At the midway point of the 2016 season, we’ve called upon former Irish standout Courtney Watson, who paced the Irish in tackles in each of his final two seasons in an Irish uniform (2002-03).
QUESTION: Just some of your thoughts on what you’ve seen during this 2-4 start to the 2016 season.
COURTNEY WATSON: We haven’t had much defensive line play. Our lines are not what we’ve been used to the last few years. I know we have two high-rated offensive linemen, but we can’t control the tempo of the game with the run. Both of those guys – McGlinchey and Nelson – even when we run their way, we don’t get much push unless we’re running on the edges. We don’t get a push up the middle.
We’re asking our quarterback to do a lot. We’re relying on the quarterback to run, which is fine, except you’re allowing the quarterback to run a lot.
Those are the two biggest things that stand out to me. We can’t control tempo on the offensive side of the ball because we can’t run it efficiently throughout a game, and we’re asking the quarterback to do a lot.
There are obviously a lot of problems on defense, but that has stabilized. The suspensions and injuries haven’t been an issue, but we’ll see this weekend against Stanford. That’s an obvious concern, and I think it starts with line play.
We’re not Alabama. We can’t reload like they can. Their backup offensive guard is going to play in the NFL. We don’t have that. In the last three drafts, we’ve had 16 players drafted. That’s a good thing about the program. The bad thing is we can’t get those kids all the time. We’re playing with a lot of guys on both lines that aren’t going to be NFL players.
But when you have NFL talent at the skills positions and the quarterback position, we should be able to overcome a lot of that stuff, especially against Duke and N.C. State.
Q: What is your opinion on Brian Kelly, his culpability in the 2-4 start, the running game, etc.?
CW: The defensive coordinator firing, that was going to come at some point. We talked last season with regard to his decision-making.
I’m a Brian Kelly fan for several reasons. For me, to get the skill position players on offense that he’s been able to get at Notre Dame says a lot. For the five years I was at Notre Dame, Bob Davie had one recruiting class (of note), and that was my class. We had multiple guys get drafted in the first, second and third rounds.
So from that standpoint – for him to be able to get skill-position athletes from areas where we don’t normally get players – is a good thing. That’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Kelly is a fit. I think he is a Notre Dame fit. He holds himself, the coaches and the players accountable. Sometimes as Notre Dame fans, we think the grass is always greener. We didn’t like Bob Davie because he was too rambunctious on the sidelines. We didn’t like Tyrone Willingham because he’s not rambunctious enough. Now with Kelly, he screams and yells his head off and we don’t like that. That part of it plays into the narrative of all this.
From afar, it looks like a young team to me this year. I’m certainly not saying we should be 2-4. I don’t agree with that at all. But it’s tough when you lose so many guys in the secondary. This is not an excuse for the secondary, but they’re losing those 50-50 balls while our offense wins those 50-50 balls. You’d like some of your defensive backs to have been receivers in high school that have better ball skills and play-making ability than our secondary has.
A breakdown or missed coverage, that’s coaching and guys not knowing their assignments. But if you have a freshman that’s only played in five games and all five of those games are this year, and he’s going up against a wide receiver that’s played the last three years, you’re putting those guys in a predicament. You want them to grow up fast, but a lot of kids need development at that position.
I know there have been problems all over the field. They shouldn’t be 2-4. I don’t know what they’re going to do with Kelly. I don’t know if they can get someone better than Kelly who would actually come to Notre Dame. We’re going to have to always do more with less because of the kids we can get in there.
As fans, we sit back and we’re like, ‘Why aren’t we Ohio State?’ We’ll never be Ohio State. This is not Notre Dame when Lou Holtz was there and we were getting guys coming in that were ready to play. We’re not getting those guys. That’s the nature of being who we are.
There are only a handful of great coaches in college football and the NFL. But if you made a list, and Brian Kelly was coaching somewhere other than Notre Dame, virtually every college football program looking for a coach would look at Brian Kelly. To me, that says something.
I don’t think he’s a great coach, but I don’t think there are a whole bunch of great ones out there, and a lot of the great ones are at programs where they can go out and get great players at every position or have a legitimate shot at them.
Q: How can Stanford do it?
CW: First of all, I think David Shaw is a better coach than Brian Kelly. He understands his team, offensively and defensively. It helps when you have Andrew Luck for a while, and even Kevin Hogan, who wasn’t a great quarterback, but provided stability at the position over time.
They don’t ask those guys to do what they cannot do. He’s going to run the ball 45 times a game. Everybody knows it and that’s what he’s going to do.
