ND Notes: Martin, Nix to return for 2013; Daniels nears green light

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ND Notes: Martin, Nix to return for 2013; Daniels nears green light

Updated: 6:00 p.m.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- As Notre Dame prepares for the BCS Championship, the team scored two big wins for next season.

Coach Brian Kelly announced Monday offensive lineman Zack Martin and defensive tackle Louis Nix will return to Notre Dame for their graduate and senior seasons, respectively, answering two pressing questions for the 2013 season.

Martin, a senior captain, has started all 38 of Notre Dame's games since 2010 and was named the team's top offensive lineman in 2012. The 6-foot-4, 304-pound tackle settled on returning early last week, although the decision wasn't necessarily an easy one.

"I wanted to play with Nick, I ultimately want to play for (offensive line coach Harry Hiestand) another year," Martin explained.

Nick is Martin's younger brother, a sophomore who could slide in on the right side of Notre Dame's offensive line in 2013. Potentially getting to play alongside his brother was a key reason for Martin deciding to return for his fifth year.

"I think he's going to have an opportunity to play next year, and I think that a situation like that only comes once in a lifetime," Martin said.

The early projection for Martin's NFL Draft position was a second-round one, so he's certainly forgoing a good opportunity to stay in South Bend.

The same can be said for Nix, who made 45 tackles in his first year as a starter on Notre Dame's defensive line. He was a force up front and often cleared a path to the ball for Manti Te'o, among other Irish linebackers -- a point noted by ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper last week.

But Nix mentioned his desire to earn a degree, not surprising given he's said the academic challenge of Notre Dame was one of the reasons why he committed to the school in the first place.

Additionally, running back Cierre Wood will wait to receive his draft evaluation before making a decision on his future. Wood rushed for 740 yards and four touchdowns in 2012, a drop from his breakout 2011 (1,102 yards, nine touchdowns).

Sick bay

The only player to be updated here is DaVaris Daniels, who coach Brian Kelly said will begin taking contact next week after suffering a broken clavicle Nov. 10 at Boston College. The sophomore receiver looks on track to re-join Notre Dame's receiving corps for the BCS Championship.

That's more than welcome news, given Daniels and quarterback Everett Golson looked to be in sync in the weeks leading up to his injury.

"He looks really good," Kelly said. "He's going to be able to be a key contributor for us."

After firing Brian VanGorder, Brian Kelly puts onus on coaches to fix Irish defense

After firing Brian VanGorder, Brian Kelly puts onus on coaches to fix Irish defense

Brian Kelly, before Sunday, hadn’t fired an assistant coach since coming to Notre Dame nearly seven years ago. But faced with a 1-3 record and an uncertain defensive future, Kelly came to the conclusion that a change at defensive coordinator was necessary to Notre Dame’s chances of turning around a season headed in the wrong direction. 

And with that, Brian VanGorder is out. Greg Hudson, who previously was a defensive analyst and Purdue’s defensive coordinator from 2013-2015, is in. But what does Kelly want to see out of a defense that ranks at or near the bottom of the FBS level in so many defensive statistics and has been the main culprit in losses to Texas, Michigan State and Duke?

The first step, Kelly said on his teleconference Sunday, is injecting something enjoyable into an Irish defense that VanGorder defended in August as “likable and learnable.” 

“Guys played hard, but we lacked some of the energy and enthusiasm and fun, quite frankly, that you need to have when you're playing on defense,” Kelly said. 

Maybe better energy will result in better tackling, a fundamental area that’s been a glaring problem for this defense in 2016. Kelly said last week his defensive players were “anxious,” which contributed to the the team’s tackling problem. Better coaching, of course, would help there as well. 

But adding energy is sort of a nebulous, impossible-to-quantify concept. More concrete will be the tweaks to the defensive scheme and moving a few players into different positions to maximize their ability. 

Kelly said the terminology of the defense will remain the same, which makes sense given the installation process for VanGorder’s scheme began back during spring practice. Changing the terminology, Kelly said, would “pull the rug underneath the kids at this point in the season.”

What there will be, Kelly said, is a different focus trained on parts of the defense that have been installed but maybe not utilized frequently. 

“There's a lot,” Kelly said. “There's a very vast library that is easily tapped into from a different perspective, different terminology in terms of what has not been leaned on heavily in terms of fronts and coverages, but it's already installed.

“So there's a vast library. There's a lot there. I'm going to send around some of the things I believe our guys will feel comfortable with, and we'll go from there.”

Kelly dismissed the notion that VanGorder installed too much into his defensive scheme, but said he, Hudson and Irish coaches will “streamline” things to allow players to be fundamentally sound and play with that kind of speed and energy necessary. 

Kelly said, too, that he and his coaching staff will meet Sunday to discuss personnel changes — both from getting certain guys on the field (like defensive end Jay Hayes, who Kelly specifically addressed) and getting others into better positions to make plays. 

