Author: Keith Arnold

Is Jaylon Smith the best linebacker in college football?


Notre Dame’s junior linebacker Jaylon Smith is off to a fast start. He’s leading the team in solo tackles and just edges Joe Schmidt for the lead in total tackles. He’s also leading the team in TFLs, shares the lead in sacks, and already has two tallies in the pass breakups and pass defended, while also forcing a fumble and recovering one as well.

Asked by Brian Kelly and the defensive staff to elevate his game this season, Smith has done just that. Combined with his elite athletic traits and an advanced knowledge of the defensive scheme, Smith’s in the conversation for the country’s best linebacker.

At the quarter-turn of the season, ProFootballFocus thinks he’s the best.

He leads their grading system with a PFF rating of 10.8, the highest of any linebacker in the country. Smith’s defensive performance is a big reason why the Irish check in at No. 6 in the AP poll this week and sit at 3-0.


Once again, the defense calls on Matthias Farley

Matthias Farley

When Matthias Farley grows older, when his beard turns from black to grey, he’ll look back on his years at Notre Dame and smile. The fifth-year captain is a football survivor. He’s also the face of the resiliency that head coach Brian Kelly has instilled in his roster.

How best to succinctly tell Farley’s story? Let’s try.

Matthias Farley: The back-up plan? Matthias Farley: Bailing out the defense since 2012? Matthias Farley: No matter where you bury him on the depth chart, he’ll be there when you need him?

Last Saturday, Farley added another chapter to one of the more remarkable on-field stories we’ve seen in recent years. After spending the first half on the sidelines and playing special teams, Farley was called into action after Drue Tranquill went down.

And then, on one of his first snaps of the afternoon, Farley found a way to be involved in one of the biggest plays of the game: he and Jaylon Smith forced a fumble that Smith very nearly ran back for a touchdown.

There he was, a back-up superhero who only gets to put his cape on when Superman or Batman pull a groin or tweak a hamstring. Kelly talked on Tuesday about Farley’s ability to impact games, while still not being able to find his way into the starting lineup.

“He doesn’t like it,” Kelly said. “He wants to be out there starting. He believes that he can help this football team as a starter. But he’s one of those guys that makes this 2015 football team special in that he’ll do whatever is necessary for the good of the team.”

Farley has made a career out of being ready. It started in 2012, when the converted receiver was just days into his career as a safety when he leap-frogged fifth-year safety Dan McCarthy as the opening day option specialist in Notre Dame’s drubbing of Navy in Dublin. Then when Jamoris Slaughter’s season ended just a few weeks later, Farley was asked to step into the starting lineup, to carry one-eleventh of the weight for one of Notre Dame’s finest defenses in school history.

His teammates know that. Farley found a way to be a key piece of a defense that led the Irish to an undefeated regular season. And they’re hoping he’ll do it again.

“Matthias started like nine games on the way to the National Championship Game, and started in the National Championship Game and played I think four years now,” Joe Schmidt said Wednesday.

“He’s been a starter. He’s been not a starter. He’s been the special teams captain. He’s been just about everything in his time here, and so I just think it’s so funny that it’s even a question if he’s ready or if he’s going to perform because he’s a baller.

“He’s been a baller. He’s always going to be a baller.”

Farley’s fit in Brian VanGorder’s defense has been a curious one. After an injury-plagued and disappointing 2013 season, Farley switched positions, turning him from starting safety into what amounted to roughly a sixth-string cornerback. Farley looked closer to Siberia than the starting lineup.

But what ended up happening? KeiVarae Russell gets suspended.  Cody Riggs got hurt. And Farley ended up filling up the stat sheet better than any other defender on the roster.

Entering 2015, Farley once again didn’t look like he had a place in this defense. Freshman Shaun Crawford looked like a perfect fit at nickel cornerback. Safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate were dialed into the starting lineup. Even in specialty packages, Tranquill was a better fit for the battering ram VanGorder was looking for in dime and option situations.

So Farley did his job. And for two games, that meant leading the special teams.

