Irish flounder after slow start to 2016 season
Benjamin Padanilam | Friday, May 19, 2017
Just about nothing went as expected for Notre Dame this season.
Heck, it even ended with it raining on it in Los Angeles.
The 2016 season started with high expectations; the Irish were ranked as a top-10 squad in both the AP and Coaches preseason polls. But that first stop on their season-long journey would be their peak, as everything went downhill for the Irish from there en route to a 4-8 record and the first Notre Dame season not to end with a bowl game since 2009.
The trouble started a week before the season was set to kickoff in a Sunday showdown with Texas. Six Irish players — seniors Max Redfield and Devin Butler, sophomores Dexter Williams, Te’von Coney and Ashton White, and freshman Kevin Stepherson — were arrested in two separate incidents. The consequences were immediate for two of the players: Butler was indefinitely suspended, and he ultimately never played a down for the Irish all season, while Redfield was dismissed from the program.
“You have to be prepared as a college coach, unfortunately, to deal with some poor decisions,” Kelly said Aug. 24. “And they crop up, and I think you have to be fair, but I think you also have to be quick in making decisions. And when [the players’ actions] don’t square with your mission or your philosophy in your program or your university, you can’t be afraid to make decisions, and you can’t be swayed by external factors. You’ve got to do the right thing.”
Just a week later, the loss of its starting safety and a veteran corner had a noticeable impact on the Irish defense in its first game: The Longhorn offense steamrolled the Irish defense for 517 yards and 50 points in a double-overtime defeat in Austin, Texas, to open the season.
But the problems leading up to that opening 50-47 defeat were not just off-the-field ones. Even a week before the arrests, Kelly announced both senior Malik Zaire and junior DeShone Kizer would see time during the Texas game, turning the offense into a two-quarterback show for a couple weeks. While Kelly said he thought he was making the best decision for the team given the level at which the two had been practicing, both Zaire and Kizer expressed skepticism of the plan at that time.
“I did it for a reason,” Kelly said Aug. 19 of his decision to play both quarterbacks. “I think now they can just settle into getting better every day. They don’t have to worry about a competition for the Texas game. They can just focus on getting better. You know, whatever the byproduct of that is, I thought would be a positive, and that’s why I made the decision at this time.”
“There’s always things you can’t control,” Zaire said Aug. 19 of Kelly’s decision. “ … Coach Kelly never really made it easy on me, but I just continue to treat my job like a professional and do what is asked of me and the cards are dealt the way they’re dealt and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“I never really saw it happening the way it [did],” Kizer said Aug. 19. “There’s a lot of good and bad. You don’t come here to play with two quarterbacks. When you commit to playing at the Division I level, you expect yourself to be the only guy, cause that’s the traditional way of playing football.”
The plan backfired, however, as Zaire and the offense stalled on his three series at the helm, while Kizer led the offense to scores on two of his first three drives. Kelly committed to the junior for the rest of the game, leaving many left to wonder what could have been had Kelly committed to him ahead of the game as opposed to during it.
The decision Kelly made during the Texas loss, however, would be a permanent one, as Kizer would start every game for Notre Dame going forward. The commitment to Kizer seemed to galvanize the Irish at first, as they cruised to a 39-10 win over Nevada the next week. But just a week later, the Irish would falter on both sides of the ball again in a 36-28 loss to rival Michigan State on Sept. 17. The 1-2 start opened a lot of questions about personnel, which Kelly answered by pointing to the inexperience up and down the roster.
“I mean, you guys I think all know what our personnel is,” Kelly said Sept. 18. “Any guy that we put on the field now is a true freshman. We’re playing true freshmen. Really at this point, it’s a matter of the guys that we have are the guys we have to continue to work with and develop. Each game becomes an experience that they have to take and learn from and get better from.
“ … There’s no panic. There’s not any of that in my eyes at all. But we’ve got to continue to improve in the fundamentals of the game. That’s my concern more than anything else.”
Kelly also had to answer questions about the coaching, particularly the job security of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, and he firmly stood by his staff at that point.
“That’s not even part of the conversation,” Kelly said Sept. 18. “There’s not a question about scheme. There’s not a question about who’s leading it with Brian [VanGorder].”
Yet, just a week later, the inexperience continued to be an issue and the coaching conversation was very different. After a 38-35 home defeat to Duke, Kelly made some changes. VanGorder was out as defensive coordinator, and Greg Hudson would step in to take his place.
“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a Sept. 25 press release announcing the change. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”
While the decision yet again provided a momentary spark for the Irish in a 50-33 win over Syracuse, no change Kelly made could overcome the problems created by the roster’s inexperience. Self-inflicted wounds became the tale of the season for the Irish, as they went 2-5 after the Syracuse win with four more one-score defeats — resulting in a 1-7 record in those close contests on the year.
“At this point, what else am I supposed to say?” Kizer said Nov. 19 after the team’s final such loss of the season, a 34-31 defeat to Virginia Tech on Senior Day. “It’s just unfortunate that this is how the season has gone. I do believe that in every game we’ve played, we’ve had an opportunity to win. We beat ourselves in a sense, from stupid penalties to stupid decisions on reads. I think that, once again, every opportunity that we’ve been out there we’ve had a chance to win the game, and for us to come up short by an average of something around five points in all those games is very frustrating.”
And the season would end on its lowest note yet: a 45-27 defeat to rival USC on Nov. 26 — the only loss the Irish suffered by more than one score on the season.
All while playing in an unexpected downpour at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Although the USC loss was Notre Dame’s largest defeat of the season, the pitfalls in that eighth loss were the same as they were in the first seven, according to Kelly: inexperience and self-inflicted wounds.
“I thought we could play with anybody this year,” Kelly said Nov. 26. “We just have not been able to sustain consistent performances for four quarters. We’ve shown a propensity for self-inflicted wounds, be it special teams or offense or defense. We’ve eliminated a lot, and they’re all correctable through experience and our offseason program.”
Like the hurricane the Irish played through against North Carolina State, the rainfall in Los Angeles or the compounded issues that resulted in a 4-8 record, Notre Dame’s offseason changes followed the definitive theme of the 2016 season: When it rains, it pours.
Seven new coaches — including a new offensive, defensive and special teams coordinator — poured into the program, and a new Irish quarterback — current junior Brandon Wimbush — will be leading the way after Kizer left early to enter the NFL Draft, becoming one of two players — defensive end Isaac Rochell being the other — on the 2016 squad to be drafted.
And with the new faces around him, Kelly hopes the 2017 version of the Irish can avoid drowning due to their own mistakes like it did in 2016.
“We made quite a few changes,” Kelly said Jan. 30. “It’s important to certainly look at where you are, where you were and for me, I know I’m going to always be reminded about last year, and I clearly understand that.
“Having said that, there always are going to be changes when you look hard and look at yourself and look at where your program needs to be, and we fell short of all those goals [in 2016].”