Brian Kelly

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Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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Ex-ND defensive coordinator Bob Diaco fired at UConn

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Bob Diaco is out as the head coach at UConn after three seasons.

The architect of Brian Kelly’s best defenses at Notre Dame lost his job on Monday afternoon after a 3-9 season, finishing at 11-26 in his three years in Storrs. Diaco’s firing is effective January 2nd, likely a negotiated date as his contract buy-out drops significantly after the new year. Diaco had received a contract extension through 2020 that included a pay raise heading into the season.

The news of Diaco’s firing comes just days after Notre Dame announced the hiring of new coordinator Mike Elko. While there’s absolutely no indication that Diaco would be willing to return to South Bend—or Kelly would pursue a reunion—it’s an eye-opening move as Kelly rebuilds his coaching staff before the new year with a mix of new and familiar faces.

Other than Elko, the timing of the announcement of that rebuilt staff will hopefully be revealed after the recruiting dead period ends right after the new year. Kelly has made no public comments other than those released in written statement following the Elko hire, but did discuss the timeline for coaching moves with Jack Nolan in the latest episode of Inside Notre Dame Football, detailing the next few critical months for both the head coach and his program.

“I’d like to get the staff solidified before the holidays, if we can do that. Maybe that might be a stretch in some instances, but for the most part have that solidified, so nobody is going through the holidays not knowing what their situation is,” Kelly told Jack Nolan.

“Then we get the staff back in here right when recruiting opens back up. Attack the recruiting, finish up—we only have a few spots left in the recruiting. And then get to work on this football team.

“When they get back on campus, it’s going to be pretty exciting, but it’s going to be a great challenge as well. Our football team is going to learn the grind necessary to win games in the fourth quarter and that will be the emphasis.”

Brian Polian has already been reported to have accepted a coaching position, likely special teams coordinator. Former Buffalo head coach Jeff Quinn, who served as Kelly’s offensive coordinator at Cincinnati and has served in a variety of off-field roles the past two seasons in South Bend, is rumored to be moving to a coaching role, likely tight ends.

While Elko’s hiring announced, Kelly is still looking for a quarterback coach and potentially an offensive coordinator, though it helps to be reminded that he’s chosen different ways to fill that vacancy—hiring Matt LaFleur to be just the position coach while Mike Sanford was both coordinator and quarterbacks coach. (Chuck Martin held both positions after coaching safeties and coordinating recruiting.)

Whoever is hired, Kelly talked about the task of replacing the offensive, defensive and special teams coordinator in one offseason.

“It’s absolutely critical that you find the right people that recognize the vision that you have and embrace the vision that you have for your program and understand Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “We have a uniqueness here at Notre Dame that you need to embrace. And then, they have to be compatible to the things that we want to do on the field.

“I think in all three of those positions, they’re going to make a huge impact. I think we’re going to be able to improve our football team with these three hires and we’re right in the middle of that process, but one that I’m very excited about.”

Kelly expects to play two quarterbacks in 2016

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With Notre Dame opening up camp next week, Brian Kelly seems to be opening up to the idea of playing two quarterbacks.

As DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire get set to begin their battle, Notre Dame’s head coach talked about that high-profile job with Jim Rome, giving us an interesting look at his mindset on the eve of the season, while also adding a new tweak to the old adage of having two quarterbacks.

Namely, you need two.

“I think you need two,” Kelly told Rome. “You’re going to need two quarterbacks in college football. You need two and we’ve got two very good ones. My expectation is that we need both of them to play.”

That attitude makes sense when you look back at Kelly’s time in South Bend. From the moment Dayne Crist’s bell was rung against Michigan in Kelly’s first season, Notre Dame’s offense has seemingly been pushed into Plan B each and every season—giving way to Nate Montana, Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix and eventually Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer.

The Irish certainly wouldn’t have won 10 games in 2015 if Kizer wasn’t capable of thriving when he replaced Zaire against Virginia. And Kelly knows that experience has turned the tables on the depth chart as they enter 2016.

“Both of them are capable of winning, we know that. Malik showed that in the way he played against Texas and he’s been in the program for four years,” Kelly said. “But Kizer obviously has got more experience because of the number of games that he played and big games last year.”

