Keith Arnold

Young defense ready for next challenge

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The youth movement is here. And that young war chest of defensive talent that Notre Dame recruited to walk in and compete is… well, already competing.

Spin that any way that you want. And after the Syracuse win, it’s at least a little bit easier to look at it as a positive.

In a matter of a week, the Irish rebooted their starting secondary. They shook up their supporting pieces at linebacker. And they found opportunities to work some depth into a defensive line that was in desperate need of a rotation.

It’s a change that Brian Kelly can sum up in two sentences:

“I can’t remember ever playing this many freshmen.”

And…

“It’s the way I want our defense to look, based upon who our personnel is.”

Leading the way are cornerbacks Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn. A week after promising that no freshman would go from zero snaps to 70, Pride nearly did that, playing a sizable role in the Irish secondary against Syracuse after getting Kelly’s attention as a scout team coverman.

“He impressed me. I really was impressed with him. I wanted to play him,” Kelly said. “I thought we should have played him, so I’m making those personnel decisions. We played him a little too much.”

Across from Pride was Donte Vaughn. Matched up (with help) as the Irish tried to slow Syracuse’s game-breaker Amba Etta-Tawo, Vaughn showed what Kelly saw on tape as a recruiter—a lengthy cornerback who may have safety size, but is talented enough to cover.

“Obviously he’s a unique player in that he the size and the flexibility to play that position,” Kelly said. “He’s going to be a really good tackler, and he’s got really good ball skills. So for a guy that’s long, fluid, athletic, he’s not afraid, and he’s going to play the ball well in the air and tackle. All those things are really, really good traits to have as a 6-2 corner.”

While the Wolf Pack don’t have an All-American candidate at receiver, they do have better personnel than Syracuse on both sides of the ball. The offense will be challenged by a rugged and disruptive defensive front while Greg Hudson won’t face the turbo-charged offense the Orange displayed, but a group that’ll play with pace under Eli Drinkwitz.

And after getting back on the right side of the ledger, Kelly continues to want to see progress.

“We will see how that goes. It was good last week,” Kelly said. “We got another really good team we’re playing this week and we just have to understand that it’s hard to win, just look at college football.”

Hurricane path could impact ND-NC State start time

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.
AP
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With Hurricane Matthew on its way towards Florida, the entire Southeast is preparing for storms. And with Notre Dame set to make its first visit to Raleigh and NC State, the Irish are preparing for as many scenarios as possible.

“Everything is on the table right now,” Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “We’ve given them a window that we’re available to play this game from 12 o’clock until noon on Sunday. We feel like anything after noon on Sunday starts to encroach on our ability to prepare for Stanford.”

“So there is quite a bit of flexibility. We feel like we’ve secured accommodations and flights and such to leave a big window of availability to play this game.”

Those who remember last season’s high-profile showdown with Clemson certainly remember the monsoon conditions that impacted the football game. So while the storm’s pattern still isn’t assured to hit Raleigh, the ACC is communicating with both schools, as NC State released the following statement Tuesday afternoon.

“We are monitoring the path and potential impact of weather in our region this weekend due to Hurricane Matthew. While we will make every effort to play our much-anticipated game with Notre Dame this Saturday as scheduled, the safety of both teams and our patrons is our first priority. We had a conference call this afternoon with the ACC and Notre Dame, will remain in communication and monitor the potential conditions.”

Swarbrick addresses coaching change

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick speaks during a news conference at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012. Notre Dame is moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference _ yet keeping its football independence. The school will play five football games annually against the league's programs, but will be a full member in all other sports. The Irish will have access to the ACC's non-BCS bowl tie-ins. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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After one of the most chaotic weeks inside the Gug resulted in a victory, Jack Swarbrick publicly discussed the difficult week for his highest-paid employee.  And in case you weren’t sure, Swarbrick’s belief in Brian Kelly is unchanged.

Speaking to the South Bend Tribune, Swarbrick gave not just a vote of confidence to his seventh-year head coach, but talked about the thought process that went into removing defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

“My message, publicly and privately, is the program is in great shape,” Swarbrick told the South Bend Tribune. “When there are big program problems, that’s harder to deal with. When you just have to start playing as well as you can, it’s a narrower search.

“‘How do we fix that?’”

The commitment to Kelly isn’t surprising. It’s also not the first publicly supportive stance Swarbrick’s taken—he spoke with ABC57 in South Bend last week as well, an interview that’ll touch on more than just the current struggles on the football field, but also the larger ambitions of the Campus Crossroads project and the athletic department.

