Author: Keith Arnold

Cody Kessler

Offseason Q&A: USC


Brian Kelly’s run of success against rival USC came to a screeching halt last year in the Coliseum, with Notre Dame getting run out of South Los Angeles in lopsided fashion. After watching Kelly even things up after Pete Carroll built an ocean between the two programs, Steve Sarkisian’s win over the Irish rebooted the rivalry.

Regardless of injuries, depth issues and quarterback problems, Notre Dame looked like the less talented squad in the Coliseum, with the Trojan offense doing what it wanted while the Irish pulled the plug on Everett Golson and moved to Malik Zaire for a spark in the second quarter. The change literally redirected the programs trajectory, essentially the beginning of the end for Golson in a Notre Dame uniform.

It’s the Trojans’ turn to travel in 2015, and a flock of USC faithful will post up in Chicago while the men of Troy head into Notre Dame Stadium with ambitious goals. A game that very well could have College Football Playoff implications has the chance to be a special one—especially if both teams handle their business beforehand.

To get us up to speed on the state of the Trojans’’s Ryan Abraham was nice enough to answer a few questions.

Hope you enjoy:


Last year was one of the most lopsided ND-USC games in a long time, bringing back memories to the Pete Carroll thumpings of Charlie Weis. What do you make of it? Just an injury-ravaged Notre Dame team? The ascent of USC and Sark? Brian Kelly has done well against the Trojans. Does last year reboot this rivalry for you?

Last year’s USC-ND game was interesting to say the least. I expected Notre Dame to play a lot better and I did not expect USC to play as well as it did. The Trojans got thumped the week before against UCLA, and I believe that if the Fighting Irish were playing USC one week earlier, the result would have been significantly different. USC came out flat and not ready to play against the Bruins, so that forced them to focus and play more loose and aggressive the following week against Notre Dame.

It was a key victory for USC and especially Steve Sarkisian. He had high expectations, even for his first year on the job, and losing to both arch rivals in one season doesn’t sit well with the USC fan base. I think that win by Sark does in a way reset the rivalry. Both schools should be poised to make runs at one of the four college football playoff spots over the next few years so this game could be somewhat of an elimination game, adding to the importance.



Both these teams have the on-paper makings of a playoff contender. What needs to go right for the Trojans to fulfill the lofty expectations they bring into 2015?

Talent wise, USC shouldn’t be at a disadvantage against anyone on its schedule. They bring in the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, adding much needed depth, so that shouldn’t be much of an excuse going forward.

This team has the makings and the potential to make the college football playoffs, but I think the Trojans goals have to be something smaller, specifically winning the Pac-12 South. That division is deep and tough, so the first step to making the playoff is winning the South and then of course winning the conference title game.

The Pac-12 is strong enough that if USC wins the championship game they should be one of the four teams selected for the college football playoff. The key will be how much Sarkisian and his staff have grown from year one to year two and how they utilize the tremendous talent currently on the roster.


It’s not an offseason without the Trojans losing some elite talent to the NFL. But there are some really talented young kids on this roster. We caught glimpses of JuJu Smith (who ND felt really good about landing as a recruit) and Adoree Jackson. While Nelson Agholor and Leonard Williams are gone, who seem primed to emerge as the next future stars from Troy? 

You mentioned two players, Juju Smith and Adoree Jackson, who are really poised to be the next great stars at USC. Both were five-star recruits who chose the Trojans on signing day. If you don’t think recruiting matters, think about how many more games USC would have lost last season if those two players didn’t put on USC hats on signing day.

Linebacker Su’a Cravens, heading into his junior (and likely final) year, should be a very high selection in the NFL Draft and very well could be the best and most important player on the roster right now.


QB Cody Kessler had a ridiculous season, and Notre Dame fans saw firsthand his accuracy and abilities in the Coliseum. It seems like he’s been under-appreciated, with headlines going to the lofty 5-star prospects, but Kessler holding down the job and working his way into some rarified air. How good is Kessler? And is it safe to group him in with some of the recent greats? 

