Fantasy Camp: The golden rules


They say a football game isn’t won on Saturday, but in the work put in Monday through Friday. Well, it’s tough to make that translate when game day is Thursday afternoon, but I’ll do my best to try.

The Blue-Gold game was most likely won Tuesday night. That’s when defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, the head coach of the Gold team and an eater that could put Kobayashi on notice, maneuvered to put together a team that offensive coordinator Charley Molnar could not counter. With Friday’s coaching staff lunch on the line, and having personally witnessed Diaco polish off two Filet Mignons and two full plates of pasta at dinner, I’m guessing Diaco’s epic appetite was an imposing figure in the draft room, especially for the Blue head coach that has nine other mouths to feed at home.

At Tuesday night’s dinner in the Monogram Room, Brian Kelly announced the game rosters, alternating between Gold and Blue teams. Here’s one talent evaluator’s breakdown of the rosters:


Keith Arnold: QB/CB — Schmuck blogger. One of youngest guys in camp, always a plus.
Frank Bagatta: TE/LB — Old school player with great instincts and better hair.
Country Balitsos: RB/FS — Second cousin to waterboy Bobby Boucher. A little crazy.
Tom Britz: WR/FS — Silky smooth athlete who looks 30 years younger than his real age.
Jonathan Brooks: RB/LB — Bulldozer that battled hamstring injuries throughout camp.
Joe Colgan: TE/LB — Locker room leader who has a penchant for hoarding socks.
Patrick Dolphin: WR/DB — Deep threat and shut down corner. Definite RKG.
John Harris: OL/DE — Jersey’s finest brings an attitude to the trenches.
Bob Johnson: OL/DL — Tough interior player anchors offensive line.
Larry Leamy: WR/DB — Elder statesman of the camp just makes big plays in space.
Dave Libs: OL/LB — Veteran presence brings great intangibles to team.
Scott Litwiller: OL/DL — Physical force inside, key to line as shotgun snapper.
Bart McGloin: QB/LB — Veteran QB and Mike backer brings ice-water veins to huddle.
Hubert Oates: RB/LB — Hard-charging ball carrier and great locker room presence.
Dennis Rios: OL/LB — Battled through injuries to contribute with solid defensive play.
Bill Robinson: NT/OL: Undersized battler brings smiles to teammates and frowns to enemies.
Tom Tague: OL/DL — Windy City rookie brings rare blend of youth and power to interior.


Gene Bicego: WR/DB — Pint-sized receiver with great shake.
Mike Brennen: WR/DB — Another little guy with wheels. Joey Getherall type player.
PT Brent: WR/DB — Former Marine who brings leadership to the huddle.
John Paul Condon: TE/LB — Half of the Canadian contingency for the Blue squad.
Keith Cross: WR/DB — Boston-based starter that battled injuries and criminal charges.
Gene Faut, Jr.: WR/DB — Speedster looked to play the role of #1 wide receiver.
Gene Faut, Sr.: WR/DB — Veteran presence that can make a defense pay.
Rob Gothier: QB/DB — Hotshot new QB with rocket-arm and a balky hamstring.
Michael Haveard: QB/DB — Veteran signal caller that brings presence to the field.
Joe Hession: TE/LB — Veteran player brings old-school attitude to the field.
Tim Kopp: WR/DL: Injuries kept him from contributing on-field, but brings plenty off the field.
Ned Lesnick: RB/LB: Veteran running back dangerous inside the tackles.
Rich Maynhart: OL/DL: Anchor in the middle of line also in charge of shotgun snaps. 
Michael O’Donnell: WR/DB — Veteran from California brings savvy to Blue team attack.
John O’Neill: WR/DB — Lanky Canadian battled foot injuries to make highlight reel catch.
Rick Peltz: OL/DB — Longtime player brings size to the trenches.
Terry Philbin: OL/DL — Monster along the interior, premiere lineman on either roster.
Mark Smith: RB/DL — Fifth-year camper didn’t let balky knees stop him.

What made game day so special was just how close to script we played things compared to the actual Irish football team. Both teams met for a training table meal at The Gug, where breakfast options were waiting as well as an omelet chef to prepare one of your choice. After that, we broke into team meetings, where Diaco, Chuck Martin, Ed Warinner, Tim Hinton, Jon Carpenter and Scott Booker gave quick pregame talks, as well as going over our keys to success. We knew our offensive line gave us a great chance to get our running game going, and our two corners let us roll a safety down into the box and challenge the Blue team to try and beat us through the air, because they weren’t going to be able to run on us.

