Figuring out how to win close games no easy solution for fading Notre Dame

Figuring out how to win close games no easy solution for fading Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — All four of Notre Dame’s losses this year have been by eight points or fewer, which is troubling not only for the inability to come through in those close games but also because this team is consistently finding themselves in those no-room-for-error situations. 

Asking a team full of underclassmen and inexperience to deliver late in games has proven too tall a task for Notre Dame this fall. But the larger issue here is that the Irish, a preseason top-10 team with August playoff hopes, has found itself in one-score games against Texas, Michigan State and Duke — three teams that, like Notre Dame, could struggle to reach a bowl game. 

“We need to be a team that goes out, starts strong, maintains that same strong start throughout the whole game and then finish as strong as we started,” quarterback DeShone Kizer said. “We go out and we show great spurts. ... We haven't done a good job of going out and keeping our pedal to the floor the whole game. We hit lapses, and that's the truth. That's the reality of how this season has started, and those lapses have come back and ended up with four losses.”

In Notre Dame’s first three losses, a bad defense coupled with those offensive lulls and a few special teams mistakes conspired for the Irish to need those late-game, last-ditch drives. A handful of ineffective possessions led by Malik Zaire at Texas saw Notre Dame fall into a 17-point hole from which they eventually recovered, but ran out of steam without a concussed Torii Hunter Jr. — the team's only veteran receiver. A big-time lapse, triggered by a special teams turnover, against Michigan State allowed the Spartans to rip off 36 unanswered points. And against Duke, Notre Dame jumped out to a 14-0 lead but allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown that threw them back into a close battle with the lowly Blue Devils. 

The point here is Notre Dame, even with a lagging defense, could’ve done plenty more earlier in games to make sure they didn’t need a young offense to execute to perfection down the stretch. 

“We have so much more out there, and as an offense we can still put up so many more points and move them forward,” Kizer said. “That potential makes me excited what this offense can do. We have the potential to put up 70 points a game, which we're going to get 10 drives. That should end in 10 touchdowns, and we know it. We just look forward to going out there and getting better each week and keeping our pedal to the floor and getting those points to win games.”

Last year, Notre Dame’s offense came through, to an extent, in every one of its four close games — wins against Virginia and Temple and losses at Clemson and Stanford (Notre Dame was a two-point conversion away from tying Clemson and took the lead with under a minute to go on Kizer’s touchdown at Stanford). This year, the Irish offense has stalled in the fourth quarter and overtime at Texas, was shut down late by Michigan State and couldn’t re-take the lead on its final possession at Duke.

(For these purposes, the loss at North Carolina State is thrown out given the horrible conditions, though the Notre Dame offense fell short on an 18-play drive late in the game that could’ve tied things up.)

“A lot of young guys have had to step up in roles that are pretty big-time for college football and for Notre Dame,” offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey said. “And I think that a lot of it just comes with experience and getting that mindset at all times, being able to execute and not let other things get in our way. And I think we've gotten in our own way a little bit a lot this season coming down to final drives or coming down to getting a stop when we needed to.”

It’s no coincidence that Notre Dame’s two most successful years in close games were 2012 and 2015, seasons in which the Irish were stacked with upperclassmen and leaders in almost every unit. 

Notre Dame can’t magically gain in 2016 the kind of team-wide experience it had in those 12- and 10-win seasons. Coach Brian Kelly has worked this week to get his team better prepared for close games by switching up the practice regimen and over-emphasizing how to win by a narrow margin, something which he admitted he didn’t do a good enough job of driving home previously.

“Look, it would be easier if we were getting beat by 40 points, you know? We could resign ourselves to the fact that it is what it is,” Kelly said. “But we're in a position to win these games, and we have to find a way to win. I think we can coach them to the point where they understand it now we can go do it.”

If Notre Dame has any hope of pulling out of its 2016 tailspin and making a bowl (at best) or avoiding a 2007-level of embarrassment (at worst), it’ll have to find one of two solutions. Either it’ll have to start winning close games or playing well enough to relieve some of the late-game pressure under which it’s folded this year. 

And at this point, the latter of those two solutions looks the most feasible.

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. 

Brian Kelly rides into pivotal 2017 with plenty of new faces on coaching staff

Brian Kelly rides into pivotal 2017 with plenty of new faces on coaching staff

Brian Kelly raised a few eyebrows earlier this month when, in announcing the hiring of offensive coordinator Chip Long, said he would not be calling plays for Notre Dame's offense in 2017.

Instead, the 33-year-old Long — who spent 2016 as Memphis' offensive coordinator — will handle play calling duties for a Notre Dame team desperately needing to reverse course after last year's disastrous 4-8 record. Kelly's decision to hand over play-calling duties to someone with whom he's never worked — something he'd never done at Notre Dame — is perhaps the most interesting development in a hectic two-month stretch for the Irish coaching staff. 

