Opponent preview: Navy Midshipmen

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Eight and counting for series of previews profiling Notre Dame’s 2010 opponents. Check out the rest of them with Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College, Pitt and Western Michigan.

The Overview:

Make no mistake, this is no longer a friendly rivalry. With Navy stunning the Irish 23-21 at Notre Dame stadium last season, the Midshipmen now have won two consecutive games at Notre Dame stadium, after a half-century of ineptitude against the Irish. Making things even more heated, was head coach Ken Niumatalolo’s comments in the postgame press conference, calling out the Notre Dame coaching staff’s game plan. Under Charlie Weis, Notre Dame treated Navy reverentially, leveling the playing field psychologically, and possibly doing the Midshipmen a favor by treating an inferior football team (talent-wise) with too much respect. The senior class, with two losses to Navy in three years (and a narrow escape in 2008) will likely come out looking to at least settle the series. While everybody realizes it now, with 12 returning starters including Heisman dark horse Ricky Dobbs, this game will be a true test for the Irish.

Last time against the Irish:

If the Michigan loss eats at the stomach’s of Notre Dame fans, the Navy loss was the one that broke their heart. The Irish found a way to lose the game without punting, a statistical anomaly made all the more ridiculous when you consider the Irish neither punted nor scored a point in the first half. Niumatalolo’s gameplan was orchestrated to perfection behind a running attack that absolutely killed the Irish defense, who gave up 348 yards rushing on 6.1 yards per carry. Notre Dame’s red zone execution, which including baffling play-calling, terrible execution, critical turnovers and missed field goals started the Irish on the freefall that would end their season.

Said Niumatalolo after the game:

“I really hope this doesn’t come across wrong, but I think the thing
that helped us this year was last year because we knew that they’d line
up the same way. We didn’t execute very well last year, and coming into
this year they did a great job against us last year defensively, so we
had a pretty good clue that they were going to come back and do the same
things as they did last year, and we had a few things. We were
expecting that same defense that we saw last year.”

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 opponents, I rank Navy as the ninth-toughest game on the schedule.

      3. Boston College Eagles
      4. Michigan Wolverines
      5. Michigan State Spartans
      6. Pitt Panthers
      7. Stanford Cardinal
      8. Purdue Boilermakers
      9. Navy Midshipmen
      12. Western Michigan Broncos

Only when you look at Navy as the 9th hardest game on the schedule do you start to understand that this slate isn’t as easy as it’s cracked up to be. There’s absolutely nothing positive the Irish get out of playing Navy anymore. Beat them, you’re supposed to. Lose? You’re packing your bags and coaching the offense in Kansas City. If Notre Dame comes out flat at the Meadowlands, I’ve extremely overestimated this coaching staff’s ability to motivate.

The Match-up:

The Irish defensive will live and die by how they stop star quarterback Ricky Dobbs. Dobbs had one of the more impressive statistical seasons in the country last year, both rushing and throwing for 1,000 yards. He only threw the ball three times against the Irish, but of one was a crucial third quarter strike for 52 yards that all but broke the Irish’s back and pushed Navy’s lead to 21-7. Also rejoining Dobbs is fullback Vince Murray, who absolutely shredded the Irish defense with the dive play, rumbling for 158 yards on only 14 carries. The 3-4 defense will help when playing against the vaunted Navy triple-option, but the Irish would be wise to key on Dobbs and Murray if they want to win.

The defense loses stand-out linebacker and Irish nemesis Ram Vela, but returns a veteran group. Three of four members in the Midshipmen secondary return, including both starting safeties. One name you’ll likely hear plenty of is rover Wyatt Middleton, who led the team in interceptions. For the Irish offense to succeed, they’ll need to play mistake-free football as well as attack the Navy defense on both the ground and through the air. Notre Dame racked up 502 yards of offense last year, so moving the ball wasn’t the problem, executing when it mattered, whether on field goals or in the red zone will be the key for success. 

How the Irish will win:

The Irish will beat Navy by stopping the run and playing solid fundamental football. Regardless of whether or not the coaching staff had a good gameplan, the linebackers failed to tackle the fullback, a mortal sin when facing an option attack like Navy’s. With the athletes the Irish have at linebacker, and run-stuffers like Ian Williams and Manti Te’o in the middle, there’s no way that Navy can have the same success on the ground as the year before, especially if Bob Diaco has properly coached his defense. Offensively, the Irish will win with a solid run-pass ratio, and by keeping a handle on the football. Navy knew they needed to steal possessions and starting with Robby Paris’ first-half fumble, they did just enough to keep the clock in their favor and the ball in their hands. In the brand-new Meadowlands, the Irish should start a new winning streak.

How the Irish will lose:

Take last year’s blueprint, wash and repeat. Want to beat a football team with superior talent? Control the clock, win the turnover battle, and force an offense to become one-dimensional. Navy did all of that with an option offense second to none, and they’ve got all the pieces coming back to do it again. Ricky Dobbs is an elite college football player, the defense is opportunistic and good enough. If Navy wins this match-up in late October, the Irish will most likely put another opposing quarterback on the front-burner for the Heisman.

Gut Feeling:

Remember all those Irish fans who thought Charlie Weis meant no more losing to teams like Purdue, Michigan State, and other seemingly inferior opponents? Well, I’ve got a feeling by late October Irish fans will be feeling the same way about Brian Kelly. There’s too much motivation out there for the Irish starters to lose to Navy again, and the coaching change will allow this team to step back from the reverential treatment of the Midshipmen and treat Navy the way they should be treated: like a dangerous but undermanned opponent. Paced by a high-powered running attack, the Irish will take care of business, beating the Midshipmen by double-digits.  

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
rivals.com
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.