Notre Dame Football: Everett Golson
You had said that you were out of a job before Brian Kelly hired you at Grand Valley. What kind of influence has he been on your career?
“CHUCK MARTIN: Once again, we got to work with some pretty good players. That's the starting point. We're different in a lot of, lot of ways. People that know us know we're pretty different people. But we're similar in a lot of ways when it comes to football, as far as competitiveness and confidence, and then obviously he's been running a program for, not the longest tenure in college, but he's been in charge for a long, long time and just being around him on a daily basis, it's just organizationally, and I always tell people he's the best off-the-field head coach in America. There's so many things that he gets done for the players in this program to make their lives more efficient, to make their lives more enjoyable, that you're always learning those things. That kind of stuff is obviously what I'll move forward with.
Everyone knows I'm a lifelong Notre Dame fan, and that's the only place I ever really wanted to coach, so obviously it's a very difficult decision to not stay there. But for me, for my family, for my career, this was the best move to put me in a position to get to where I want to go at the end of the day.” New Miami (Ohio) coach Chuck Martin
Did you learn even more these last two years, just being on the offensive side of the ball with him and calling the plays and whatnot?
CM: Yeah, I would say more big-picture stuff, too. That's always where I was looking to him, as far as how is he handing certain situations, how is he improving the whole organization, how is he getting things done for the football program, how is he getting things done for our players that gives us a better chance for success. There's only so many ways to run routes and throw, sometimes that can be a little bit overblown. This, that and the other thing. But definitely the big-picture stuff is where you get the most value.
When news of your departure from Notre Dame broke, there were a lot of positive comments from the players -- congrats and whatnot -- on the new gig. What are you going to miss most about that group that you worked with these past couple of years?
CM: These were incredible kids. Obviously they are so much more than football players at Notre Dame. And that's why Notre Dame has so much pride in its student-athletes, because they're truly student-athletes. We watched what they'd go through on a daily grind. It's so impressive. They're awesome kids from awesome families. Whenever you leave a job, you'll miss the school, you miss the people, in particular you miss the players. And they move on and graduate, too. But those are the things that you miss the most — the interaction with the people you work with, and the interaction with the kids you coach. Everyone knows I'm a lifelong Notre Dame fan, and that's the only place I ever really wanted to coach, so obviously it's a very difficult decision to not stay there. But for me, for my family, for my career, this was the best move to put me in a position to get to where I want to go at the end of the day.
The day you took the Miami job, news broke that Everett Golson was going to be re-admitted to Notre Dame. I'm just curious about what your relationship with him has been like and what kind of impression he left on you with the way he was able to recover these last couple of months and do what he needed to do to get back on track?
CM: Just very proud of him. He's my guy, and I enjoyed all my time with him when he was there. I even enjoyed my time with him when he was a little bit afar. I'm just proud of how he's grown over the last few years, and he's an awesome kid with an awesome heart, and just figuring his way. He's already done so many special things at Notre Dame, and I know he's going to do a bunch more special things in his last couple of years. But very proud of how he handled it, and how he really started to take a situation that certainly could be a negative and turned it into a positive. And that's what you're always looking for kids to do. Kids don't hit a home run with every decision they make, and when they make bad decisions and they improve from these decisions that's when you know they're really turning into the type of person that they're capable of being.
There are reports of some guys from there possibly playing their fifth years with you. Can you speak to that yet?
CM: I don't know that any of them are really spending a ton of time with that now. I think they've got finals right now and then they've got a bowl game to play. And if down the road they decide that that's something they want to do, obviously if they choose to move on from Notre Dame, I would obviously be interested. But on the other hand, they're just kind of handling their business and finishing their semester and finishing their season. We'll kind of see where that takes us in the future.
ESPN.com caught up with Martin on Monday night. Here is Part I of that conversation.
What have these last two weeks been like for you? I imagine little sleep, a lot of traveling and a lot of meeting with new faces.
Chuck Martin: Yeah, it's been crazy, and obviously there's a lot of things to get up and running, and hiring a staff, and trying to get going in recruiting, and trying to figure out the lay of the land of the place you just got hired. So yeah, it's been good, but like anytime you change jobs it's a little bit of a whirlwind. But you get going and you work as many hours as you can every day, try to get as much stuff you can get done, knowing that you'd like to get more done but it's not going to happen. So you just keep plugging away and keep grinding.
