Author: Keith Arnold

Irish offense preparing for former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta


Past and present Notre Dame football will unite on Saturday, with the Irish traveling to Charlottesville to take on Virginia. And while the juicy storylines aren’t exactly jumping off the page in one of Notre Dame’s six ACC matchups this season, the chance for the Irish offense to go against former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta is one that has Notre Dame fans more than a little interested.

Brought to Notre Dame by Charlie Weis, Tenuta served as the Irish defensive coordinator for two seasons. The move was interesting for many reasons. And if we’re being honest, it was a disaster for just as many.

Tenuta was Notre Dame’s first big-money, free agent coaching acquisition. After giving Weis all he could handle as Georgia Tech’s defensive coordinator, the former Irish head coach decided to bring Tenuta to South Bend, with hopes that the veteran coordinator would infuse some of his aggressiveness into his football program.

Tenuta did that, blitzing on more than half of the defense’s snaps. But too often those blitzes never got home, and the Irish finished 2009 giving up an insane amount of big plays, finishing 103rd in the country by giving up 6.2 yards per play. Throw in Tenuta’s gruff disposition and some well-documented chemistry issues on the coaching staff, and Weis’ third shot at finding the right defensive coordinator ended up being one of many reasons he was fired.

All this background is given to you because one rather obvious statement makes Notre Dame fans feel a little bit less than comfortable: Tenuta and current Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder have a lot in common. And Brian Kelly acknowledged that on Tuesday.

“I think they both probably drink from the same well,” Kelly said. “I think Brian and Jon would definitely both tell you they’d much rather be exotic and bring pressures if they could. Sometimes you’re limited by certain situations, but I would say they’re very similar from that respect.”

When it’s going well, an attacking defensive coordinator helps a team dictate terms. They demand perfection, unwilling to give up a five-yard out route, let alone a 50-yard bomb. Weis saw that from Tenuta, and understandably wanted that in his program. And Kelly knew that’s how VanGorder coached defense, and after Bob Diaco left to take over the UConn program, Kelly decided he wanted to crank up the pressure schemes.

The big difference between Weis and Kelly’s decisions? Kelly had recruited the personnel that made that scheme possible? Weis? Not so much, yo-yo’ing between Rick Minter, Corwin Brown and Tenuta, all while struggling to recruit on the defensive side of the ball.

Kelly talked about how important personnel is when determining defensive schemes.

“It’s so much about personnel that allows you to do the things you want to do defensively,” Kelly explained. “Sometimes you’re limited by certain situations.”

We saw those limitations firsthand last year. After looking like world-beaters throughout September and parts of October, Notre Dame’s personnel just didn’t have the ability to deploy VanGorder’s aggressive schemes, with a disastrous stretch yielding nearly 40 points a game to opponents to close the season.

Get one look at the game tape from last weekend in the Rose Bowl, it appeared that Tenuta’s defense struggled getting to UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen as well, a talented defense feeling the effects of multiple losses to the NFL. And even sending blitzers early and often, the Cavaliers were unable to disrupt the Bruins’ quick-throwing scheme. That’s something that Irish fans saw all too often when Tenuta was calling the Notre Dame defense, and likely adds some fire to a matchup that already looks awfully uneven on paper.

Of course, Malik Zaire is starting just his third game at Notre Dame. And while the Irish offensive line did a nice job protecting him against Texas, the Longhorns managed nine tackles-for-loss. So you can forgive Kelly and his offensive staff if they aren’t out to right the wrongs of the Weis era.

As is always the case, deposed coaches are whipping boys and scapegoats, and Tenuta’s scowling face is too often associated with the defensive ineptitude of the Weis era. But Virginia’s defensive coordinator has been around college football for the better part of 35 years, coaching at his alma mater after a career that’s seen him do lofty things at stops like Marshal Ohio State and Georgia Tech.

So while Irish fans are hoping Notre Dame scores points by the bushel and makes big plays against the risk-taking schemes of their former defensive coordinator, Kelly and the Irish staff know they’ve got a big week of preparation, with Virginia’s defense more than capable of getting after the quarterback and turning over the football.

“They’ve got an answer for everything that you’re doing offensively. They like to mix things up, play some man, some zone, single pressures,” Kelly said. [They’re] a defense that can cause you some problems with some very, very good coaching, very sound fundamentally and can really get after you with a lot of different schemes and a lot of different looks.”



Injuries mean opportunities for young talent

Kris Boyd, Josh Adams


Notre Dame lost Tarean Folston on his third carry of the season, with the junior running back tearing his ACL within the first 10 minutes of the season. The injury hurts the Irish depth chart, taking a frontline player from a position group that already was thin on numbers and experience.

Folston’s injury is the second one of Notre Dame’s building blocks to go down. The Irish already lost Jarron Jones in preseason camp, the starting defensive tackle rolled up in a pile and done for the year, erasing a large piece of experience (and talent) in the trenches.

But injuries happen. And while Irish fans thinking back on last season’s injury-plagued demise are likely looking over their shoulder, Brian Kelly‘s team soldiers on.