“A captain’s role is to lead and it doesn’t always have to be on every single down,” Farley said Wednesday. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a play-a-hundred-plays-a-game kind of deal.”

But that moment is coming. With the Next Man In now clearly focused on Farley’s availability, the veteran has the opportunity to finish his collegiate career playing a ton of important snaps for the defense, a group that understandably has confidence in one of the team’s best leaders. Even if—once again—it’s by accident.

“We all have complete confidence in Matthias because he’s been there and he’s done it,” Schmidt said.  “He’s been successful and he’ll continue to be successful.”



And in that corner… The UMass Minutemen

Blake Frohnapfel

Notre Dame welcomes UMass to campus this weekend, the first ever meeting between the two schools in football. And while the game looks like a potentially lopsided affair on paper, Brian Kelly was quick to throw water on those expectations during his Tuesday press conference.

“These are the games that concern me the most where everybody else thinks that they are going to be easy games,” Kelly said. “This is going to be a difficult game. UMass will play very well.”

When Notre Dame announced this match-up, it was set to be played against former Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar, who left the program to take on the challenge of bringing UMass to the FBS. Molnar was fired after two tumultuous seasons, replaced by Mark Whipple, back for his second stint in Amherst.

Earlier this summer, we caught up with the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s Matt Vautour, to talk about the state of the UMass program entering Whipple’s second season. With the Minutemen off to a hard-luck 0-2 start, we revisit that conversation, with Vautour spending some of his busy week helping us out as we prepare for the game.

Hope you enjoy.


Notre Dame fans likely didn’t notice, but UMass lost last week in excruciatingly painful fashion, with a blocked PAT returned for a score making it possible for Temple to escape with a victory. What emotional state do we find Mark Whipple’s troops?

I’m honestly curious. They’ve seemed pretty resilient this week, but that can’t be easy.

The past two years haven’t been kind to UMass in close games. (You wrote about that in the wake of Saturday’s loss.) Is it a reach to say playing an opponent nobody expects the Minutemen to beat… is actually a good thing? The Irish played down to the competition against Virginia, likely looking ahead to Georgia Tech. They travel to Clemson next week. It’s early in the week, but you’ve got to expect Whipple to play that angle.

Whipple has certainly talked about the Irish being in another class compared to anyone UMass has faced. He’s talked about playing well and improving more than a specific path to an upset win.


There’s considerable talent on this team, led by quarterback Blake Frohnapfel an a veteran offensive line. Yet the offense seems to have gotten off to a slow start. Any rhyme or reason for this? Any hope that they find some solutions against the Irish defense?

It’s been surprising. If the offense was sharper early they’d have beaten Temple. Uncharacteristic dropped passes and slightly overthrown balls have stunted some drives and the running game has been stagnant in the first two games. Notre Dame isn’t exactly a cure for that.


Colorado really hurt UMass with the running game. Notre Dame has rushed for over 200 yards in its first three games. Is that where you think the Irish should attack?

I was surprised Temple didn’t run more. UMass’ defense as a whole was much better than it was against Colorado, but I’d imagine the Irish will run a lot, especially early.


UMass is still in the nascent stage of being an FBS program. Mark Whipple took over for Charley Molnar, the former Irish assistant who was cited as a reason for scheduling the game in the first place. We already talked about Molnar’s early exit as the man atop the program. But what has Whipple done to turn things around, and even at 0-2, does it feel like this program is turning a corner?

I think Whipple’s system fits the personnel much better especially on offense. Getting Frohnapfel was huge for him. I do think this team will turn the corner in MAC play. The program however, will need to reboot a bit as an independent while hunting for a conference.


If UMass pulls off the upset on Saturday, who, why or how did they do it? And can you calculate what that win would mean to the program?

UMass would need considerable precision, luck and a big lead in turnovers gained, while Notre Dame would have to be sloppy and perhaps overconfident. For UMass an upset would be glorified for decades and would energize the fan base. The school would certainly try to leverage it in the pursuit of a new conference.