05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)
AP

How we got here: The Defense

36 Comments

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.

 

HIRING VANGORDER

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.

 

THE END

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.”

 

THE AFTERMATH

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.

CB Elijah Hicks commits to Notre Dame

elijah-hicks
Irish 247
13 Comments

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.

***

Irish suffer first recruiting defection with Donovan Jeter

donovan-jeter-rivals
Rivals
41 Comments

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.

UPDATED: 

Jeter posted a Tweet that essentially confirmed my speculation. And also should serve as a reminder—DO. NOT. TWEET. AT. RECRUITS.

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

83 Comments

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.

 

THE GOOD

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 BAD

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 UGLY

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.”

Five things we learned: Stanford 17, Notre Dame 10

83 Comments

Different week, same nightmare.

Notre Dame’s fifth loss of the season may have unraveled differently than the previous four, but the end result was the same—a late-game rally that came up short and a few very large questions for the man in charge of the program.

Stanford ended their two-game losing streak by scoring 17 second-half points to top the Irish 17-10. And on an evening where you could’ve excused both sidelines from showing the apathy that seemed to surround this game, both teams played desperate for a win, with the Cardinal swarming DeShone Kizer on the game’s final snap.

“This is a bitter pill to swallow,” Brian Kelly said after the game. “I love those kids in there. They had great energy. They wanted to win. They did everything that they knew in terms of what they felt like they could do to win, and they just came up a little short again.”

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

DeShone Kizer may be in a slump, but Brian Kelly is over-thinking his quarterback position. 

DeShone Kizer played poorly. Before he returned to the field for the game’s final drive, Kizer was just seven of 16 for 99 yards, with two interceptions, including a game-changing pick-six that starting the second half’s swing.

But he’s still Notre Dame’s best option at the position, even if Kelly had to see Malik Zaire one more time to know it.

Looking for a spark, Kelly turned to Zaire. And instead of turning the offense around, the senior backup put together three series where the Irish went three-and-out, safety, three-and-out, seven plays for a grand total of minus-nine yards.

“That was a head coaching decision,” Kelly explained postgame. “I just felt like it was important to try to get some energy back. We lost some energy, and I thought going to Malik would do that.”

The move backfired, with the offense shutout in the second half and Stanford controlling the clock and possession of the football. And while the struggles were hardly exclusive to either quarterback, Kizer’s return to the game wasn’t enough to bail the Irish out—an impressive drive done in by Solomon Thomas and the Stanford defense in the shadow of the north end zone.

Zaire’s time in South Bend has been star-crossed. A job lost by injury, two depth chart battles ending with him on the outside looking in. But fairness isn’t a tenet of major college football. And doing what’s fair isn’t helping the team.

So in a season where Kelly desperately searches for a rabbit in every hat, he once again came up empty when he tried calling Zaire’s number, taking three possessions away from the one quarterback who gave the Irish their best shot to win the game.

 

Sam Mustipher’s snapping has become a problem. But the whole offensive line is in a slump. 

The hurricane was gone. But Sam Mustipher’s problems were not. And the Irish center had another tough day at the office, sailing a snap by Zaire that gave Stanford two points and another by Kizer that cost the Irish 11 yards.

On the sideline, Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand huddled, likely deciding whether or not to insert sophomore center Tristen Hoge into the lineup. They didn’t, and Mustipher got back on track. But with another fire brewing during a season filled with flames,  after the game Kelly said all the right things about his embattled center.

“Listen, Sam is a great kid. He wants to do it right. He feels terrible. But we’ll just keep working at it, and it’s just an unfortunate situation,” Kelly said.

Mustipher’s shotgun struggles might have been the ones to stand out, but he wasn’t alone. Hunter Bivin had a difficult matchup all evening in at right guard for Colin McGovern, and Stanford’s three sacks felt like double that with Notre Dame’s quarterbacks constantly under siege.

Notre Dame gained just 307 yards, a few long runs and a 33-yard completion to Torii Hunter buoying that total. And a week after having no answer for the NC State front four, the Irish offensive line struggled against Stanford as well.