“We think that there might be some validity to moving around a couple of players,” Kelly said. “So that will be a conversation that I begin a little bit later this afternoon.”

It’s too early to tell what Notre Dame’s defense will look like on Saturday against Syracuse at MetLife Stadium, but what’s clear is that a turnaround is necessary — and it’s needed immediately. At 1-3, with three games left against teams ranked in the top 15 of S&P+ (home games against Stanford, Miami and Virginia Tech), Notre Dame doesn’t have much margin for error if it wants to reach a bowl game in 2016. 

The defense has made plenty of errors so far, to the point where Kelly took a step he never had in South Bend. Streamlining things, getting that energy back, tweaking the scheme — whatever it is, Notre Dame needs solutions on defense. 

Those solutions weren’t coming with VanGorder and now have to come with Hudson, as well as Kelly taking a more involved supervisor role in the defense. 

“It starts with the coaches,” Kelly said. “I think it's got to be coach-led and they have got to start the fire. And then those players that have that intrinsic motivation, that fire within, they will come along with us. Those that don't, we're going to leave them along the side. But this is going to start with the coaches.”

Schedule remains daunting, but Badgers playing like Playoff contenders

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Schedule remains daunting, but Badgers playing like Playoff contenders

A month ago, the thought of the Wisconsin Badgers making it through their early season gauntlet unscathed would’ve sounded just plain insane.

A season-opening tilt with a top-five LSU team, then a brutal start to Big Ten play, with games against Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska, three of those coming on the road, didn’t seem survivable for anyone, these Badgers included.

But after two wins over top-10 teams in their first four games, the sanity of that notion seems to be of no consequence. Because, apparently, the Badgers can do it.

Saturday, Wisconsin went from a fine team with an impossible schedule to a full-blown College Football Playoff contender. The Badgers paid a visit to East Lansing and put on a dominating performance on both sides of the ball, blowing the doors off a Michigan State Spartans team that is the reigning conference champion and just a week earlier scored what seemed like a huge road win at Notre Dame.

No one expected the 30-6 beatdown Wisconsin delivered. And therefore expectations must be changed moving forward.

The Badgers’ defense, which lost defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to LSU in the offseason and lost starting linebacker Chris Orr to a season-ending injury in Week 1, has been incredible. Through four games, Wisconsin ranks in the top 12 in the country in both scoring defense (seventh, 11.8 points per game) and total defense (12th, 277 yards per game). And while the season-opening effort against one of the best running backs in the nation, LSU’s Leonard Fournette, was terrific, Saturday’s was perhaps more impressive. The Badgers kept the Spartans out of the end zone, no small feat considering Michigan State rattled off 36 straight points against Notre Dame the weekend prior. Wisconsin also intercepted Michigan State quarterback Tyler O’Connor three times, and the fourth takeaway was a brilliant forced fumble, picked up and taken back 66 yards for a touchdown. There was no rushing attack for the Spartans, who gained just 75 yards on the ground, and if the trio of picks wasn’t enough indication of the pressure on O’Connor, the four sacks ought to do it.

As it has been in recent seasons, this defense is again looking like one of the best in college football. That right there is enough to keep the Badgers in any game and to power them through the remainder of this gauntlet of games.

And let’s adjust expectations for the Badgers’ offense, too, after freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook looked like a legitimate playmaker against a talented Spartans defense in his first career start Saturday. His stat line won’t jump off the page – 16-for-26 for 195 yards, a touchdown, an interception and a fumble – but he was mighty impressive, wowing with the placement and accuracy on a good number of his passes.

For a team that has so often looked for a game-manager at quarterback who allows for the always-productive rushing attack to take over, Hornibrook and receiving targets Jazz Peavy, Robert Wheelwright and Troy Fumagalli might be changing that narrative.

So perhaps it’s time to treat the Badgers like the contenders they’ve played like. At least for a little while. The next two games are towering obstacles, another trip to the Great Lakes State, this time to take on a Michigan team that is pouring points on opponents and playing equally sensational defense. The Wolverines rank ahead of the Badgers in total defense. And then comes a date with the Ohio State Buckeyes, who have looked as good as any team in the country in their three games. And even with Wisconsin’s seeming emergence as the Big Ten West’s new favorite, Iowa and Nebraska provide stiff challenges, as well.

Caution is certainly advised when ramping up expectations for this group of Badgers, as that schedule hasn’t gotten any less daunting. But with the way Wisconsin has played through its 4-0 start, envisioning the Badgers as the Big Ten champ is not something that requires a powerful hallucinogen. And with that comes – at least at the moment – a much more realistic chance for the Badgers to reach the sport’s final four.

It’s not crazy. It’s Wisconsin making one heck of a statement.