Brian Kelly

Pregame Six Pack: A Music City Finale


The 2014 season comes to a close on Tuesday afternoon, with Notre Dame playing the role of underdog against LSU in the Music City Bowl. After finishing the regular season on a four-game slide, a date with Les Miles’ young and talented Tigers isn’t the type of opponent that instills a lot of hope in the Irish faithful.

But Brian Kelly said he wanted a challenge for his team and they’ll have one on Tuesday afternoon.

First and foremost is LSU’s defense. With Malik Zaire getting his first start, he’ll meet John Chavis. The SEC’s top-rated unit, Zaire will face a worthy adversary as he hopes to start 2015 in the drivers seat for a quarterback job that should be wide open.

In our last Pregame Six Pack until next September, let’s get ready for the Music City Bowl.


Can Notre Dame stop the run?

That’s likely the difference in this football game. And while the Irish are still missing Joe Schmidt and Jarron Jones, the month off to restructure the front seven will likely make a difference.

If you’re reading between the lines, a few things seem fairly clear. First, Sheldon Day may be officially healthy, but he’s got a long way to go before he’s able to be the every-down player the Irish need. Kelly tabbed Day’s play count around 40 or 50 snaps, which is roughly the number of carries the Tigers will likely attempt.

Secondly, it appears Isaac Rochell will be asked to take on the bulk of the work inside. After Jacob Matuska struggled in his first significant action, Rochell will slide inside to try and combat the power advantage the Tigers have in the trenches. Matuska battled a shoulder/nerve injury that limited his strength and ability to hold his own against USC, but healthy or not, it’s a tough battle for a first-year player still finding his way.

But that’s what the Irish have to choose from. So Brian VanGorder’s unit will have to patch things together, not their best strong suit this season. LSU will help as well, with a passing game that’s one of the least efficient the Irish have faced. But none of that matters if Notre Dame can’t hold its own against a running game that’s intent on breaking the will of the Irish.


What will the Irish get out of Malik Zaire?

There are few better opportunities than the one Malik Zaire will get this afternoon. The sophomore quarterback who finally saw the field against USC gets the start against the Tigers. Welcome to the Big Leagues, kid.

What that means from a playing time perspective remains to be seen, with Kelly still committed to playing Everett Golson. But if Zaire wants a chance to prove he can be the man driving the Irish offense, there’s no better litmus test than against LSU.

The Tigers secondary is one of the toughest in college football. Their run defense has not lived up to that standard, with Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn all having big games on the ground. Zaire’s skills as a runner are often discussed. Now we’ll see if they’re more than just a talking point, with the zone read key to the Irish’s game plan with the young quarterback on the field.

(And no quarterback playing for Brian Kelly is going to get by as a bad passer.)

After a nice performance against USC, Zaire handled the media well, looking the part of a starting quarterback at a big-time program. If he can move the offense and lead the team against LSU, we’ll have ourselves a very interesting spring.


What type of performance can we expect from LSU?

For all the skepticism out there about Notre Dame’s chances right now, it’s worth noting that the Tigers aren’t coming in as world beaters. After ripping off three straight wins, including a victory over No. 3 Ole Miss, the Tigers seemed to have the wind ripped from their sails after Alabama snuck out of Tiger Stadium with an overtime victory.

The loss to the Crimson Tide was followed up by a 17-0 skunking by Arkansas. And while LSU rallied in their season finale to beat Texas A&M, the Tigers haven’t exactly been the best bowl performers the past few years, sleepwalking past Iowa last year 21-14 and losing to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A bowl the year before.

The Tigers’ passing offense is a mess, with quarterback Anthony Jennings completing less than 50 percent of his passes and throwing just 10 touchdowns against seven interceptions. (Three of those TD passes came against someone called Sam Houston.) And defensively, the architect of the LSU attack might have other things on his mind.

John Chavis was offered a three-year extension worth $4 million weeks ago. But while other defensive assistants have signed their contract extensions, the Times-Picayune reports that Chavis hasn’t. An offer to join Kevin Sumlin’s staff at Texas A&M seems to be a sticking point.

Does any of this matter? Maybe not. But it’s worth noting that after a disappointing four-loss season of its own, the Tigers aren’t exactly happy to be in Nashville, either.


Can Will Fuller make a statement — and set a record in the process?

Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller’s big sophomore season flew surprisingly under the radar on the national scene. With four 100-yard efforts and the best single-season totals for a sophomore in school history in catches, yards and touchdowns, Fuller has the chance to make an impact against a secondary that’s among the most talented in the country… not to mention catch Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate in the process.

