Notre Dame

For Notre Dame, it’s time to ‘rewrite the story of the season’

For Notre Dame, it’s time to ‘rewrite the story of the season’

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame has three losses, fired its defensive coordinator and, just four weeks into the season, there's a real possibility it'll fall short of bowl eligibility for the first time in nine years. That’s the current story of the Irish, and it won’t change unless plenty else does in South Bend.

Jettisoning Brian VanGorder was one of those changes, and getting a number of new players onto the field on Saturdays could be another. But the most important change Notre Dame can make over its final eight games is simply winning them.  

“We've put ourselves in a pretty bad situation and it's time to wake up and fight back and rewrite the story of this season,” offensive lineman and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “And that's what we fully intend to do.”

Notre Dame, though, can’t walk into MetLife Stadium on Saturday, make a bunch of mistakes and still beat Syracuse, as they did two years ago. In Year 1 of the Dino Babers era, Syracuse’s up-tempo, Baylor-style offense has turned heads and will create a challenge for Notre Dame’s underperforming secondary. 

Quarterback Eric Dungey — who may or may not have been nursing an undisclosed injury this week — threw for 407 yards against Bob Diaco’s UConn defense last week and ranks third in FBS with 179 passing attempts (he’s averaging 7.6 yards per attempt and has nine touchdowns against three interceptions). This offense has one speed: Get the ball, throw the ball, get it again, throw it again. Syracuse is averaging 86 plays per game, a number that sticks out given Texas ripped off 50 points against the Irish on Sept. 4 on… 86 plays. 

Notre Dame’s secondary, meanwhile, is allowing an abysmal 9.1 yards per attempt (121st in FBS) and will have to find a way to stop Orange receiver Amba Etta-Tawo, who leads FBS with 706 yards and is fifth with 40 receptions. Dungey, on average, targets Etta-Tawo 13 times a game. Merely playing good coverage isn’t enough to deter Dungey from throwing him the ball, so Cole Luke, Nick Coleman, Donte Vaughn, Julian Love, Troy Pride Jr. or whoever is on him on Saturday will also have to make plays with the ball in the air, since it's going to be coming their way. 

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The narrative Notre Dame coaches and players pitched publicly this week involved having more energy, more fun, more passion, more fire — whatever you want to throw into Thesaurus.com — and that translating into this defense playing better starting Saturday. 

“I think a lot of guys were out there tense, tightened up and weren’t playing loose,” safety Drue Tranquill said. “And I think we’ve seen a lot of guys let loose this week and it’s been a real positive atmosphere.”

But nobody will be having any fun on Saturday if the same issues that got VanGorder fired re-emerge. Sacks, tackles for a loss, forced fumbles (Notre Dame hasn’t had one of those this year), interceptions — those are what “fun” is a tangible outcome of, not the other way around. 

Notre Dame’s offense has been good enough to win in a vacuum (47 points against Texas, 28 points against Michigan State and 35 points against Duke, in theory, should’ve been enough to go at least 2-1) but hasn’t been good enough to pick up for the lagging defense. Kelly has been hard on quarterback DeShone Kizer, saying his play against Michigan State and Duke was below standard, an assessment Kizer agreed with this week. 

The standard, at least in broad terms, is getting the offense to overcome the defense’s deficiencies. Syracuse’s defense is allowing a Lamar Jackson-skewed 7.31 yards per play against FBS opponents and ranks in the lower third of college football in most defensive categories. Duke’s defense at least did a few things well heading into last Saturday; it’s harder to find the positives for Syracuse. 

So this game, on paper, looks like it’ll devolve into another high-scoring shootout. 

“My standard right now is to do whatever I can to help lead the offense to get a win,” Kizer said. “We're 1 and 3, and that's unacceptable, and my only goal right now, my only mission is to buy in to everything that's been said in this meeting room right here to get a W on the board because that's all that matters at this point.”

A loss to Syracuse very well could be the start of a death knell for Notre Dame’s bowl eligibility chances. A win could help reinforce the positive attitude coaches have worked to instill in their players, proving to this team that the changes were for the better. 

There’s a lot at stake on Saturday in New Jersey for Notre Dame, which certainly wasn’t the expectation for this game a month ago. It’s not only bowl eligibility, but if things go haywire again, it could mean more jobs will be on the line than just the defensive coordinator. 

“If this team is not playing well, it's my fault,” Kelly said. “It's my fault that they're not playing well. So I have to find the solutions to it. After a game, when you're frustrated with the play, everybody is on notice. I'm on notice, and I made that pretty clear that I'm responsible. I said our coaches were on notice, and I said our players were on notice.

“Because we're all in this together. We all spend the same amount of time. If I didn't make that clear, I will make that clear one last time and then we're going to move on: Everybody is on notice, and is it starts with the head coach.”

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.