Cody Kessler’s numbers were certainly impressive with 39 touchdown passes against only five interceptions. The knock on him last season was that he accumulated the majority of his touchdowns against the weaker opposition.

But after setting records against Notre Dame at the end of the season, it will be interesting to see if he is able to have that kind of success against teams like Oregon, Arizona State and UCLA in 2015. He is a talented kid and a good leader, so we shall see if he can take a step forward during his third season as the starting quarterback.


Let’s talk about Sark. He lost four games last season, laying some eggs but having some nice victories as well. What are expectations entering his second season? Do you feel more or less confident that he’s the right guy to return USC to the land of the elite? 

The expectations on Sark in his first year were extremely high. USC was able to win 10 games despite having three different head coaches in 2013. So only winning nine games and losing a couple of last second heartbreakers was a letdown for many Trojan fans.

In February Sark signed the top-ranked recruiting class, which is certainly a positive development in his tenure, but it also puts even more pressure on him to win and win now. The sanctions are over, the depth should be much better, the overall talent is there, so there are no reasons why this team shouldn’t at least win the division. Anything short of that will be a disappointment and I would expect if that happens, the boosters and alumni will start putting pressure on the administration to make a change. Is that fair? Probably not, but Sark had big shoes to fill taking over for the extremely popular Ed Orgeron so the pressure was on from day one.



We’re a long ways away. But what do you expect come October when these two teams face off?

I expect a much more competitive USC-Notre Dame game come October. I have no idea what the outcome will be, but I don’t expect one team to run away with it like last season. Both teams have the potential to be undefeated and highly ranked, so it could be one of the classic matchups in this long and storied rivalry.

Jumbo WR Chase Claypool commits to Notre Dame

Rivals / Blue & Gold

Chase Claypool committed to Notre Dame from The Opening on Friday evening, a very big pickup for the Fighting Irish’s 2016 recruiting class. Very big might not actually cover it, because at 6-foot-6, Claypool will immediately become one of  the largest skill players in the country when he steps foot onto campus next summer.

Claypool, who hails from British Columbia and was a mostly anonymous football player before offers came flooding in, picked Notre Dame over Rutgers, Michigan, Oregon and several other top programs. He was visited by Mike Elston, recruited hard by Mike Denbrock, and came to camp in South Bend in late June as part of a star-studded Irish Invasion group.

Right now, Claypool is standing out as a receiver in Beaverton, matching up with some of the elite talent in the country, likely quite a jump from prep football in Canada. And while the Irish certainly think he can be an immediate mismatch on the edge of the offense, they’re also pretty sure he can tackle just about any position he sets out to play.

At the Irish Invasion, the defensive staff was looking at him as a safety, a scary combination of length and athleticism. Oregon reportedly likes him as an outside linebacker. And he’s a few protein shakes away from being the type of lanky pass rusher the Irish need, especially after Bo Wallace and Notre Dame parted ways this summer.

However you crack it, Claypool has shown himself to be a difference-maker this week, and he’s a game-changer for an Irish recruiting class that’s still somewhat short on star power.

His commitment makes it one dozen for the class of 2016 — joining Florida receiver Kevin Stepherson and fellow Opening camper Tony Jones Jr. on the offensive side of the ball (for now).

“It’s surreal the fact that I thought I was gonna go to a Canadian university and have to pay for my education and stuff,” Claypool told Irish Illustrated. “The fact that I get it for free at Notre Dame, that’s kinda crazy.”


Irish A-to-Z: Steve Elmer

Purdue v Notre Dame

At this time last year, Steve Elmer was on track to start at guard for the Irish—staying on the interior of the offensive line when many had projected him to be a tackle. Yet entering fall camp, Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand pushed Elmer outside to right tackle, hoping the promising youngster could make the transition outside just as smoothly as he had done everything else in his collegiate career.

