Chicago Colleges: Brian VanGorder

Instant analysis: ND 31, Syracuse 15

September, 28, 2014
9/28/14
12:35
AM CT

Notre Dame beat Syracuse 31-15 on Saturday night at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Here's how the Irish got to 4-0:

How the game was won: Good question. Notre Dame turned the ball over five times but still won by double digits. You don't see that every day, but it speaks to how great this young defense has been in Year 1 under new coordinator Brian VanGorder, as it gave Syracuse nothing offensively. Six of the Orange's points came on a pick-six. They had little else going for them from a scoring standpoint.

Gameball goes to: Everett Golson will get plenty of credit, and he deserves some of it: 32-of-39 passing for 362 yards and four touchdown passes. He completed 25 consecutive passes at one point, one shy of the FBS record. But he also had two picks and two lost fumbles, so we'll give this nod to sophomore Will Fuller, who had the game's first two touchdowns on consecutive plays in the second quarter and finished with six grabs for 119 yards.

What it means: Notre Dame did not play very well on Saturday, but if you turn the ball over five times and still win -- fairly easily, at that -- you have to take the W and not look back. Teams play poorly, and they often suffer consequences for it. The Irish didn't, and they can go into the Stanford game 4-0, with a blank slate and thankful a sloppy performance such as this is in the past and they don't have a blemish to show for it.

Playoff implication: No. 8 Notre Dame is still undefeated, so the Irish are certainly alive in this discussion. We will probably know more about them, however, after they face rival Stanford at home next Saturday. Again, they can be thankful they got this sloppy performance out of the way. But to say this looks like one of the four best teams in the country right now is probably a bit much as we move to October.

What's next: Notre Dame has three games -- Stanford, North Carolina and at Florida State -- before its next bye. Syracuse's upcoming slate is actually less kind: Louisville, FSU, at Wake Forest, at Clemson. The Orange might have had their best opportunity to steal a tough game during this rugged stretch (sorry, Wake Forest) with five takeaways Saturday, but they will have to go back to the drawing board and see what they can get going offensively Friday against a Cardinals team that showed flaws in Saturday's win over Wake Forest.

Notre Dame prediction: Week 3 vs. Purdue

September, 12, 2014
9/12/14
9:00
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No. 11 Notre Dame "hosts" in-state rival Purdue in Indianapolis. Do the Boilermakers have a shot?

How Purdue can win: For all the talk of the end of the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry as we know it last week, this is also marks the final Irish-Boilermakers matchup for six years, ending a 69-year streak of matchups between the Indiana schools. This game seems to brings out the best in Purdue, and they certainly will try to catch Notre Dame off guard as the Irish ride high off a shutout over the Wolverines. Take chances. Hit them hard, fast and first. Try to establish a ground game, the thing Purdue has succeeded most at through two games. If Danny Etling starts under center, continue to let him loose a little, to try to keep the Irish defense honest. And hope for the Irish to lay an egg, on top of all that.

How Notre Dame can win: Show up early and don't let the pesky Boilermakers hang around. That's the easiest formula for an Irish W. As for what would look like progress, let Everett Golson continue his magic, and try to get as many receivers involved as possible. Chris Brown, for one, could use a little love his way. Don't abandon the ground game, either, as there is a plethora of talented backs who surely were glad to see Brian Kelly continue to trust them last week, even when things weren't going so smoothly in that department. Defensively, the safeties can build off last week's success.

Breakout player: Amir Carlisle has certainly looked the part the last two weeks, but we'll go with him here as he faces his father's team. (Duane Carlisle is Purdue's director of sports performance.) Last year's trip to West Lafayette is when things began to come apart for Carlisle last year, with a late-game fumble. But he has turned things around after converting to slot receiver from running back, giving the Irish another dimension in the passing game.

Prediction: Notre Dame 35, Purdue 10. Purdue has played Notre Dame ridiculously close the last two years, but the Boilermakers were also facing Irish teams that had some questions on offense. The 2014 version of Golson brings a different dynamic to Notre Dame.

Irish deliver final blow in Michigan rivalry

September, 7, 2014
9/07/14
3:06
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Joe Schmidt is a former walk-on who worked his way to a scholarship before earning Notre Dame's starting middle linebacker role. He is a coach's dream who never makes one game or snap out to be bigger than it really is.

Yet when Schmidt entered the media room after Notre Dame's 31-0 win over Michigan, the optimist in him was outdone by the sheer absurdity of the goodbye his young and unproven defense had just delivered the Wolverines.