After meetings, it was off to the Basilica, where Father Doyle, the team Chaplin for the football team, said mass for us before leaving every team member with a small pendant, just like he does with the football team. From there, we took the same walk from the chapel to the stadium, minus a few thousand screaming fans and a marching band. Even preparing for a game played in front of maybe only a hundred fans, it was pretty hard not to get fired up for the game we were about to play.

Strapped up in the new Irish uniforms and heading down the stairs out of the locker room, we slapped the same Play Like A Champion Today sign that Irish football players have been slapping for years. Introduced on the public address system, running out of that tunnel to your waiting teammates, this was the closest thing to playing for the Irish I’ll ever experience.

As for the game, many of the Gold team’s suspicions came true. With an offensive line that helped game MVP Country Balitsos break two long touchdown runs, and a suffocating pass-rush that kept the Gold Team from getting any type of rhythm going, our offense and defense had dominating performances. Trading off series with Bart at quarterback, I only had the chance to throw the ball once, a quick bubble screen that was a missed tackle away from going the distance, but I ran the option a couple times and moved the team for a touchdown drive capped by a run by tugboat Jonathan Brooks.

On defense, we pitched a shutout, and I nearly took an interception to the house but chose the far sideline instead of the near one, before I was tracked down inside the red zone. Coach Carp’s defense, where we rolled safety Larry Leamy into the flat, worked perfectly with fellow freshman Patrick Dolphin playing a perfect shutdown corner opposite me with our linebackers stuffing the run nearly every carry.

While the lopsided scoreboard made for an anticlimactic finish, the game was a success because nobody got hurt and everybody had fun. Touchdowns by Country, Brooks, and Leamy, plus a couple extra points made by Joe Colgan, put an exclamation point on a perfect draft and game plan by Diaco and company. The defense also held strong after a long catch and throw between Rob Gothier and Jon O’Neill that brought the Blue down to inside the ten, only to be held scoreless.

The scoreboard didn’t matter (26-0! 26-0!), the experience did. That experience was punctuated by an incredible dinner with family and friends at the top of the press box, where Brian Kelly handed out the postgame awards to every player. As a first year camper, I was given a game worn helmet that’ll go next to the rest of the Notre Dame memorabilia on my bookshelf. Sophomores received a monogram jacket with a special Fantasy Camp logo in place of the interlocking ND. Juniors received class rings, which seemed to be the talk of the camp. Seniors, fifth-year players and graduates all received watches and framed photos, an impressive keep sake, especially when you consider that the photos were all taken in the three previous days.

While I’ll continue to call it as I see it, it’s hard for me to do anything but drink the Kool-Aid after spending four days with the coaching staff. To a man, every single guy on staff was great, and they honestly enjoyed every mome
nt they spent with us, just
as we loved spending it with them. While I never had an experience like this with the previous coaching staff, it’s clear that this group has a great working relationship, is completely on the same page, and that Brian Kelly is a dynamic leader. Whether it was the offensive coaches, the defensive guys, or the dynamic strength and conditioning staff that will be a twelfth man on the field come this fall, I heard from people high and low that this was the group that was going to return Notre Dame to prominence.

We’ll ultimately find out come this September, but for four days in June, Brian Kelly and his staff certainly were perfect. 

Pregame Six Pack: Anchors await

Chris Swain, Max Redfield

Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic. Work began on Mount Rushmore. The Jazz Singer ended the silent film era. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs. And Notre Dame played Navy in football for the first time.

The Irish won that contest 19-6, and the two teams have played every year since then. So much has changed since that first game, yet the longest running intersectional rivalry is still rolling on, stronger now than maybe ever.

While the Irish’s four game winning streak has extended their already lopsided series lead (Notre Dame holds a 74-12-1 edge), the ledger is hardly what makes the game special. An annual David & Goliath matchup, both schools remain committed the game, part of the unique bond that exists between the two institutions.