Did you find a house out there yet? How's the living situation going on with the family and everything?
When you first got there and got to meet the players and the personnel, what was your initial impression of what you had to work with?
CM: Well in that case, you never know -- when you don't have as much success as you'd like, there's a lot of different reasons for that. The one thing that I was very, very pleased with was that we have good kids and they like each other. We don't have like a fractured team. There (wasn't) some big issue within the framework of your team, so that's obviously a good starting point. If you have good kids that like each other and they have some resemblance of a team going in, then it's something you can build on and start. And again, for me, we didn't get into a whole lot of what's good, what's bad, what's been done great, what's been done not-so-great. It was just kind of, we're going to put in our own systems, from offseason strength and conditioning to how we handle academic stuff, to obviously new systems on offense and defense, and then we're going to start recruiting kids to our system for the future. But in the short term we're going to try to develop the kids we have and just go full-steam ahead. So we don't spend a lot of time trying to figure out good, bad or indifferent or what we have. We just say, hey, this is our team right now and let's start developing the players and let's get better for next fall.
During your introductory press conference you mentioned Ara Parseghian. Have you two touched base since you took the job?
CM: I have not. I was actually, it's funny, I was at Armando's (barber shop) the day I was taking off and Ara was in there the day before and had told Armando that, 'Hey, we've got to get a good coach at Miami of Ohio.' So just the fact that Ara Parseghian was talking about a job that I was getting ready to take was pretty special for me. It kind of makes you pinch yourself and makes you pretty excited. If this place is important to Ara Parseghian and I'm the one in charge of getting it turned back around, that's pretty awesome.
How have you or will you go about filling out your staff?
CM: We got some guys on board. I think they're releasing them (Tuesday) or (Monday night) at some time. We've got about four or five guys hired and we're in the process of filling our last three or four spots, so we're plugging away. It's something you want to get it working but also, it's like a giant puzzle -- got to get the pieces to fit right. You want to make sure that everybody can complement one another. And some guys hopefully bring some attributes to the table that other guys don't have. So as you start to fill in and then you get to those last couple spots, you might be looking for some key things you don't have yet on the staff to try to fill those keys. But it's a fun process, you'd like it go very quickly, but also you're here for the long term and you want to get the right people to build it the right way.
Your coaching career has been anything but conventional, especially at Notre Dame, moving from safeties coach to offensive coordinator. How do you think having your feet in all of these different spots at all of these different programs is going to help you in running your own program?
CM: Yeah. It started back when I took over for Coach (Brian) Kelly at Grand Valley. Spent 12 years on defense and only coached on defense and I moved to offense then with these days in mind. I'm only 45; I'm hoping I coach a lot longer. My plan back then, it wasn't by accident that I moved to offense. I had a plan that I was going to be a head coach, hopefully for a long time, and that to know both sides of the ball and have true experience on both sides of the ball and not just be a one-dimensional head coach would not only benefit me in running an organization, but also benefit me when I get a job where I can probably add just as much to one side as you can to the other. So obviously going to Notre Dame and having the experience of going as a defense guy and then flipping to offense halfway through, that's why I was excited about the opportunity. You keep growing and learning in college football; you never stop learning. You've got to stay up with all the new wrinkles every day. When you have the experience of bouncing back and forth like I had, you kind of take turns with what everybody's doing, and now I feel obviously that will super benefit me when I get here.
At this rate, it would be easy to say that the concerns now fall on Kelly, who lost his second coordinator to a head-coaching job in an eight-day span Wednesday when Bob Diaco accepted the UConn post. That came in the wake of Chuck Martin packing his bags for Miami (Ohio). The moves hamstring the Irish staff as it readies for Rutgers on Dec. 28's New Era Pinstripe Bowl, and as it gears up for the mad dash to national signing day in the 39 days following the 2013 finale.
The initial reaction across players and fans, per routine, was overreaction. Tweets decrying Diaco for looking out for himself were soon deleted, eventually giving way to more and more congratulatory remarks for a man whose next career step was only a matter of time.