"You want to believe that this is something you can accomplish every time you go on the field," Schmidt said. "And there's still a lot of things we could've done better today, but …"

He paused for three seconds and collected himself with a deep breath.

"Shoot. This is a great feeling right now."

As finales go, this was more Sopranos than Breaking Bad, a much-hyped shootout that turned into a dramatic letdown. Notre Dame didn't just send Michigan back to Ann Arbor with a 1-1 record and a bad taste in its mouth from being on the losing end of these programs' final meeting. No, the Irish flat-out demoralized the Wolverines. They bullied their hapless offensive line, shredded their patchwork secondary and delivered one indignity after another following a week that did nothing but suggest the visitors would be the ones who would enter with chips on their shoulders.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Cody Riggs and Joe Schmidt
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsCody Riggs, right, and Joe Schmidt celebrate one of Notre Dame's three interceptions against Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner.
Michigan had played 365 straight games in which they scored points before Saturday. These Irish met them in a dark alley here in Week 2, and they rendered them rudderless.

"I just got the stat from [SID Michael] Bertsch: 1984 was the last time these guys were shut out?" Schmidt said as he double-checked with reporters. "I think that kind of speaks for itself on how great this feels right now for me and for this defense and for this team."

Michigan left here last time feeling disrespected, with athletic director David Brandon on the receiving end of a cancellation letter from counterpart Jack Swarbrick. The Wolverines had said what Notre Dame did to them was a slap in the face. To add insult to injury, the Irish announced Thursday they would play a future series against Michigan's arch-rival, Ohio State.

What Notre Dame did to Michigan before a sellout crowd under the lights was far more humiliating.

The Wolverines seemingly dared Everett Golson to beat them with his arm. He looked every bit as lethal as he did last week against Conference USA member Rice and completed 23 of 34 passes for 226 yards with three touchdowns.

Michigan's quarterback, Devin Gardner, received help from no one but Devin Funchess, which led coach Brady Hoke to defend why he stuck with his signal caller after Gardner threw three interceptions and lost a third-quarter fumble on a reckless spin move Schmidt saw coming from a mile away.

"Sometimes it just opens up, and as a defensive player, that's the stuff you lay awake at night dreaming of," Schmidt said. "Quarterback's back, ball's right there, you know you can force the fumble."

Gardner's predecessor, Denard Robinson, had tossed four picks and lost one fumble in a 2012 loss to Notre Dame. That was against the No. 2 scoring defense in the country, the catalyst behind an Irish team that went all the way to the BCS title game.

This year's defense started eight new faces from a year ago in its second game under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who himself turned into an overnight internet celebrity for a raucous late-game celebration.

"I would say it really just ceases all the doubts about, We're young, 'Can we execute?'" Jaylon Smith (10 tackles) said.

VanGorder can be forgiven for his excitement, but the best was yet to come.

Whereas Hoke had quipped last year that Notre Dame was chickening-out of this rivalry — a brushfire Michigan threw gasoline on by playing the "Chicken Dance" after its win over Notre Dame in 2013 — Notre Dame fans took matters into their own hands in the closing minutes and started a stadium-wide rendition of "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye."

And that wasn't even the final indignity.

On what looked like it would be the final play of the game, Gardner was picked off one last time by Elijah Shumate, who returned it 61 yards for a touchdown. Michigan personnel had already made their way to the locker room, having escaped the hysteria engulfing Notre Dame Stadium — except the officials ruled Max Redfield had roughed the passer on the return, the touchdown didn't count and the game couldn't end on a defensive penalty. This made for an awkward delay, as the playing grounds cleared and a chunk of the Wolverines' roster made the long walk back through the tunnel and onto the FieldTurf before going right back up after the Irish showed mercy and took a knee.

"We temper it by knowing that we got a long season ahead of us, and it counts as one, it doesn't count as two," said coach Brian Kelly, who tried so hard all week to not give in to the hype. "If it counted as two, we would probably be a little bit happier, but it counts as one.

"But there's no question -- I would be lying if I told you that it doesn't feel great to shut out Michigan 31-0."

Fighting Irish morning links

August, 29, 2014
8/29/14
7:00
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Well that was fun last night ...

Newcomers stepping up on Irish D

August, 14, 2014
8/14/14
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- OK, so there was some pretty big news Wednesday out of Notre Dame. You can read and hear all about that here and here. But Brian Kelly did name some other starters for Week 1 against Rice.

