Things are bad right now folks, there are no two ways about it. Notre Dame is going to be in a downward trend no matter what happens the rest of the way, unless of course the Irish play like a completely different program for the remaining eight games, which I don’t think anyone sees as plausible. In last weeks stock report, Brian VanGorder was given the moniker of a “sell” and Notre Dame sold, as he was fired on Sunday as the defensive coordinator following the disaster that unfolded against the Blue Devils of Duke. For many Notre Dame fans, this was four games too late, following what they saw in the final two games last season and for most of 2014. While reasonable people can argue it should have been done sooner than it was, the move has been made, and the focus now shifts to the coaching tenure of Brian Kelly.
Any serious conversation about the coaching status of Kelly would have been regarded as laughable; it was a conversation that frankly had no merit. That is no longer the case. Going back to Lou Holtz, many can remember the moment when it was apparent that the Notre Dame coach didn’t have it. For Lou, it was the loss in 1996 to Air Force. For Bob Davie, it was his 24-3 loss to unranked Texas A&M to drop the Irish to 0-3 in 2001. Tyrone Willingham’s moment came at the expense of Tyler Palko in a 2004 loss to Pittsburgh and Charlie Weis dropping a game to Navy in 2009 was the beginning of his end. Unfortunately, this 38-35 defeat to Duke, dropping the Irish to 1-3 will likely be the moment everyone looks back on and says, yes, that’s when we knew. That’s just how these things go at Notre Dame.
Dexter Williams, Running Back
Brian Kelly singled out Williams as the only player that he saw that displayed “emotion and fire” during the loss to the Blue Devils. Doesn’t say much for the rest of the team, but it does speak well of the way Williams played on Saturday in the limited chances he was given (seriously, Kelly, if he’s the only one who displayed emotion and fire during the game, maybe hook the guy up with a little more than five carries). His tackle breaking 13 yard touchdown run in the 2nd quarter to tie the game at 21 was reminiscent of any number of Julius Jones type runs in 2003–speed, power and decisiveness.
Given Kelly’s comments regarding the play of Williams and his intensity/attitude being singled out as a positive by the coach, you’d think he is a lock for more playing time moving forward. Of course, Kelly also said they were going to make a concerted effort to get Chase Claypool more involved on offense following the game against Michigan State. So naturally, he didn’t play one snap on offense against Duke. Good times. Hopefully Williams gets more of an opportunity against Syracuse.
Line-up Changes On Defense
Kelly also alluded to making a lot of personnel changes on defense in his post game press conference, announcing that every position, yep all 22, is now up for grabs. Which is, of course, ludicrous. It’s fair to say that at most seven positions are up for change, and most of those are coming on the defensive side of the ball. If I may put on my market predictor role for a second, this is what I think we might see:
- Jay Hayes in for Andrew Trumbetti at Defensive End– This was a thing all throughout spring and into summer camp and then Hayes hurt his ankle and it no longer became a thing, even with Hayes appearing in every game after Texas. Part of the reason many suspected, myself included, that defensive line would be strong against the run was the presence of the 290 pound Hayes at end instead of the 260 pound Trumbetti. We’ve all seen the results with Trumbetti in there, let’s see what it looks like with Hayes.
- Donte Vaughn in at Corner– First, the young made a pretty good interception against Duke in the end zone. Second, Julian Love is Notre Dame’s nickel corner and it makes sense that they would want to limit his work load to focus on his nickel spot. Third, Nick Coleman has simply been not good so far this year. It’s just not happening for him right now and it looks like he needs some time to figure things out technique wise. Vaughn has the size and athleticism to do it and he’s shown out in real game action. Let’s see what he’s got.
- Chase Claypool at Safety– Wait, what? Ok this one probably won’t happen, but given what we’ve seen from Claypool on kickoff and punt coverage, can he not be taught to play on the hash and get down hill on runs? Would anyone at safety have better range than what Claypool would bring to the table?
- Jalen Elliot at Strong Safety- This is the move that is more likely to happen at safety. Tranquill is lost right now, and Sebastian seems like a stop gap, emergency guy. Safety is going to be a problem, there is no miracle solution at this spot. If they have to struggle, they should struggle with the youth because Studstill and Elliot are the two guys that are the future for Notre Dame at this spot.
Drue Tranquill, Strong Safety
This young man’s struggles are not a matter of effort or caring. The popular opinion regarding Tranquill is he’s playing out of position and is a better fit for SAM linebacker. My personal opinion didn’t fall in line with that, I thought he had the athleticism to play the spot. Whether his two ACL injuries have sapped that athleticism, or he simply doesn’t have the instincts for the position to make up for his deficiencies, it’s just not working out. And unfortunately, James Onwualu at SAM is playing the best ball of his career and is a captain; hard to say that he should be taken off the field. There just doesn’t seem to be an obvious place for Tranquill and his skills right now, although it might be worth it to give him a shot at WILL linebacker in passing situations.
CJ Sanders’ touches
This is a baffling one that doesn’t make much sense. Teams are getting hip to the fact that Sanders is dangerous with the ball in his hands and are kicking away from him on kickoffs. They can also limit his touches with directional kicking as a punt returner. Yet, Notre Dame doesn’t seem to be going out of its way to manufacture offensive touches for Sanders. He has 13 receptions through four games, about three a game, and he doesn’t have one carry as a runner. Meanwhile, Notre Dame drew up two gimmicks for Malik Zaire last weekend, which resulted in about 10 lost yards total. Sanders clearly needs to have a greater impact on the offense; Notre Dame does the defense a favor by not designing plays around the best run after catch option on the entire team. A jet sweep that was so effective with CJ Prosise? An option out of the backfield? A reverse? Three touches on offense just isn’t going to get it done.
What To Watch For
More and More Freshman On Defense
Generally speaking, when a coach opens up all positions to competition, that means he’s going to give an extended look to the young guys. On defense we’ve already seen a lot of Julian Love, Daelin Hayes, Donte Vaughn, Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliot. I’d expect to see a lot more of all of those players and add defensive end Khalid Kareem to that mix as well. Young guys are hungry and are less apt to be deterred by the teams poor start in terms of their attitude. When you’re a freshman, anything is better than not playing. Can the coaching staff, with a new defensive coordinator, get them up to speed quick enough so there aren’t massive breakdowns? It’s a scary proposition.
Will Kizer Get His Swagger Back?
Let’s be clear, Kizer is not the problem on this team. He’s clearly their best player. That being said, have we ever seen worse body language from him at the end of that game? He’s lost some of that confidence that was so apparent all of last season, and he has now had the ball with a chance to win or tie the game for Notre Dame in the 4th quarter in each of the three losses and he has failed to do so. This is really close to becoming a thing, if it hasn’t already. It’s comforting knowing that with DeShone Kizer on the team, they’ll always have a chance, because he’s good for 4-5 touchdowns every week. But, Notre Dame has had Kizer in the first four games and they are 1-3. No need to speculate on the reasons why, I don’t know him and I’m not around the team. But, if Notre Dame is to have any chance of turning around this season, their best player needs to get out of this funk.