Make no mistake, this is far from the situation that is taking place in Piscataway, N.J., where Flood, the second-year head coach, let go of three assistants after an underwhelming 6-6 campaign. The Scarlet Knights step into the Big Ten next season. And this is far from the case that Kelly was referencing in that bowl press conference, as he had just taken the Cincinnati job and had only three of his Central Michigan assistants with him by the time the Bearcats faced, and defeated, Western Michigan in the International Bowl nearly seven years ago.
"It certainly creates a little bit of a challenge," Flood said of Rutgers' situation, "but I'm confident that people are put in positions where they can be successful, and that's really my job as the head football coach, to make sure we got a coach assigned at every position and in all three phases and the coordinator role."
Kelly's challenge is considerably smaller. This is Notre Dame, after all. Initial reaction among recruits speaks to that, with most youngsters recognizing that much of what they were promised remains in place so long as Kelly is at the forefront. If Diaco does not bring along other Irish assistants with him to Storrs, Conn., Kelly will have a much easier time filling the holes on his staff. Kerry Cooks, let's not forget, has also been the co-defensive coordinator these past two years, and he will probably take on Diaco's responsibilities for (at least) the rest of the month.
The fact this Notre Dame team went 8-4 and had its top two assistants get hired to run their own shows speaks volumes about where the program is now. Jimbo Fisher lost seven assistants in a season that ended with Florida State winning the Orange Bowl, and the Seminoles have turned out oh-so fine in the year since. This is a good problem to have, and as IrishIllustrated's Pete Sampson said, one coordinator leaving right after the other could trigger an eventful race back to South Bend to occupy Kelly's office whenever he should depart.
That's down the road. For now, the calendar has 19 days remaining in a year that began with a letdown against Alabama in the national title game and will likely end with a win against Rutgers -- with plenty of embarrassment (Manti Te'o, Everett Golson) and departures (Gunner Kiel, two receivers) sandwiched in-between.
As they did in this past year, the Irish will enter 2014 hoping to close whatever gap remains toward a national title. And while Jameis Winston isn't walking through that door, the two most important elements of that chase, Kelly and Golson, still are.
Kelly made it clear Sunday that he was not involved in the agent conversations with Nix, whose decision to go to the NFL was expected, but just maybe not this soon.
"There's a lot of factors that are involved there," Kelly said. "I think the most important choice he made was coming to Notre Dame and getting his degree. The rest of those, you know what I mean, they're splitting hairs. We'll find out, right? You're taking a gamble no matter what. But the most important decisions he had to make, I thought he got them right. That was coming to Notre Dame, getting his degree. I think he hit a home run on those."
Nix would have missed the New Era Pinstripe Bowl anyway because of surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his left knee, which kept him out of the Irish's last two games.
The 6-foot-3, 342-pound nose guard is expected to graduate this month with a degree in film, television and theatre. He reportedly signed with Todd France and Brian Ayrault.
"He had an injury and wouldn't be able to play. He did what was best for him," left tackle Zack Martin said. "Wish him all the best of luck. He's a great player and know he's going to do great things."
Stephon Tuitt remains undecided about his Notre Dame future, Kelly said. Left guard Chris Watt's MCL sprain will keep him out of his final Notre Dame game. Kelly will visit Everett Golson on Monday in the quarterback's Myrtle Beach, S.C., home. Golson may visit his girlfriend in New York around Christmas and could meet the team there, provided he pays his own way. Mike Denbrock is the offensive coordinator and Kelly will coach the quarterbacks with Chuck Martin off to become head coach at Miami (Ohio), but Kelly remains undecided on how he will handle Martin's vacant position moving forward, saying any new hire would come after the bowl game.
"I think he's a winner," Danny Rees told ESPN.com. "Obviously there's been some tough losses, but if you look at his overall record I think he's won a lot of games, and I'm not sure where Notre Dame would be without him over the last four years, and I think he would probably say the same thing. I think he wants to be remembered as a guy who came in and won some big games."
Just where Notre Dame would be without Tommy Rees is hard to fathom, especially in light of last month's win over USC, when a neck strain forced him to the sideline for most of the second half, giving way to an offense that totaled 30 yards and one first down.
Or in light of his freshman year of 2010, when he filled in for an injured Dayne Crist and led the Irish to four straight wins, including their first over the rival Trojans in nine years.
