Even outside the playoff, winning bowl is critical for Irish

17 Comments

The last few years Notre Dame has used their month of bowl preparations to get a jumpstart on spring practice. Whether that was force-feeding reps to then freshman Max Redfield to prepare for the Pinstripe Bowl or getting a closer look at redshirt linemen like Mike McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars, Brian Kelly valued the December month of practice in a way not dissimilar from spring football.

Not this year.

While there was certainly disappointment in the air yesterday when the four playoff teams were set and Notre Dame came in at No. 8, it disappeared quickly when the Irish saw they were playing Ohio State. In years past, Kelly talked about combatting disinterest from outgoing seniors. This year that seems far from the problem—with the veterans on this roster knowing how important it is to their legacy to win a premier bowl game in their final chance to play together.

“I think first and foremost, this team wants to win, and so winning will be the most important thing,” Kelly said. “I think that we’d like to say that experimenting with positions and getting young guys work is really left to the spring. This is about preparing this football team for one last game.”

If the Irish were looking for a consolation prize for having a great season ruined in Palo Alto, they were given that opportunity. Now they need to rise to the challenge of facing Urban Meyer’s latest dynasty in the making, facing off with a Buckeyes team that won the national championship last year and is a ridiculous 49-4 in the four seasons since Meyer took over the Ohio State program.

That means another three weeks of preparing for a dominant running football team, with the Buckeyes averaging over 240 yards a game behind All-American Ezekiel Elliott and a very good offensive line. On the other side of the football, it means preparing for Joey Bosa, the Buckeyes havoc-wreaking defensive end who’ll likely be among the top five picks in the NFL Draft.

Between the three former Notre Dame assistants on staff with the Buckeyes, the countless recruiting battles—past, present and future—and a claim for superiority among the Midwest’s bluechip powers (sorry Spartans), a bowl game that doesn’t lead to a championship sure feels like a grand stage nonetheless.

“Heck yeah. Winning this is important. It’s important,” Kelly said, when asked about the impact this game will have on his program. “Not being there in a while and not playing well in 2012 on a national stage, you know, it’s very important for us to play well and win the game.”

 

Jarron Jones, Durham Smythe both on track to return for Fiesta Bowl

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 11: Jarron Jones #94 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes against Jon Heck #71 of the North Carolina Tar Heels at Notre Dame Stadium on October 11, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
23 Comments

Notre Dame will welcome back two long-injured starters for the Fiesta Bowl as Jarron Jones and Durham Smythe both return to practice this week and are on track to play, Brian Kelly said Sunday.

Jones, expected to be Notre Dame’s starting nose tackle heading into the year, will play his first game of the season, lost in preseason camp to a knee injury. Smythe went down in week two against Virginia, with surgeries performed on both his shoulder and knee that kept him out for the remainder of the regular season.

Jones’ return comes just as the Irish get ready to face Ezekiel Elliott and an Ohio State running game that’s among the best in the country. He’ll finally have a chance to return to the lineup next to Sheldon Day, a duo that was expected to be among the best interior pairings in the country.

“Jarron Jones is cleared for full practice and participation, beginning Thursday,” Kelly said. “It’ll just be a matter of increasing the volume as we work through the bowl preparations… I think we can increase his volume where he can be playing for us and contributing.”

What that workload will be remains to be seen. Kelly talked about the strength challenges that come with rehabbing a major knee injury, though did say that he thought Jones was at around 90 percent, turning most of December into a conditioning and strength setup.

At tight end, the Irish will welcome Smythe back, especially as they look to develop consistency at the position heading into 2016. With the ground game needing solid perimeter blocking from an attached tight end, if Smythe is all the way healthy, he’ll have a chance to fill that role.

“I know [head trainer] Rob Hunt thinks we can get Durham to where he was in August,” Kelly said.

The Irish also expect to have James Onwualu back for the bowl game. The junior linebacker injured his knee against Wake Forest and missed the regular season’s two final games. C.J. Prosise‘s high ankle sprain still needs time to heal, but his cast was off and he’ll likely have a chance to finish the season on the field as well. KeiVarae Russell‘s return looks less likely.

 

Notre Dame set to play Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl

Will Fuller
36 Comments

Notre Dame may not be in the College Football Playoff. But they’ll be playing in one of the most intriguing bowl matchups of the year. The Irish are headed to Arizona, set to play against Urban Meyer’s Ohio State team in the Fiesta Bowl.