Fuller’s season was the breakout of the year. But it still saw the wispy Philadelphia native go through some growing pains. For all the catches Fuller made, you can’t help but think about the ones he missed. A few drops took some large plays off the board, and likely a few scores off the stat sheet.

Cornerbacks Jalen Collins and Tre’Davious White are a talented duo, with safeties Jalen Mills and Ronald Martin excellent as well. LSU has built its defensive brand playing man coverage. If Fuller breaks loose this afternoon, he’ll set the stage for a monster 2015 after a record-setting 2014.


Stay or Go? A good performance in the Music City Bowl could be the decision maker. 

Junior left tackle Ronnie Stanley has been discussed as a potential first-round offensive tackle as way-too-early mock drafts begin to emerge. While opinions on where he’ll go seem to vary, Stanley’s talents will be tested early and often against an LSU front that’s combined for 69 tackles for loss.

While the pass rush hasn’t necessarily been the strong suit of the Tigers defense, Stanley will provide another piece of excellent game tape for NFL talent evaluators to pick through, if Stanley decides that three seasons in South Bend are enough.

Brian Kelly didn’t want to discuss the NFL evaluations that Stanley, Nick Martin, Sheldon Day and Everett Golson received. But multiple sources confirmed to me that Stanley didn’t receive a coveted first-round grade when he heard back from the league.

That’s usually enough to get a return for a senior season. But after losing three players with eligibility left after last season and none of them going in the first round, there’s still a tough decision to make. And while his return would be a huge recruiting victory for Kelly and the Irish staff, Stanley will likely weigh his performance in the Music City Bowl before making any decisions.


Can Brian Kelly — and the offensive line — control the game with the Irish offense?

If there was something more disappointing than the Irish’s total defensive collapse against USC it was the brutal start for the offense. While back-to-back turnovers eventually took Everett Golson off the field, starting the game with four straight punts should’ve been even more worrying.

Against the Trojans, the Irish leaned heavily on the possession passing game and struck out. Golson’s inaccuracy, along with a lack of running game, put the vulnerable defense in a tough spot and they certainly didn’t fight their way out of it. (It might have been Paper Bag 49, Irish 14 in the Coliseum that afternoon.)

Kelly has talked openly about the blame he places on the offense for this season’s second-half collapse. And he is the head of that unit. So with one more opportunity to make Kelly the first Irish coach to win eight-or-more games in his first five seasons, he needs to get back to calling the type of game that had the Irish nearly pull off the upset against Florida State.

With Malik Zaire starting, it appears Kelly understands that he needs a strong running game to perch up the defense and possess the football. And after a mediocre season, the starting five has one last shot to prove they’re an ascending position group, not a unit that needs rebooting this spring.

Running the ball won’t just be a necessity to beat the Tigers defense. It’ll keep the ball away from LSU, making it harder for the Tigers to break down the Irish defense with a ground and pound mentality.

But when Golson plays, he’ll also need to run the football, not just drop back and throw it. He’s shown the ability to control the chains with his feet, like he did against Florida State. (He did it even better against Oklahoma in 2012, the ultimate 3rd-and-short weapon.)

Kelly desperately wants to leave Nashville with a victory. He’s going to have to do his best coaching job of the year to do so.

Zaire to start Music City Bowl

Rice v Notre Dame

Brian Kelly announced Monday afternoon that Malik Zaire will start the Music City Bowl at quarterback. It is the sophomore’s first career start after backing up Everett Golson all season.

“We want to put Malik in a position and really challenge him,” Kelly said, according to CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz. “I want to challenge him and put him in this kind of environment. He’s playing against a great defense in LSU and we’ll learn a lot about him tomorrow.”

After pulling Golson in the second quarter against USC after the Irish fell behind USC 35-0, Zaire had moderate success against the Trojans, driving the Irish to two touchdown drives and a failed field goal attempt before halftime. But LSU will offer a much stiffer challenge, with the Tigers the SEC’s top statistical defense.

The opportunity to start gives both team’s staffs their first true look at Zaire, with Les Miles and John Chavis having only two-plus quarters of game tape to examine. It also gives Kelly a better look at what the Irish have in Zaire, heading into an offseason where the sophomore wants to challenge Golson for the starting job.

Speaking of Golson, he’ll get his chances against the Tigers as well, given an opportunity to end the 2014 season on a high note after opening the year with such promise. Kelly praised the work his senior quarterback did during December.

