With the Irish in a bye week, we’re grading Notre Dame’s offense, defense, special teams and coaching staff after seven games. Today: the coaches.
Coaching grade: F
What’s gone right: Not much. The positive here is that Brian Kelly and Mike Elston’s efforts to simplify the defense by streamlining Brian VanGorder’s insurmountably-large inventory have largely worked since the second half of the Syracuse game, and defensive coordinator Greg Hudson has brought a rah-rah attitude that was missing under VanGorder as well. Kelly hasn't "lost" the team — players said they haven't wavered in their commitment to Kelly after the Stanford game, and if they were, Notre Dame would probably be losing by more than one possession.
What’s gone wrong: Let’s start from the beginning of the season. Kelly’s decision to play both DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire backfired at Texas and was one of the biggest reasons for that season-opening loss. VanGorder’s defense failed against Texas, Michigan State and Duke before he fired a day after that 38-35 loss to the Blue Devils. Calling for 37 pass plays and only 25 designed runs in Hurricane Matthew’s driving rain and wind at N.C. State was baffling, as was a three-series benching of Kizer for Zaire as an effort to spark the offense a week later against Stanford.
2016's slide actually started on New Year’s Day — which, after the Fiesta Bowl, Kelly didn’t consider changing defensive coordinators. VanGorder’s “NFL scheme” only produced mediocre-at-best, inconsistent results in 2015, and that was with future NFL players at every position (Romeo Okwara, Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley are all on NFL rosters). While the dismissal of senior safety Max Redfield wasn’t something that could be planned for, Notre Dame coaches admitted on signing day that more than half of the seven defensive backs they signed would have to play as true freshmen. That should’ve been a blaring signal well before September that the defense needed to be simplified.
But Notre Dame went ahead with another year of the VanGorder scheme, and while some of Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford’s offensive decision making and game planning can be criticized, a porous defense is the No. 1 reason why the Irish lost to .500-or-worse 2016 teams like Texas, Michigan State and Duke. And then when Kelly was forced to stick his hands into the defensive mess left in the wake of VanGorder’s firing, Notre Dame’s offense turned in two brutal games against N.C. State and Stanford.
Notre Dame certainly has enough talent on this roster to at least make a bowl game. Sometimes, the path of least resistance is the best way to put together a winning season, and 2016 seems like one of those years — only Notre Dame’s coaching staff hasn’t gone about things that way. These criticisms are more of not going with what appear to be common-sense decisions than anything else that perhaps could've flipped a few of these three-, seven- and eight-point losses to wins that'd help this team avert a disastrous season in which it doesn't go to a bowl game.
This is a coaching staff, it’s worth noting, that would’ve earned an A or A- grade for how it developed players and steered the Irish to 10 wins despite that unprecedented rash of injuries. One disastrous season likely isn’t enough for Notre Dame's decision-makers to change coaches, no matter the cacophony from certain corners of the Internet. But the pressure is certainly on this group, and whoever is brought in for next year if there are changes, to prove that 2016 wasn’t the beginning of the end for Kelly at Notre Dame, as losing seasons were for Charlie Weis, Ty Willingham and Bob Davie.
Check back Wednesday for offensive unit grades.