Yes, it is hard to imagine Notre Dame without Rees. But life after him is approaching fast, as the senior will take the Notre Dame Stadium field for the final time Saturday against BYU, a home send-off to a career that has made him part-hero, part-goat and seemingly everything in-between.
Brian Kelly had some trouble gripping with the idea of a Rees-less Notre Dame when asked Tuesday to think about impending days without the one constant of his four-year Irish coaching tenure.
"Look, we want to win football games -- you're hired and fired for winning football games here; I get that," Kelly said. "But he really loves Notre Dame and understands Notre Dame and understands the distinctions of Notre Dame."
It was just a decade ago that Lake Forest (Ill.) High coach Chuck Spagnoli met an 11-year-old Rees, then visiting a practice of older brother Danny, who went on to punt at UCLA. Rees did not immediately pass the eye test then, nor does he now at a hardly-imposing 6-foot-2, 215 pounds. But within three years, Spagnoli knew he had himself a three-year starter at quarterback who would eventually turn into one of the best captains his program has ever had.
"I don't think it's an accident that he's there and in the position he's in right now," Spagnoli told ESPN.com. "He's a fighter and he's a survivor, and he isn't going to just assume that things are going to be given to him by any stretch. He's going to work for everything he gets."
Rees remembers his father Bill, now a scout for the Buccaneers, telling him at an early age that he had three options with football: Liking it, loving it or living it.
"For me it's been about living it," said Rees, who has not ruled out a coaching career.
Added Kelly: "You'd never think of Tommy Rees being two seconds late for a meeting or not at a workout. He's always the first one in and the last one to leave. That's living it."
That means understanding what he signed up for, too.
Rees has not always gotten a fair deal from segments of the fan base, some of which booed him when he replaced Golson in the home opener last year before he led a game-winning drive against Purdue. Three losses this year have led to his name on social media getting linked with words that would not be uttered within earshot of the Basilica, though a #ThankTommy movement has been growing on Twitter this week with his home finale approaching.
He has tuned it all out, though, insisting that the sport has never become a burden.
"You've got to commit yourself fully to the game, and at times people get down on it after losses, but you think about not sharing those moments with your teammates, you think about not putting on that helmet," Rees said. "There are people that would give a lot to feel that bad after a game, to even play the game. You've got to be grateful, and you've got to look at it in perspective."
Others bolted at the first sight of adversity, or failed to understand those Notre Dame distinctions that Kelly referred to.
But through nearly 7,000 yards, 58 touchdowns, 21 wins and yes, those seven losses and 34 interceptions, too, Tommy Rees' resolve has persisted. And he still has one last stand left at Notre Dame.
"I mean, shoot, at the end of the day he's the quarterback at Notre Dame and that's a really special thing to be," Danny Rees said. "There's going to be criticism that comes along with it, but I bet you there are thousands of kids out there who would love to put up with that criticism and do what he does, so I don't think at the end of the day it's a big deal."
Saturday brings Senior Day for Notre Dame, which will honor 33 fourth- and fifth-year players before the Irish face BYU. Brian Kelly took time at his weekly press conference to reflect on the careers of many of them, notably offensive stalwarts like Tommy Rees and TJ Jones and defensive ones like Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese.
And as of now, no one has been ruled out for joining them for the tilt against the Cougars, with Kelly saying Ishaq Williams (ACL sprain), Kona Schwenke (high-ankle sprain), Isaac Rochell (ankle sprain) and Jarron Jones (ankle sprain) all practiced Monday without any setbacks, though Williams remains day-to-day.
Williams has not played since the Oct. 26 game at Air Force, while Schwenke was injured the following week against Navy and the other two defensive linemen suffered their sprains one week later at Pitt.
It remains status quo for one other player who won't participate Saturday, as Kelly reiterated that Everett Golson would be eligible to practice with the Irish in the lead-up to their bowl game if he is readmitted to school. Kelly said he cannot comment on Golson's academic status but that a decision would probably come sometime in mid-December.
- CBSSports.com's Bruce Feldman catches up with Everett Golson, who is up to 204 pounds.
- The Observer's Matthew DeFranks says that if Saturday is any indication, Notre Dame's BCS hopes are fading fast.