“I’m very pleased with what Everett has done over the past two weeks,” Kelly said. “He’s made very good progress. We still have a great deal of confidence in his ability.”

Does Harbaugh to Michigan really matter for Notre Dame?

AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am - Final Round

Michigan is in the process of finalizing their deal to make former San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh their head football coach. After a mutually agreed upon divorce that feels like a satire on the life and times of Silicon Valley high society, Harbaugh will return to his alma mater to take on the reclamation project of returning the Victors to victories.

Give Michigan brass credit. They went all in on securing Harbaugh, spending the past few months orchestrating the hire of a NFL coach who up until this season had done nothing but win football games at a historic pace.

But for all the flowy wordplay that’ll be dedicated to the hire, a few things require stating:

1. Let’s not kid ourselves, this is about money. Nearly $50 million to a coach from a state that just had its biggest city go through a bankruptcy. This is a bank-breaking, logic-defying deal.

2. Michigan just guaranteed that money to a coach who nearly got traded last year, a fairly emphatic statement on just how difficult Harbaugh is for bosses, colleagues and a work environment that had only seen success with him at the helm.

3. The brand of football that Harbaugh’s team played took a significant step backwards in 2014, with quarterback Colin Kaepernick going from transformative player to serious question mark in one calendar year.

With that out of the way, let’s get serious. This is a grand slam hire.

Replacing Brady Hoke with Jim Harbaugh is like swapping out that finger-painting from your five-year-old nephew with a Jackson Pollock original. So while it might have pushed college football a few steps closer to the apocalypse with the financial implications, it’s a deal nearly every Michigander is celebrating for good reason.

Now on to Notre Dame. While the two schools haven’t found the time to reboot their rivalry after the Irish pounded one of the first nails into Brady Hoke’s coffin this September, the Harbaugh hire hasn’t gone unnoticed by Domers.

Harbaugh’s move to Ann Arbor could change the gravitational force in Midwestern recruiting. It’ll give Michigan a head coach that can walk into the same living room as Brian Kelly and Urban Meyer and come out looking like the most accomplished of the three.

In the coming days, we’ll find out how Harbaugh plans to build his coaching staff. If the Michigan brass was willing to roll out $8 million for the guy wearing Walmart khakis, what are they willing to give his assistants? Expect some big names to come soon, as the coaching staff will storm out of the gates hoping to salvage the 2015 recruiting class.

Does that mean taking dead aim at some Irish recruits? Of course. And that has some Irish fans expecting the worst. (That seems to be the default setting.)

But while the Irish used to look at Stanford’s defense as the archetype, Brian VanGorder is recruiting to a different mold. That means some overlaps, but hardly a hunt for the same lumbering and lanky edge players that the Cardinal terrorized Notre Dame with.

Offensively, Harbaugh’s first order of business is finding a quarterback. The last time people thought Shane Morris was the answer was when YouTube clips of his junior year in high school were stuck buffering on Internet Explorer. But for better or worse, there aren’t too many similarities between Brian Kelly’s preferred offensive system and the one Harbaugh’s running.



For all the talk Hoke made about a power-running, Michigan offense, Harbaugh’s actually established it. But at Stanford, he found Andrew Luck. In 2009, Harbaugh and Luck went 8-5, turning Toby Gerhart into a Heisman Trophy finalist. The head coach rode a 12-1 2010 to the NFL, turning down the Wolverines to create the mess he’s now cleaning up four years later.

Harbaugh’s hiring has certainly shaken up the Big Ten. While Urban Meyer has managed to get his team into the College Football Playoff, the rest of the conference has shown itself to be second rate. Harbaugh will begin his climb to the top in a conference that’s never been shakier.

With no football to be played until September, Michigan is the king of this offseason. That means no more picking on the guy at the office from Detroit, who will spend the next nine months with a little more pep in his step — because Michigan actually landed their man.

Harbaugh’s return to the college scene adds another A-Lister to a part of the country where most are running from. But until the two teams restart their rivalry on the field, it should be business as usual for Notre Dame football.


Counting down the Irish: Final grades, 10-6

Michigan v Notre Dame

To read the rationale for our final rankings, see 25-2120-16, and 15-11. To see our preseason rankings, check out the Top 25


As we get into our Top 10, we begin to understand why the future is still rather bullish for Notre Dame. The five players listed below all have at least one season of eligibility remaining. That means that a group that performed more than admirably this season will be expected to do even more for the team in 2015. (The entire Top 10 has at least a year of eligibility remaining.)

How this group got here is an interesting contrast. One defensive back barely cracked the Top 40 in the preseason. One team captain saw his regular season cut short by injury. And one player’s struggles encapsulated an entire season.