The move didn’t stick, and Elmer’s learning curve contributed to a slow start up front for the Irish. But after sliding back inside to guard, Elmer put together a solid season, and now enters his junior year having played in 23 games and started 17, incredible experience for a true third-year player.

While he’s not likely to be the left tackle many expected when he arrived in South Bend, he’s on pace to be an excellent offensive lineman—capable of being dominant from day one against Texas.

Let’s take a closer look at Steve Elmer.


6’5.5″, 315 lbs.
Junior, No. 79, RG



A blue-chipper, Elmer’s only sin in the recruiting world was a super early commitment to Notre Dame, and an unwillingness to waver on that pledge. Elmer started as an elite, 5-star-level prospect. Some challenges on the summer circuit dropped that ranking, but after dominating at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, his stock moved back up.

Elmer was chased by Michigan to no avail and likely would’ve fielded offers from just about any program in the country if he wanted them. He received the Anthony Munoz Award as the top prep lineman in the country.



Freshman Season (2013): Played in 10 games, starting four after Christian Lombard’s season ended with back surgery. Shared time with Conor Hanratty at guard.

Sophomore Season (2014): Started all 13 games for the Irish, one of just eight players on the team to start every game. Played the first three games of the season at right tackle.



I wrote this not knowing that Notre Dame’s staff would reshuffle their offensive line, pushing Elmer into the right tackle job he never fully got comfortable playing.

While I don’t think he played up to the level we maybe expected, another year at guard will give the cerebral Elmer time to hone his craft.

There are few linemen I like more than Elmer, a solid kid who is showing quite a bit of maturity by sliding inside to guard and taking one for the team. In the end, if he’s as good as we all tend to think, it could end up helping. A Swiss-Army lineman could do similar things in the eyes of NFL scouts as Zack Martin — and Elmer doesn’t have “size” issues that plagued Martin.

Putting him in Martin’s class is a bit premature. At least until we see him dominate like Martin did from the moment he hit the field. But Elmer didn’t get the benefit of redshirting like Martin did, so he has some work to do before he wins multiple lineman of the year awards at Notre Dame.

Ultimately, Elmer, Stanley and McGlinchey have the opportunity to do something very special and form a nucleus that will elevate the Irish offensive line to heights we haven’t seen.

(And no, I’m not talking about the trio being tall.)



There’s an NFL lineman in Elmer, and these next two seasons will determine whether he’s an early-round pick or a guy that goes on day three. The “stigma” that comes with being a guard is long gone in NFL circles, so the worry that getting shoved inside ruins Elmer’s value at the next level went up in smoke when guards started becoming Top 10 picks and Zack Martin played a near-perfect college career at left tackle and then became an All-Pro rookie at guard.

Comparing Elmer to Martin helps nobody. Elmer needs to continue to improve his feet and his technique, and to tighten up his misses. When the rising junior looked bad last season he looked really bad—some blown blocks turning into olé! situations.

But Elmer has everything you want in a lineman. A great frame, good length, size and power. Not to mention a good head on his shoulders. The future is bright.



I fully expect Elmer to be a critical part in the best Irish offensive line since the Holtz era. With another season at guard and growing chemistry between Nick Martin and Mike McGlinchey, Elmer’s entering his third season as a major contributor, and it’s time for dominance to take hold.

Being a piece of the puzzle and one of the dominant performers are two very different things. As an upperclassman and a multi-year starter, Elmer needs to look at himself as one of the three elite performers up front, unwilling to let Martin and future first-rounder Ronnie Stanley carry the weight.

This will be Elmer’s offensive line in 2016. But laying that groundwork begins now.


THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB
Jimmy Byrne, OL
Daniel Cage, DL
Amir Carlisle, RB
Nick Coleman, DB
Te’von Coney, LB
Shaun Crawford, DB
Scott Daly, LS
Sheldon Day, DL
Michael Deeb, LB
Micah Dew-Treadway, DL