While some wondered if Swarbrick triggered the move by Kelly, it’s fairly clear that the relationship between head coach and athletic director is one where a big decision like the dismissal of your highest profile assistant isn’t made lightly, but done after significant discussion.

Swarbrick and Kelly identified what was broken and then made the move.

“We’re 1-3, everybody wants to know you’re doing something,” Swarbrick said. “You just can’t say, ‘We’re not going to change anything.’ Regardless of friendships; regardless of how much someone may like somebody; the message you send when you make some changes (is) that you’re willing to do what you need to do to win.

“From a staff and player perspective, notwithstanding the personal sorrow about it because of their relationships, they’re glad to see you’re doing it. ‘OK, we’ll follow you’re direction. Let’s go.'”

 

 

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Syracuse

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 01:  Dexter Williams #2 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish breaks away and runs the ball in for a touchdown in the second half against the Syracuse Orange at MetLife Stadium on October 1, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Syracuse Orange 50-33.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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After a miserable September, the Irish kicked off October in a far more fitting fashion. Their 50-33 win, a much-needed victory after a week of chaos inside the Gug, hopefully served to settle down a program that has had to restructure its coaching staff and revise its goals before the season’s first month was finished.

While it’s a short-term band-aid if there ever was one, the victory gets the program back on course. It makes a bowl appearance more probably than not, and it gives a young Irish roster some positive affirmations.

So before we turn the page on the Orange, let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Equanimeous St. BrownNotre Dame’s sophomore receiver is building confidence by the bushel. At least he should be. Because at a position where most expected the W to be the weakness, St. Brown is the Irish’s No. 1 receiver.

That leap was something that some saw coming after hints during a freshman season where St. Brown’s practice exploits were rumored. But a slow spring and the ascent of Kevin Stepherson in the spring had few talking about the sophomore. But with six touchdowns and 541 yards through four games, St. Brown is on track for a monster season.

 

Donte Vaughn. The true freshman cornerback led the defense in snaps, playing all 78 for the Irish. And for the most part he acquitted himself quite nicely.

The lanky, 6-foot-2 coverman spent a large portion of the afternoon matched up against Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo, and for the most part he held him in check. That was a battle Brian Kelly seemed fairly comfortable about the freshman’s ability to hold up—so good that they slid Cole Luke inside to the nickel and kept Vaughn matched up with Syracuse’s most dangerous weapon, a guy putting up All-American numbers through the season’s first quarter.

Vaughn might have solidified a starting role for the remainder of the season.

 

Te’von Coney. Moved around the field, Coney was at his most impactful on Saturday afternoon, making seven official tackles and multiple times blowing up a play at the point of attack.

Schematically it was wonderful to see Coney moved all over the field, at times lining up over a wide receiver in a bunch formation, destroying blocks as the Orange tried to beat him with a few quick throws, all of which Coney did a great job covering.

Given the chance to start for Brian VanGorder after Greer Martini played a tough Texas game, Coney has struggled with consistency since then. But against Syracuse, he looked like the kind of “in space” linebacker who had very high expectations before this season.

 

Dexter WilliamsGiven the chance after a nice game against Duke, Williams made the most out of his opportunity—his 59-yard touchdown run a gain that salvaged the rushing attack.

It also turned the running back race on its head. Williams continues to move up the depth chart, likely closer to being the starter than the third-stringer at this point. And Kelly gave Williams credit for the development he’s shown on and off the field.

“He’s gotten bigger and stronger and faster, but where I see it is off the field. He’s grown in maturity, and I think that that’s translated itself on the field,” Kelly said on Sunday.

“He comes to practice every day with great energy and enthusiasm and I think that that has a lot to do with him being very comfortable here at Notre Dame. But let’s not mistake the fact that he’s also put on about 15 pounds. He’s explosive, and that’s all because he’s made that commitment to obviously Notre Dame and himself.”

 

The Big Chunk Offensive Plays. Equanimeous St. Brown, Dexter Williams and Kevin Stepherson all took big plays to the house. And those four scores did plenty to erase some of the other inefficiencies in the offensive performance.

A year after the Irish had the most explosive offense in school history, big plays won the day. And they were a sight for sore eyes. Even better? All three of these playmakers are underclassmen.

 

Quick Hits: 

* When Jay Hayes began to emerge as a starting candidate for the weakside starting defensive end position, it always seemed like a curious fit. That explains why Hayes was used differently this weekend, and still found a way to notch nearly two dozen snaps.

“He did some pretty good things. He’s a big physical kid,” Kelly said.