So a program that’s long held the tenet “Next Man In” will call on the credo one more time, with the sixth-year head coach ready to show that injuries also create opportunities.

After all, before there was KeiVarae Russell, there was serious worries about how the Irish would replace cornerback Lo Wood. Russell would’ve likely never played on the defensive side of the ball had it not been for an Achilles injury to Wood, paired with the preseason departure of Tee Shepard.

Don’t forget Joe Schmidt. Notre Dame’s captain and underdog story might just be another special teams ace if not for the injury to Jarrett Grace and depth issues plaguing Bob Diaco’s 2013 unit.

A football coach likely knows the best way to make God laugh—tell him your (preseason) plans. So while the on-paper team we saw coming together this offseason is already off course, the Irish coaching staff was likely expecting the unexpected. That’s why Kelly and his assistant coaches are spending today preaching a new lesson to the bottom-half of a very talented roster.

“We have some young guys that we think are still capable of playing for us that are down on the depth chart a little bit. They kind of have that look like, well, I may never get out of this position that I’m in,” Kelly said after the game on Saturday.

“I told our coaches, it’s important that you go to these guys on Monday and let them know, they are probably going to get an opportunity to play this year. And to continue to work with them and continue to build their confidence that when we call on you, be ready, because we think we have some depth that may have to play for us and they are quality players.”

Those plans likely include activating Dexter Williams, a running back that in an ideal situation may have saved a year of eligibility. They include a tag-team at defensive tackle with sophomore Daniel Cage and Jerry Tillery, and likely snaps from guys further down the depth chart, especially with Georgia Tech right around the corner.

Notre Dame’s work on the recruiting trail, and Kelly’s six-year efforts to rework the Irish roster are taking hold. And that will allow a talented freshman class that looked ready to wait its turn push for every opportunity it can get.

“Any top-notch football program has to be able to call on some of these freshmen players that have the mental and physical—and I underline the mental, as well as the physical ability—to come in and compete right away, because it creates competition within your program that rises all ships,” Kelly said. “And that means the upperclassmen, as well.”

We’ve seen that in the secondary, where junior cornerback Devin Butler fought his way into the lineup as the unlikely outside cornerback in nickel situations. We’ve also likely seen DeShone Kizer take a step forward, noticing the talent of freshman Brandon Wimbush. That applies to all positions across the board.

Josh Adams has made my two veteran running backs better, because of his level of play, and that’s across the board. Equanimeous St. Brown has made Will Fuller better,” Kelly said.

“So when you get a freshman class like that that can come in and compete and play at that level, those kids see it. Those veteran kids see it, and it really drives them to be better players. And I think it’s a very, very important factor.”

Right now, you talent like Nick Coleman is making his impact on special teams. Same with Te’von Coney. But that’ll change in the coming weeks, as the Irish are forced to call on their depth as the schedule stiffens until the Irish play USC in mid-October before taking a well-earned week off.

“We like the guys we’ve got. That’s football,” Kelly said, when asked about how he moves forward without his starting running back. “We’re certainly disappointed for Tarean. He’s worked so hard to get where he is. But that’s the nature—there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s why you try to develop the depth in your program.”


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

Brian Kelly

Two days later, the shine is still on Notre Dame’s 38-3 victory. The Irish essentially put the college football world on notice that there’s good reason that people were pumping the preseason tires of a school that quite often gets a little too much fluff after a long offseason.

But behind Malik Zaire and a punishing Irish defense, Notre Dame sprinted out to an early lead, made it through a short bit of malaise, and then stepped on the gas to run away from the Longhorns. So with a quick turnaround on a lovely holiday weekend, let’s get to the weekend’s good, bad and ugly.



Malik Zaire. He was wonderful. Zaire threw the football accurately, handled the big stage and seemed to fully grasp the role of offensive leader as he treated the postgame like some ambassador or elder statesman. But if you want a look at Zaire’s energy, this still has me laughing.

Zaire’s accuracy was a pleasant surprise. His fastball was impressive. And while he’ll learn that bouncing it outside against a fleet group of young Texas defenders might not be the best idea as a runner, he more than held his own in the ground game.

Now, it’s time to take coaching. Brian Kelly talked about some reads Zaire could’ve made better and he’ll constantly be challenged by defenses trying to catch the Irish in the wrong protection, which you can assume will happen with Jon Tenuta’s blitz parade on tap for next weekend.

But one week in, Zaire was among the best quarterbacks in the nation and looked like a three-year starter, not the guy playing in essentially his second game. And that’s good enough for now.


The Defense. Collectively, this group played like it had something to prove. And it did. After last season’s collapse, it was fair for most to take a wait-and-see approach on Brian VanGorder. The Irish started strong in 2014, but once injuries hit Notre Dame was unable to hang their hat on anything.

Well this group made up for lost time on Saturday night. The pass rush was swarming. The point of attack was dominant. And outside of one deep ball, the Irish were up to the coverage challenges all night long.