While the plan to continue the competition into fall camp hasn’t changed, Kelly seems to have softened on his stance that only one quarterback will be happy. And while you certainly can’t take this as a declaration that a platoon is coming, Kelly acknowledged the need to have both guys ready and involved. And the best way to do that is by getting them on the field.

“It would be great that whoever took the job over played so well that he’s going to be a Heisman contender,” Kelly said. “If that doesn’t happen, I can see both of them eventually playing.”

The balancing act is nothing new for Kelly. He’s managed it in South Bend, as well as in Cincinnati and his two previous stops. While he’s noted the challenges Ohio State had last season trying to make their offense work while utilizing both Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, it’s worth pointing out that the Irish coaching staff also spent significant time this offseason huddled with the Buckeyes coaching staff, likely a helpful introduction to the quarterback challenges that even Urban Meyer struggled with.

Kelly knows it won’t be easy finding snaps for both quarterbacks. But he also knows it’s likely better to find your balance when you’re the one dictating terms—not a season-ending injury.

“I think it’s so important to have two quarterbacks, be engaged, keep them involved and as much as they can try to get them in the game if you can,” Kelly said. “It’s a lot more difficult if you can do that. But thats the way it is in college football, with the quarterback being so actively involved in the running game.”

Zaire made it only 19 carries last year when his season ended with a broken ankle. Quarterback runs have ended seasons for Dayne Crist and forced Everett Golson to miss multiple games. But Notre Dame’s offense requires a quarterback who can run the football. And Kelly would rather take his chances playing to that identity than recalibrating how they attack opponents.

“You can’t change your identity week to week, you’ve got to be who you are,” Kelly said. “These two quarterbacks are proven winners. The team knows that.

“I’m not going to have a quarterback controversy. I think we can move forward knowing that both of them are going to play in some fashion.”

***

Listen to Kelly’s full interview with Jim Rome from July 29 below. 

Kelly reiterates stance on staying put at Notre Dame

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In what is fast becoming an annual rite of winter, Brian Kelly has once again explained why he’s not interested in going to the NFL. Notre Dame’s head football coach, who just wrapped up his sixth season in South Bend, was asked the inevitable question about coaching at the game’s highest level.

Irish 247’s Nick Ironside caught Kelly’s comments on a Monday afternoon SportsCenter where Notre Dame’s head coach once again explained why he plans on staying in the college game.

“I really feel like I’m at the level,” Kelly said, according to Irish247. “I know the NFL gets that notoriety because it’s professional sports, but it doesn’t mean necessarily it has it right in all facets. I think college football has it right for me, because for me it’s coach centric where I control the scholarships. I control the roster. Not that I’m a control freak, but this is my 25th year as a head coach.

“So doing it for so long, I like to be able to know what’s going on in the front office. Those are my biggest concerns sometimes. There’s so much turnover in the NFL. There’s the lack of continuity. In every great business there has to be some change, but continuity is important and I’ve always liked the continuity. And at Notre Dame we’ve got great structure. Great continuity. Great athletic director. Great president. So that’s why there’s no need to go chase anything else. I’m in a great situation at Notre Dame.”

Kelly’s comments are similar to the ones he made in the lead-up to the Fiesta Bowl—and closely mirror what Urban Meyer said during the same time period when Ohio State’s head coach acknowledged receiving a phone call from an interested NFL team but said no thanks. It’s also a reflection on the realities of today’s coaching world, where the money, power and autonomy in college sports is second to none.

Kelly’s declaration won’t please everybody who still think back to the head coach’s conversations with the Philadelphia Eagles after the Irish played for the BCS title. But they do likely eliminates any questions about the relationship between Kelly and his bosses.

For as long as Notre Dame has had a head football coach, there’s been rumblings about his relationship with the athletic director or the university president. With Rev. John Jenkins engaged (and part of the ongoing battle to support the amateur model in college athletics) and Jack Swarbrick among the best in the business, Notre Dame may not have some of the advantages that come at football-first schools like Alabama, but Kelly certainly has support from above that didn’t always exist the last few decades.

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 24, Temple 20

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In front of an electric crowd watching the biggest game in Temple history, one team played with nothing to lose and the other found new ways to do it. Yet the Owls upset bid was not meant to be, stopped two minutes short by a late touchdown pass from DeShone Kizer to Will Fuller and a clutch interception by KeiVarae Russell. After some final-play hysteria on a night filled with it across college football, Notre Dame escaped Philadelphia with a 24-20 victory.