The biggest surprise? Early enrollee Andrew Trumbetti will be the starter at weak-side defensive end, where Romeo Okwara had appeared to have the initial leg-up. Ishaq Williams is the other starting end.

"We think that he’s got a huge upside for us in so many areas that sometimes I don’t talk about him enough," Kelly said of Trumbetti. "But a great motor, physical, smart, does all the things that we ask him to do. But again, you’ve got to keep in mind we’re talking about first-and second-down players."

Another first-teamer, a name that is considerably less shocking than Trumbetti's, is Florida transfer Cody Riggs, who will start opposite KeiVarae Russell at cornerback.

Kelly repeatedly praised the approach of his defensive freshmen, saying that tackle Jonathan Bonner is in the two-deep, that linebacker Kolin Hill and lineman Jhonny Williams are third-down pass-rushers, and that linebacker Nyles Morgan will play.

While Kelly admitted that he probably would have been uneasy counting on so many rookies to contribute in the front seven, he says his eyes tell him different when he watches them every day on the practice field.

There is also, of course, a new defensive coordinator in Brian VanGorder. Kelly was asked if the new scheme is easier to grasp than what former coordinator Bob Diaco ran.

"They can go. There’s a lot more going on. There’s a lot more pieces to this," Kelly said. "But Brian let’s them run and let’s them go. And so that’s why a lot of these young guys can just, in the places that he’s putting them, in the fronts that he’s calling with Nyles Morgan, he’s not asking him to two-gap anybody. He’s saying, ‘Listen, we’re going to cover everybody. Just go run. Go make a play.’ And some of the freshmen are getting similar kind of front calls where they can just pin their ears back and go."

Irish lunch links

June, 6, 2014
6/06/14
11:00
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Enjoy the weekend, gang.

Notre Dame mailblog

June, 6, 2014
6/06/14
9:00
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What's happening, gang?

Mike S. from Chicago writes: Hi again Matt! Lots of people doing season W/L predictions already, and looking at the schedule there seem to be some expected tough games. Is there a team on the schedule that is especially underrated and could be a *surprisingly* tough game for the Irish? Michigan, Stanford, FSU and one or two others we know will be tough. Curious if you think there's an under-the-radar team though. Thanks!

[+] EnlargeVenric Mark
Dave Stephenson/Icon SMIVenric Mark and Northwestern could be a challenge for Notre Dame in November.
Matt Fortuna: Hey Mike, I'm not ready to make a win-loss prediction this early in the game, but I think you can make a case for really any team on the Fighting Irish's schedule this season to be surprisingly good, outside of the obvious ones that you mentioned (plus USC). North Carolina is a popular pick to win the ACC's Coastal Division. Louisville has had a lot of recent success but is stepping up in competition with a new staff and new quarterback. Arizona State is always a tough out. Syracuse will be better in Year 2 of the Scott Shafer era and has a quarterback to build around in Terrel Hunt. But the one opponent that I think is really getting overlooked is Northwestern. The Wildcats have been consistently strong in recent years under Pat Fitzgerald and definitely enter this season with a chip on their shoulder after the way things ended last year. (A year that was riddled by key injuries, too.) I covered Northwestern's game against Ohio State last season and the Cats were a play away from giving the Buckeyes their first loss of the Urban Meyer era. They are good, and they travel to South Bend, Ind., at what could be a vulnerable time for the Irish, given the tough November stretch they finish with (Navy, at ASU, Northwestern, Louisville, at USC). Purdue usually plays the Irish tough, too. (And heck, even Rice is coming off a 10-win season.)

Chris from Canada writes: Outside of the experience, what are the key differences between Zaire and Golson? They seem very similar in what they have to offer. Is it realistic to think that Zaire can beat out Golson this year or is the "QB competition" just for show?

Matt Fortuna: Chris, they are of a similar build and skill-set, though I think Everett Golson probably has the better arm and is more mobile. Whether that translates into a big gap on the field remains to be seen. As you said, Golson has the experience factor, but Malik Zaire is sure to give him a push, enough so that I think the Irish will be comfortable putting him in a game at any point, something that we know Brian Kelly is not afraid to do with his quarterbacks. Zaire certainly carries himself publicly like a guy who is not afraid of a challenge, and like a guy who expects to win the job if he plays the way he thinks he's capable of playing. My guy Adam Kramer thinks the Irish have the best depth at the position in the country. I'm not sure I'm ready to go that far just yet, but the quarterback position is certainly a luxury for Notre Dame at this point, something that has not been said before in the Kelly era.

