LINING UP THE LINEMEN
Twenty-five years ago, as editor of Blue & Gold Illustrated, we undertook the task of gathering film on football recruits that signed with Notre Dame and providing an analysis of their abilities via VHS tapes. Yeah, that’s right, the long-ago, obsolete VHS.
With Notre Dame football practices open to the media, we could stand right along the chalk and watch/listen to some of the college game’s best coaches teach football. In the studio, former Notre Dame recruiting coordinator Bob Chmiel furthered our education on what to look for in high school football prospects.
To this day, I’m not sure anything within my job description offers as much pure excitement as seeing a real quality high school football player on film that ultimately chooses Notre Dame.
Several players among Notre Dame’s 18 verbal commitments in the Class of 2017 have raised hopes for the future, including this week’s most recent addition, defensive end Donovan Jeter, as well as March commitment Kurt Hinish, a Pittsburgh defensive lineman, and nose tackle Darnell Ewell, a July pledge.
There’s much to like about this class, including tight ends Brock Wright and Cole Kmet, offensive linemen Josh Lugg and Robert Hainsey, and athlete Paulson Adebo.
But the Irish have gotten quality tight ends and offensive linemen before. Lots and lots of them. The eye-opening catches are Jeter, Ewell and Hinish because if there’s anything we’ve learned through the years, it’s that defensive linemen are truly what create double-digit-win seasons.
If/when the Irish replace Brian VanGorder as defensive coordinator some time after the 2016 season, Kelly will choose a coordinator with a 3-4 background because a) it fits Notre Dame best, a la Stanford, and b) it fits the personnel on hand/coming in.
Jeter, Ewell and Hinish is the front of the decade-ending years. In a three-man front next year, one could see Jerry Tillery, Daniel Cage and Jay Hayes. Jonathan Bonner and Khalid Kareem figure into the equation at the end spots.
Jeter likely plays right away with Stephon Tuitt-like strength. Pete Mokwuah looks to be trending upward with two years of eligibility after the 2016 season. Ewell will push for playing time right away, just like Jeter.
Standup guys off the edge might be Andrew Trumbetti with Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara. With the loss of James Onwualu after ‘16, Greer Martini can take over off the edge. Factoring in are youngsters Jamir Jones and Adetokunbo Ogundeji (pronounced Oh-kin-dee-jee, by the way).
At this point, the odds of Elijah Taylor, Brandon Tiassum and Micah Dew-Treadway playing a significant role have diminished significantly. Notre Dame has an army of talented young football players up front upon which to build a very, very solid future. But if one or more emerge, all the better.
If a defensive lineman plays well against Michigan State, it’s worth a little bit more. Jerry Tillery’s effort/performance versus the Spartans was a significant breakthrough.
One of two things happened with Tillery last Saturday night: either he realized it was important for him to fully utilize the gifts that have been bestowed upon him and the hard work that he’s put in, or he has begun to feel the responsibility he has to Notre Dame and his teammates.
If it’s one of the two, that’s good enough. If it’s both, that’s even better. That was a Jerry Tillery that a lot of us had doubts we’d ever see. The bar has been raised – significantly.
COORDINATORS TO CONSIDER
Irish Illustrated was the first to offer a list of candidates to replace Charlie Weis as head coach of the Fighting Irish. Not that these are guys who are most likely to end up at Notre Dame. It’s a bit premature to make such predictions.
But here are three names to consider, all with the 3-4 background mentioned above as the preferred choice for Notre Dame.
• Todd Orlando (Houston) – This guy has taken college football by storm in one season and three games as Tom Herman’s defensive coordinator. A Pittsburgh native and a Wisconsin graduate, Orlando’s defenses have been great at UConn (2005-10), Florida International (2011-12), Utah State (2013-14), and now Houston.
His units have ranked among the nation’s best in categories such as scoring defense, rushing defense, sacks, tackles for loss, turnovers (interceptions), and total defense.
In 2015, Houston was eighth in rushing defense and 20th in scoring defense. So far this year, against opponents that include Oklahoma and Cincinnati, the Cougars are first in rush defense, 10th in sacks and 12th in total defense.
Be aware: Herman likely isn’t long for Houston, and obviously, Orlando could follow him right into the SEC or another Power 5 conference.
• Derek Mason (Vanderbilt) – The head coach of the Commodores, with losses to South Carolina (13-10) and Georgia Tech (38-7), may be heading for an early exit from Nashville with just eight wins in 27 games. It won’t be because of Mason’s defense, which he coordinates himself, by the way.
Seven of Vandy’s 12 opponents were held to 19 points or less last year, and after finishing 100th in red-zone touchdown percentage in ’14, the Commodores were fourth in ’15.
They’re off to a slow start against the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option, which is a staple yearly on Notre Dame’s schedule because of Navy. But this is a guy who can coach defense with a 3-4 front that emphasizes multiplicity. He also offers an outlined plan against tempo offenses.
• Dave Aranda (LSU) – Just 39-years-old, Aranda was Orlando’s predecessor at Utah State, where he began what Orlando continued. Aranda followed head coach Gary Andersen to Wisconsin, where he adjusted the Badgers front from a 4-3 to a 3-4. In his first year, Wisconsin finished among the nation’s top seven in scoring, rushing and total defense.