Kizer’s heroics came after two first-half interceptions. Fuller’s touchdown catch was an exclamation point after a relatively quiet return to his hometown. And Russell’s interception came after he was beat in man coverage multiple times, a tough night for Notre Dame’s cover men.

The Irish looked like a different football team than the one that traded punches with USC. But that’s the state of this football team, especially on the road. But after some twists and turns and taking Temple’s best shot, Kelly liked the toughness his team showed, especially against a home team that looked like it had a date with destiny as the second half turned its way.

“We’ve got a group that’s veteran and they believed they were going to win as well. We’ve been a fourth quarter team all year and we made a play when we needed to,” Kelly told ESPN’s Heather Cox. “We had too many missed opportunities in the red zone but we showed great resiliency against a very very good football team.”

As the Irish head into November 7-1, let’s find out what else we learned on Halloween night.

 

The game played out to Matt Rhule’s blueprint. But Notre Dame still found a way to win. 

Ask Brian Kelly—or anybody who has watched Notre Dame football for more than a few days—how Temple was going to make this a football game and they’d have said something that mentioned scoring points in the red zone and limiting turnovers.

Well, Notre Dame not only didn’t do a great job scoring points in the red zone, but they also managed two turnovers inside Temple’s 20-yard line. That kept Temple in the game in the first half, with the Owls starting the third quarter trailing by just four points.

The Irish started the third quarter quickly, forcing punts on the Owls first two possessions and getting a field goal on their first drive. But from there the Owls controlled the pace of the second half with their offense. A game-changing 14-play, 78-yard touchdown drive pulled Temple even in the fourth quarter.

The Irish responded by going three-and-out, with Tyler Newsome’s 35-yard punt giving Temple excellent field position. The Owls next eight-play drive took nearly four minutes, pinning the Irish in a corner and down three points with under five minutes to go.

Fuller and Kizer made sure that Temple’s dreams would be dashed, with the Owls safety late to react to a perfect throw from Kizer to Notre Dame’s best offensive weapon. But Rhule and company nearly pulled off the upset, and did so thanks to offensive miscues and a defense that just couldn’t get off the field.

 

Notre Dame’s boom or bust defense very nearly cost the Irish the season. 

On paper, the Irish played a fine game defensively. Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell wreaked havoc all night. Jaylon Smith played like an All-American and KeiVarae Russell’s clinching interception is two-straight victories where the senior cornerback made a game-defining play.

But the stat sheet doesn’t have eyes. And anybody watching Brian VanGorder’s defense has to wonder if this unit has what it takes to be a part of a team that aspires to play for a national championship.

Temple had 11 possessions. Six of those were less than five plays—clear victories for Notre Dame’s defense. But after that is where this group gets maddening. It’s beginning to feel like once the chains move, this defense finds a way to get in trouble. Whether that’s the 94-yard touchdown drive the Owls put together or the 14-play drive that tied the game.

When it’s time for a big play to be made, too often its the guys not wearing blue and gold making the big play. On Temple’s first scoring drive, it came on a 3rd and 14 pass conversion. Temple’s 94-yard drive included a 50-yard run by Walker and a third-down pass interference call against Cole Luke.

After stuffing Temple three times from the 1-yard line, Nicky Baratti ran right by a chance to make a game-changing play. On Temple’s go-ahead score, Brian Kelly could be seen screaming “Do Your Job!” at a defense that crashed hard on a zone read, allowing P.J. Walker to run the ball nearly into field goal range.

After watching Bob Diaco’s defense bend but hold strong in the red zone, we’ve seen VanGorder’s seemingly do the opposite. And while there are personnel deficiencies that even the best defensive coordinator would have a hard time masking, this team gets very little out of its best efforts, undone by critical mistakes and big plays.

Ultimately this season is going to come down to the 11 guys playing defense needing to  do a better job of collecting themselves after adversity strikes, and finding a way to make in-drive adjustments. Because right now, once the opponent finds a way to move the chains, it usually spells doom for Notre Dame’s defense. And that’s no way to win football games.

 

DeShone Kizer threw first-half interceptions that reminded you he was a (redshirt) freshman. But his late-game poise should have you very happy. 