So much of this week has been made about the mutual respect between the two programs. A 30-minute documentary aired earlier this week. Both teams will share part of their uniform—as will the coaches on the sidelines—a tip of their cap to the shared history (and nifty corporate synergy) between respected opponents once again doing battle.

But make no mistake: All the respect talk this week doesn’t make this a friendly Saturday.

There is no love lost between the Irish and the Midshipmen on the field.  So while both teams may honor the other by standing during their respective alma mater, this is a game that each team desperately wants to win.

After a rain-soaked weekend in South Carolina, it looks like a dry Saturday in South Bend. So let’s put away the rain panchos and get to the Pregame Six Pack.


After watching the Georgia Tech game from the sideline, Max Redfield steps back into the starting lineup. 

Drue Tranquill begins his recovery from ACL surgery today, as fearless as ever. And while Matthias Farley has shown some playmaking ability against option attacks, Brian Kelly confirmed that Max Redfield would stay in the starting lineup against Navy.

Redfield is coming off his most productive game as a college football player, making 14 tackles—including 11 solo stops—against Clemson. Now Redfield will step into the one-high safety role, while Elijah Shumate will take over for Tranquill in the box.

“He plays the role that Shu played. Shu played the role that Tranquill played,” Kelly said.

That means it’ll be Shumate running the alley and handling the pitch man. And Redfield will be asked to serve both as the last line of defense and also make a difference in the option game as well.

Just about everybody who watched Redfield last week saw a different player than the one who was largely ineffective against Virginia as he tried to play through a broken thumb. And Kelly talked Thursday evening a little bit about the journey Redfield has taken to get there.

“Each kid is a little bit different in the way that football strikes them,” Kelly said. “He’s somebody that I think is looking at football through a different lens and understands that there are so many details to it… He wants to play at the highest level, he wants to play on Sundays. He wants to get his degree from Notre Dame. I think he’s just maturing and developing at a pace that’s comfortable to him.”


DeShone Kizer did more than just survive at Clemson. Can his silver-lining performance trigger a more explosive offense?

With the game on the line and Hurricane Joaquin creating a relentless rain storm, nobody would’ve thought putting the game on the shoulders of DeShone Kizer would be Notre Dame’s best chance to win. Yet that’s what Brian Kelly did, and Kizer very nearly pulled a rabbit out of the hat.

Navy doesn’t play defense like Clemson. While the Midshipmen’s defense is vastly improved (they rank just one spot behind Notre Dame in total defense heading into Saturday’s contest), they’ll be in a physical mismatch for most of the day, relying on turnovers and stops to limit the Irish offense.

But after serving as the unexpected engine of Notre Dame’s comeback last Saturday, Kizer looks capable of doing more than just game managing, especially for an offense that’s averaged seven touchdowns a game against Navy the past four years.

“I just think when you get opportunities to play on the road, leading your team back in the fourth quarter, you gain more of an understanding of a quarterback who’s got to make plays,” Kelly said. “I think we knew he was the guy that could handle the moment, he certainly was able to do that… I think it just added on to the fact that we’ve got a quarterback that can help us win a championship.”


For as challenging as slowing down Navy’s option is every year, Notre Dame fans sometimes forget that Navy’s got to find a way to stop the Irish, too. 

As mentioned just before, Notre Dame is scoring 48.25 points against Navy during their four-game winning steak. And one of the biggest challenges that Navy faces is Brian Kelly the playcaller.

Earlier this week, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo talked about what makes Kelly’s offense so good and why Notre Dame’s head coach is so difficult to stop.

“Coach Kelly, I’ve always admired the way he calls plays. Some play-callers bury their face in their call sheet, but he’s watching the game,” Niumatalolo said. “But if he sees something, he’s going to exploit it. He’s got a great feel for the game. We’ve got to be able to adjust. We’ve got some ideas of what we can do, but he’s going to adjust very quickly to us and we’ve got to be able to adjust.”

Expect Kelly to try and get the ground game back rolling again after a difficult weekend at Clemson. And with veteran safety Kwazel Betrand likely lost for the year with after suffering a broken ankle against Air Force, the back end will be tested as well.

It’s a challenge at every level for Navy. And with Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford keeping the offense moving, it’ll stress the Midshipmen like no other game on their schedule.


Even with one loss, Kelly still thinks Notre Dame controls their own destiny. 