The Irish and Buckeyes will battle on January 1st, a game that seemed destined to be a potential playoff matchup before Ohio State lost to Michigan State and the Irish fell in the season finale to Stanford. The Irish will now need to go through the Buckeyes to get to eleven wins.

Notre Dame finished ranked No. 8 in the playoff rankings. Ohio State finished No. 7. More to come after Brian Kelly talks to the media at 4 p.m. ET.

With regular season finished, recruiting comes into focus

Brian Kelly
30 Comments

Notre Dame’s regular season is complete. But the recruiting schedule is heating up, with Brian Kelly and his assistant coaches criss-crossing the country as they work to finalize the 2016 recruiting class.

Coming off of a 10-win regular season and likely accepting a very impressive bowl bid this weekend, Kelly and his assistants have plenty to sell as they look to  finishing strong on some of their top targets. With a few holes that need to be filled and some very big fish still considering Notre Dame, let’s take a look at the current commitments, some final targets and the overall scholarship picture heading into 2016.

 

THE COMMITS

Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class sits at 18 members.

Ian Book, QB
Parker Boudreaux, OL
Chase Claypool, WR/DB
Liam Eichenberg, OL
Jalen Elliott, DB
Jamir Jones, LB/DE
Tony Jones, RB
Khalid Kareem, DE
Tommy Kraemer, OL
Julian Love, DB
Deon McIntosh, RB
D.J. Morgan, DB
Adetokunbo Ogundeji, DE
Julian Okwara, DE
Spencer Perry, DB
John Shannon, LS
Kevin Stepherson, WR
Donte Vaughn, DB

For those looking for a quick breakdown, the class consists of:

QB: 1 (Book)
RBs: 2 (Jones, McIntosh)
WRs: 2 (Claypool, Stepherson)
DE: 3-4 (Kareem, Ogundeji, Okwara and maybe Jones)
OL: 3 (Boudreaux, Eichenberg, Kraemer)
DB: 5-6 (Elliott, Love, Morgan, Perry, Vaughn maybe Claypool)
Specialist: 1 (Shannon, long snapper)

 

STILL CHASING

As Notre Dame’s staff takes their in-home visits, multiple reports help us cobble together a priority list of who the Irish still covet. (There are better places for this info, but I’ll do my best.) Here’s a far-from complete list of recruits still on board, some better shots to come to Notre Dame than others.

 

Daelin Hayes, OLB — The Irish appear to be in great shape for the 5-star linebacker, who reportedly will announce his intentions on December 10 and early enroll. Brian Kelly, Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio are all still chasing the Michigan product, who projects to be a difference-maker at the next level. Hayes isn’t without some risk, injuries have limited his actual playing time as a high school football star, making this more of a developmental project than most would suspect. Still, it sounds like the Irish covet Hayes and appear to have as good a shot as anybody.

 

Devin Studstill, DB — The Florida native entertained Brian Kelly and area recruiter Autry Denson yesterday. Hailing from Te’von Coney’s high school, Studstill has been to Notre Dame multiple times, and was an early target of this staff as they identified top defensive back prospects. Studstill’s star-ranking doesn’t match up with the Irish staff’s interest in him. It’s tough to traditionally pull a player like this out of Florida. But the Irish are trying, including an in-home visit last night.

 

Caleb Kelly, LB — Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but Notre Dame is chasing one of Fresno’s top high school football players. Once again, they’ll be doing battle with Bob Stoops and the Oklahoma pipeline that’s found its way to the Central Valley, but the Army All-American and 5-star prospect will be on campus for the end of the year awards show. Mike Denbrock is on the case for the Irish.

 

Ben Davis, LB — You might not have seen it coming, but the Alabama native is heading to Notre Dame for one of his final visits. He’s an Alabama legacy, he’s being chased by the SEC’s finest, but credit Autry Denson for getting Davis to take a look. Seems like a long shot, but worth the effort.

 

Damian Alloway, WR — Alloway is a diminutive speedster from Southern California who could add some big-play ability at slot receiver. Notre Dame is locked in a battle with UCLA for him, though if his decision pushes close to Signing Day, you’ve got to wonder if there’ll be room on the bus for him.

 

Javon McKinley, WR — Brian Kelly and Mike Sanford stayed in California after the Stanford game and visited McKinley, a receiver they’ve been after since jumpstreet. A big, explosive and physical talent, McKinley still feels like he’s Notre Dame’s to lose—though he hasn’t pulled the trigger yet and the Pac-12’s finest are chasing him, including hometown USC.