Chris Kosiak (via Twitter): (Who is) the under-the-radar guy that everyone will love by seasons end?

Matt Fortuna: What, Cam McDaniel last year wasn't enough for you guys? (I kid, I kid.) I'd say Joe Schmidt, but his value has been pretty well-documented this spring. I'll go with Jarron Jones. It took him some time, but he really came around down the stretch last season. After being demoted to the scout team during USC week because of his academic and football shortcomings, Jones stepped up when the defense became decimated by injuries, blocking a kick on Senior Day against BYU and tallying seven tackles before getting the start at Stanford a week later. He spoke openly about how much more comfortable he is in Brian VanGorder's system, and the opportunities will be there for Jones to make a name for himself on a thin defensive line.

Notre Dame mailblog

May, 9, 2014
5/09/14
9:00
AM CT
Happy Mother's Day to all of the great moms out there. Now, onto your questions ...

Mike S. from Chicago writes: Hi Matt! This question is around the new FieldTurf. In the past, the grass was always "hit or miss" as an advantage. (Unofficially), ND could grow the grass to limit opponents with better athletes, and vice versa. Do you think the FieldTurf decision was in part signed-off on because Coach Kelly is recruiting better athletes, and that more of these athletes are coming from FieldTurf in high school anyway, which helps future recruiting? Do you think this is a good move for ND, putting tradition aside? Thanks as always, and great work!

Matt Fortuna: Hey Mike. While I understand some of the attachment that many had to playing on a traditional grass field, I think in the end this decision was a no-brainer. Yes, Brian Kelly has recruited better athletes at Notre Dame. And yes, many of those athletes are coming from FieldTurf in high school. But at the end of the day, the field that the Fighting Irish had been playing on by the end of last season (and in the spring game) was nothing short of an embarrassment. The players, most of all, deserved better, and they are the ones whose preference mattered most on a decision like this. There are other positives that could come from this as well, be it a hockey game or a concert taking place at Notre Dame Stadium.

Richard from Austin, Texas writes: Is the ACC the right place for ND? Though ND can afford travel, a regional conference is better. A 10-team conference with an 11 game season for example: ND, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Indiana, NIU, Bowling Green, Toledo, Central MI, Eastern MI plus 2 non-Conference games: USC & Navy. Every FBS team needs to move to a regional conference with 10 teams based on the Power Five. The SEC with 3, B1G with 3, ACC with 2, PAC with 2, Big XII and a 12th from the old PAC.

Matt Fortuna: Richard, that's a lot to digest, but the simple fact of the matter is that the Notre Dame brand would be greatly diminished by playing only regionally. Part of the football program's luster is that it plays across the nation and attracts a countless number of fans, many of whom don't even know where the school is located. (Trust me, I grew up with people like this.) At the end of the day, the ACC agreement was perfect for the Irish, who can show their product off from Boston to Miami while, football-wise, protecting that national brand. The only thing Midwest about the rest of the Irish's sports is location, as Notre Dame has a strong East Coast affiliation and regularly recruits that area for basketball, lacrosse and other sports.

Michael Fry writes: Hi Matt. Just looking for some thoughts on who was off the radar last year but who fits well into the new DC's system well. Thanks for the great blog -- keeps the off-season interesting.

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Michael. I think Joe Schmidt is going to be a very important piece for this defense, as Kelly called him the leader and Brian VanGorder said there is a significant knowledge gap between Schmidt and the rest of the linebackers. We all know about Jaylon Smith and KeiVarae Russell, two guys who have the potential to be among the best at their respective positions nationally next season. But one guy I think could take a big step is Jarron Jones, who showed plenty of promise at the end of last season and was forthcoming this spring when discussing how much he enjoys playing in VanGorder's scheme.

