Notre Dame

Brian Kelly puts Notre Dame players on notice after brutal loss to Duke

Brian Kelly puts Notre Dame players on notice after brutal loss to Duke

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.”

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.