 

Damar Hamlin, CB — Notre Dame appears to be closing the gap on Hamlin, a key cornerback target for Todd Lyght and Brian VanGorder. The Pittsburgh-area coverman seems to be receptive of the Irish recruiting pitch, as Irish247’s Tom Loy recently switched his Crystal Ball pick to Notre Dame. It’s clear that the Irish staff is going all in on rebuilding the Irish secondary. Hamlin would be a great piece.

 

Jeffrey McCulloch, LB — One of the biggest athletic freaks at The Opening this summer, McCulloch showed up on the Irish radar then and visited Notre Dame for an official visit. The Dallas native entertained Brian Kelly and Mike Elston at home earlier this week. McCulloch is a speedy, explosive linebacker with a readymade 230-pound frame. It’ll be a battle for McCulloch with some top programs, but the Irish are in good position.

 

Demetris Robertson, ATH — An elite athlete from the state of Georgia, the departure of Marc Richt can’t hurt Notre Dame’s changes with a player who projects at multiple positions. Notre Dame has been after Robertson for a long time. He visited South Bend in September and will entertain Brian Kelly in-home before making a decision. An elite SEC talent who can go anywhere from Alabama to Stanford.

 

Oluwole Betiku, DE — A white whale of sorts, finding a way to get Betiku out of Serra high school, a USC breeding ground, would be a Manti Te’o-like upset. But Betiku has kept the Irish in his plans after he decommitted from UCLA in October and while the Trojans feel like the team to beat (Texas A&M is also in the mix) there’s still a puncher’s chance for Mike Denbrock, Brian VanGorder and Brian Kelly. Especially if Betiku looks at the depth chart.

 

HOW MANY CAN THEY TAKE?

As Notre Dame’s roster once again does the 85 scholarship dance, it’s worth taking a class-by-class look at the team Kelly has assembled. With 18 current commitments—and the Irish staff clearly hunting for more—it’ll be another fun offseason of seeing if the Irish can finally find a way to stay at the 85-man limit, something harder than expected, especially the last few years.

Let’s do some math!

ND Roster Makeup for 2016

Rising Sophomore Class: 23
Rising Junior Class: 20
Rising Senior Class: 20 (make it 19 until Jaylon Smith says otherwise)
62 scholarships
+
18 current commitments
+
Remaining Recruits
+
Fifth (and sixth)-year candidates (with early predictions):

Chase Hounshell (unexpected)
Avery Sebastian (recruiting dependent)
Jarrett Grace (still pending with NCAA)
Nicky Baratti (unexpected)
Scott Daly (expected)
Mark Harrell (unexpected)
Jarron Jones (expected)
C.J. Prosise (expected)
KeiVarae Russell (unexpected)
Ronnie Stanley (unexpected)
John Turner (unexpected)

Last year, Notre Dame went into spring practice over 85 scholarships, knowing that every year for 30+ seasons they’ve had at least one transfer out of the program. So while this certainly won’t quell any of the worry, consider this a reminder that once again a player (or two) will transfer and the Irish staff will do their best to be ready for that by having one or two players more than the limit on scholarship.

 

 

 

Notre Dame football: What’s wrong with the defense?

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)
45 Comments

The play has been dissected for nearly a week. Just 15 seconds and roughly 25 yards separated Notre Dame from an eleventh victory, a game that the playoff committee very well could have viewed as one of the most impressive road victory of the college football season.

But as Kevin Hogan dropped back from his own 43-yard line, it looks as easy as pitch and catch. He stood well-protected, a perfect pocket formed with just three Irish defenders rushing the passer, Notre Dame’s leading sacker didn’t chase after Hogan, but rather shadowed him—a 265-pound defensive end doing a linebackers job.

On time and on rhythm, the veteran quarterback hit his target in stride, a receiver breaking inside of a defensive back that was all but flat-footed to a vacancy of green grass so large that it would’ve cost millions in the Palo Alto neighborhood surrounding Stanford Stadium.

Few plays have the ability to crystalize a season. But Hogan to Devon Cajuste did just that—exploiting a defense that’s woeful inconsistency kept Notre Dame from having an opportunity to play for a national championship.

The natural reaction is to assign blame. Plenty of angry pitchforks surround defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, the architect of a creaky house. Finishing up his second season in South Bend, the former NFL defensive coordinator hasn’t been able to elevate the play of a group that may very well be decimated by injury, but is still among the most talented we’ve seen over the last decade in South Bend.