Notre Dame spring wrap

April, 29, 2014
4/29/14
11:00
AM CT
Three things we learned in the spring
  • The QB rotation is stable: Everett Golson is back from his 2013 suspension, hardened and bigger than ever. And Malik Zaire has taken full advantage of the opportunity Brian Kelly has given him, after Kelly declared the job open. (Notre Dame had just two scholarship quarterbacks this spring.) While few expect Golson to relinquish his hold on the starting role, the prospect of a hungry, capable backup has to make new QBs coach Matt LaFleur happy.
  • Greg Bryant looks like a playmaker: A rough start to Bryant's career last year might have been a blessing in disguise, as knee tendinitis allowed him to redshirt and essentially get a do-over in 2014. The returns this spring have been phenomenal, with the No. 2 running back prospect from the Class of 2013 bringing a burst to the run game that was absent last season. He turned heads in the spring game and says he is carrying a more mature head on his shoulders after last season, as he's hungry to get back on the field and make plays.
  • The secondary is primed to breakout: Notre Dame does not lack for bodies among its defensive backs. KeiVarae Russell enters his third year of starting ready to be one of the nation's top corners, and the Irish return four safeties with starting experience -- one of whom, Matthias Farley, moved to nickelback this spring. Throw in Florida transfer Cody Riggs at corner this summer -- as well as the aggressive approach of new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who will bring more press coverage -- and the secondary has all of the ingredients to be very good in 2014.
Three questions for the fall
  • Where will the pass-rush come from? The Irish said goodbye to Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, two linemen who made their living in opposing backfields. There are simply no big, athletic bodies like them on this year's roster. With a revamped front-seven, VanGorder will be tasked with finding new ways to generate pressure on the quarterback. Perhaps senior Ishaq Williams, now primarily at end, can add a boost to the line.
  • Which receivers will step up? With DaVaris Daniels (academics) gone this spring, it was essentially an open audition for Irish receivers, only two of whom had ever caught balls from Golson before (Chris Brown and tight end Ben Koyack). Corey Robinson has continued his growth after a promising freshman campaign, and Koyack will have to emerge as a bigger receiving threat after handling mostly blocking duties next to the departed Troy Niklas. Daniels' expected return this summer will provide a major boost to this group.
  • Will special teams play finally improve? Few areas have given Notre Dame trouble in recent years the way special teams has, particularly the punt return game. Awful weather this spring limited outdoor work, which limited ideal return opportunities. Bryant could emerge as the guy at punt return, though Tarean Folston and Torii Hunter Jr. may contend for chances as well.
One way-too-early prediction

Notre Dame will average better than 30 points per game for the first time in the Kelly era. In Golson, the Irish have the ideal quarterback in place to run the Kelly offense. And with the defense taking massive personnel hits up front while adjusting to a new scheme, the offense will be relied on more than ever to stretch the field, carry the load and put points on the board.

Schmidt emerges as leader during spring

April, 25, 2014
4/25/14
9:00
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Joe Schmidt has gone from paying his own way in college to becoming the leader of Notre Dame's defense in less than a year. The inside linebacker from USC country was the talk of this spring for the Fighting Irish's revamped unit, adapting to new coordinator Brian VanGorder's scheme and unofficially carrying the mantle for the rest of the group, at least based on comments from his coaches.

Considering this one from VanGorder on the difference in the knowledge base between Schmidt and the rest of the linebackers: "There's a significant difference. Very bright player."

Or this, from head coach Brian Kelly, on defensive leaders: "Joe Schmidt is the leader on our defense. There's no one probably that has the kind of leadership and understanding of our defense than Joe has right now. Right now he can't come off the field. His knowledge base in terms of getting people lined up and having them execute what we do defensively -- he's absolutely integral to what we're doing."

So how did a player who was a walk-on until last June become an irreplaceable piece so quickly? Football Intelligence -- or FBI, as Kelly calls it -- is a phrase thrown around regularly by those describing Schmidt, who credits his history of playing a bevy of positions in his advance understanding of the game's intricacies.

A Pop Warner and early prep path that saw the Orange, Calif., native go from lineman to quarterback to defensive back gave Schmidt a wealth of knowledge by the time he was just a sophomore at Santa Ana Mater Dei High.

"I think that at a young age I had a lot of good coaching, and then I think I learned to think about the game in the right ways so I think about it more -- instead of like memorizing things I think about how everything fits together," Schmidt said. "So if the safety's moving here, where I got to move in relation to that, that's just how I think, and I think it's really benefited me with going at different defenses from high school to college and here switching a little bit."

Opportunity presented itself last season, as Jarrett Grace and several other regulars went down with season-ending injuries. Schmidt ended up notching a game-clinching pass break-up to clinch a win over his hometown Trojans. He finished 2013 with 15 total tackles, playing in all 13 games but starting none.

With VanGorder arriving to Notre Dame, bringing a more aggressive approach with him, the 6-foot-½, 230-pound Schmidt served as a quick learner in March and April, looking more and more like a guy who has a starting job locked up going into 2014.

VanGorder, for his part, has said that Schmidt is the type of guy a coach easily gets attached to.

