SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The number of the day wasn’t 21 (the amount of points Notre Dame was favored to beat Duke by) or three (the amount of points Notre Dame lost by). It was 22, as coach Brian Kelly put every one of Notre Dame’s starting players on notice to be benched after his team lost, 38-35, at home to Duke to fall to 1-3 in 2016.
“Every position, every position, all 22 of them, will be evaluated,” Kelly said. “Each and every position. There is no position that is untouchable on this football team. And that's the quarterback, all the way down to — maybe, the long snapper's okay. We're not going to touch him. But everybody else is vulnerable.”
So Scott Daly’s job is safe, but nobody else’s is, according to Kelly. The seventh-year Irish coach has gone from pumping the brakes after losing to Texas in double overtime to tersely criticizing his coaches after last week’s loss to Michigan State to threatening to blow the whole thing up after the program’s most embarrassing defeat since losing to a 5-7 Northwestern side in 2014.
“If you want to play for me moving forward, you better — I don't care what your resume says, I don't care if you were a five star (recruit), if you had a hundred tackles or 80 receptions or 30 touchdown passes, you better have some damn fire and energy in you,” Kelly said. “We lack it. We lack it. Severely.”
Kelly offered praise for only one player: Sophomore running back Dexter Williams, who Kelly said was “the only one” who played with any energy in Saturday’s game.
When asked if he still had confidence in Brian VanGorder — whose defense allowed Duke to average nearly two yards per play more than it did in losses to Wake Forest and Northwestern, games in which the Blue Devils combined to score 27 points — Kelly continued to back his embattled coordinator. So while the standings of 22 aren’t safe, VanGorder is for now, even with the student section at Notre Dame Stadium belting out a “Fire Van-Gord-er” chant at times Saturday.
“That's probably the one area that I feel better about today,” Kelly said. “We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today.”
Kelly did backtrack a bit during his press conference Saturday in saying that “this is not all on our players, we still have to coach better as well,” noting that everyone in a Notre Dame jersey, polo or pullover is “in the same boat.”
It’s a serious problem, though, if Notre Dame doesn’t have that energy and passion — maybe Hawk Harrelson would describe it at TWTW — with questionable coaching and personnel in place. In saying that nobody’s job is safe, Kelly is actively trying to light a fire under a group that’s all of a sudden in a precarious position to even be bowl eligible this year.
“That’s fine with me,” linebacker and captain James Onwualu said. “We’ll get back to work. That’s how it is every week. He just doesn’t say it in the media. If you don’t play a good game you’re benched anyway. It’s the same thing, everybody’s on high alert now.”
“I think it’s pretty straightforward,” defensive end and captain Isaac Rochell said of Kelly’s message. “No one’s really safe. For me, it’s just trust the staff. They’re going to make good decisions and we’re going to have to stand behind them in everything we do and trust that the 22 guys on the field are going to fight for us to win.”
And left tackle and fellow captain Mike McGlinchey described Kelly’s on-alert talking point as a “call to wake up.”
“If we go into feeling sorry for ourselves or anything like that it’s going to be a long, long season,” McGlinchey said. “It’s about changing that attitude that coach Kelly’s been talking about and letting it fly out there and taking that approach each and every day.”
Where could those changes come from if all 22 starters are on notice? While Kelly said DeShone Kizer’s play was “not acceptable,” he also criticized Malik Zaire — who started the game at wide receiver and saw two plays on which he totaled negative-eight yards — though he did say pulling the redshirt off sophomore Brandon Wimbush was a possibility. Expect Williams to get more carries going forward. Maybe the offensive line gets shuffled or we see much more of freshmen corners Donte Vaughn (who had an interception on Saturday) and Julian Love.
Notre Dame doesn’t have much time to fix this season, not with Syracuse’s up-tempo offense on tap next weekend. Orange quarterback Eric Dungey threw for 407 yards in a win Saturday over UConn — the team coached by former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco — and after that trip to New York, there’s a road game looming at N.C. State and a home date with Christian McCaffrey and Stanford. If things don’t get fixed, there’s a distinct possibility Notre Dame goes into its bye week with six losses.
So every player is now on notice. Whether that results in anything different than what we saw in September, both from a personnel and results standpoint, remains to be seen.
“There's no passion,” Kelly said. “There's no passion for it. It looks like it's hard to play, like we're pulling teeth. You're playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it's work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.
“There's no fun, there's no enjoyment, there's no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that's where we got to go.”