SAN ANTONIO, TX - NOVEMBER 12: Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly leads his team onto the field before the start of their game against Army in a NCAA college football game at the Alamodome on November 12, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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Postseason Mailbag: Now Open

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It’s been too long. Let’s talk about the season, the decisions ahead and where Notre Dame stands after its nightmare of a 2016 season.

Drop your questions on Twitter @KeithArnold or in the comments below.

 

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If you’re interested in hearing my recap on the USC game and where Notre Dame’s goes now that the season is over, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, with Newsweek’s John Walters. 

 

Report: Zaire set to depart with graduate transfer

Malik Zaire
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The wheels are in motion for Malik Zaire‘s exit from Notre Dame. What felt like an inevitability after Zaire lost out to DeShone Kizer after the Texas game is now a reality, as the Ohio native is expected to receive his release tomorrow, according to a report from Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated.

Sampson identified four programs as potential landing spots for Zaire: Florida, Pitt, Michigan State and Wisconsin, Power Five programs that all had better seasons (minus the Spartans) than Notre Dame. All have uncertainty atop their quarterback depth chart, though none look like guaranteed jobs.

With Notre Dame out of a bowl, Zaire can get a jump start on looking around, capable of taking visits and finding a home after the semester. That would let him join a program in time for spring drills, where he’d compete and be able to play out his final year of eligibility.

When Zaire leaves he’ll join a line of recent quarterbacks to finish their eligibility elsewhere. Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix, Gunner Kiel and Everett Golson all either played or were recruited by Brian Kelly and finished their careers elsewhere. That could leave a scenario—one many predict—where the top-two on Notre Dame’s depth chart depart, Kizer to the NFL and Zaire elsewhere, turning the keys over to Brandon Wimbush who redshirted this season.

Tillery apologizes for actions during USC game

Jerry Tillery 247
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Sophomore Jerry Tillery issued an apology for two controversial incidents against USC. Notre Dame’s defensive tackle was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after a referee caught him stepping on Zach Banner‘s ankle. Cameras also spotted him intentionally hitting Aca’Cedric Ware‘s head after the Trojan running back was injured after a collision with Nicco Fertitta.

Tillery wrote on Twitter:

“I want to take full responsibility for my actions on Saturday. I am truly sorry. I acted in a way that was out of character for me. What I displayed in those two instances were completely unbecoming and not indicative of the kind of player or person I am. My actions in those two instances do not represent what my family or Notre Dame has molded me to be. I want to especially apologize to Aca’Cedric, Zach, their families and anyone else affected by what I did. I assure you I will learn and grow from this moment and become a better man because of it.”

While the backlash on social media has been harsh, USC head coach Clay Helton downplayed it.

“It was a poor decision by a young person. I know it’s not Notre Dame football and I know that’s not Brian Kelly,” Helton said. “He’s been a class act the whole way and I know he’ll address it with his player and handle it in a way that he sees fit. I have always found Brian to be a man of class and integrity.”

Ware himself responded via Twitter, doing his best to put the incident to rest.

Kelly stated after the game that he’d review the incidents, both plays Kelly didn’t see happen live. With the season over, Tillery’s discipline will be handled internally.

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

Notre Dame wide receiver Kevin Stepherson, right, catches a touchdown pass as Southern California defensive back Adoree' Jackson defends during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, in Los Angeles. USC won 45-27. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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Notre Dame’s 2016 season is finished, the Irish coming up woefully short of their lofty preseason goals. And as fast as the team bus could leave the Coliseum on Saturday evening, Brian Kelly needs to turn his program around.

But before we get into that heavy offseason remodel, let’s get through the good, bad and ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Josh Adams. It wasn’t a great season for Josh Adams, who couldn’t get out of training camp without getting dinged up. But he certainly finished the season strong—a career-best 180 yards on the ground against a USC defense that had held six of its previous seven opponents to season-low point totals.

Adams burst out of the gates, stopped just short of the goal line on a 74-yard scamper to open the game. But even without that big number buoying his stat line, Adams still ran for nearly six yards a carry, a very nice outing.

Adams will be a key piece of next season’s offense. Finishing on a good note was a good start.

 

Jarron Jones. Total respect to Jones, who certainly played like a senior leader on Saturday, another monster effort in the trenches with seven tackles and 1.5 TFL. Any worry that he’d be checked out after bowl eligibility disappeared was eliminated immediately, and Jones led the Irish defense with a PFF-best +3.9 rating—a dominant effort by any measurement.

Postgame, Jones was proud of the defense’s effort, emotional about this being it for him at Notre Dame, and also emboldened about the status of head coach Brian Kelly.

“I think it’s garbage. If anything, Coach Kelly deserves another chance, if people are talking about him being fired,” Jones said. “The fact that it’s one bad season. He took us to the national championship and the Fiesta Bowl last season. He’s a great coach and just because we have one trip up doesn’t mean he should be fired.”

 

Equanimeous St. Brown & Kevin Stepherson. We wanted to see Notre Dame’s young receivers hold their own against USC’s talented cornerbacks. Well St. Brown led the game with 94 receiving yards and a touchdown and Stepherson torched Adoree Jackson for a 29-yard touchdown on a double move.

While Torii Hunter wasn’t able to give much to the Irish offense in his limited action, the two sophomores looked like starting outside receivers—with Stepherson finally getting action after Corey Holmes was targeted 10 times and came away with just four catches for 29 yards.

Notre Dame’s athleticism on the edge wasn’t great. But it was a nice building block for next season, St. Brown and Stepherson key pieces to the 2017 puzzle.

 

Julian Love. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback held his own against USC’s talented receiving corps, giving up seven catches, but limiting those receptions to just 51 yards.