Let’s get on to No. 10-6 in our final grade.



25. Christian Lombard (RT, GS)
24. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.)
23. Romeo Okwara (DE, Jr.)
22. Drue Tranquill (S, Fr.)
21. Nyles Morgan (LB, Fr.)
20. Max Redfield (S, Soph.)
19. Steve Elmer (RG, Soph.)
18. Ben Koyack (TE, Sr.)
17. Elijah Shumate (S, Jr.)
16. Greg Bryant (RB, Soph.)
15. C.J. Prosise (WR, Jr.)
14. Isaac Rochell (DL, Soph.)
13. Nick Martin (C/LG, Sr.)
12. Cody Riggs (CB, GS)
11. Jarron Jones (DT, Jr.)


Matthias Farley
Matthias FarleyAP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File


10. Matthias Farley (DB, Sr.) That Matthias Farley checks in with a Top 10 ranking has to be one of the better reclamation stories of the Brian Kelly era. That the senior defensive back could find the field — let alone kick the dirt off of him after being buried this offseason (both on the depth chart and by the fanbase) — is a credit to the team’s best defensive playmaker.

Farley’s stat line is the team’s most complete. He’s the team’s fifth-leading tackler, even while playing a fraction of the snaps of the team’s other starters. He’s the co-leader in interceptions with four. His 6.5 TFLs leads the secondary, and is behind just Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell.

In a defensive system that’s predicated on big plays, Farley had a knack for creating them. After moving to cornerback during spring — and a nickel back spot few saw him playing with the preseason depth chart looking stacked — Farley was thrust into the starting job after KeiVarae Russell’s two-semester suspension hit and Cody Riggs was forced to stay outside.

He’s far from a perfect player, and Farley’s lack of elite athleticism and gambling tendencies still manage to see him on the wrong side of a big play occasionally. But few did more for the Irish in 2014, and Farley has cemented his role in the 2015 defense.

Preseason: Unranked (38th). Final: 10th.


Notre Dame v Florida State
Notre Dame v Florida StateStreeter Lecka/Getty Images


9. Corey Robinson (WR, Soph.): While the touchdown catch that didn’t count was likely the biggest play of the season, Robinson took a large step forward in his sophomore season. He finished second on the team with 40 catches, 539 yards and five touchdowns. He also made some of the biggest plays of the season, a critical fourth-down conversion against Florida State the most heroic.

Robinson was named an Academic All-American, the only true sophomore to do so in the country. He won the team’s Rockne Student-Athlete award. He also continued to blossom as a receiver, adding elements to his game that made him a more valuable player thanks to his versatility.

Battling a broken thumb from preseason camp, Robinson’s stats were likely muted because of the struggles that injury put on his ability to catch the football. But even with a cast on his hand, he played 12 games — the team’s most reliable receiver from start to finish (even with a few uncharacteristic drops).

With two years left in the program, Robinson will pair with Will Fuller to create a duo the Irish haven’t seen since Golden Tate and Michael Floyd in 2015.

Preseason: 16th. Final: 9th.


Rice v Notre Dame
Rice v Notre DameJonathan Daniel/Getty Images


8. Sheldon Day (DT, Jr.): Widely acknowledged as Notre Dame’s best defensive lineman, Day put together a season that backs that claim, even if it wasn’t the breakout many expected from him. A shift inside in Brian VanGorder’s four-down system was a welcome change for the 6’2″, 285-pounder and had many expecting Day’s junior season to be one that landed him on the national stage.

But whether it was a lack of established talent around him or opponents focusing on slowing him down, Day didn’t break loose. That’s not to say his numbers weren’t good — his 7.5 TFLs were only less than Jaylon Smith, and done in just 10 games after a knee injury ended his regular season early.

Day seemed to lead the team in almost plays, an unmeasurable stat that’ll always end up disappointing in the end. He was productive, making 38 tackles and breaking up three passes, but his lone sack was far from the double-digit number some (read: me) thought possible.

Day received a draft grade from the NFL’s advisory board. It likely told him to stay in school, with the junior needing to prove he can stay healthy as well as live up to the praise the coaching staff has for him. That’ll have to take place in 2015, where he’ll again have sky-high expectations.

Preseason: 3rd. Final: 8th.


