It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.
Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.
It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.
Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.
The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week.
Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.
For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.
How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?
Let’s look back.
When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.
That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.
That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.
Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.
Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.
But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.
HINTS OF CHAOS
The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.
The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.
But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.
[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]
WHERE IT WENT WRONG
Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.
The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.
Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.
“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”
While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.
Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.
Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.
Just hours after one member of Notre Dame’s 2017 class stepped away, another took his place. Southern California defensive back Elijah Hicks committed to the Irish. The four-star prospect, an all-purpose defender who can play safety, cornerback and contribute in special teams, pulled the trigger just days after taking his official visit to South Bend.
He made the news official via Twitter and recorded a commitment video with Irish 247’s Tom Loy. And even as Notre Dame’s season continues in the wrong direction, Hicks bought in to the message being sold by the Irish coaching staff, picking Notre Dame over programs like UCLA, USC, Michigan and Washington.
A year after stocking up the secondary—Hicks gives the Irish a nice piece to pair with Paulson Adebo and all-purpose athlete Isaiah Robertson. And as we watch Troy Pride, Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Devin Studstill might a quick impact on the back end, Hicks compares favorably to that quartet, another prospect with elite offers who will come into South Bend ready to fight for a spot in the two-deep.
Hicks told Irish247.com why he pulled the trigger now:
“I chose Notre Dame because on my official visit I felt comfortable and it felt like home,” said Hicks. “One of my favorite quotes about Notre Dame is, ‘Other teams play college football, Notre Dame is college football.’ Coach Lyght, I feel like he could give me the tools that’s necessary to make it to the NFL and have a long career. Also, they have a rich tradition and great academic support.”
Hicks plays for La Mirada High School, the same program that produced reserve Irish tight end Tyler Luatua. He returns Notre Dame’s 2017 class to 18, a Top 10 group by any evaluation.
After five losses, Notre Dame suffered their first consequence of a poor season in recruiting. Donovan Jeter, a four-star defensive lineman, has stepped away from his verbal commitment.
Jeter made the news public on Tuesday, taking to Twitter to send Irish fans into a tailspin.
The sky isn’t quite falling. Jeter called the Irish his top school, likely just getting ahead of the news that he’ll start taking official visits to other schools, something Notre Dame’s recruiting staff has worked well to slow down the past few cycles. Also helping the Irish’s cause is his proximity and connection to fellow Western Pennsylvania prospects David Adams, Kurt Hinish and Josh Lugg.
Still, after making it through last recruiting cycle without a defection, finding a way to win back Jeter is priority No. 1, a versatile defensive lineman who had an elite offer list and picked Notre Dame after basically dismissing them over the summer. The Irish have done it before, getting Stephon Tuitt back in the fold after Georgia Tech sold him on staying home. They won a battle with current defensive coordinator Greg Hudson when he was at Florida State for Aaron Lynch, though Lynch only lasted a season in South Bend.
Usually a decommitment—especially this time of year—isn’t ground for a news story. But as all eyes focus on Brian Kelly and his grasp on the Irish program, this serves as ammo for those looking for cracks in the foundation.
Jeter posted a Tweet that essentially confirmed my speculation. And also should serve as a reminder—DO. NOT. TWEET. AT. RECRUITS.
At this point, most will believe what they want. So whether you want to fire your coach now or batten down the hatches and ride out the storm, one thing is clear—with five losses (close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, I’ve been reminded), Brian Kelly has a program in crisis; each loss feeling like another sledgehammer to the foundation that seemed close to unbreakable as recently as August.
But as the defeats pile up, Kelly’s search for answers continues. And even if every loss hinges on a different culprit, they all point back to the man atop the program.
With a week off and fall break upon us, the distance could provide some introspection. Not just for the head coach, but for the administrators in charge of overseeing the school’s most visible outlet.
There’s no good in this scenario, not with a campus transformation doubling down on a football program that has turned the stadium into the literal centerpoint of campus. But with an off week before returning to action, it’s hard to find much good in where this season has taken us.
But that’s the gig.
So let’s take an analytical approach to the good, bad and ugly this week—merging our eyeballs with the grading system at PFF, who breaks down every snap of every college football game across the country.
James Onwualu. Notre Dame’s senior captain played a complete game, leading the unit with a +3.6 grade on the evening, notching five solo tackles and playing exceptionally in coverage with three pass breakups.
The senior leader of the defense limped off the field late in the game, tweaking something that had him still walking gingerly into his postgame comments, where he said all the right things as one of the leaders of this football team.
“I’m mean, it’s difficult. I’ve never been in this position before, and a lot of people in the locker room haven’t,” Onwualu said. “But we’re just going to keep pushing and working through this adversity.”
Andrew Trumbetti. I’ve been harder on Trumbetti than maybe every defender on this roster, so it’s only fair that I put him up top for the effort he showed Saturday night. With the Irish needing a pass rushing presence, Trumbetti showed that he was actually capable of getting after the quarterback, generating three quarterback hurries by PFF’s count, though he was only credited for one in the official scoring. Trumbetti also drew a big holding penalty when he was tackled coming around the edge.