- Notre Dame's victories over Michigan State and Arizona State are looking better and better, JJ Stankevitz writes on CSNChicago.com.
- The South Bend Tribune's Al Lesar says that the Irish's defensive slide is hard to figure.
- BlueandGold.com's Lou Somogyi looks at what was learned from Saturday's Irish win over Navy (subscription required).
- Hmmm ... I wonder what Kerry Cooks is up to here.
- Run-blocking has helped Ben Koyack earn more receiving chances, JJ Stankevitz writes on CSNChicago.com.
- Everett Golson could practice with the Irish in December, Dan Murphy writes on BlueandGold.com.
- The South Bend Tribune's Bob Wieneke says it's never too early to peak ahead.
- Brian Kelly says the staff let the players down in the 2010 Navy game, Tim Prister writes on IrishIllustrated.com. (Subscription required)
- From Tuesday: Everett Golson opens up to SI.com's Andy Staples.
- Todd McShay thinks Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt remain certain first-round picks, Brian Hamilton writes in the Chicago Tribune.
- Brian Kelly's thoughts on Tommy Rees' legacy? He's just Fighting Irish, JJ Stankevitz writes on CSNChicago.com.
- Speaking of Fighting Irish, IrishIllustrated's Tim Prister says this group has become the Tackling Irish.
- Notre Dame's defense is rising again, Lou Somogyi writes on BlueandGold.com.
Golson, who was suspended from the school this past May for what he had deemed "poor academic judgment," is currently in San Diego training with George Whitfield Jr. at his quarterback academy, Whitfield Athletix, after working out earlier this year at EFT Sports Performance just outside of Chicago in Highland Park, Ill.
"Basically, I had poor judgment on a test," Golson told SI. "It wasn't due to poor grades or anything like that."
Asked if he cheated on a test, Golson replied: "Yeahhh, something like that."
Golson, who led the Fighting Irish to a 12-1 record and berth in the Discover BCS National Championship last season, will have to be reinstated to Notre Dame for the spring semester. Should he return to school, he will be a redshirt junior next fall after losing a year of college eligibility this season.
The Myrtle Beach, S.C., native did not want to explore other potential schools during this time off.
"My heart was set on going back to Notre Dame, not necessarily to prove to anybody but just really doing it for me," Golson told SI. "I felt like that's something that I started and I didn't want to run away from it and go to a juco or go to another school. I was going to face it."
A full story on Golson is set to appear in this week's SI magazine.
Tommy Rees is cleared for practice and all indications are that he will get the start against Air Force, but the sense of urgency has certainly been elevated down the quarterback depth chart in light of a seven-drive, one-first-down, 0 for 4 passing performance from the Irish with Hendrix running the offense.
"Looking good in practice and playing in the games, obviously, are two different things, and I think what Andrew has to do he's got to take that practice now and he's got to take that into games," Kelly said Tuesday. "And hopefully he'll use the experience that he had against USC and he'll take that as a learning experience and translate what he does in practice now into games.
"He knows what it looks like. Now it's incumbent upon him as a competitor and he's a competitor. And he wants to succeed. Now he's going to have to take what he does in practice and he's going to have to carry that into games."
Hendrix will see more action with the first team this week as insurance. Likewise, true freshman Malik Zaire will receive more No. 2 reps, though burning his redshirt after seven games is essentially a worst-case scenario for the Irish at this point.
Kelly said Hendrix's sample-size is not big enough to be concerned more about his game performance.
"I think he's got to calm his emotions down," Kelly said. "I think he's capable of much more. I have much more confidence in his ability to come in and play better football. And I expect he will."
As for the original No. 1 signal caller, Everett Golson remains in San Diego under the tutelage of quarterback guru George Whitfield until he can potentially be reinstated to Notre Dame after committing an academic violation that cost him this semester and the Irish their leader for this season.
"He's working hard," Kelly said. "He's on the West Coast. He's in a disciplined environment, one I'm very comfortable with. He's in contact weekly, either with myself or with [offensive coordinator Chuck] Martin. He's in contact with our graduate assistant Coach (Pat) Welch, two or three times a week. Just catching up on what we're doing, game plans, staying connected. He's staying connected weekly from that standpoint."