 

Jarron Jones is back to playing like Jarron Jones. And developing into a leader while he’s doing it. 

Fifth-year senior Jarron Jones made the game’s most impressive play, putting his blocker on roller skates, steam-rolling his way to quarterback Ryan Burns, sacking, striping and recovering the fumble he forced. It was an incredible display of raw power and athleticism, and a continued uptick for Jones as he plays his way back into a dominant force.

A season that started with Jones only being a part-time participant has turned into a final season where the Rochester native returns to the form that had so many excited before injuries ruined his 2015 before it started. But more interestingly, Jones’ postgame comments showed a commitment that Kelly applauded postgame, and leadership traits that weren’t always observable now seem to be the fuel that will drive Jones through the home stretch of his final season in South Bend.

“No matter how hard things get, I mean, I’ve never even been in this situation before. No matter how hard things get, we’ve got to stay the course,” Jones said.  “We’ve got to still believe in our coaches, believe in each other. Believe that we can get each other out of this and all we have to do is push each other, love each other and play for each other, which we did today.”

 

Notre Dame’s young defense took another step forward–even if it doesn’t make the loss sit any better. 

The young Irish defense that replaced Brian VanGorder and restructured their scheme went nine-consecutive quarters without giving up an offensive touchdown. And while that kind of progress sure feels empty after a demoralizing loss, Greg Hudson has infused an energy into a unit that was left for dead in September, and has managed to transform itself even while it relies on multiple freshmen in the secondary.

The Irish held Stanford to just 296 yards. While Bryce Love found some success, his 23 carries for 129 yards paced the evening, the defense played well enough to win for the second-straight week, a risk-averse strategy helping to eliminate some of the inconsistencies that doomed VanGorder’s unit.

“They’re learning a lot as we go, so we want to minimize big plays, which I think we’ve done a really good job of keeping the points down,” Kelly said.
“The thing that I wanted to do when we made the change was keep the points down and limit the big plays.”

Hudson has managed to do that, relying mostly on a three-man front. He’s found a way to get to the quarterback and protect his back-end, the secondary willing to give up the underneath throw to avoid the one over the top. And on a Saturday night where the Irish lined up Troy Pride, Julian Love, Devin Studstill, Jalen Elliott and Donte Vaughn for major snaps, the experience that group is earning will hopefully pay off in the future.

 

Brian Kelly hasn’t lost his football team. But this team goes into the off week hoping this is rock bottom. 

This is a team in search for answers. Because even with energy, effort and enthusiasm, Kelly’s football team isn’t winning games. That leaves this team looking inward, a week off hopefully offering some breathing room and a chance to slow down a snowball that keeps rolling.

“We’re going through a tough spot. But they’re committed to wanting to get through this together,” Kelly said. “Their attitude is incredible, their commitment is incredible. I love coaching this group.”

Kelly spoke of holding this group to a “high standard,” partially an explanation for postgame performance and fiery sideline behavior that’s drawn scorn, particularly as the focus turns to the head coach amidst the most difficult run of Kelly’s time in South Bend. But as the walls close in, there didn’t appear to be any fractures in team unity.

“If everybody out there doesn’t think we love each other and play for each other, then I don’t know what kind of game they are watching,” Jones said postgame. “I felt like this was the most energetic game we’ve ever had, in my four years here.”

That sentiment was echoed by captains Mike McGlinchey, Torii Hunter and James Onwualu as well. It’s often accompanied by a frustration that has all parties—head coach, players, and likely administrators—wondering when things will turn.

So as the university breaks for a week, the football team will trudge on, searching for answers and doing it as united as a 2-5 team can be.

“I told the guys, this is the no-apology zone. Nobody needs to apologize to anybody,” Kelly said.  “It’s one of those things where everybody knows where we’re at.

“We’re 2-5, and we’re going to get reminded of it by everybody in the country about a million times. We’re 2-5, I’m 2-5, everybody is 2-5, so no one needs to apologize. What we need to do is coach better and execute better, and that will cure a lot of things.”