Notre Dame

Notre Dame chat: Looking back at Texas, previewing Nevada

Notre Dame chat: Looking back at Texas, previewing Nevada

To look back at Notre Dame's 50-47 loss to Texas and look ahead to this weekend's home opener against Nevada, I chatted with NBC's resident Notre Dame writer Keith Arnold (synergy!) about the state of the Irish defense, where DeShone Kizer & Co. go as an offense and what to expect Saturday in South Bend:

Keith: I’ll be the first to admit it, I was surprised that Notre Dame lost last weekend. I looked at everything and just couldn’t figure out how this was a 2-pt line. Did you see this coming?

JJ: I mean, I predicted a Notre Dame 30-23 win, so I guess I didn’t.
But I’ll say this: That was mostly predicated on me not thinking Texas’ offense was going to be good enough. But as soon as Buechele led that first scoring drive and the 18-wheeler package started humming, I wished I could’ve gone back and re-done my prediction.

I still probably would’ve picked ND to win, but I would’ve gone with Texas scoring more points. There was just so much uncertainty going into that game.

Did Texas’ offense surprise you, Keith, or did Notre Dame’s defense disappoint you? Or somewhere in between?

Keith: It’s got to be somewhere in between — but I was super surprised at the defensive line play — namely, that I thought the guys up front got whipped, and they got whipped by a group that was banged up entering the game. Texas’s push at the point of attack really surprised me.

I’m less surprised by Buechele actually — while everybody started writing the legend, I secretly hoped we didn’t just give birth to another Tate Forcier. What do you do with the DL?

JJ: I mean, the stats don’t lie — ND was better with four down linemen than three. So I go with four.

Keith: I can’t claim to be a tape-breakdown expert, but it certainly wasn’t Andrew Trumbetti’s finest performance.

JJ: Whether that would’ve solved everything, we don’t know, but Brian Kelly admitted Tuesday he would’ve had more big bodies in against the Swoopes package. But even with four DLs there, they needed to generate a more consistent push.

Keith: That weakside DE position took exactly 5 minutes to be exposed as a problem.

JJ: I’d expect to see a lot of Jay Hayes there when he’s fully healthy. He took most of the first-team reps at that spot during the spring and preseason practices open to the media and looked solid enough there.
That being said, I don’t expect to see him this weekend, do you?

Keith: At this point, I’d have the guy with his foot elevated between now and next Tuesday, hoping he’s ready for a slugfest in the trenches against Michigan State.

JJ: If he’s healthy, he’ll play – no reason to hold out a guy who’s 100%. But it’s a short week and Nevada isn’t exactly a star opponent, so I could see him getting limited snaps. But you gotta get him some work so his first real test since 2014 won’t be against that bruising Michigan State side.

Keith: Remember, he was “healthy” heading into Texas, too.

JJ: I guess to put a wrap on the defense: Are you confident it can pull together and be good enough for Notre Dame to still have a successful year?

Keith: Successful yes. But I’m not sure what that means anymore. I had 10 to 11 wins as possible for this team.

JJ: I realize that was a loaded question, ha.

Keith:  And I really did think the defensive would play much, much better.
Now I probably have taken a step away from the ledge when it comes to Brian VanGorder, and I actually think BK is right to be preaching patience here — he’s breaking in SO many new players and doing it without a safety who was probably one of the three most important people on this defense, but this team will only be as good as its defense. And right now, that’s not very good.

JJ: Look, you can win a lot of games with your offense bailing out an underperforming defense. But you can’t contend for a playoff spot with that.

Keith: I think that’s true. Maybe Oklahoma would disagree — at least last year — but underperforming is one thing. What those guys did on Sunday night wasn’t underperforming.

JJ: The Big 12 is a different animal with that, though. Underperforming was last year’s defense.

Keith:  I’ll leave my defensive comments at this: I’m worried about not just the scheme, but the personnel. That’s what was more surprising to me. That ND’s guys were getting blown off the ball and their DBs were getting torched vertical.

JJ: There are a few individual players who looked good Sunday — Nyles Morgan and Shaun Crawford come to mind — but the whole defense has to be better.

But you raise the question: Can it?If the personnel isn’t there, and the scheme isn’t there, then what is? I guess we have 11 games to find out.

Keith: That’s essentially the big rub on the Brian VanGorder defense. What do you hang your hat on? This is starting to feel pretty “Tenuta-ish.”