"He's just uniquely bright," VanGorder said. "I'm talking, to the professional league and all, he's a very bright player."

Jaylon Smith welcomes bigger workload

April, 22, 2014
4/22/14
9:00
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame wants to keep offenses guessing where Jaylon Smith will be. Opponents can rest assured, however, that he will be on the field for darn near every snap this fall.

Smith, the dog-turned-will linebacker, found himself playing inside more toward the latter half of the Irish's spring season, part of an effort to broaden his presence and account for a lack of depth among the interior linebackers. So the former five-star prospect spent much of March and April getting acclimated with seeing the game from a different view.

Whereas Smith spent his freshman campaign outside at dog linebacker in what was a 3-4 base, he now heads into his sophomore season with more inside responsibilities at will linebacker, looking to hone his skill set and develop the kind of confidence that comes with having a QB-like role on the defense.

"Watching guys like the great Manti Te'o controlling things and regulating things from inside, and that’s something I’m looking forward to doing," Smith said. "You really just have to take it in stride and just keep getting better. We’ll go back, watch film, make corrections and apply it to our football IQ."

The Fort Wayne, Ind. native is the Irish's leading returning tackler from last season, with 67 stops in 13 starts during his rookie campaign last season. He had described his role earlier in the spring in new coordinator Brian VanGorder's scheme as a Sam/Mike hybrid, before making the switch roughly five practices in.

With former starting safety-turned-cornerback Matthias Farley entering the picture for nickel packages, the Irish simply did not -- and could not -- take the precocious Smith off the field. The early returns were promising.

"He has to find a comfort level in there, he has some work to do, but he shows signs of being an outstanding player there," outside linebackers coach Bob Elliott said. "Jaylon Smith has great instincts and he has a super attitude. He came here as a five-star recruit, the best in the country, and you’d never really know it. He was like a sponge. Here to learn. He was a quick study. Now he’s doing the same thing here. He’s not any different than he was before he had that year. He’s still humble and works it, doesn’t have all the answers, smart and quick study and still has those wonderful instincts."

Fine-tuning said instincts will be the next step come fall camp. For now, Notre Dame sees plenty of possibilities for its prized prodigy, and he has been more than happy to take the next step for a remodeled defense.

"Every play starts with sight," Smith said. "Beginning of my career, all my life, I’ve seen the game from an outside perspective. It's really getting used to reading offensive linemen from inside-out. Just little things like that. I’ve had 14 practices and the spring game to actually get the hang of it. It’s going good."

New spring, new spots for some on Irish D

April, 18, 2014
4/18/14
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — This week marked the first unofficial "off" week for John Turner. The redshirt sophomore's workload essentially doubled this spring, with the former safety learning a new position as a linebacker, a chore that would have been complicated enough had Notre Dame's defense not been undergoing a massive face-lift under new coordinator Brian VanGorder.

"After practice I usually go watch film with [outside linebackers] coach [Bob] Elliott, so I really haven't had any time off this spring," Turner said. "Just been putting in work, trying to get better."

Turner is hardly alone, as he is one of three notable players switching positions on the defensive side of the ball, an area that has become somewhat of a haven for fresh starts and surprises for the Irish during Brian Kelly's tenure as head coach. James Onwualu went from safety to linebacker this spring after playing wide receiver as a freshman last season. And Matthias Farley moved from safety to cornerback; he arrived at Notre Dame three years ago as a receiver.

Turner, who played cornerback while at Indianapolis Cathedral High, said the move from the secondary to linebacker this time around has been a far more difficult one, though the spring served as a nice transition period.

[+] EnlargeJohn Turner
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesJohn Turner is one of several underclassmen making a position switch for the Notre Dame defense.
"It was like a learning process the first, I'd say, eight, nine practices. Just getting used to like just being at the line of scrimmage, just being asked to do all the different jobs that they asked me to do," Turner said, adding that, toward the end of spring, "it's been starting to click a lot. Just knowing the defense and just being able to pretty much line up and do everything I need to for the most part."

Turner, who mostly played on special teams, is one of several underclassmen competing for potential starting roles on a retooled unit. Turner is getting practice time mostly in the Sam linebacker role in VanGorder's base defense. The circumstances are a bit different for Onwualu, if only because he earned meaningful action as a rookie last year, catching two passes for 34 yards.

Still, the 215-pound Onwualu's blend of size and athleticism made him an enticing prospect on the other side of the ball, with the sophomore starting this spring listed as a safety before being brought down into the box. He's mostly playing at the Sam position as well.