Notes: Sophomore safety Elijah Shumate (hamstring) is questionable. … Notre Dame will be careful this week with redshirt junior noseguard Louis Nix (shoulder), who is sore and, in Kelly's words, not a fan of option football. … Kelly felt sophomore end Sheldon Day crossed a bridge Saturday in his first extended action since suffering an ankle sprain Sept. 14 at Purdue. … Bennett Jackson is fine after taking some hits Saturday to his surgically repaired shoulder. … The school's fall break this week and this weekend's game in the high altitude of Colorado won't affect preparation much, Kelly said.
Maybe, with his hoodie on and his night done after a vicious third-quarter hit, he would have looked out to the field and watched a Notre Dame offense that had been forced to run six meaningful drives without him. Maybe he would have struggled to contain an I-know-something-you-don't smirk as the Fighting Irish, accounting for penalties, netted 30 total yards and gained one first down in his absence. Maybe he would have offered a hearty chuckle when seeing his backup and friend, Andrew Hendrix, misfire on all four of his pass attempts.
But a glimpse at life without Rees left everybody outside the program eating their words for most of the second half. Notre Dame wasn't just bad offensively; it was downright brutal, with even the sure-handed Cam McDaniel coughing up the ball late and not a soul among the raucous sellout crowd exhaling until the final zeroes were on the clock after Hendrix's two kneel-downs on his seventh and final drive.
And as it turns out, Rees had been one step ahead of everyone. His biggest play had actually come at halftime, two drives before he would be on the receiving end of a big knock from USC linebacker Lamar Dawson with just more than nine minutes to play in the third quarter. Rees was slow to even sit up, then walked gingerly off the field under his own power. He was standing up on the sidelines being interrogated by team medical personnel before heading to the locker room for further evaluation. Coach Brian Kelly said afterward that Rees had suffered a neck strain and was all there mentally, and that the team should know more in the next 24 hours.
But when the teams had gone to their locker rooms for halftime Saturday, Rees had taken it upon himself to deliver a speech that proved to be prescient in a game that featured no scoring during the final 30 minutes.
"It was a passionate speech, one of the more passionate things I've ever heard Tommy say," captain TJ Jones said. "It was really, 'Just keep your head in the game, don't give up. We've got this, 30 minutes wasn't enough. We need another 30 to win this game.' He had a lot of the guys almost in tears. It's the first time Tommy spoke out like that, and it was definitely emotional."
It had come after one of Rees' better performances to date. The senior finished the game 14-of-21 passing for 166 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers over the course of one half and one more series. He had run the offense at a much quicker pace, and the unit even left some points on the board on the game's first drive after McDaniel failed to reach the end zone on four consecutive runs.
Rees had also passed Rick Mirer on the school's all-time passing yards list, becoming the fifth Notre Dame quarterback to eclipse the 6,000-yard mark for his career.
"I think it does say a lot about the kid and his perseverance," Kelly said of the milestone. "He's just a tough kid, and he just keeps battling. I'm sure he'll look back on that a little bit later and be able to point out, 'Hey, I did play at Notre Dame and I wasn't that bad.' "
No kidding. From stepping up for an injured Dayne Crist and leading Notre Dame to four straight wins as a freshman, to surviving a turnover-plagued 2011; from getting arrested and then being relegated to a glorified graduate assistant role as Everett Golson took control, to then bailing Golson out late throughout last year's 12-0 run, Rees has nearly seen it all.
He has taken plenty of heat, too, whether it was getting booed by his home fans in his 2012 debut or withstanding a recent social-media firestorm that is coming his way only because of the poor academic judgment that the man initially in front of him displayed this past spring.
Golson, by the way, does not have to worry about schoolwork or bad weather the way Rees does, as he is training with noted quarterback guru George Whitfield out in sunny San Diego.
From there, Golson could see what the rest of us saw once his old teammate was no longer an option against the Trojans.
"As you could tell, our performance in the second half was a little difficult to adjust," tight end Troy Niklas said. "But I think we were able to make do with what we could."
Rees might have provided that extra lift just moments earlier, the son of an NFL scout always worrying about what's next.
