Tag: Brian Kelly

Irish offense preparing for former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta


Past and present Notre Dame football will unite on Saturday, with the Irish traveling to Charlottesville to take on Virginia. And while the juicy storylines aren’t exactly jumping off the page in one of Notre Dame’s six ACC matchups this season, the chance for the Irish offense to go against former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta is one that has Notre Dame fans more than a little interested.

Brought to Notre Dame by Charlie Weis, Tenuta served as the Irish defensive coordinator for two seasons. The move was interesting for many reasons. And if we’re being honest, it was a disaster for just as many.

Tenuta was Notre Dame’s first big-money, free agent coaching acquisition. After giving Weis all he could handle as Georgia Tech’s defensive coordinator, the former Irish head coach decided to bring Tenuta to South Bend, with hopes that the veteran coordinator would infuse some of his aggressiveness into his football program.

Tenuta did that, blitzing on more than half of the defense’s snaps. But too often those blitzes never got home, and the Irish finished 2009 giving up an insane amount of big plays, finishing 103rd in the country by giving up 6.2 yards per play. Throw in Tenuta’s gruff disposition and some well-documented chemistry issues on the coaching staff, and Weis’ third shot at finding the right defensive coordinator ended up being one of many reasons he was fired.

All this background is given to you because one rather obvious statement makes Notre Dame fans feel a little bit less than comfortable: Tenuta and current Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder have a lot in common. And Brian Kelly acknowledged that on Tuesday.

“I think they both probably drink from the same well,” Kelly said. “I think Brian and Jon would definitely both tell you they’d much rather be exotic and bring pressures if they could. Sometimes you’re limited by certain situations, but I would say they’re very similar from that respect.”

When it’s going well, an attacking defensive coordinator helps a team dictate terms. They demand perfection, unwilling to give up a five-yard out route, let alone a 50-yard bomb. Weis saw that from Tenuta, and understandably wanted that in his program. And Kelly knew that’s how VanGorder coached defense, and after Bob Diaco left to take over the UConn program, Kelly decided he wanted to crank up the pressure schemes.

The big difference between Weis and Kelly’s decisions? Kelly had recruited the personnel that made that scheme possible? Weis? Not so much, yo-yo’ing between Rick Minter, Corwin Brown and Tenuta, all while struggling to recruit on the defensive side of the ball.

Kelly talked about how important personnel is when determining defensive schemes.

“It’s so much about personnel that allows you to do the things you want to do defensively,” Kelly explained. “Sometimes you’re limited by certain situations.”

We saw those limitations firsthand last year. After looking like world-beaters throughout September and parts of October, Notre Dame’s personnel just didn’t have the ability to deploy VanGorder’s aggressive schemes, with a disastrous stretch yielding nearly 40 points a game to opponents to close the season.

Get one look at the game tape from last weekend in the Rose Bowl, it appeared that Tenuta’s defense struggled getting to UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen as well, a talented defense feeling the effects of multiple losses to the NFL. And even sending blitzers early and often, the Cavaliers were unable to disrupt the Bruins’ quick-throwing scheme. That’s something that Irish fans saw all too often when Tenuta was calling the Notre Dame defense, and likely adds some fire to a matchup that already looks awfully uneven on paper.

Of course, Malik Zaire is starting just his third game at Notre Dame. And while the Irish offensive line did a nice job protecting him against Texas, the Longhorns managed nine tackles-for-loss. So you can forgive Kelly and his offensive staff if they aren’t out to right the wrongs of the Weis era.

As is always the case, deposed coaches are whipping boys and scapegoats, and Tenuta’s scowling face is too often associated with the defensive ineptitude of the Weis era. But Virginia’s defensive coordinator has been around college football for the better part of 35 years, coaching at his alma mater after a career that’s seen him do lofty things at stops like Marshal Ohio State and Georgia Tech.

So while Irish fans are hoping Notre Dame scores points by the bushel and makes big plays against the risk-taking schemes of their former defensive coordinator, Kelly and the Irish staff know they’ve got a big week of preparation, with Virginia’s defense more than capable of getting after the quarterback and turning over the football.