"Obviously the linemen are a little bit bigger, so you've got to learn how to beat them in different ways, and I'm trying to learn that every day with my technique and everything," said Onwualu, who played corner and safety at Cretin-Derham Hall (Minn.) High. "But I think that's really the only thing. My strength is up there with a lot of people, so I believe I can play in the box."

The moves are hardly unique to the Irish, as the position switches have become as much of a staple under Kelly as anything else. Four players who started in the secondary last year, for instance, had arrived to Notre Dame as receivers: Farley, Austin Collinsworth, Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell.

VanGorder initiated this spring's moves shortly after his arrival, with the former New York Jets linebackers coach evaluating film and engaging in a series of conversations with both Kelly and the players.

"That evaluation started with film first, and then some training with them, watching them move around and all," VanGorder said. "But until you put the football down and put your cleats in the grass, there's a lot of ways to complete the evaluation. Now we're seeing them play the game of football, so there's some things we didn't have now that we've got to continue to evaluate. And then, in the end of this picture and the spring, we pretty much can define and profile a player in terms of who he is."

The returns from spring have been positive as the Irish search for unconventional ways to find playmakers among a relatively green group.

"I love him, I really do. I think he's a great guy. I think he's very honest and upfront about everything," Farley said of VanGorder. "You can talk to him about anything. He's personable, and that clicked from the start and I think everyone really feels that, and it's going to be really good for everyone moving forward."

Notre Dame mailblog

April, 4, 2014
4/04/14
9:00
AM CT
Thanks for chiming in. As always, feel free to tweet any more questions you have here or drop 'em in the mailbag.

Away we go ...

Brendan Shaw from Raleigh, N.C. writes: Hi Matt, doing a great job as usual! This is a long shot, but is there any chance Kelly puts in a two-QB package to mess with the opposing defense? If you think about it, having two dual-threat QBs on the field simultaneously gives you a minimum of a quadruple threat in the backfield. Opposing d-coordinators may just quit football after trying to figure that out for a quarter or two. Regards, Brendan.

Matt Fortuna: Thanks for the kind words, Brendan. Having both quarterbacks on the field at the same time? That would be news to me, especially since I haven't seen either of these guys try their hands at something other than quarterback. That being said, I'd be surprised if Malik Zaire didn't see some meaningful action during the season, as I am sure Brian Kelly and the staff will do everything they can to keep him engaged. He seems to have another gear as a runner, and he could certainly be useful in some red-zone packages as well, as the Fighting Irish have struggled to punch it in down there so much in recent years. I wonder if throwing a lefty in in the middle of a game could prove to be a nice little wrinkle, too.

Mike S. from Chicago writes: Hi Matt, great work as always. Question: how is the schedule for ACC games determined each year? We know it's a rotation with up to five games, but how are the opponents determined each season and how are home-and-aways done?

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Mike. It is, by all accounts, a collaborative effort. And the ACC has shown some flexibility so far to accommodate the Irish, allowing them to play four conference games in 2014 and six in 2015 because of previous schedule arrangements. Both parties plan on keeping things that way, hoping to blend a balance so that a) Notre Dame isn't facing a death row of Florida State/Clemson/Miami in a given season (just using those teams as an example) b) the Irish can fill their 6-5-1 scheduling arrangement (six at home, five on road, one Shamrock Series) and c) so that they play all 14 ACC teams over a three-year span. As you can see, it takes a lot of legwork from all sides, which explains why we didn't know the Irish's 2014 schedule until December of this year (and why the school released three years of schedules at once).

Michael Fry writes: Hi Matt, I have 3 questions for you: 1. Since he arrived on campus last year, und.com has made a point of showing spectacular catches from No. 88. Having seen some live practice, can you comment on how he is doing overall in terms of route-running and consistency in catching the ball? Right now, he is presented as a catch-everything kind of guy 2. Footage of Zaire looks great but, coming back to the theme of No. 1, what kind of a QB competition would this be if Brian Kelly had not called it already in Golson's favor? Would it be close or are we talking different stratospheres? 3. Defense -- just looking for some thoughts on who was off the radar last year but who fits well into the new DC's system well. Thanks for the great blog -- keeps the off-season interesting.

