Virginia Tech another stiff test for Notre Dame’s resurgent defense

Virginia Tech another stiff test for Notre Dame’s resurgent defense

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The changes Brian Kelly, Greg Hudson and Mike Elston made to Notre Dame’s defense after the firing of ex-coordinator Brian VanGorder Sept. 25 were meant to be akin to a spare tire that could merely get the Irish safely to the end of the season. 

Unfortunately for that analogy, a few other things have gone wrong over the last month and a half that could conspire to keep the Irish out of a bowl game for the first time since 2009. But Notre Dame’s defense is allowing 4.7 yards per play since the start of October, a significant improvement over the average of 6.2 yards per play it allowed in those four miserable games under VanGorder to begin the season (for reference, an average of 4.70 yards per play would rank 11th among FBS teams this year; Notre Dame allowed 4.78 yards per play in that magnificent defensive year of 2012). 

“I think (it’s been) just a coordinated effort that has seen this defense get better and better,” Kelly said. “I think the utilization of some more of the freshmen that have really matured and have gotten better by obviously later in the season, you know, they've gotten more and more playing time, but I think all of that has come together through really good preparation, great morale, and at the end of the day, kids executing the game plan.”'

There are three glaring caveats here, of course. First, that Notre Dame even needed this kind of a defensive turnaround is one of the major failures of 2016 and opens Kelly up to criticism for not considering a coordinator change after the 2015 season. 

The second: That Oct. 8 game against N.C. State played in the wrath of Hurricane Matthew that barely resembled football. Thanks to the ACC’s mind-numbing decision to let the game be played, Notre Dame allowed only three yards per play while the Wolfpack fumbled six times in the swampy, windy mess that was Carter-Finley Stadium. In short, that game skewed Notre Dame’s defensive stats toward being more positive than they actually are. 

And third: Notre Dame played two triple option teams in back-to-back weeks, which doesn’t necessarily skew the team’s average yards per play allowed (Navy is averaging 6.5 yards per play; Army is averaging 5.7 yards per play) but does mean we weren’t provided with much of an opportunity to progression from a young Irish secondary. 

So let’s not just settle for the “Notre Dame’s defense has been better” narrative just yet. There are two stern tests awaiting this group before the end of the regular season, starting with this weekend’s senior day clash against Virginia Tech and ending with that post-Thanksgiving trip to USC, which has played like one of the best five or six teams in the country over the last month and a half. 

Virginia Tech’s efficient air attack leads the first of those challenges, powered by quarterback Jerod Evans (2,519 yards, 22 TDs, 4 INTs) and a trio of excellent pass catchers in receivers Isaiah Ford (58 receptions, 795 yards, 7 TDs) and Cam Phillips (46 receptions, 633 yards, 2 TDs) along with tight end Bucky Hodges (36 receptions, 514 yards, 5 TDs). This isn’t a necessarily explosive bunch — the Hokies’ 14 passing plays of 30 or more yards ranks 70th in FBS, and they don’t have a passing play of 60 or more yards. But that hasn’t been an issue, given Virginia Tech’s offense has generally done a good job picking up efficient yards through the air to pick up first downs or generate easy-to-convert third down tries. 

But oddly enough, Virginia Tech is among the nation’s least effective offenses on standard downs — i.e., those in which a run or a pass can be reasonably expected. They’re relatively effective when a passing play is obvious, though, so Cole Luke, Drue Tranquill, Julian Love, Donte Vaughn, Troy Pride Jr., Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott can be expected to be tested quite a bit as the Irish front seven should be set up to succeed on first and second down. 

Virginia Tech struggles to do much on the ground, averaging a shade over four yards per carry (93rd) despite running the ball an average of 46.1 times per game (17th). So the battle on Saturday may not be to force third-and-longs, but moreso for Notre Dame to win on those obvious passing downs to get off the field. 

This is where Virginia Tech is a different kind of test: Notre Dame’s secondary has done a good job limiting explosive plays since the Kelly-Hudson-Elston takeover, but those aren’t a staple of the Virginia Tech offense. 

“I think Cole and Drue and some of those guys have done a really, really, really good job of taking some of the new coaching and really implementing it into our game and doing a much better job of containing the ball and keeping it in front of them and playing some routes that are difficult to play,” linebacker James Onwualu said. “… The DBs have really stepped up, they've gone to work the past couple of weeks and I think we'll see that this weekend.”

On the whole, Virginia Tech’s offense is middle of the pack — 45th in points per game, 70th in yards per play, 65th in S&P+ —  but this is just the kind of semi-efficient, unremarkable offense that gave VanGorder’s 2016 defense problems this year (see: Michigan State and Duke). A solid defensive performance on Saturday would clear another hurdle for this defense with its most difficult one looming a week later in Los Angeles. 

"It works," linebacker Nyles Morgan said. "If (the defense) works, the players are going to like. Players like it, coaches like it, everybody’s happy. The things that they’ve done, they’ve taken the defense to where guys understand it, can grow from it and can learn and can play." 

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."