“They’ve got an answer for everything that you’re doing offensively. They like to mix things up, play some man, some zone, single pressures,” Kelly said. [They’re] a defense that can cause you some problems with some very, very good coaching, very sound fundamentally and can really get after you with a lot of different schemes and a lot of different looks.”



Kelly: Play-calling will be a collaboration

Brian Kelly, Malik Zaire

So who’s calling the plays? That was one of the main questions  still unanswered heading into the season’s opening game, and when head coach Brian Kelly was asked about it, he was staying mum.

With Mike Sanford (the offensive coordinator) taking his cues from Mike Denbrock (the associate head coach), you already knew that the org chart looked different than most. So maybe it makes sense that Kelly’s going relatively new-age with his philosophy on play-calling.

“We are going to collaborate,” Kelly said Tuesday. “There will be collaboration. Mike Sanford, myself, Coach Denbrock, there will be collaboration on Saturday.”

In theory, it makes sense, and likely shows just how much Kelly trusts the opinion of both Denbrock, an assistant coach Kelly’s know for the better part of 25 years, and Sanford, an assistant he’s worked with for roughly nine months.

With Kelly and Denbrock on the sidelines and Sanford upstairs in the box, game day operations will be worth watching. Especially the first time Zaire gets behind center only to notice that the playclock is moments from zero and a blown timeout earns the scorn of the Irish head coach. Collaboration? That’ll be the collective groan you hear emanating from Notre Dame Stadium.

Yet there’s a good chance that frustrating scenario might not ever happen. In fact, you could also argue that this collaboration could actually speed up an operation that sometimes struggled to move quickly, with both Tommy Rees and Everett Golson prone to evaluating what the defense showed and then counter-punching.

Building on this theory, you could also take the leap that the three-man effort could be to help speed up an operation that wants to move at significant pace this season. With Sanford above the action, he can better fill in Kelly and Denbrock on what he sees and what the defense is doing. With the game plan set and scripting in place, the Irish offense could finally dictate terms to the defense, after years of watching quarterbacks read and react.

Of course, we’ve spent five years talking about Kelly’s offense going up-tempo, a veritable white whale for some Irish diehards. And for all the clamoring and discussion about turning Kelly’s offense into Oregon’s, we’ve really only really seen it happen a handful of series. But with Zaire at quarterback and Notre Dame’s best running signal caller since Carlyle Holiday, the option to finally “call it and haul it” is available to this offense, if they choose to utilize it.

Kelly confirmed Tuesday that he holds veto rights on what play goes to the quarterback, pretty much what you’d expect from a head coach with a reputation for being one of the best play-callers in America. (Yes, Irish fans, that’s what people outside our little bubble think.) But with Zaire, a veteran of roughly six quarters of action and a new offensive coordinator, the Irish offense is finally an unknown, likely the head coach’s rational for playing this one very close to the vest.

“I’m just not going to give you much more than, you know, all three of us are collaborating,” Kelly said. “We’re all in unison as to how we want the game to unfold. So we are all going to be working off the same play sheet. We are going to all be working off the same openers. We are going to all be working off the same down and distance sheet.

“So whether it’s coming out of Mike or Mike or Brian’s lips, is really immaterial as far as I’m concerned. All I know is that we’ve got great collaboration between the three of us.”

For Golson, challenges won’t disappear now that he’s at FSU

Everett Golson

Everett Golson left Notre Dame for Florida State. Degree in hand, free agency well earned. But for some who thought Golson left South Bend because he wanted nothing to do with a quarterback competition that Malik Zaire seemed to embrace, the fifth-year quarterback’s arrival in Tallahassee won’t mark the end of a position battle.

Golson left a competition for the starting quarterback job at Notre Dame for the vacancy Jameis Winston left behind at Florida State. And Jimbo Fisher apparently made it clear that he welcomed the Irish transfer to campus, but guaranteed him little more than a shot at the starting job.

