold onto—starting jobs, but struggled with the transition to Brian VanGorder’s defense.

That struggle sounds like it’s coming to an end. And after both spending considerable time in Brian Kelly’s doghouse last season, the Irish head coach had words of praise for both safeties last week as he gave a status report.

“Their development is clearly evident and so much different than where we were at this time last year or anytime during the season,” Kelly said. “We don’t see the missed assignments. We see clearly two guys that have grabbed a hold of what we’re doing out there, so they’ve kind of settled into two very solid football players back there for us.”

Taking Kelly at his word, the development of Redfield and Shumate couldn’t have come at a better time. Because behind them, the depth chart is scary.

Gone is former captain Austin Collinsworth, whose final season was marred by multiple injuries. Moving on is Eilar Hardy, who will graduate and play out his eligibility at Bowling Green, his 2014 season all but ruined by the Frozen Five academic scandal.

Rising sophomore Drue Tranquill is ahead of schedule as he returns from a late-season ACL tear, but taking spring relatively easy. Nicky Baratti is doing his best to play through another serious shoulder injury while both John Turner and Matthias Farley are providing depth at a position that looks like a good fit for neither player.

Mykelti Williams and Nicco Fertitta hit campus this June. But it’s clear the Irish are going to have to lean heavily on the veteran duo, something that Redfield knows, especially looking back on his benching during the Irish’s November swoon.

“Nobody likes to get benched, but at that time, you have to reflect. ‘I’m getting benched for a reason. The coaches have to have some kind of motive behind this,’” Redfield acknowledged when talking with Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune. “So it kind of game me some time to reflect upon it and understand. ‘I’m not entitled to this spot, and I have to earn it every day.’”

That applies to Shumate as well, who made some mental errors that would’ve taken him off the field had the Irish had the luxury of doing so. For Shumate, this is his final season in South Bend, and the last opportunity to put together a season that exceeds expectations, something he managed to do as a scrappy slot defender as a freshman.

A late lightbulb isn’t necessarily rare at safety. Especially in Notre Dame’s secondary. We saw that happen with Harrison Smith after a redshirt and two up and down seasons relegated him to the doghouse. Former Irish GA Kyle McCarthy was just a special teams contributor before turning into a tackling machine in his senior and fifth years.

Zeke Motta struggled before the light went on. As did Jamoris Slaughter. That Shumate stepped into a talented but thin 2012 defense robbed him of the opportunity to learn before doing. Last season was a bit more of the same thing, only his mistakes were magnified by the importance of safeties in VanGorder’s system.

New secondary coach Todd Lyght is two-thirds of the way through spring working with his presumptive starters. VanGorder is spending plenty of time on the back end as well.

In a depth chart filled mostly with question marks, Redfield and Shumate stand alone. Not because they’re proven commodities, but because they’ve already played their way through the fire and come out on the other side.

“I think they really look back on the year and see there were really some tough times for them, but they’re going to be better because of it,” Kelly said.

If the Irish defense is going to be up to the task, Kelly better be right.




In a time of change, Denbrock a constant

Mike Denbrock is a throwback.

He’s the type of coach that existed a generation ago. A top assistant who may have been relegated to the shadows of a head coach, carving out a niche that didn’t usually come with a statue, but brought with gratitude from a fanbase used to seeing plenty of wins.

Denbrock is also a coaching survivor. In 2009, Denbrock was coaching at Indiana State. That he’s back at Notre Dame and the associate head coach and top assistant in one of college football’s flagship programs is certainly not lost on the man who left South Bend after three seasons working with Ty Willingham a decade ago.

That could help explain Denbrock’s mindset. The one that made it easy to turn down overtures from Central Michigan. Not to mention the egoless decision that allowed the Irish to bring in Mike Sanford.

Many openly wondered how Brian Kelly could take away the offensive coordinator title that Denbrock had for just one season, and a playcaller role that lasted just a single game—Notre Dame’s perfectly executed offensive game plan in the Music City Bowl victory.

But while everything around him seems to have changed, you wouldn’t know it by listening to Denbrock.

“It’s almost exactly the same as it was a year ago,” Denbrock said last week, when asked about his role in the offense.