Earlier this week, Brian Kelly hopped on SiriusXM radio with Stephen A. Smith. And while on Tuesday Kelly said he wasn’t sure if a one-loss team could get into the College Football Playoff, he sounded more confident that the Irish still controlled their own destiny when he was talking to Smith.

“After you lose, you’re going to take that bump. That’s really part of it,” Kelly said, sounding unworried about the slide to No. 15. “I think we have a really good football team. We did not play up to the level we’re capable of and you should fall considerably because of it.”

But Kelly thinks the Irish have a schedule in front of them that can allow them to step back into the race. And while it’s still way, way, way too soon to be wondering if the Irish have the schedule needed to qualify without a conference title game, Kelly seemed to think winning out would solve all of those problems. (Even with USC’s Thursday night loss to Washington.)

“The great part of it is that we’ve got a schedule in front of us that’ll allow us to control our own destiny,” Kelly said. “If we continue to play better football and we’re a better football team in November than we are right now, we’ve got a chance to be where we need to be at the end of the year.”



For Notre Dame to win, they need to slow down Navy’s option specialist, record-setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds

Justin Thomas may have gotten all the preseason attention from Irish fans. But Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds is the more dangerous of the option trigger-men. The senior quarterback and leader of the Midshipmen will finish his college career as one of the most prolific players in college football history.

Reynolds has already scored nine touchdowns this season and his 73 career rushing touchdowns tied for second most in college football history, only four behind Montee Ball‘s record. At 25-11, his 25 wins as a starter are the most in Navy history, third most among active NCAA players.

Reynolds saw his first action as a freshman in 2012, thrown into action in Dublin after starting quarterback Trey Miller went down. Looking for his first victory against the Irish, Reynolds cherishes the opportunity to come to South Bend and fight for one.

“I’m excited. Playing at Notre Dame Stadium. I wouldn’t want to go out any other way,” Reynolds said. “It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a tough challenge. They’re a very, very good team. It’s the best team we’re going to see, they’re a Top 10 team in the country, even with a loss.”


This is Ken Niumatalolo’s best Navy team. And he knows it needs to play perfect to beat Notre Dame. 

During this week’s Onward Notre Dame: Mutual Respect documentary, we saw the large photo that hangs on the office wall of Ken Niumatalolo—the chaos and happiness of Midshipmen celebrating after they shocked Notre Dame in 2007, ending a 43-year losing streak.

While Niumatalolo was just the offensive line coach at the time, he acknowledged just how important that victory was to his program.

“For us it was a great accomplishment. I have [the picture] up there because they’re hard to beat and it doesn’t come too often, so we had to relish that one time we beat them in 2007,” Niumatalolo said in the documentary. “A big part of that picture just shows the jubilation of years trying to get over the hump.”

If there was ever a Navy team that’s well positioned to make a shocking statement at Notre Dame Stadium again, it might be this team. Outside of sophomore right tackle Robert Lindsey and sophomore linebacker D.J. Palmore, every starter on Navy is an upperclassman.

The offensive line doesn’t have a man smaller than 275 pounds, a much larger unit than you’re used to from Navy’s standards. The entire backfield is seniors, led by Reynolds but tag-teamed with fullback Chris Swain and slotbacks Desmond Brown and DeBrandon Sanders.

Even with Reynolds and a veteran group of talent, this group knows it can’t afford to make any mistakes, especially in the turnover column.

“It’s priority each and every week. But especially this week,” Reynolds said. “We can’t give them any [turnovers]. They’re very very good on offense, we can’t put our defense in a bind by giving them a short field. We understand the importance of ball security this week and having zero turnovers.”

Defensively, Dale Pehrson has taken over for Buddy Green as defensive coordinator while Green recovers from offseason surgery. With a veteran front seven and some talent on the back end, this isn’t a hapless defense just hoping to capitalize on an Irish mistake, but rather a defense that Kelly said is befitting of a Top 25 team.

Still, it’ll take more than just Niumatalolo’s best team to beat Notre Dame—they’ll need the Irish to falter. But in the midst of a four-game losing streak against the Irish, expect Navy to empty their arsenal to do anything to get a win.

“We’ve had a hard time making the plays,” Niumatalolo said about the last four years. But this is our best defense that we’ve had. We’ll go in there and take a shot at them. They’re really good. Always have been.”


Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”