Notre Dame

For Notre Dame, Nevada game an opportunity for positive momentum

For Notre Dame, Nevada game an opportunity for positive momentum

For Notre Dame, Nevada an opportunity for positive momentum 

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame, on paper, should have no problem cruising past Nevada on Saturday. That’s the starting point for this weekend’s Irish home opener, which comes six days after that double-overtime loss to Texas in which a lot went right, but far too much went wrong. 

Brian Polian’s Wolf Pack — not to be confused with the Wolfpack, which Notre Dame will face in its trip to North Carolina State next month — has made bowl games in back-to-back seasons, which allowed Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly to talk up the former Irish assistant’s side as one that’ll provide a challenge on Saturday. 

“A team that went to a bowl game last year and certainly one that was picked to finish in the top of their league, and we will have to play well against them,” Kelly summed up on Tuesday.

Kelly then took questions for about 30 minutes, and only one of them involved the words “Nevada” or “Wolf Pack” and none referenced any opposing players like running back James Butler or quarterback Tyler Stewart.

Nevada nearly lost its opener last week to a triple option-running FCS side in Cal Poly that went 4-7 in 2015. A 30-27 overtime win was the final score for a game in which you’d expect a bowl-reaching FBS team to cruise (Nevada last year beat an FCS-level UC Davis by 14 to open its season). While it’s easy to write off one week as a slow start, Nevada by S&P+ was the second-lowest rated team to finish over .500 in 2015 (99th, two spots better than Bob Davie’s 7-6 New Mexico). 

The narrative here is that Notre Dame shouldn’t have a problem with Nevada, not with an offense officially quarterbacked by a guy in DeShone Kizer who sublimely accounted for six touchdowns in Austin. In reality, this should just be a tune-up for next week’s primetime showdown against a top-10 Michigan State side (S&P+ gives Notre Dame a 92 percent chance of beating Nevada). So through that lens, there are a few things Notre Dame needs to see happen on Saturday:

1. Positive defensive momentum. 

This starts with forcing Nevada into passing downs — so second-and-long, third-and-five-plus, etc. Notre Dame’s defense was actually pretty good in these situations against Texas, with the Longhorns only converting necessary yardage on 18.8 percent of those downs. But the problem was getting into passing downs — Texas had a ridiculous success rate of 55.7 percent on standard downs (where a pass isn't obvious, essentially). 

That number has to come down for Brian VanGorder’s defense to have any chance of success this season. Nevada does have a solid spread-pistol run game led by Butler, the Bloomingdale, Ill. native who rushed for 1,342 yards last year, so keeping him from chewing up yards on first and second down is the first step toward that necessary turnaround. 

Defensive end Isaac Rochell said the changes Notre Dame’s defense needs to make aren’t difficult or significant — it’s just tackling better, not jumping out of a gap, staying on assignment, etc. 

“A lot of it’s not rocket science,” Rochell said. 

Getting away from the ineffective 3-3-5 scheme Notre Dame deployed against Texas and into more 4-3 base looks will be important, too, given not only Nevada’s power running game but the one Michigan State possesses with LJ Scott.

Freshman Devin Studstill will earn his first start at safety alongside junior Drue Tranquill, who was subbed out of Sunday’s game in favor of Studstill for the second half. Getting both those guys — along with sixth-year graduate student Avery Sebastian, who Kelly said Thursday is cleared to play against Nevada — a full game of positive reps could be beneficial, too. 

Kelly remained steadfast in his confidence in VanGorder and the Irish defense this week, saying everyone needs to “relax” and that it’s too early to draw far-reaching conclusions about that unit. Notre Dame’s defense has 11 games to prove worthy of Kelly’s confidence, starting Saturday against Nevada.

“I’m not going to sit there and sulk or feel bad because we have another game,” Rochell said. “Especially this week, we have a really short week. But the point is we gotta get guys going and not have the mindset that we’re defeated and our season’s over. There’s plenty of one-loss teams that have done great things, won national championships. So the goal doesn’t change.”

2. Get the young receivers comfortable.  

Notre Dame’s offense certainly could’ve used Torii Hunter Jr. down the stretch on Sunday, as it had to rely on an inexperienced group of pass-catchers in its efforts to take the lead and win in overtime against Texas. Hunter (concussion) will not play Saturday, so it’ll provide a full afternoon for receivers like Equanimeous St. Brown, C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson, Miles Boykin, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool, and tight ends Durham Smythe and Nic Weishar, to grow more comfortable with the Kizer-led offense. 

St. Brown and Sanders both looked good in spurts on Sunday, but having high-production games from both of them, as well as a tight end and a freshman/redshirt freshman receiver, would be a positive step in the right direction for a Hunter-less offense. 

3. Get the backups some playing time. 

The probable low-leverage nature of Saturday afternoon should provide an ideal opportunity for a number of players to get their first extended looks of the 2016 season. On defense, that means defensive end Daelin Hayes, linebackers Asmar Bilal and Te’von Coney and safety Jalen Elliott (who replaced the injured Sebastian in overtime on Sunday), among others. On offense, any of those aforementioned receivers should get in, as well as running back Dexter Williams and right guard/center Tristen Hoge. 

Plus, if those guys are in the game, it means Notre Dame isn’t being challenged by Nevada. And with Michigan State looming, that’d be the most positive development possible this week. 

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.