"He was just kind of reiterating what the coaches had said, and probably a little something else," team captain Zack Martin said of Rees' halftime speech. "But we had an opportunity to beat SC at home and we hadn't done that in a long time. But to be able to win three out of four years for this class is pretty special."
Whatever checks Notre Dame had written to the devil before last season had been cashed since the calendar turned to 2013 -- Manti Te'o's girlfriend hoax, four notable transfers and Golson's suspension getting sandwiched between the Alabama beatdown and the two losses the Irish had suffered through six games this season.
Then came Saturday night against USC, and everyone got a look at just how much worse it could get if the starter everyone wanted gone could no longer return.
Summary: This category is mostly in the eye of the beholder. Some will see a team that has two more losses than it did all of last season and say that is the staff's fault, and that is partially right. Others will say this team has been hamstrung by transfers, suspensions and injuries, and that is partially right, too.
Despite all of the hoopla, we might have underestimated Manti Te'o's importance last year. He made a really good defense a great one, and his void simply cannot be filled, despite seven starters and plenty of key reserves back from this year's unit. Though the depth of this defense has taken several early hits -- and none might be bigger than the season-injury leg injury suffered by Jarrett Grace -- this unit has to get better in the second half of the season, plain and simple.
Two areas that stand out in this category are slow starts, and, of course, comparisons to last year's outfit, which were inevitable. The first part has been a sour point for Notre Dame this year, as the Irish have fallen behind 10-0 at Michigan, 10-0 at Purdue, had a punt blocked early against Michigan State, fallen behind 14-0 against Oklahoma and, this past week, were trailing 6-0 and 13-7 early against Arizona State. It is tough to pinpoint why slow starts have plagued the Irish, but they are certainly an issue this team needs to fix moving forward.
The latter category, the comparisons to last year's outfit, are a bit ironic. Brian Kelly took the team off-campus to Camp Shiloh in Marion, Ind., to open camp, with an emphasis on separating this year from last year. But after a 3-2 start, Kelly showed the team clips of close wins last year against Purdue, BYU and Pitt to emphasize how thin the margin for error was and is in both seasons, and the team responded with an upset win over ASU. Kelly stressed going into that contest that the team needs to do the ordinary things better. And by taking the lessons from last year's success, this year's team notched its best win of the season — a much-needed one going into a bye week before USC — and something to build off going into the season's second half.
Fellow wideouts Chris Brown and C.J. Prosise were there. So, too, were running backs Amir Carlisle and George Atkinson III. And they had suspended quarterback Everett Golson throwing them balls, since those connections might very well resume next season.
"Just build chemistry, keep it," Daniels said. "Last year we had a pretty tight team, so that was kind of my main thing, was just to keep everybody close and keep what we had last season and continue into this season."
Early returns have been positive, with Daniels hauling in two fourth-quarter touchdown passes on consecutive plays last week in a tight win at Purdue. He has 17 receptions this season for team bests of 299 yards and four touchdowns, or four more than he scored during last year's redshirt freshman campaign, his first year of college action. That season concluded with a national title-game rout courtesy of Alabama and its top-ranked defense, though it also served as something of a coming-out party for the 6-foot-1½, 203-pound receiver.
Daniels had six catches for a game-high 115 yards against the Crimson Tide. But whatever that did for his confidence paled in comparison to the humiliation of a 42-14 defeat.
So he went back to work. Being able to run a 4.5 40 and leap upward of 40 inches was one thing; harnessing those gifts into production was still quite another.
There were the summer workouts with teammates back home. There was rooming with Rees during camp, the nightly picking of his starting quarterback's brain about where to be on certain routes and how to make their timing more crisp. He learned how to use his hands better off the snap, making life harder for the corners matched up with him daily in practice.
All of this in the name of fulfilling all of that untapped potential.
"He's two-quarters of the way," coach Brian Kelly said. "He needs to be four-quarters of the way."
He is aware. KeiVarae Russell recalls Daniels telling him a year ago about his desire to become one of Notre Dame's greatest receivers ever.
"I was like, 'I don't doubt you. I think you will,' " the sophomore cornerback said. "So far it's shown. You can see it's totally different from last year. Last year he didn't even have one touchdown. He played a great role last year but didn't have one single touchdown. He has four in three games. You can see the difference. That shows."