Playing 22 snaps, Trumbetti generated a +2.4 grade as a pass rusher but a negative grade on the 10 snaps he had against the run, a reminder that small doses might be the best way to get the most out of the junior.
Mike McGlinchey & Quenton Nelson (as Run Blockers): Notre Dame’s vaunted left side blocked like the maulers we expected to see all season. At least in the run game.
Both dominated at the point of attack as the Irish found early success on the ground, keyed by a quick start, and the hulking duo physically imposing their will. It wasn’t quite as easy against the pass, as both McGlinchey and Nelson gave up a sack and graded out as barely breaking even.
We’ll save the rest of our commentary for later sections—an idea of where this group goes wrong crystal clear after second viewing.
Cole Luke & Drue Tranquill: The veterans still remaining in Notre Dame’s secondary played good games. Cole Luke came up with a clutch interception and had what looked to be the game’s defining play taken away by an early whistle—a strip and score blown dead by a Pac-12 ref who had an obstructed view of the great play Luke made on the receiver.
Tranquill looked at home playing downhill, leading the defense with eight tackles, and doing all of his damage as a run defender. Regardless of scheme, Tranquill is never going to be any better than just adequate against the pass, but the junior is playing at a much more consistent level, perfect timing as the second half of the season will include option attacks like Navy and Army, and run heavy opponents like Virginia Tech.
Torii Hunter & Tarean Folston: We may have expected too many big things from this duo, but on Saturday night they both provided a nice spark. Hunter made a handful of big plays and Folston showed the type of vision and hard-running that made him trusted by Brian Kelly before his knee betrayed him.
Getting Folston back healthy and in the mix was a great development. Hunter caught four of his seven targets, getting loose in the secondary when he was given a chance to catch and run.
The Other Offensive Linemen (Sam Mustipher, Hunter Bivin, and Alex Bars): Let’s leave snapping out of this for a moment. Sam Mustipher’s challenges weren’t just making sure his shotgun snaps hit their targets. Mustipher gave up a sack and also struggled terribly in run blocking, the interior of the offensive line having zero answers for Stanford’s Solomon Thomas.
Bivin was no better. He was flagged for two penalties, he struggled with both run and pass blocking, and the senior hardly looking like the answer as the first man in for injured guard Colin McGovern, who sat out with a concussion.
Bars’ struggles are part of any first-year starter’s learning curve. But playing next to two other first-year starters, the right side is clearly struggling to hold up against both good pass rushers and disruptive defensive fronts.
DeShone Kizer. Criticize the decision to look elsewhere in the fourth quarter (especially in hindsight). But don’t forget that Kizer’s play was what made the move even a consideration.
From jump street, the junior’s game seemed off. His first drive started with Kizer air-mailing a throw over Kevin Stepherson’s head and then missing badly on a crossing route to Torii Hunter after failing to set his feet. And it didn’t really get better from there.
Both interceptions Kizer threw were back-breakers. And they were hardly the only mistakes he made. Kizer missed some open receivers, struggled with Stanford’s pass rush and looked uncomfortable against a defense that gave up a ton of points the last two weeks. (Worth noting: The Cardinal welcomed back a few key starters on the defensive side of the ball.)
Player development rarely happens in a straight line. And while we all worked ourselves into a frenzy when Kizer lit up Texas, that’s looking less and less impressive by the week. And while there’s every chance that Kizer’s NFL potential is still as sky high as most of us believe, the reality of the situation is that it’s much harder throwing to this group of young receivers —behind this offensive line—than it was to Will Fuller and company.
“I think that everybody’s got to improve around him. I really don’t think it’s just about DeShone Kizer,” Kelly said Sunday. “We have got to protect him better, I think we have got to run more precise routes. I think the play calling has to improve. I just think it’s always the quarterback is going to be the center of the storm and that certainly comes with the position.”
So while some will call this (another) indictment on the head coach as a quarterback developer, or wonder if the shine is gone from Mike Sanford, the reality of the situation is that Kizer’s tasked with more on his shoulders this season, and it’s showing.
The Rest of it.
This could be 1,000 words or 100, the result is the result: Losing stinks. And it takes down an entire autumn in South Bend and the good will of Notre Dame nation is long, long gone.
So the week off comes at a perfect time. It allows some separation, maybe even some perspective. Not just for a young team that’s in desperate need of getting out of the spotlight. But for a coaching staff that needs to catch its breath.
Watch the Irish play and you don’t see a team that’s quit or a team that’s getting blown out. You see something even more frustrating, a team that finds different ways to lose, each falling within a close enough margin to magnify a coaching decision here or there, with the head coach struggling to push the right buttons on a young team too inconsistent to close out games.
But with school out and five games remaining, this journey isn’t over. So instead of looking at the depths this season could continue to plunge, Kelly hopes his young team takes a few days to hit reset and return to the battle.
“I just want them to get away and then when they come back fully committed with a great attitude, ready to prepare and to get over this slide that we’re in in terms of finishing out football games,” Kelly said. “We have got to be able to get through this and that’s going to require great attitude and great preparation. So that’s really what I focused on. Get away, avoid the noise as best you can, come back ready to go, reenergized, and ready to win every game that we play over the next five weeks.”