Notre Dame

Notre Dame’s defense gains momentum with Michigan State looming

Notre Dame’s defense gains momentum with Michigan State looming

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame’s defense needed that. 

Forget for a moment that Saturday’s 39-10 win came against a Nevada program that’s not on the same athletic level as Notre Dame. Coach Brian Polian — himself a former Notre Dame assistant coach — summed it up:

“If we were supposed to beat Notre Dame, we wouldn't be in the Mountain West Conference,” Polian said. “I mean, Notre Dame is not our peer.”

But coming off a loss to Texas in which it allowed 50 points, and with a make-or-break primetime home date against No. 12 Michigan State looming a week from now, Notre Dame’s defense desperately needed to exit Saturday with some positivity and momentum. 

“It lets us know that we’re capable of being a dominant defense when we want to be,” nose guard Jarron Jones, who deftly intercepted a screen pass in the second quarter, said. “So to have this game under our belt, it gives us confidence going into Michigan State. And I feel like if we do the things that we want to do against Michigan State, I feel like everything will take care of itself the rest of the season.”

In the first three quarters Saturday afternoon — with the first-team defense primarily on the field — Notre Dame held Nevada to three points and 179 yards on 44 plays, an average of 4.1 yards per play (Texas ripped off 86 plays and averaged six yards per play on Sunday). Jones had that aforementioned interception, and James Onwualu had a pair of tackles for a loss to lead the defensive superlatives. Wolf Pack running back James Butler, who in 2015 rushed for over 1,300 yards (107 of which came against a pretty good front seven in Texas A&M), was held to 50 yards on 17 carries.

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Notre Dame’s defense set the tone on the Wolf Pack's first possession, on which Polian & Co. went for it on fourth-and-one from the Notre Dame 17. Daniel Cage smothered Nevada's Asauni Rufus for no gain, turning the ball over on downs. On Nevada’s next five possessions, it gained 51 yards on 20 plays to open the door for the Irish offense to take a 32-0 lead in the third quarter. 

“We never had a drive that the defense had momentum in the Texas game,” Onwualu said. “So getting a little bit of that, getting some big stops, got some big plays, so it’s definitely momentum rolling into next week.”

That Notre Dame was able to manufacture this defensive success, even against an overmatched team like Nevada, is at least somewhat impressive due to the abbreviated week the team faced after returning home early in the morning on Labor Day from that hot, long, gutting evening in Austin. Irish coaches had to emphasize quality over quantity in terms of practice this week and focused on making sure players were not only prepared for Nevada, but well-rested. 

“That's really what was the key to us being able to play and feel like we weren't lethargic or we weren't heavy-legged,” Kelly said.

Without the right plan, Notre Dame’s defense easily could’ve fallen into the same mistake-filled patterns that defined its loss to Texas.

“The way the coaches laid it out was perfect,” cornerback Cole Luke said. “We had our good amount of rest, we made sure we maximized our potential physically and mentally and we put the work in when we needed to put it in. We kind of pushed everything back a little bit just to get ourselves right and I think it paid off.”

[RELATED: On day of upsets and scares, Notre Dame cruises past Nevada] 

Deploying a more consistent 4-3 base and 4-2-5 nickel look made a difference, too, six days after Brian VanGorder’s 3-3-5 scheme was ineffective against Texas up-tempo yet physical offense. Jones and Cage led a strong showing from the defensive line, and inserting sophomore Te’von Coney at Will (inside) linebacker for junior Greer Martini made a positive difference, too. With the less-complicated structure, Notre Dame’s defense was able to do the simple things — tackling, playing balls in the air, staying on assignment, etc. — much better against Nevada. 

And in fitting with that idea of gaining momentum, Notre Dame’s defense re-established itself physically against Nevada. 

“We felt like we had it established going into Texas, and obviously that didn’t work out, so we kind of had to re-assess ourselves and re-establish that culture of being physical,” Jones said. “… Everyone knew in the back of their minds we have Michigan State next, so we knew we had to pick it up this game.”

Michigan State, obviously, will present a much stiffer challenge than Nevada. This is a program that made the College Football Playoff last year and had won 36 games over the last three years. Bruising running back LJ Scott will create problems, and Notre Dame can’t afford to commit as many penalties as it did against Nevada (freshman defensive end Khalid Kareem’s roughing the passer flag negated what would’ve been Cole Luke’s first interception of the year, for example). 

But Notre Dame’s defense had to start somewhere after hitting the reset button six days ago. It passed the test against Nevada, and now has a much more difficult — and important — one against Michigan State in a game the Irish can’t afford to lose.

“As long as we continue to evolve defensively and get better there,” Kelly said, “I think we got a fighting shot against anybody we play.”

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.