DeShone Kizer’s first interception was the type of rookie decision that haunts coaches. His second was the type of bad-outcome play that had Notre Dame fans thinking of the turnover plague that ruined the 2011 and 2014 seasons.

But Kizer is no ordinary first-year quarterback. And the young signal-caller once again put the Irish offense on his back and won the game for Notre Dame, propelling the ground game and coming up clutch on the game-winning drive.

“He made a huge play when he needed to,” Kelly said after the game. “We mounted a big drive when we had to come up big.”

That big play was a rocket-shot that Kizer threaded to Fuller in the end zone. But before then, Kizer’s work in the zone-read run game kept Notre Dame in the football game, and burned Temple for crashing down at the line of scrimmage to stop C.J. Prosise.

Kizer’s 79-yard touchdown run was the second-longest by a Notre Dame quarterback in school history, outdone by only a Blair Kiel score on a fake punt. His 143-yard rushing day was against an Owl rush defense that showed itself worthy of a Top 10 ranking. And while the two interceptions certainly make his stat line look less than stellar, Kizer made some big-time throws under duress, showing the type of unflappable nature that let the Irish offense muster the confidence to march down and score a game-winner.

What happens after this season behind center is anyone’s guess. But as Kizer continues to play really solid football, his confidence and personality have turned the DNA of this offense.

 

With some very good defenses still on the schedule, Notre Dame’s offensive line needs an identity check. 

For the second time on the road this season, Notre Dame’s offense was thrown completely out of whack by an attacking defense that forced the Irish to be one-dimensional. At Clemson, a rain storm (and a stout Tiger defense) helped explain it. But against Temple, the Owls undersized but athletic front seven ruined multiple drives and took C.J. Prosise out of the football game.

At this point, Notre Dame has conceded that Kizer is their best short-yardage option. But that’s less about Prosise learning how to run inside the tackles and more about the Irish front five struggling at the point of attack.

Once again on Saturday, Steve Elmer struggled with an active defensive tackle who beat him with quickness. Captain Nick Martin heard his name called for the wrong reason, the last man onto a pile that cost the Irish 15-yards at a critical moment. And while Ronnie Stanley still profiles as one of the first offensive linemen off the NFL draft board this spring, it’s telling that Notre Dame becomes overly right-handed when it’s time to run the football in short yardage situations.

Credit Temple for great defense. But don’t expect things to get easier moving forward, as Pitt, Boston College and Stanford all have Top 40 rush defenses. Harry Hiestand’s troops need to get their running backs downhill, with Prosise bottled up too often in the backfield or running parallel with the line of scrimmage.

Finesse is a dirty word for offensive linemen. But this group needs to show in November that they’re the type of group that wants to battle it out in the trenches, not rely on attacking the perimeter.

 

On another chaotic Saturday in college football, Notre Dame’s latest fourth-quarter comeback shows the Irish have the heart of a champion. 

Fixing the mistakes comes later. And it’s much easier to do after a hard-fought victory. But after a second-half where it looked like Notre Dame was going to let one slip through their fingers, both the offense and the defense came up clutch in the game’s final minutes.

Against one of the best fourth quarter teams in college football, Notre Dame made one more big play than the Owls.

“I’m really proud of the way our team played in the fourth quarter,” Kelly said postgame. “Making a play when we needed to, both on offense and defense.”

Notre Dame now has 13 fourth-quarter comeback victories under Brian Kelly. That’s a long way from the finding-a-way-to-lose program that cost Charlie Weis his job during a heart-breaking 2009 season and had many actually sane Irish fans wondering if Notre Dame was cursed.

So while the missed tackles and the blown blocks certainly had Irish fans pulling their hair out, it was business as usual for a football team that is really difficult to beat. The Irish overcame a sloppy field. Even sloppier tackling. And the loss of safety Elijah Shumate to a targeting ejection.

Even as tempers flared on Notre Dame’s sideline as Kelly pushed assistant strength coach David Grimes, the chaos didn’t infect a team that needed a win and is flying home excited to see where it stands when the Playoff rankings come out Tuesday night.

It’s hard to win in college football. Even harder when you make some of the mistakes the Irish made on Saturday night. But in the end, Notre Dame walked away a winner, taking Temple’s best shot and delivering one more than the Owls to win the game.