“Controversy and competition is two different things. It’s competition,” Fisher told the AP’s Ralph Russo. “And players on the team, when a guy is a competitor and he does well — whether it’s Sean [Maguire], it’s Everett, it’s De’Andre [Johnson], it’s J.J. [Consentino], it’s Deondre Francois — whoever is on our team, they’ll follow the guys who play the best, respond the best and lead them the best.”

There’s few who doubt that Golson will win the starting job in short order. But then again, few looked at Notre Dame’s spring practice and saw a job that didn’t look like Golson’s, either.

So as we step back and look at Golson’s decision to start anew, it’s worth looking closer at the relationship with the quarterback and his head coach, and also the instability at the top of the offense, with Golson asked to establish yet another relationship in the more-than-fluid offensive leadership under head coach Brian Kelly.

While Golson only played in one system at Notre Dame, he had multiple teachers. During his freshman year, Charley Molnar was the quarterback coach and offensive coordinator. After Molnar left to take over the UMass program, Chuck Martin ran the offense and the position during Notre Dame’s 2012 BCS title game run.

After Golson’s academic detour in the 2013 season, he returned to a reshuffled coaching staff after Martin took the head coaching job at Miami (Ohio). Golson was then working under Mike Denbrock‘s leadership with new quarterback coach Matt LaFleur asked to work on technique and position responsibilities with Golson and a young depth chart.

LaFleur’s short stay in South Bend was a misstep for Kelly, the young assistant happier in the professional game and returning to work with Kyle Shanahan. Enter another young offensive assistant in Mike Sanford, who had just weeks to build and develop a relationship with his embattled starting quarterback, and it’s fair to consider these factors when people talk about Golson going to learn and work with completely new coaches.

Of course, Golson’s primary coach has always been Kelly. From Day One, the Irish head coach has kept Golson’s tutelage under his purview. And as Kelly moves forward running the Irish program, the head coach needs to take a step back and access whether that arrangement serves his football team best.

Multiple sources close to Golson cite the head coach-player relationship as a significant factor in Golson’s decision to depart. And while some fans would point out that Kelly stuck by and believed in Golson for far longer than any reasonable coach should have, the decision to seek a clean slate was one that hinged on the working relationship between the two men most responsible for the offense’s efficiency.

With Sanford’s arrival and the addition of off-field resources like former Buffalo head coach Jeff Quinn, there’s no shortage of proven offensive leaders in the Notre Dame coaching room. And while Kelly’s DNA won’t change from that of an offensive coach, given a new opportunity to work with Zaire, perhaps the singular nature of the relationship between head coach and his quarterback will change.

All that being said, Kelly isn’t the first head coach to tightly manage the quarterback position. Successful coaches at every level establish that bond with their quarterback, and if there’s any blame to assign—or any perceived failure in Golson deciding to leave—it’s fair to put some of that on the quarterback’s shoulders.

Golson isn’t a guy completely comfortable in the spotlight. And in a program and playing a position where eyes are always watching, the minor details—things like body language on the sideline and press conference demeanor—end up being fair game. And as the mistakes piled up last season, Golson became less and less able to deal with the adversity, finally benched after a flat-line performance against the Irish’s biggest rival in USC.

Even if his season ground to a halt before playing well in limited minutes against LSU, there’s no reason to think that Golson won’t have a good season at Florida State. For all the worries that the offense is too complex and Golson’s timeline is too truncated, this is an offense that allowed players like JaMarcus Russell to thrive, and turned mediocre NFL players like Christian Ponder and EJ Manuel into first-round picks. Golson’s a smart kid with better-than-most skills. He’ll be just fine.

So while Notre Dame fans can only wonder what the Irish offense would’ve looked like with the 1-2 punch of Golson and Zaire, it’s one thing to embrace an unknown quarterback platoon as a fan. It’s an entirely different thing to do it as a player, especially one that hopes to continue his career at the next level.

Golson’s move to Florida State will certainly cut both ways when NFL talent evaluators access his abilities—both to play and to lead at the next level. So while Golson made one difficult decision when he decided to leave South Bend, he faces another set of challenges at Florida State.