Something that works against Notre Dame is that Stanford plays in the Pac 12. They play the same or about the same nine or 10 teams every year. If you look at the schedule and the different types of offensive philosophies that the Notre Dame defense has to prepare for, it’s different every year.
Yeah, there are a couple teams we play every year, but even less now with the ACC affiliation. That continuity in conference play helps a team. You play against those teams and coach against those coaches for three, four or five years in a row.
When I look at David Shaw, I think he is one of those great coaches.
Q: Do you think Notre Dame needs to be more of a run-oriented program because of who they can get, location, competition, etc.?
CW: Asking Kelly to do that or something similar is not who he is. And yet from a program standpoint, it would be hard to argue against more of a stable, solid, ground-oriented approach.
We have the skill-position players. I think DeShone Kizer is among the top three quarterbacks in the country right now, and the kid from Louisville and the kid from Clemson are different types of players.
As a whole, yes, we should emphasize the run more. But if you can go out and get a kid that’s going to be a first-round draft pick at quarterback, you should try to play to his talents. He checks out of maybe half the plays called from the sideline and still gets them into good plays.
I wouldn’t argue against the need to run the football more. But it’s hard for me to say they should run the ball a whole lot more because of the kid they have at quarterback right now.
Q: Getting back to the defense, the players felt they had too much scheme under Brian VanGorder. Kelly agreed, so they made a change. They’re playing with less of a burden pre-snap. It’s helped them get better. What’s your perspective on scheme and where do you draw the line on too much scheme vs. being able to play more free-and-easy?
CW: Free-and-easy for young guys, absolutely. When you have young guys out there playing on a stage that they’re not accustomed to, I agree 100 percent with free-and-easy, especially in the secondary. They don’t have to think and they can just play.
I feel like our corners haven’t gotten a whole lot of safety help, especially early in the season. Perhaps that’s changed a bit. I’d use more cover three, which they did a lot when Manti Te’o was there. I know there are some issues at safety, but that takes some of the pressure off your corners.
The problem is that you’ve got to have linebackers make plays if you’re going to play like that on the back end. There’s talent there, but they’ve missed a lot of run fits and have been out of position a lot.
Maybe that’s getting better post-VanGorder, but if we’re going to play loose on the back end, they’re going to start working the middle of the field, especially this week if McCaffrey’s not playing. Stanford hasn’t used their tight ends much, but they certainly have in the past and this might be a good game for them to do that against Notre Dame.
In the Michigan State game, the linebackers missed a lot of plays in the second half. Things have stabilized, but I’m concerned that a guy like Nyles Morgan may be taking too many hits from offensive linemen, and that means the defensive line isn’t doing enough to protect him.
When you dial back the defense, it helps everybody. It even helps the coaches because they can focus on six defenses, or whatever the number is, as opposed to a playbook that is huge because of the different types of offenses Notre Dame has to face.
Q: What is your confidence level that things are going to improve for Notre Dame in the second half of the season?
CW: I think the arrow will be pointing up…with an asterisk next to it. They need to be able to run the ball consistently and effectively because it makes everything go better on offense. It makes the offensive line so much better when the defensive linemen and linebackers can’t cheat because they don’t know if they’ll run or pass on third-and-four.
So I think it’s going up, despite the record. It could be bad on defense this week like it was against Michigan State if we’re not hitting where we need to hit. They need a way to take some of the pressure off the quarterback, not because he can’t do it, but because it makes everything else work so much better.
It makes the offense flow better when you don’t have to count on him to get you lined up, audible to another play, make the run, or be precise on his passes because they’re dropping seven or eight and he’s throwing into tighter windows.
I love the skill positions we have on offense. We have so many difference-makers in the skill positions. If the defense can stabilize and not give up as many big plays, I think we have a shot. Even though we’ve missed opportunities in the fourth quarter, I truly feel like we can score with anybody. But we have to be able to score in a way that’s more balanced as opposed to Kizer throwing 38 passes in a monsoon.
I want to say this, too. Now that the defense is on more solid footing, Kelly needs to stay out of that defensive huddle and focus on what they need to do on offense. If you want to pump them up or get them going, that’s fine. But don’t overreact to a situation and then take away from what you’re really good at.
Notre Dame has lost by three in overtime, eight, three and seven. So what you need is for the defense to play a touchdown better and you need the offense to play three-to-seven points better.
If we play a field goal better on offense and a touchdown better on defense, the season turns out much differently. One less big play allowed on defense; one more converted drive on offense and the season looks a lot different.