In announcing Notre Dame's 2017 coaching staff on Monday, Kelly explained why he won't be calling plays in a pivotal year for the veteran coach's legacy. In conducting exit interviews with 96 players in the days after Notre Dame's season-ending loss to USC, Kelly noticed a common theme: The defensive players said they liked having him work on that side of the ball, which Kelly did after firing defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder four games into the season. 

"Most of the time I'm on the offensive side of the ball," Kelly said. "So it really sent a message to me that I needed to be more involved in both sides, offensive, defensive and special teams. The only way to do that is to have somebody calling plays. If you're calling plays, you have to spend so much time on one side of the ball, and so after making the decision that I would not have the influence on a day-to-day basis, it was simply easy for me to know what I was looking for offensively and that was a play caller."

All of Notre Dame's assistant coaches had previously been announced by the program, but a refresher of who's who on the staff:

Offensive coordinator: Chip Long
Quarterbacks: Tom Rees (who will be a graduate assistant until, as Notre Dame expects, the NCAA allows for a 10th full-time assistant coach)
Running backs: Autry Denson
Wide receivers: DelVaughn Alexander
Tight Ends: Chip Long
Offensive line: Harry Hiestand
Defensive coordinator: Mike Elko
Defensive line: Mike Elston
Linebackers: Clark Lea
Defensive backs: Todd Lyght
Special teams: Brian Polian
Strength & conditioning: Matt Balis

Only Denson, Hiestand, Elston and Lyght are back from last year's coaching staff, with no surprises on any. Denson is an ace recruiter with strong contacts in talent-rich Florida; Hiestand has a sparkling reputation as a recruiter and developer of offensive linemen; Elston also serves as the team's recruiting coordinator; and Lyght, while inexperienced as a coach, presided over promising development from a number of Notre Dame's freshmen defensive backs last year. 

Longtime Kelly lieutenants Mike Denbrock (now the offensive coordinator at Cincinnati) and Paul Longo (who, Kelly said, was unable to fulfill his dues as strength coordinator due to a long-term disability) are no longer around. Mike Sanford cashed in on his up-and-coming coaching stock and accepted the head coaching position at Western Kentucky, where he got his first assistant job. Scott Booker (tight ends/special teams), Keith Gilmore (defensive line) and Greg Hudson (interim defensive coordinator) were all relieved of their duties, though Kelly said he'd like Hudson to still have a role in the program. Hudson was a defensive analyst last year before being promoted to defensive coordinator after VanGorder was jettisoned.

From a player standpoint, there's not the same level of drastic turnover that hit Kelly's coaching staff. DeShone Kizer is gone for the NFL, but redshirt sophomore Brandon Wimbush has a tantalizingly high ceiling and both the mental and physical attributes to be an excellent quarterback. Torii Hunter Jr. and Tarean Folston are the only other key offensive players to not return in 2017, but the injection of receiver/tight end hybrid Alize Jones (who was ineligible in 2016) and running back Dexter Williams (who flashed potential in limited use last year) should cover for those losses. 

On defense, losing defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, linebacker James Onwualu and cornerback Cole Luke create holes, but perhaps a more teachable defensive scheme implemented by Elko will help shore up a group that's been a weakness since Bob Diaco left for UConn. 

"Mike Elko does a lot of things that are hard to decipher, but easily taught," Kelly said. "And his experiences in college and coaching and teaching and communicating; and he does an incredibly efficient job at communicating what he's teaching. And we're teachers. He's a really good teacher at the end of the day."

The weakest link for Notre Dame last year was special teams, though, but Kelly was able to convince a former head coach and Irish assistant under Charlie Weis to return to South Bend to solely focus on that unit. The hiring of Polian may ultimately be the most important hire Kelly made after the 2016 season: the Irish ranked 36th in offensive S&P+, 28th in defensive S&P+ (though that's skewed by facing two option teams and playing in a hurricane) and 80th in special teams S&P+ in 2016. Even a modest improvement in special teams could've got Notre Dame at least six, maybe more, wins last year. 

"To have somebody with his experience, with his knowledge, with his background coaching our special teams and focusing primarily on that, without another position to pull his focus away," Kelly said, "I think it's just an upgrade and allows us to really think about excelling and gaining an advantage in that area."

So this is the coaching staff Kelly will ride with in 2017, as the pressure to win swells with every day that someone remembers the team went 4-8 last year. That lack of success is unacceptable in South Bend, and not significantly improving off it is a fireable offense. 

Notre Dame couldn't stand pat after last year. Whether this new mix of coaches buoys a nine- or 10-win season (at the least) remains to be seen, but make no mistake: The buck stops with Kelly, who will sink or swim with this coaching staff.

But for now, with kickoff of the 2017 season still over seven months away, Kelly isn't viewing this as a make-or-break year. Instead, he's content to paraphrase Shakespeare and focus on the more immediate future. 

"I know there's more scrutiny on this year because of last year's poor performance, but I am focused on the present," Kelly said. "And I know that there's going to be a ton of talk about that, and I get that. That comes with this.

"But I think every year that I've gone into this position that it's about excellence. It's about championships. And if you fall short of that, it's the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune."