SOUTH BEND – With the conclusion of the third week of the 2016 college football season, Notre Dame, with all of its recruiting advantages, ranks 104th in total defense out of 128 FBS programs nationally.The Fighting Irish have the ability to scour the nation and recruit elite talent, yet Louisiana Lafayette has fielded a better defense – at least statistically – than Notre Dame has.
Imagine how bad it would have been if the Irish hadn’t played a mediocre Nevada team in week two.
"I’ve said this from the very first press conference," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Sunday following his team’s 36-28 loss to 12th-ranked Michigan State at Notre Dame Stadium, "we’re going to be a work in progress."Kelly’s team is going to be a "work in progress" because Kelly and his coaches have done a terrible job over recent seasons of recruiting talented defensive secondary players and monitoring the emotional and intellectual development of those athletes who did possess some talent.
The Spartans (2-0) owned 18th-ranked Notre Dame (1-2) on both sides of the ball throughout much of Saturday’s game, as they built a 36-7 lead. The 36 points weren’t really that surprising; after all, Notre Dame gave up 50 to Texas in its season-opening loss.
Kelly explained that this is what happens when a team relies heavily on true freshmen.
"You guys (in the media)," Kelly said, "all know what our personnel is. Any guy that we put on the field now is a true freshman. We’re playing true freshmen."
And Kelly has no one to blame for that but himself and his coaching staff.
Kelly’s team did utilize four true freshmen in its defensive backfield, as well as three second-year players, and the coach lamented that lack of experience. However, with the Irish Nation clamoring for the firing of Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, they should also give Kelly his share of the blame. After all, he is the guy that oversaw what has evolved into a terrible job of roster construction.
"Obviously, from our perspective, we’ve got to do a better job coaching," Kelly said. "That’s on me. It starts with me."
A glance at the past four Notre Dame recruiting classes and it becomes clear as to why Kelly has been forced to use such young players. Of the 11 athletes that were recruited prior to this past spring, six of them were not available to play against the Spartans, and the ones that were, haven’t played well.
Cornerbacks Shaun Crawford and Nick Watkins each have gotten hurt and are out for the season, but the secondary depth has been crushed solely due to bad luck in terms of health.
The Spartan receivers should’ve been covered Saturday by experienced defenders such as Max Redfield, Devin Butler, and Rashad Kinlaw. However, Redfield and Kinlaw were both kicked off the team, while Butler is currently indefinitely suspended (though he was injured prior to his recent arrest for allegedly assaulting a police officer last month).
You can add to that list safety Mykelti Williams who was kicked out of the Notre Dame program last spring. But you can’t include second-year player Ashton White, who is still facing a marijuana possession charge from last month. He played Saturday.
When a coach recruits student-athletes with questionable character and intellect, the result is that there is a distinct possibility that he’ll put himself and his team in a dire predicament, which is precisely where the Fighting Irish find themselves.
The players that have remained a part of the program – and are healthy – aren’t playing well.
Aside from White, Kelly is now forced to use Nick Coleman (who played poorly Saturday and got benched for true freshman Julian Love), Nicco Fertitta (who got a personal foul against the Spartans and quite frankly, isn’t at the level Notre Dame needs to compete nationally), Drue Tranquill (who is playing out of position – he should be at linebacker, not safety – and got benched for the second half of the Texas game due to poor play), Cole Luke (just watch a replay of Saturday’s game if you need an evaluation of his inconsistent play), and an assortment of seven true freshmen that Kelly signed this past spring.
"Making a play on the ball," Kelly said of what his defense needs to do better. "Making a tackle. I mean, this is not rocket science what we’re talking about here."
Recruiting student-athletes who can succeed within the university and its football program isn’t that complex either, but Kelly and the rest of the Irish coaching staff are coming up woefully short in that regard.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.