Notre Dame players react to the firing of Brian VanGorder

Notre Dame players react to the firing of Brian VanGorder

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — James Onwualu and Brian VanGorder came to the Irish defense at the same time back in 2014, when Onwualu was moved from wide receiver to (briefly) safety right around when the now-former defensive coordinator was hired. 

Under VanGorder’s watch, Onwualu developed into a reliable outside linebacker and ultimately a senior captain. So when Notre Dame fired VanGorder on Sunday — a day after the school’s student section chanted “Fire Van-Gord-Er” during that brutal loss to Duke — it wasn’t necessarily an easy piece of news to digest for Onwualu and some of his teammates. 

“Obviously everybody was talking about it, even our student section seemed to have a strong stance on that,” Onwualu said. “It was shocking to me. Obviously this is the only defensive experience I've ever had. He's really all I knew defensively. So it's difficult for some older guys, you know, and me included to put that aside and just take the next step into something new.”

But that’s what Notre Dame has to do with VanGorder’s rocky tenure in the rearview mirror and Greg Hudson taking over as defensive coordinator, with coach Brian Kelly taking an increased role in his team’s leaky defense. 

Players understood why the move — which came in the wake of Kelly’s postgame comments saying everyone’s job wasn’t safe — was made, turning to the “it’s a business” line more frequently seen in a level of the sport in which the players are paid (which isn’t to say they’re wrong for viewing college football that way). 

“It was a bit surprising,” junior linebacker Nyles Morgan said. “I knew him personally obviously playing defense, but it’s a business. And so we’ve really bought into what coach (Greg) Hudson’s been saying, and we have to move forward. We can’t linger in the past.”

It’s not like Notre Dame players were blind to the problem, though. The team’s first sack of the season came when Morgan dropped Duke quarterback Daniel Jones on Saturday, and the defense allowed 50, 36 and 38 points in Notre Dame’s three losses. 

“The whole defense knows that we need to play better ball, and obviously if we were playing better ball, that maybe not would have happened,” Onwualu said. 

Safety Drue Tranquill said he felt some guilt about the firing of VanGorder and had sympathy for his now-former coach. 

“It wasn’t just coach VanGorder’s fault, the entire defense was struggling as a whole,” Tranquill said. “And he happens to be the leader of that. This is a really cutthroat business and I personally feel a sort of responsibility on my end. I can’t just watch the leader of the defense walk out and lose his job. It’s a really hard situation and it’s just real life. 

“It’s just this industry and it’s really cutthroat. So part of me really felt for him. But a part of me realized he probably wants me to rally around the guys in the locker room and he probably wants me out there giving it my all each and every day and not worrying about him, because it’s about Notre Dame. It’s about Notre Dame winning football games, so we just have to come in, positive mentality, and move forward.” 

On the offensive side of the ball, both quarterback DeShone Kizer and left tackle Mike McGlinchey said they fully trust Kelly to do what’s right for the team. And in this case, that meant making a change at defensive coordinator. 

“We lost a great coach, but things needed to happen for us to move forward,” Kizer said. “Coach Kelly makes the decision. We trust in whatever he has to say, and moving forward we'll make the adjustments that need to be made on the offensive side of the ball to pick up our defense and to start playing games and getting W’s.”

“The reaction from us is that football is the way it is and coach Kelly felt that there needed to be a change, and so we made it,” McGlinchey added. “And obviously it's tough when it's a mid-season change and guys are connected to coach VanGorder, and have a guy on our team that is his son (reserve quarterback and holder Montgomery VanGorder). But at the same time everybody understands that changes needed to be made, and that's the decision that coach Kelly made. So we all are behind it.”

Notre Dame players talked quite a bit about how enjoyable practice was on Tuesday and Wednesday, which would seem to fly in the face of the team’s 1-3 record and uncertain chances of becoming bowl eligible this year. Kelly said he fired VanGorder as part of an effort to bring more passion and fun to a team in need of a spark, but knew the decision wouldn’t sit well with everyone on his team. 

Regardless of how the move was received, it’s the one that was made. And Notre Dame needs its defense to play better going forward, otherwise a season that’s teetering on the brink of disaster could go careening over the edge. 

“He was really the one that gave me the opportunity and spent the time and invested in me to be able to play defense and to be able to be where I'm at today,” Onwualu said in describing the conversation he had with VanGorder after his firing. “So just a quick thanks for the opportunity and the time that you spent with me. I don't think it's a huge good-bye. It's like anybody you work with, right? It's a business, you know. Stay in contact and I hope your next step is a good one.”

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.