Notre Dame v Florida State
Notre Dame v Florida StateStreeter Lecka/Getty Images


7. Everett Golson (QB, Sr.): In many ways, Everett Golson’s 2014 season will be defined by 2015. If Golson remedies the turnovers that turned him from elite player to maddening one, it’ll be seen as a frustrating step on the learning curve. (Remember, before Jimmy Clausen’s sensational junior season, he threw 18 interceptions as a second-year player.) If he doesn’t, he’ll finish his career on the sidelines, a career that’ll need greater inspection for its historical context.

Golson’s struggles turning the football over forced Brian Kelly to reboot the quarterback position. For the Music City Bowl, that means playing both Golson and sophomore Malik Zaire. For the future, those ramifications are unknown. The leash he allowed his quarterback this season forces you to believe that Kelly still thinks Golson is his best option. But the head coach also knows a mistake-prone quarterback can’t be allowed to ruin a 2015 team that should be the best of his squads since arriving in South Bend.

When things are going well, few are as good as Golson. His arm strength is elite. His athleticism is near that level. He’s a capable runner, as his team-leading eight touchdown runs suggest. But Golson’s 22 turnovers in the season’s last nine games force all those things to the background, making 2015 a make or break year.

Preseason: 4th. Final: 7th.


Cole Luke, Adrian Flemming
Cole Luke, Adrian FlemmingAP Photo/Julio Cortez


6. Cole Luke (CB, Soph.): Notre Dame’s sophomore cornerback emerged in 2014, giving the Irish a cornerback capable of playing the man-to-man coverage that defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder covets. As the team co-leader in interceptions, Luke’s season in place of KeiVarae Russell forced a lot on his young shoulders, with the Arizona native standing strong on a defense that crumbled around him.

Luke earned the praise of his head coach multiple times this season. That’s likely because Luke played well against a slate of receivers that had to be among the most challenging in college football. Week after week, Luke faced receivers that were among the elite in the college game. And more often than not, Luke acquitted himself well.

It wasn’t all pretty. The USC game will serve as sophomore game tape the same way KeiVarae Russell’s performance in Ann Arbor did after a disappointing game in 2013. But assuming Russell returns for next season, the Irish cornerback duo will be a strength, giving Notre Dame two cornerbacks that could be called No. 1s in just about any other program.

Preseason: 19th. Final: 6th.

Irish arrive in Nashville, no decision on starting QB yet

Malik Zaire, J.R. Tavai

Notre Dame’s football team arrived for the Music City Bowl on Friday, jetting in from around the country on 19 different flights after spending Christmas with their families. From there, the Irish had their first practice in Nashville, beginning game week preparations with LSU ahead.

The Irish’s opening practice took place at Father Ryan High School, coincidentally another “Home of the Irish.” The practice facilities included a “Play Like A Champion Today” sign and a Knute Rockne quote. It also included a quarterback position where Brian Kelly has yet to name a starter.

“I haven’t made the decision on who the starter is yet,” Kelly said post-practice. “Both are getting quality reps. I probably have to make it here in the next 24 hours. They’re both going to play, and I’m just going to have to just get a feel for it and the flow of the game.”

As usual, the quarterback position will be critical to the Irish’s chances of winning. In Malik Zaire, they have a quarterback capable of exploiting the lone weak spot in the Tigers’ defense: a running quarterback. But we can’t know if Zaire’s as capable as Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott or Auburn’s Nick Marshall until he plays a truly meaningful snap — the first likely to come when he takes on the SEC’s top-rated defense.

Of course, Everett Golson‘s highs and lows have been well discussed. But Golson also shares the mobility that has given John Chavis’ unit fits. Even the perpetually maligned Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel managed to run for 71 yards against the Tigers, and thinking that Golson running abilities won’t be used to create some offense is foolish.

“We’ve constructed the game plan to take advantage of what we believe their strengths are and what they can contribute to us moving the football and scoring points,” Kelly said.

When it comes to protecting the quarterback, it looks as if Mike McGlinchey will get his first start at right tackle, with Christian Lombard still struggling with back issues. Sheldon Day is also on pace to make an impact, with Kelly hoping to get a solid contribution out of him.

“We’d like him to play every play,” Kelly said. “We don’t think that’s realistic. If we could get between 40 and 50 plays, I think we’d be ecstatic.”

Both teams will be staying at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, with bowl festivities set to begin on Saturday. But with a long layoff and New Years off just around the corner, Kelly’s made it clear that the priority of the week remains a much-needed victory to close out the season.

“They’ll get a chance to see a little bit of Nashville, but really for us it’s about playing the game,” Kelly said. “We’re extremely pleased and excited to be a part of the Franklin Mortgage Music City Bowl, but this is really important for us, this game.”