Kelly talked about Hayes’ challenge as a “tweener,” not quite a three-technique, and not really a weakside defensive end, either. But with the Irish needed to be tougher at the point of attack, Hayes gave them a boost.

* I’ve probably set the bar too high, but you’ve got to include DeShone Kizer in the “good” if he throws for the third-highest yardage total in school history. It wasn’t a perfect afternoon in the offense, but he made some really nice throws and he played a second half that Kelly really liked.

* The run defense took a nice step forward, limiting big plays and featuring some impressive work by Nyles Morgan, Daniel Cage, James Onwualu and Coney.  Making Syracuse one-dimensional was key and credit the Irish front seven for doing that.

* Jarron Jones is the best kick blocker I’ve watched. His ability to both get a push and use his length to elevate sure is a nice luxury. That two-point swing was huge.

* You can’t get done with the good without mentioning Greg Hudson. It must’ve been a great week for the former Notre Dame linebacker who did a great job being a team player this week.

 

THE BAD

The Slow Start on Defense. It looked like things were headed in a very bad direction after watching the defense the first two series. Quick strike touchdowns. Free runners streaking vertically through the secondary. And whatever changes dialed up midweek looked like bad ideas.

But the Irish found their footing and actually had a pretty impressive outing, especially in the second half. But what a crazy start to the football game—with points hitting the board like a pinball machine.

 

The Run Blocking. It’s going to be an important week for Harry Hiestand’s troops. Because North Carolina State has a solid defensive line—much better than Syracuse. And take away two big runs and the Irish ground game was really mediocre, getting no push in the trenches and failing to win as they attacked the edges of the Orange defense.

Colin McGovern tapped out as he tried to fight through a high-ankle sprain. Hunter Bivin was the next man in and struggled at times. Alex Bars got noticed a few times for the wrong reasons, too.

If this season has done anything, it’s served as a reminder that last year’s offensive line was incredible and that the Irish miss first-rounder Ronnie Stanley and second-rounder Nick Martin.

 

The False Start Penalties. The next guy to jump offsides on 3rd-and-less-than-five should get stuck carrying the dirty laundry back to campus. Notre Dame’s defensive front—certainly a group eager to impressive—wasn’t all that sharp on Eric Dungey’s hard count.

New Rule: If you can pass admissions at Notre Dame, you should be able to watch the football and not bite on the hard count on 3rd-and-short.

 

The targeting penalty. Devin Studstill getting thrown out of the game—after a replay official triggered the review—was all the worst parts of a rule that seems to be good sense, but rarely gets properly enforced.

Listening to Kelly postgame, you could hear a head coach who was clearly frustrated, with the loss of Studstill a huge impact on an already young and inexperienced secondary.

“He was definitely not targeting. I don’t understand the rule,” Kelly said.

 

 

THE UGLY

That was one ugly win. And that’s a good thing. Because for the past few seasons we’ve had a hard time remembering that an ugly win is a good thing, and too often we’ve gotten wrapped up in style points as most struggled to enjoy Saturdays where the Irish sang the fight song postgame but didn’t play up to their potential.

Well, one terrible September goes a long way toward a remedy.

With next weekend’s kickoff set for noon, the Irish dodge a primetime bullet that usually comes with a highly-ranked Irish team going on the road. That’s mostly a good thing, especially if the Wolfpack—and their fans— find themselves a little slow rolling out of bed.

But at this point, there’s no such thing as a bad win. So good, bad, or ugly—any way to get it done will be good enough for this crew.

CB Nick Watkins out for the season

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 01:  Wide receiver Michael Thomas #3 of the Ohio State Buckeyes runs with the ball as Nick Watkins #21 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish attempts to make a tackle during the first quarter of the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl at the University of Phoenix Stadium on January 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. Buckeyes won 44-28. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
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The push to get cornerback Nick Watkins back on the field this season is over. The junior cornerback, who broke his arm this spring, will have another procedure on a slow-healing bone, ending his 2016 season before it ever started.

“It did not take full growth and so he’s going to need an additional surgery. So he’ll be out for the year,” Brian Kelly said on Sunday.

Watkins was expected to be a starter for the Irish at cornerback after playing admirably as an emergency starter against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. A former elite-level recruit, the Dallas native played sparingly his freshman and sophomore seasons, struggling to win a job or a place in the rotation.

But the big junior season never happened, with an arm break near the end of spring ball never healing properly. That injury, Devin Butler’s suspension and Shaun Crawford’s achilles tear decimated the Irish depth at cornerback—a position that looked like one of the strength’s of the roster.

The silver lining is a medical redshirt for Watkins, who’ll have two years of eligibility remaining after this season.