But as the Irish move into 2015 with great expectations, a top-heavy offensive coaching room is certainly an experiment that requires watching. At its worst, moves like this backfire spectacularly, too many cooks in one kitchen.


The brain power and veteran coaches demand a new take on an organizational chart. Just look at the names above the line—Kelly, Denbrock, Sanford, throw in well-respected (and one-time running game coordinator) Harry Hiestand and offensive analyst Jeff Quinn. Only Scott Booker and Autry Denson fit the role of young assistants.

While you expect everybody to be talking peace and harmony during spring ball, that can only happen when the games start counting when you have strong leadership. And in Kelly, the coaching staff has its leader. And in Denbrock, the trusted lieutenant, a man who doesn’t sound uncomfortable with his place inside the program—nor with the boss in charge of the football team.

“Coach Kelly and I have a lot of experience together running the same style of offense and the same ideas and the same adjustments,” Denbrock explained. “If you have a chance to influence into your system the ideas and experience and versatility that Mike in particular brings to the offensive staff room, it gives you an opportunity to grow as a program and improve in the areas that you want to improve in.

“Having another strong voice in the room, while viewed by some as a negative thing, I think it’s an incredibly positive thing. Because it just adds to the discussion and makes it better for our offense overall.”

Kelly spoke about Sanford turning the offense upside down. But some thought Denbrock did the same when the Irish transformed in their victory over LSU. So while Sanford’s DNA will certainly show itself in the season ahead, Denbrock also wants to make sure that the Irish don’t lose the look of the group that physically handled LSU’s defense.

“It’s the way Notre Dame should play football every Saturday: Line up, physicality, leaning on the big boys up front to create space for the running backs and getting the ball in space to some skilled receivers,” Denbrock said, as noted by Blue and Gold’s Lou Somogyi. “Playing sound, fundamental football. When I think of Notre Dame football, that’s what I think of and that’s really what we’re trying to get to.

“It’s a beginning. I wouldn’t pigeonhole it by saying every game’s going to look like the LSU game, but I would say we definitely want to enter every week and every game with the mentality that we’re going to physically take the fight to our opponent and we’re going to match ourselves up and see what good can come of it.”

With just two weeks left of spring practice, Notre Dame’s coaches and players will continue to develop the offense until the Blue-Gold game. They’ll have five months from there to figure everything else out. 

So while play-calling, coordinating and overseeing are all still being figured out, whatever his title is, expect Denbrock to help lead the way.



Irish get commitment from ’17 OL Dillan Gibbons

Dillan Gibbons

Brian Kelly sounded the commitment signal yesterday afternoon, catching Irish fans off guard on the Easter holiday weekend. But offensive line coach Harry Hiestand added another piece of blue-chip talent to his future depth chart, with 2017 lineman Dillan Gibbons committing to the Irish.

Gibbons is a St. Petersburg, Florida native, and already possesses an impressive offer list with schools like Ohio State leading the way. After visiting campus last week, Gibbons was ready to pull the trigger and commit, just days after Kelly made the offer.

Gibbons is a long way from joining for the Irish, having played just his sophomore season of high school. But his pedigree and size give Notre Dame another building block, not to mention an early start to their 2017 recruiting class.

Gibbons’ older brother Reilly was a 4-star, national recruit who visited Notre Dame before committing to Stanford. He’s since transferred to South Florida, but it was on those trips where Dillan grew comfortable with the Irish, a love affair that started (remarkably) at Notre Dame’s Senior Day debacle against Syracuse in 2008.

(It worked on Manti Te’o, too.)

Gibbons had great things to say about Hiestand, who continues his dominant run on the recruiting trail.

“He’s the best offensive line coach in all of college football,” Gibbons told Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune. “Whatever he says, I’m going to take to heart.”

Gibbons joins 2016 commit Tommy Kraemer in the futures department along the offensive line. He plays for former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Pro Bowler Mike Alstott at North Christian High School.

Gibbons plans on shutting down his recruitment and getting to work building the Irish’s future classes.

“This is truly the place for me,” Gibbons told Irish 247. “This is where I want to be.”