But multiple factors go into the struggles of a defense that suffers from a multiple personality disorder. So let’s check into a Holiday Inn Express, throw on our lab coat, and do our best to diagnose the problems that have plagued the 2015 Irish defense.

 

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

On paper, Notre Dame’s 2015 defense doesn’t look like the flaming mess some are calling it. The Irish are giving up 22 points a game, a respectable 36th in the nation. They’re a middle of the pack unit stopping the run, perhaps explainable when you consider the two option teams on the schedule. They’re a Top 30 unit against the pass, likely buoyed by the same two opponents. The top line reveals a defense that’s roughly Top 40—not great, not horrible.

But it doesn’t take much of a deep dive to identify some of the critical problems. The Irish gave up big plays by the bushel. They were the ultimate boom-or-bust unit, one of the better teams at forcing three-and-outs, but also susceptible to giving up long touchdown drives. Over the last two seasons, Notre Dame has given up 53 touchdown drives of 70-yards or more, a staggering statistic dug out by Tim Prister at Irish Illustrated. Or approximately 52 more than they did in 2012.

The red zone was a similar horror show. Under Diaco, Notre Dame rarely gave up long touchdown drives and always seemed to stiffen near the goal line. The opposite has been true the past two seasons. This year, Notre Dame forced just three field goals in 34 red zone opportunities. That helps explain why the Irish are No. 21 when it comes to scoring percentage, but a staggering 103rd when it comes to giving up touchdowns.

The Irish won 10 football games this season, an important piece of the equation to remember as many kick dirt on a team that has a chance to win 11 games for just the second time since 1993. They’ll be doing it against one of the toughest schedules in the country and with a team that’s started 37 different players and lost two games against Top 10 competition by a combined four points.

But as Brian Kelly moves this program forward, it’s clear that while the offense has found a way to evolve and continue to produce even as injuries mount, the defense hasn’t. And that needs to change.

 

THE COORDINATOR

The struggles of this unit likely rest at the feet of VanGorder. Brought in to help Notre Dame take the next evolutionary step as a defense after Bob Diaco took over the UConn football program, VanGorder was billed as a teacher and developer of talent when Brian Kelly introduced him in January of 2014.

“The first thing I wanted in this position is a great teacher. I think first and foremost when you’re talking about the ability to bring together our defensive players, you need the ability to communicate and to teach, and Brian is one of the very best teachers, if not the best teacher, that I’ve ever been around, and I go way back with Brian,” Kelly said.

“I think the second thing that stands out is he understands player development, and so anyone that I want to be around on a day to day basis has to understand the important principles of player development in bringing them along and really understanding how important it is to get those traits out of our players. They’re not ready made. The players that we bring here to Notre Dame, we have to develop them, and not just on the football field, but off the field as well. Brian understands that.”

Through that lens, it’s hard to call the last two seasons successes. While VanGorder brought with him schemes and personnel groupings honed in the NFL, he hasn’t been able to get his team to fully comprehend the advanced calculus his schematics require. Even if VanGorder is the teacher that Kelly described, time constraints at the college level—not to mention the academic workloads Notre Dame student-athletes carry—have likely made it impossible for a complete understanding of what’s being asked. Twenty hours a week doesn’t give you the time to teach a system that requires NFL professionals to commit their livelihood to owning a system.

Kelly also praised VanGorder’s ability to develop players. That’s been a mixed bag. If you’re going to harp on certain players failing to live up to expectations, you need to acknowledge the ascent we’ve seen from others.

Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara have both excelled under VanGorder. Jaylon Smith’s game has become more dynamic when not confined by Diaco’s difficult Dog linebacker requirements. Struggles with current safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate have been consistent whether Diaco or VanGorder was coaching them and cornerbacks are more likely to be beat when you’re asking them to lock into man coverage as opposed to playing a Cover 2 zone.

VanGorder has shown himself capable of correcting issues. We saw that over the offseason when the Irish solved their issues against hurry-up attacks and implemented a system that allowed Notre Dame to successfully defend the triple-option run by Georgia Tech and Navy.

This offseason, the chalkboard has two very large objectives that need cleaning up: Big play prevention and red zone struggles. And those issues require a great deal more introspection than the challenges exposed by Larry Fedora or Ken Niumatalolo.