His quarterback, having gone to high school just 10 miles away, knew the kind of athlete he was getting when Daniels came aboard two years ago.
"I remember playing him in a summer league basketball game the summer going into my senior year," Rees said. "We actually won, but he had, like, a tip-slam over a guy, and it was just kind of, 'Not many guys could be out here doing that.' "
In the past two years, Daniels' father, former NFL defensive lineman Phillip Daniels, had seen a mindset that belied that athleticism. Playing in a wing-T offense in high school and adjusting to a redshirt year in college slowed the learning curve some.
Now, Phillip says, DaVaris simply isn't thinking so much anymore. Mastering the basics of the craft has turned one of the nation's top prep receivers into a guy who could very well be on his way to becoming one of the nation's elite college wideouts.
"He had to learn little things as a receiver," Phillip Daniels said. "I think because he's learning all that stuff, and learning the plays and how to play the position, it's slowing down for him. It's not running through his mind at 100 miles per hour, and he can play football."
Coach Brian Kelly is pleased with the improved pass-protection this year, citing a number of factors for the early production.
"It's been really good," Kelly said. "I think we've been able to maintain a consistency obviously at that end of things with the development of our tight end and Troy Niklas' ability. As you know, last year he struggled at times. I think the Stanford game was one where he got beat a couple times. I think that has helped us a lot."
The Irish broke in two new starters up front this year, just like last year. The offensive line, Kelly said, benefits from facing preseason All-America defensive lineman Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt every day in practice, though both players were starters last year, too, albeit not as far along in their development.
The biggest factor this time around may be the man under center, regardless of the lack of run threat with Rees in the backfield.
"Tommy gets us into the right protections nine out of 10 times," Kelly said, "whereas last year, Everett was still learning and sometimes he wasn't able to slide the right way and give us the best look possible."
Much of that likely comes down to veteran savvy and communication skills -- Rees entered this season as a senior with 18 career starts under his belt, including 14 with the left side of the line, Zack Martin and Chris Watt, two of his roommates. Golson, meanwhile, had never taken a college snap before last year.
Rees has attempted 107 passes this season. Through three games last year, Golson has attempted 81 throws.
Though early, very early, the Irish are currently in a 22-way tie for 18th in the nation in sacks allowed. And they overcame a rough start last year to finish 28th nationally in that category, shoring up communication mishaps and surrendering just 11 sacks over their final 10 games.
The biggest test will come this Saturday, against a top-ranked Michigan State defense that has tallied nine sacks through three games.
"You've got to be able to protect your quarterback," Kelly said. "Again, you've got to play tough, physical football for four quarters. You've got to take care of the football. All of the little things matter in matchups like this."
ND Bringing Football Back To Fenway
FBS INDEP. SCOREBOARD
10:45 4th Qtr Buffalo 17 San Diego State 42 9:00 PM ET Tulane Louisiana-Lafayette Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45
6:00 PM ET Pittsburgh Bowling Green 9:30 PM ET Utah State 23 Northern Illinois
2:30 PM ET Marshall Maryland 6:00 PM ET Syracuse Minnesota 9:30 PM ET Brigham Young Washington
12:00 PM ET Rutgers Notre Dame 3:20 PM ET Cincinnati North Carolina 6:45 PM ET Miami (FL) 18 Louisville 10:15 PM ET Michigan Kansas State
11:45 AM ET Middle Tennessee Navy 3:15 PM ET Ole Miss Georgia Tech 6:45 PM ET 10 Oregon Texas 10:15 PM ET 14 Arizona State Texas Tech
12:30 PM ET Arizona Boston College 2:00 PM ET Virginia Tech 17 UCLA 4:00 PM ET Rice Mississippi State 8:00 PM ET 24 Duke 21 Texas A&M
12:00 PM ET Nebraska 22 Georgia 12:00 PM ET UNLV North Texas 1:00 PM ET Iowa 16 LSU 1:00 PM ET 19 Wisconsin 9 South Carolina 5:00 PM ET 5 Stanford 4 Michigan State 8:30 PM ET 15 UCF 6 Baylor
7:30 PM ET 13 Oklahoma State 8 Missouri 8:30 PM ET 12 Clemson 7 Ohio State