Notre Dame

With knowledge and reinforcements, ‘sky’s the limit’ for Notre Dame defense

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With knowledge and reinforcements, ‘sky’s the limit’ for Notre Dame defense

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The defense Notre Dame trotted out for its Blue and Gold Game Saturday was hardly a finished product from a personnel standpoint.

Missing were three starters and two key reserves: Nose guard Jarron Jones (foot), linebacker Joe Schmidt (ankle), cornerback KeiVarae Russell (suspension) and safeties Avery Sebastian (transfer) and Drue Tranquill (knee).

We saw what the Notre Dame defense looked like without Schmidt last year, and that was a unit that allowed an average of 42.5 points in the six games in which he missed time. The cornerback duo of Cody Riggs and Cole Luke held up well, but Devin Butler struggled with Riggs banged up in the second half of the season. A thin defensive line unit wasn’t able to shoulder losing Jones and Sheldon Day in the middle.

[MORE: Uncertainty looms as Notre Dame's QB competition enters summer]

But while it’s not difficult to find optimism in every corner of spring practice, there may be something to the exceedingly positive rhetoric flying around the Gug.

“The progression that we’ve made has been tremendous,” safety Elijah Shumate said. “It’s fun to watch. It’s just fun to watch us when we’re all on the same page, how fast we play, how good we play, how passionate we play. And I just can’t wait. And then adding those other factors, which are great players, I feel like this sky’s the limit.”

The senior added: “I feel like we can be the best secondary in the country.”

Shumate and fellow safety Max Redfield have earned plenty of praise from coaches for the strides they’ve made this spring, largely in terms of communication. Outside of Malik Zaire’s 68-yard touchdown heave to Will Fuller (who burned rising sophomore cornerback Nick Watkins) and his 29-yard touchdown to Justin Brent, there weren’t many mistakes from the back end of the Irish defense on Saturday.

[MORE: Notre Dame will open 2015 season in primetime vs. Texas]

Whatever mistakes were made weren’t as glaring as the ones on display last year, where communication breakdowns between Redfield and Shumate led to far too many debilitating big-chunk plays.

Both Redfield and Shumate said they understand the concepts of Brian VanGorder’s defense far better in Year 2 than they did in Year 1 so when they make a call, they know why they’re making it.

“The biggest factor to that is just more comfortability in the system,” Redfield said. “Obviously it was our first time learning that sort of NFL scheme and after a year, we feel obviously even more comfortable in it. The communication is a lot more apparent and a lot more evident.”

It’s not just the secondary that’s comfortably wading into the deeper waters of VanGorder’s defense. Rising sophomore Nyles Morgan has made “amazing” improvements, VanGorder said, and the Irish have enough linebacking depth to make Jaylon Smith a dangerous player at multiple positions. When Schmidt returns, he’ll cross-train and Mike and Will linebacker, opening the door for him, Smith and Morgan (or Jarrett Grace) to be on the field at the same time.

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Notre Dame fans]

A young, thin defensive line gained valuable experience this spring and added Jerry Tillery — who impressed as an early-enrolling freshman — to the group led by senior-to-be Sheldon Day. There should be good depth up front to withstand the punishment of a full season, something Notre Dame’s defense hasn’t had over the last two seasons.

This isn’t a defense that projects as elite along the lines of the group that drove the bus to the 2013 BCS Championship. But there could be enough players here — and on the way — that have the talent to earn back some of the defensive reputation Notre Dame’s lost over the last few seasons.

“We need physical players here,” Smith said. “We've kind of got a bad rep of being soft and intelligent, smart guys at Notre Dame. But along with that, we have to have that mental and physical mentality, and we have the capacity. It's just about turning that switch.”

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

A 4-8 season in 2016 has put Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly firmly on the hot seat as he heads into his eighth season with the Fighting Irish.

In response to a tumultuous season, Kelly made major changes to his staff this past offseason by hiring new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Mike Elko, who previously led Wake Forest to an FBS Top-40 total defense ranking, was hired by Kelly to be Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, and Chip Long — former offensive coordinator at Memphis — will now be in charge of the Fighting Irish offense.

However, the biggest change and arguably the No. 1 factor in Kelly's long-term future in South Bend, will be the person under center in 2017.

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — a former Rivals four-star recruit — will lead Notre Dame out of the tunnel in Week 1 vs. Temple.

Wimbush has only thrown five passes during his time at Notre Dame, but showed what kind of talent he has with a 58-yard rushing touchdown as a freshman in 2015.

Wimbush was one of the focal points of a recent Rivals story regarding quarterbacks who will be facing pressure in 2017

Earlier this week, Rivals Recruiting Director Mike Farrell gave his scouting report on the Notre Dame quarterback.


I’m a big fan of Wimbush but that hasn’t always been the case. It’s not that I didn’t like him when I first scouted him before his high school career took off, but what I saw way back when was a kid who had a rocket arm and zero touch. But throughout his high school career he improved every time I saw him, showed much more than just a strong arm and flashed impressive poise for his age.

I’ve seen very limited action when it comes to Wimbush in college as he hasn’t played often and his spring game performance had ups and downs, but I believe in this kid’s ability. He can extend the play, has that great arm and just needs to get comfortable in the Notre Dame offense and make sure he doesn’t try to use that cannon to fit the ball into tight spots. I can see him having some growing pains this season, but as he gets more comfortable and learns to take what the defense gives him while keeping defenses off balance with his athletic ability, I think he’ll finish strong.

Will Wimbush's rocket arm be enough to save Kelly from the hot seat?

That's still to be determined.

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018.