Love looks like a building block. With Troy Pride playing 25 snaps and Donte Vaughn 17, those three freshman will have every chance to take over next season, with Shaun Crawford hopefully ready to return from his achilles injury.

Love is an interesting freshman. He’s played very solid football, well beyond expectations. But to take the next step, he’ll need to continue to play with the high football IQ that he displays, because his physical traits aren’t going to jump out.

Still, this is was an incredibly positive debut season. And Love’s finale against USC, where he played nearly every snap, was another great game for the rookie.

 

The Offensive Line. It was a really strong final game for the guys up front, who may have given up six sacks to USC’s pass rush, but seemed to win the battle at the point of attack while doing a better job than the stats indicated, even in the passing game.

Surprisingly, redshirt senior Mark Harrell graded out as PFF’s top blocker, with Quenton Nelson playing another solid game. Mike McGlinchey didn’t allow a sack at left tackle, though did false start again—something he’ll need to get under control this offseason.

The Irish need to find stability with this starting five, a group that should welcome all but Harrell back, and could also see competition at center and right guard again, even with Sam Mustipher returning. But it was a nice competitive effort that Kelly applauded postgame.

“I liked the way our offensive line was able to at times exert their will in tough third-down-and-short and tough fourth-down situations,” Kelly said.

 

THE BAD

Jerry Tillery. A season after being one of the featured members of the Irish football team on Showtime, Tillery showcased all the wrong things in an embarrassing afternoon.

Two very bad looks for Tillery, who after being flagged for his personal foul, heard quite a bit from his head coach. And while the internet’s reaction to the two cheap shots was probably just as dumb as Tillery’s decision (no, he shouldn’t be expelled), Kelly made it quite clear that after they review the incidents (he didn’t see either live), that Tillery will be held accountable.

“Jerry has to be accountable of this actions every day. Jerry is a good kid. If he made a mistake we’ll hold him accountable for that mistake,” Kelly said. “Again, I don’t know the scenario, we’ll take a look at it. Jerry is a very smart kid and if there is something there we have to handle internally we certainly will and we’ll hold our players accountable internally.”

Worse than any on-field decision is the fact that Tillery desperately needs to grow up. He’ll be the defensive line’s most experienced player in 2017. By most reports he’s a great student-athlete, and a fully incorporated part of the student body. But he also now has a second black mark on his football resume, a Fiesta Bowl suspension when he was one of the rare healthy linemen available.

Tillery’s leadership is important and he plays a critical position of need for next season. So maybe this incident will turn him around.

 

Nicco Fertitta’s ejection. The sophomore safety delivered the hit of the season on Saturday, separating Aca’Cedric Ware from the football on a nasty hit that ended with Ware down for an extended time and leaving the game with a suspected concussion. But after the third replay review found Fertitta guilty of targeting and ultimately ejected, it gave the football back to USC and gave the Irish another loss this season on helmet-to-helmet hits.

Whether people Fertitta deserved to be ejected mostly falls upon partisan lines. But one thing that’s undeniable is the subjectiveness of the penalty and the inconsistent enforcement, a rule that desperately needs changing when it’s the rare judgment call that carries with it an automatic ejection.

 

THE UGLY

The Special Teams. It was a fitting end to one of the most disappointing special teams seasons I can ever remember, with Scott Booker’s unit turning Adoree Jackson into Superman on Saturday. The two return scores make five on the season, and they were essentially eliminating factors in the Irish’s upset bid on Saturday.

At this point, Brian Kelly needs to look for outside help on special teams. A phase of the game that’s almost always only been paid lip service by the Irish head coach, it’s not going to get fixed because Kelly brings on a special teams analyst like Marty Biagi, who may have helped bring new ideas to the conversation, though they certainly didn’t help.

At every step the special teams were brutal. A rugby punt decision led to a blocked kick and loss in a hurricane against NC State. A hold on the opening kickoff took away a touchdown against Michigan State. Kickoff and punt returns were a hold-your-breath consideration, maddening when you consider the general competence of placekicker Justin Yoon and punter Tyler Newsome.

 

The list of breakdowns is long. The fixes are necessary. And a failure in the finale felt like par for the course.

 

4-8. No explanation necessary.

Kelly restates his commitment to Notre Dame

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Brian Kelly is Notre Dame’s football coach—a statement that many Irish fans only half-heartedly endorse as the team’s four-win season comes to a close. But athletic director Jack Swarbrick has already stated that Kelly will return for his eighth season and lead the program next season, and Kelly made it clear that was his intention after coaching the season finale against USC.

But even after making that commitment clear in his postgame comments (see the above video), it didn’t take long after the team bus rolled towards LAX to rev up the rumor mill once again.

Yahoo Sports’ Pat Forde got it started, with the following headline-grabbing report:

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has reached out through representatives to explore coaching options outside Notre Dame, sources told Yahoo Sports.

Not to be out-scooped, ESPN’s Brett McMurphy essentially repeated the same report, though used the following language:

Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly, through his representatives, is exploring options to possibly leave the Fighting Irish program, a source said Saturday.

McMurphy also went live on SportsCenter with the below report, as ESPN bottom line continually scrolled throughout the evening.

But not long after the team plane landed in South Bend, Kelly released another statement, via Sports Information Director Michael Bertsch:

“I felt that I was clear with the media following yesterday’s game at USC when I was asked about my desire to be back as the head football coach at Notre Dame, but in light of media reports that surfaced afterward, let me restate my position,” Kelly said in the statement. “I have not been, am not, and will not be interested in options outside of Notre Dame. I’m fully committed to leading this program in the future.”