***

Keith: So DeShone Kizer announced that DeShone Kizer would be the team’s starting quarterback. What do you make of the decision? And what do you think of BK having Kizer handle it?

JJ: That it was obvious? The way it was handled made sense.

On one hand, Kelly and Kizer talked, and it was clear Kizer was going to be the starter. Kizer was the only QB who talked to the media on Wednesday, so if he didn’t say anything about being the starter and delayed the announcement to Thursday, it would’ve raised far more questions than ND would’ve wanted.

But on the other hand, if Kelly came out Wednesday and briefly told us that Kizer was his starter, it’d be making a bigger deal out of it than I think anyone wants. It was clear Kizer outplayed Zaire and was going to be the starter, so don’t make a big deal out of it and let Kizer say it and move on.

Long story short: Having Kizer announce it was the path of least resistance and most common sense. I was fine with it.

KA: I couldn’t agree more. Nothing diffuses this like having Kizer talk about it. It also keeps all of us from picking around at BK, asking him how Malik took it, blah blah blah…

What do you think happens with Malik? I tend to think he’ll still get a series against Nevada in the first half. If only to get the bad taste out of his mouth.

JJ: It’s hard to not feel sorry for the kid, right? It’s a tough situation.

Keith: This feels pulled straight from Friday Night Lights or something.

JJ: He *should* be starting. He would’ve in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, and probably should’ve in 2014, in retrospect. But then he wins the starting job, gets hurt, and a guy who’s turning into a first-round pick right before our eyes comes along and takes his spot.

Keith: But the flip of that is: Damn — DeShone Kizer is good.

JJ: He’s so good!

Keith: This is a guy who Brian Kelly praised on Signing Day for being: Tall. Big. And Tall — in that order.

JJ: Bruce Feldman had a good look back at his recruiting process over on Fox Sports this week. Kizer was about as unimpressive in the Elite 11 as possible because he wasn’t solely focused on being a QB then.

But Kizer talked about it Wednesday and said something interesting — that being a three-sport athlete in high school was the best thing that ever happened to him. Not only did he gain other mental/physical skills from playing basketball and baseball, but it delayed the information dump about being a QB until he was mature enough to handle it.

So instead of having all this stuff thrown at him at age 16, he’s getting it at age 19, 20, and understands it better and is mature enough to handle it now. And we’re seeing him develop into a guy who could be a legit Heisman contender and first-round pick.

Keith: Pete Carroll once told me that he preferred recruiting multi-sport athletes. He thought they could be molded much better at college.

JJ: I’ve had a number of people in MLB front offices and clubhouses tell me they like multi-sport athletes more, too. So what was your favorite play Kizer made Sunday night? The somersault TD throw to ESB, the 29-yard TD run, the scramble-and-throw TD to Torii Hunter or the teardrop to Adams?

Keith: The throw to Adams, for sure. And honestly, I don’t think he played his best game. And I think the receivers were a big part of the problem.
I thought the offense came unglued once Torii Hunter got hurt. And it was because they had three or four kids lined up out there that didn’t seem to have a clue as to what they were doing.

JJ: Agreed. I think it was on the possession after that ridiculous two-point blocked PAT score where Kizer threw incomplete to Kevin Stepherson on third down. Having Hunter there would’ve been huge for that drive.

***

Keith: What do you want to see this weekend?

JJ:  First and foremost, Notre Dame’s defense has to get some positive momentum behind it. Nevada nearly lost to Cal Poly, which went 4-7 at FCS last year, so even though they’ve made back-to-back bowl games Brian Polian doesn’t quite bring the strongest side to South Bend.

This is a good opportunity for Notre Dame’s defense to get the bad taste out of its mouth from Texas and hold an opponent to, ideally, under 20 points. No explosive plays, make some third down stops, and hold them to a reasonable YPP average. Second, just for Kizer to continue to develop a rapport with the young WRs, especially assuming Hunter is out. Make sense? What about you?

Keith: Mostly good defense and a non-competitive game. I think this team can still achieve all of their goals. But they have to win. And they need to get themselves prepared for a tough run in the schedule. But defense first and foremost. And no broken plays.

JJ: Yep yep yep. Selfishly, I would like to not have six or seven re-writes of my game story, as was the case on Sunday.

Got a prediction? I’ll go first: Notre Dame 52, Nevada 24

Keith: I like that number. I think getting to the 50-point mark should be the goal — and to do it in regulation time.

Can I steal your score? That’s pretty solid.

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.