Texas didn’t make it inside the Irish red zone. Of all the defenses in the country that played a Power 5 opponent, Notre Dame was the best from a total defense perspective. So while we’ll still need to see how this group does against a talented team—and that’s coming in two weeks against Georgia Tech—this group looked swarming, nasty and nothing like the group that finished the year at USC.


Will FullerThere’s no deadlier weapon in space than Fuller, who finds new ways to dominate football game. And he also made sure that he made every play, not allowing a drop or a mental mistake spoil a perfect evening at the office.

Fuller’s two touchdowns pushes him to 17 in his last 14 games. While he might not be the physically dominant player that Michael Floyd was, he’s quickly making a case to be considered the most dangerous receiver in Irish history, and has established a chemistry with Zaire that should have opposing coaches worrying.


The ground game. No, the final numbers didn’t come out overly impressive, with the Irish running for just over four yards a carry. But the Irish racked up 214 total yards against Texas with the team’s best running back sidelined after his third carry. Gotta tip your cap to Harry Hiestand and the boys there, especially when Texas expected to be very tough against the run.

This group will need to clean up some sloppy penalties, with Nick Martin called for a snap infraction on a critical 4th-and-1, and Ronnie Stanley and Steve Elmer also caught for false starts. But in the second half the Irish had Texas on the ropes and they buried them. That’s what you want from your offensive line and backs.


Josh AdamsA lot of people are claiming to have said nice things about Adams now that he’s run for two touchdowns and looks like the No. 2 back on the depth chart. (Check out the A-to-Z, I said nice things!) But after one week, Adams has solidified the coaching staff’s belief in him, and has quieted any skeptics who wondered about recruiting a three-star back coming off a major knee injury.

More important, Adams seems to have found a very big supporter in his head coach, and there’s no better ally to have than that. Adams will be giving all the work he can handle, and deserves it after his deadly efficiency with his chances on Saturday, scoring twice on his five carries.

Adams has a mix of size and speed that’s intriguing. He also seems to have grasped the mental objectives needed to reach the field. He’ll be up for a test next weekend when Tenuta sends seven different kinds of smoke. But so far, Adams has exceeded all expectations.




Hey there DeShone Kizer. No, I’m not going to ride you about the missed throw. (You know you could make that one in your sleep.) But I am going to give you some credit for showing great leadership and not letting something bigger start when the young Longhorns tried to get scrappy at the end of the game. Gotta love a quarterback stepping in and standing up for his teammates. That didn’t go unnoticed.

Max Redfield may have only made three tackles in the box score, but I thought he was everywhere on Saturday night. When Redfield flies up into the box, that’s a very good thing.

Jaylon Smith looked like the guy who had everybody excited this offseason. He looks stronger at the point of attack, and it sure was fun to see him put a hand on the ground and come flying off the edge. I don’t think we saw even a fraction of what we can expect from him. And he’s going to have a very, very big year.

Front Four. Man, they looked good. (As they probably should against a young offensive line with two freshmen starters.) But Sheldon Day dominated just about every snap he took and it’s great reassurance to see Romeo Okwara, Day, and Jerry Tillery get sacks, with Andrew Trumbetti coming mighty close, too.

I like the sight of Nick Coleman blazing down the field on special teams. Running with veterans like Matthias Farley, Jarrett Grace and KeiVarae Russell, the Notre Dame coverage teams looked really good.

Garbage Time! Who doesn’t love letting the benches clear and getting the young guys on the field. Playing in an environment like Saturday night is crucial for young guys taking their first snaps, and it was great to give players like Te’von Coney, Jonathan Bonner, Dexter Williams and Equanimeous St. Brown their first looks.



Tarean Folston‘s injury. You can’t feel anything but terrible for Folston, who tore his ACL on his third carry of the season. In just about every way you can look at it, this stinks. For Folston, who was ready to carry the load for an Irish offense that looked poised to explode with him in the backfield. For Notre Dame’s depth chart, which has now lost Folston and Greg Bryant from the spring roster. And for the Irish offense in general, who’ll lose a veteran who understood the nuances of the game.

If there’s an upside, it’s that Folston’s injury comes early in the year. That means he’ll have at least seven months of rehab and rest before the Irish begin spring practice and a full calendar year to get back to 100 percent before the 2016 season.

Testing the depth chart. Brian Kelly said this was his deepest team. I just don’t think he wanted to have to prove that so quickly. The losses of Folston and Jarron Jones put stress on two positions that aren’t necessarily the best equipped to handle it. And while there was no noticing a drop in performance when the next men in got their chances, eventually you can’t help but wonder if this will catch up with Notre Dame.

(It’s worth pointing out, Notre Dame isn’t the only team to have bad luck. UCLA just lost star defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes for the season with a torn ACL. Pitt star James Connor is lost for the year with a knee injury. Virginia just lost two starters to season-ending injuries. Clemson’s leading returning receiver, Mike Williams, broke his neck in the season-opener against Wofford, with his recovery time still unknown.)

That’s football. And Kelly made it clear that he didn’t expect anybody to feel sorry for him. But the injuries certainly chip away at the team’s biggest strength.



Staying empty. 38-3 keeps this one clear.