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Michael. Corey Robinson seems to dominate every time us media folks are at practice, too. He has natural size and athletic ability, giving the quarterback a wider margin of error when matching up with smaller corners. Part of that, of course, is also because Notre Dame's corners are relatively green outside of KeiVarae Russell. That said, Robinson needs to put on more strength so he can win some battles along the line of scrimmage and gain some more separation downfield. But last spring's transfers, and this spring's absence of DaVaris Daniels, has given Robinson more opportunities to make an impression. Kelly has stated that he absolutely loves coaching him because of his willingness to accept coaching and not make the same mistake twice. As for the quarterback question, I'm not sure it's still close, but that shouldn't negate from the progress that Zaire has made this spring.

I don't think anyone seriously expects someone other than Everett Golson to be starting come Week 1, but I do think Zaire will see meaningful snaps this season, and the fact there are only two scholarship quarterbacks this spring will prove to be beneficial for the lefty in the long run. Kelly was right to publicly open things up.

Lastly, everyone has been raving about Sheldon Day, who is not exactly off the radar but who was limited last season because of an ankle injury. I'd expect to see a breakout campaign from him along the line, and I wouldn't be surprised if Jarron Jones took his game up another level as well, as the redshirt sophomore has said to us how much more fun he is having in the new system.

Thomas Witty from Northbrook, Ill. writes: Hey Matt! Thanks for answering all of these questions. I know I enjoy reading your answers. My question today is focused on the linebackers. It seems like they are set at outside, but who's going to play middle? Will Nyles Morgan come in and make an impact right away? Could they move Jaylon Smith? Thanks!

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Thomas. I'd say the only sure things at linebacker across the board right now are Joe Schmidt and Smith. Brian VanGorder absolutely raved about Schmidt when asked last week, and we all know what kind of potential Smith flashed during his strong rookie campaign in 2013. Smith has described his position as sort of a hybrid between the Mike and Sam. I'm curious to see the fallout of Jarrett Grace's second operation. He seemed to come along better than anyone over the first half of last season before breaking his leg, and Kelly said the Irish won't know his exact prognosis now until about six weeks after the operation, which took place March 28. If he can come back to camp in full-force, I think that will be huge. If not, I think Morgan could certainly make an impact upon his arrival this summer, probably not unlike the one we saw last year from Smith before he started every game in the fall.

Redfield again adapting to transition

April, 1, 2014
4/01/14
8:00
AM CT
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Max Redfield may be exhibit A when it comes to tempered expectations. The former four-star prospect has shown enough promise through his first spring at Notre Dame to warrant plenty of praise from the staff, though never without a caveat or two.

Take this, Wednesday from new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder:

"He's getting better and better. He's going to make mistakes. I've seen him before, I've dealt with him before, so you've got some patience, but at the same time still keep the high standards and expectations to him."

Or this, four days earlier from head coach Brian Kelly:

"I don't think there's any questioning his athletic ability. There's still a learning curve there for him in terms of what we're doing defensively. But he's such a gifted athlete that it's so hard to look past his athletic ability, even though he's chasing the No. 2 in the flat when he's got the deep middle. We're still in the learning curve with Max but he's so gifted, that's why you coach.

"You've got to get Max Redfield ready. We're going to get him ready."

A freshman season that ended with his first career start was a sign of slow but steady progress for Redfield, who couldn't even get on the field in the regular-season finale a month earlier despite the Irish entering Stanford down two safeties due to suspension.

Still, there was that New Era Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers, a milestone Redfield referred to as his "a-ha moment," as he now knows he is good enough to eventually get things right during another transition period, this one coming with VanGorder's more aggressive scheme.

"You can't really imitate the speed of the game until you're really in it, which is cool for me to get that start under my belt in the Pinstripe Bowl," Redfield said. "I feel like knowing what the speed is like somewhat -- obviously Rutgers isn't going to be the same as Florida State, and I understand that and I know I need to make tons of improvements from there until we get into the next season. But it was great to get that start under my belt. I was really thankful for that and I feel I've been growing ever since."

The Mission Viejo, Calif., native was always forthcoming about his underwhelming rookie campaign (12 tackles in 12 games), admitting to struggling with communicating and adapting to the college game. But the confidence is certainly there from his coaches, which means it is certainly there for him, which means these next five months give the 6-foot-1, 194-pounder plenty of time to bridge the gap and adapt to another challenge.

"I wouldn't say frustrating, because it is what it is," Redfield said of the new defense. "Everybody has to do the same thing, it's not like I'm being singled out or any other defensive player is being singled out. We all have to learn the system, whatever system we're in. Obviously it was a big change but it's going well and I can't complain."

Irish lunch links

March, 27, 2014
3/27/14
12:00
PM CT
Madness returns!

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