Notre Dame

‘No moral victories:’ Notre Dame knows what went wrong at Clemson


‘No moral victories:’ Notre Dame knows what went wrong at Clemson

CLEMSON, S.C. — Notre Dame didn’t blame the awful weather that hit the eastern seaboard for its three fumbles and deluge of dropped passes. It didn’t blame the raucous din of Clemson’s Death Valley for its slow start, both offensively and defensively. 

Instead, this is a team that left South Carolina’s Piedmont brimming with frustration over how it managed to lose, 24-22, to No. 12 Clemson on Saturday night. 

“We’re not here for moral victories,” coach Brian Kelly said. “We’re too far along in our program.”

This is Year 6 of Kelly’s tenure in South Bend. For the first time since the regime change of December 2009, there’s a confidence in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex in Notre Dame’s top-end talent and depth across the board (the 2012 team that made the BCS Championship was thin depth-wise; Kelly admitted earlier this year that squad couldn’t have sustained its success through the kind of injuries the 2015 suffered). 

That depth is why Notre Dame remained steadfast in its focus of reaching the College Football Playoff, even after losing defensive tackle Jarron Jones, cornerback Shaun Crawford, running back Tarean Folston, quarterback Malik Zaire, tight end Durham Smythe and safety Drue Tranquill to season-ending injuries. And against Clemson, that confidence was proven to be rooted in reality — it wasn’t a lack of depth that led Notre Dame to fall behind 14-0 in the first quarter and have to make up an 18-point deficit in the final 15 minutes. 

[MORE: Brian Kelly defends pair of failed two-point conversions]

Instead, it was a slow start by the Irish defense that allowed DeShaun Watson & Co. to scythe 64 yards on their opening drive for a touchdown. It was a shanked punt by Tyler Newsome that set up a four-play, 40-yard scoring drive on the Tigers’ next possession. It was an offensive line that looked entirely overmatched on running plays and a wide receiver corps that couldn’t catch the ball in the first half. 

“We’re not going to make that excuse about the weather,” wide receiver Will Fuller, who was locked down by Clemson cornerback MacKensie Alexander for only two catches, said. “We knew there were going to be wet conditions. We practiced it all week, so we had to come down with the catches.” 

Notre Dame’s defense hit the reset button after those first two drives and limited Clemson’s offense to 3.6 yards per play the rest of the way. Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson said Notre Dame was tipping its run/pass calls, which could begin to explain how an offensive line that should’ve been the best unit on the field was so thoroughly dominated through the first three quarters (Clemson’s front seven, of course, deserves plenty of credit as well). 

But as Notre Dame fixed its pass-catching issues and the offensive line and defense improved, a string of turnovers backed the Irish into an unenviable corner. 

“Our program’s past this,” center and team captain Nick Martin said. “We’re too good of a team to come down and lose this game.”

Freshman C.J. Sanders lost a fumble while returning the opening kickoff of the second half, giving Clemson a short field to easily convert into seven points. Running back C.J. Prosise coughed up the ball on the first play of Notre Dame’s ensuing drive, though Clemson was unable to land a haymaker with a touchdown or a field goal off it. 

DeShone Kizer forced a pass that was picked off midway through the fourth quarter, which led to a Clemson field goal. And only a few yards from the end zone on what could’ve resulted in a game-tying touchdown, Alexander dislodged the ball from receiver Chris Brown’s hands for Notre Dame’s fourth second-half turnover. 

“If you told me four times, I would’ve told you that we’re going to lose,” Kelly said. “You wouldn’t have to be a genius to figure that out. We turned the ball over four times and we lost.”

Except in spite of those turnovers, Notre Dame almost won. Kizer led a manic last-ditch drive, taking the Irish from the Clemson 32 to the doorstep of the end zone in about 60 seconds. With seven seconds remaining, he floated a pass to a wide-open Torii Hunter Jr. for a touchdown, setting up a game-tying two-point conversion attempt. 

Kizer was stuffed on a run-pass option, leaving Notre Dame with only a gutting loss after a gutsy comeback.

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“We want to be a championship team,” Kizer said, “and champions don’t lose.”

The last part of Kizer’s quote isn’t exactly true. Three of the last five championship-winning teams (Ohio State in 2014, Alabama in 2012 and Alabama in 2011) have had one loss. 

We’re only five weeks into the season and chaos is already a theme; on Saturday alone Ole Miss and Georgia were clobbered by Florida and Alabama, Ohio State and Michigan State were pushed by Indiana’s bottom-feeding Big Ten teams, and UCLA lost by 15 at home to Arizona State. 

The point is, Notre Dame is hardly doomed in the race to be one of four teams selected for the 2015 College Football Playoff. Its depth is still there. Its top-end talent is still there. Clean up the fumbles, stop dropping passes (both of which can probably be solved by playing in better weather), avoid slow defensive starts and maybe don’t go for two with 14 minutes left in the fourth quarter, and this is a team that very well could be good enough to be considered by the unpredictable selection committee next month. 

There’s no margin for error anymore. That much isn’t lost on this group. 

“There’s not going to be anybody that’s working harder than us next week and for the rest of the season,” linebacker and captain Joe Schmidt said. “We gotta get back to work. We have a big challenge ahead of us in Navy. I can guarantee that we’re going to be better.”



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.