Yes, he was the coordinator in Ohio State’s 59-0 thrashing in the Big Ten championship game, but the Badger offense did little to support the effort. Aranda remained at Wisconsin for the first year of the Paul Chryst era as the Badgers finished second in total defense, fifth in passing defense and fourth in rushing defense.
Aranda moved on to LSU under Les Miles, where the Tigers’ defense rarely gets much help from the offense. So far, The Tigers are among the nation’s top 30 scoring and rushing defenses. If Miles is replaced, Aranda will be the hottest defensive coordinator name on the market for the second year in a row.
When Brian Kelly was named head coach at Notre Dame in December of 2009, his political background with the Gary Hart presidential campaign was one of the stories circulating as we tried to get a handle on just who this skyrocketing head coach was and what made him tick.
Kelly was at his political best Tuesday when he gathered with the media at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex to put the Michigan State game in the rearview mirror.
Kelly clearly came with the intent of dousing the flame of the Michigan State failure, offering an upbeat, forward-thinking outline of the Irish, accepting responsibility and answering every difficult question, and showing that he, his staff and his players were anything but willing to give up the fight.
It takes a pretty special individual to offer the 45 minutes of optimism and enthusiasm that Kelly put forth in the face of Saturday night’s egg-on-the-face performance. To muster up such a brave face, complete responsibility for the troubles and disarming pledge to make it work was no accident. (Note: Kelly called himself a 1-2 head coach.)
It was a masterful performance, one befitting a football coach with a political background. Now let’s see if his team can begin backing it up to a level commensurate of where this program should be in Year Seven.
MORE THAN THE SCORE
We’ve been needled by a few of our readers about our game-day predictions with none of our “experts” sporting better than a 1-2 forecasting record of the Irish. That’s fair. No one should be 1-2 straight-up to start the season.
We go to great lengths to give you the complete picture of Notre Dame’s upcoming game by watching film of the opponent and poring over all the information we have at our disposal.
So far, I’ve taken Notre Dame by 3 over Texas (a three-point loss), Notre Dame by 34 over Nevada (a 29-point victory) and Notre Dame by 3 over Michigan State (an eight-point loss).
I would have picked the Spartans if the Irish hadn’t lost to Texas. I was close with Nevada, but predicted too many points for Notre Dame. Can’t say I could anticipate the insanity of the 3-3-5, so no regrets with the Longhorn pick.
But I must come to Irish Illustrated’s defense. We offer so much more than just a score.
No other website warned you about Notre Dame’s 5-9 (now 5-10) record as a road favorite. No other website gave you more reasons the Irish could lose to Michigan State, including the fact that Furman, the Spartans’ season-opening opponent, was a formidable first game based upon the film of the Paladins.
We warned you about the difficulty the Irish would have tackling L.J. Scott. (We should have added Gerald Holmes.) We warned you about how good Mark Dantonio is in these situations. We warned you about not having faith in the Notre Dame offensive line/running game until it faced off against Michigan State.
The quick answer is the predicted score; the complete evaluation is the preview tied in with the staff picks. Wading through the complete analysis for the full picture is worthwhile. Projecting the actual outcomes is the next step with the unpredictable Irish.
CUTCLIFFE: CONSUMMATE PROFESSIONAL
I didn’t get a chance to know David Cutcliffe that well during his brief stint at Notre Dame under Charlie Weis before a heart issue prevented him from ever coaching a game for the Irish. But it was clear in two extended interviews with the current Duke head coach that a) this was a stand-up guy and b) he was exactly what Weis/Notre Dame needed.
With his 62nd birthday last week, Cutcliffe’s time at Notre Dame likely has come and gone. But I stand by my notion from a couple of years ago – in the wake of Brian Kelly’s dalliance with the Philadelphia Eagles – that Cutcliffe would have been a stabilizing presence for the Irish and would have kept the program on solid footing.
He wouldn’t have been the bombshell signing for one of the most important head coaching jobs in college football, but he would have been a smart choice.
This is a quality football coach. He’s been the Manning whisperer through the years. A Cutcliffe-coached team can never be taken for granted.
His Blue Devils, without their triggerman at quarterback, don’t look to be prepared to seriously challenge Notre Dame. But much respect for a man who likely would have changed the face of the Weis regime at Notre Dame.
RIGHTING A WRONG
I’ve had two guiding principles for the last 35 years as a columnist covering Notre Dame football – be accurate and be fair. If I’m accurate and fair, I’ve fulfilled my responsibility to the reader (and myself).
Last Sunday, I used a phrase in the Point After that missed the mark. I said the Irish, following the loss to Michigan State, were “on the cusp of mutiny.” My thought process at the time was that if this thing continues to go south defensively, Brian Kelly will lose the focus and full commitment of his team.
But the disheartening loss to Michigan State didn’t place the team “on the cusp of mutiny.” This remains a committed, dedicated group of hard-working players who have not reached the point of throwing in the towel. The phrase was neither accurate nor fair, and I regret the choice of words.
AGAINST ALL ODDS
A 2-0 mark on a couple of easy overs lifts the winning percentage to .750 through three weeks. Here are this week’s selections.
• Over 82 Cal @ Arizona State
• Utah -3 vs. USC
• Notre Dame -20½ vs. Duke
Season Record: 6-2