 

THE PERSONNEL

While there is plenty of talent on Notre Dame’s defense, personnel limitations can’t be discounted. That Devon Cajuste found his way between an undersized, in-the-box middle linebacker and defensive back who would’ve been the third choice for the role had the secondary been moderately healthy deserves mention. In a perfect world, neither Joe Schmidt nor Matthias Farley are on the field in end of game situations. A week earlier, Farley might not have been, and had Drue Tranquill not torn his ACL, Schmidt might not have been, either.

Notre Dame’s defensive personnel is still a work in progress. Trapped in that awkward phase between Bob Diaco’s physical 3-4 personnel and VanGorder’s scheme that sacrifices size for athleticism, the Irish were doomed by roster deficiencies that only became over-exposed once injuries hit.

Utilizing College Football Focus’s player evaluation tools, it’s simple to see that while Notre Dame’s offensive personnel can be viewed among the elite of college football, there’s still a long way to go for the defense. That’s clear when you look at the uniform grading system that CFF/PFF uses to breakdown every snap of ever game played in college football.

Only Sheldon Day and Jaylon Smith were elite players. Both played like stars this season. Day ranks as the No. 1 4-3 defensive tackle in the country in terms of overall grading. Smith grades out as the No. 3 OLB in a 4-3 system in the country. But from there, the defensive struggles show clearly, especially when you look at defenders with negative grades that were forced to play significant snaps.

Of the top six teams in the current College Football Playoff rankings, Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma, Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State have a total of five players who have played 300 snaps with a negative CFF rating. Notre Dame has six.

You’d suspect some of the names on that list—Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate, true freshman defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. Others you would not—seniors Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell. Game-specific deficiencies CFF picked up make sense from 30,000 feet. Max Redfield’s struggles as a run defender have been often discussed, same with Schmidt and Shumate’s difficulties in coverage.

Many thought Jarron Jones’ preseason injury was the biggest loss of the season. But the Irish defense might have been undone by the injuries to Shaun Crawford and safety Drue Tranquill.

Notre Dame’s ability to be multiple was lost when those two defenders went down. So much of what VanGorder wanted to do against the pass was lost when Crawford couldn’t play nickelback. Same for Tranquill’s injury, robbing the Irish not just of a perfect hybrid player who could excel on third down, but also taking away the ability of the defense to play Smith in the middle of the field on passing downs—essentially limiting his impact as a coverman and interior blitzer. Schmidt came within steps of a half-dozen sacks as he blitzed up the A-gap. Smith’s explosiveness would’ve likely turned many of those into big plays.

VanGorder has changed the way Notre Dame has recruited the defensive side of the ball. Gone are some of the hard-and-firm prototypes that Diaco demanded when looking for players. Those changes have built the Irish roster for the future.

But in addition to the injuries, roster attrition hasn’t allowed reinforcements to hit the field, players like Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams and Bo Wallace gone before having a chance to impact the team in situational jobs. That’s forced some legacy personnel into jobs that were tailored for a different type of football player.

 

MOVING FORWARD

Notre Dame’s success this season has elevated expectations for the future. But to play up to them, VanGorder and Kelly will need to recalibrate how they approach defending opponents.

Moving forward without Schmidt as the nerve center is one thing. The reality that Jaylon Smith is likely joining Sheldon Day in the NFL Draft is another, with significant personnel hits likely to be taken. Yet the Irish are well-equipped with the athleticism needed to fill those holes, even if we might not see another linebacker like Smith wearing a Notre Dame jersey for many years to come.

But without a simplified scheme, personnel advancements will only do so much. Elite athletes become ordinary very quickly if they don’t fully grasp their jobs. And a scheme that forces 11 players to defend without a safety net is a flaw in the foundation of the system.

One man missing a tackle can’t result in a 30-yard gain, like we saw so many times this season. Exotic schemes that force a linebacker to sprint into coverage for the sake of surprise does little when an opponent’s counter-punch exposes your own vulnerabilities.

Kelly and VanGorder know these things, of course. And as the coaching staff spends the offseason analyzing their strengths and weaknesses, there’s a very high likelihood that Kelly still comes out with the same answer he gave a few weeks back when asked why his defense was giving up long touchdown drives and big plays.

“I still think it’s personnel-driven. You’re still looking at who you’re putting on the field,” Kelly said. “I think Brian has brought the kind of pressure and aggressive defensive play that we’re looking for in a transition. We’re still evolving defensively. We’re still working to build our defense. We’re not there yet, clearly… We’re going to get better as we continue to recruit and develop our defense.”

The future of the program depends on it.