Ken Niumatalolo, Emmett Merchant

And in that corner… The Navy Midshipmen

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After over forty years of frustration, the Naval Academy has finally turned the tide on the Fighting Irish. After years of having victory snatched out of their hands by a football team with greater pedigree and higher-ranked recruits, 2007 marked a watershed victory for the Midshipmen, and the opening of the floodgates that have turned this lopsided series into a potential rivalry.

(At least what counts as a rivalry these days anyway…)

Two of the last three years, Navy has beaten Notre Dame, with the Irish escaping in 2008 after nearly giving the game way in outrageous last-minute fashion. Following along through all the good and bad has been Mike James, the proprietor of the outstanding Navy blog, The Birddog, the “unofficial peanut gallery of Navy Sports.”

Mike was kind enough to answer a few of my questions in anticipation of Saturday’s game between Navy and Notre Dame.

Inside the Irish: Navy sits at 4-2, a respectable record certainly, but one that has to be a disappointment fter some considerable preseason hype was muted with the stunning loss to Maryland. How confident is this Navy football team going into Saturday’s game against Notre Dame?

Mike James: It’s only a disappointment to people who bought into the
hype. Losing to any BCS team, even one as underwhelming as Maryland was
last year, isn’t all that stunning for a service academy. If anything is
disappointing, it’s that the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy is in jeopardy
of leaving Annapolis. This is the fourth straight season that Navy has
started 4-2, so it’s not as if the Mids are having a down year.

I’m in no position to judge the state of mind of the Navy team, but
I’m sure that outscoring a pretty good SMU team 28-7 in the second half
last week doesn’t hurt their confidence.

ITI: The Irish receiving corp has been decimated by injury, with potentially all three top targets — Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph, and Theo Riddick — out for the Irish. (Floyd is the only game-time decision, the other two are out.) Navy’s been playing some very good defense, allowing only 18 points a ballgame. Can the Midshipmen shut down a Notre Dame offense that’s struggled with consistency?

MJ: That depends on your definition of “shut down.” Can they play well
enough to win the game? Sure. But Navy’s defense has injury problems of
its own, especially on the line and in the secondary. Containing a Notre
Dame offense that is averaging 286 passing yards per game will be their
biggest test to date. The offenses lining up against the Navy defense
this season have really been on one extreme or the other. Maryland only
attempted 5 passes against Navy, while Georgia Southern and Air Force
both run spread option offenses. On the other hand, Wake Forest threw 50
passes, SMU runs the run & shoot, and Louisiana Tech is now coached
by Mike Leach and Hal Mumme disciple Sonny Dykes. The Irish offense is a
little bit more eclectic (and talented, regardless of injuries) than
what Navy has seen so far this year.

ITI: While Notre Dame under Charlie Weis did its best to show respect to
Navy and their service to the country, there was some bad blood brewing
after head coach Ken Niumatalolo questioned the Irish coaching staff’s
strategy in his post-game comments, and a Navy WR committed a pretty flagrant cheap shot on cornerback Robert Blanton. Do you expect any of that anger to bleed into this week’s game?

MJ: Niumatalolo didn’t question anything. All he said was that given the way
the 2008 game ended up, he expected the Notre Dame staff to use the
same defense. And if you want to talk about “flagrant cheap shots,”
knock yourself out. Bloggers and message board fans can whip themselves
into a frenzy about that nonsense, but nobody on the field cares.

ITI: With many of the same pieces, the Navy offense has slipped an entire touchdown a game in scoring. What’s been the problem? Is the trend of a decreased running game under Niumatalolo one of the problems?

MJ: Navy has moved the ball pretty well; the problem has been mistakes
in the red zone. The Mids are just outside the top 30 teams in getting
to the red zone, but are 109th in the country in converting on those
opportunities. They scored touchdowns on each of their 8 red zone
chances in their last two games, though, so that appears to be turning
around.

Navy isn’t running for as many yards as they have in years past,
but that doesn’t really reflect a problem with the offense. Coach
Niumatalolo likes to speed up the game and help out the defense by
controlling the ball and reducing the number of possessions each team
gets. And frankly, a lot of the regulars on Navy’s schedules– Pitt,
SMU, Duke, Temple, Army, Air Force– are just better than they used to
be.

ITI: Navy showed the blueprint on how to beat Notre Dame in 2009. Outside of the final two minutes of the 2008 game, the Irish seemed to show the blueprint on how to stuff Navy. What’s the game plan for the Midshipmen if they want to make it two in a row and three of four against the Irish?

I don’t think either team showed much of a blueprint, really. Notre
Dame tried the same defense in 2009 that they used in 2008, and Navy
won. But the way the Irish were moving the ball up and down the field,
it was clear that Navy hadn’t solved any magic formula either; instead,
Notre Dame had red zone issues of their own. Controlling mistakes is
part of the game, and the last two games have been won by the team that
made fewer of them. That’s pretty generic, I know, but it’s been as much
of a “blueprint” as anything else.

Bob Diaco and Mike Elston have faced the Navy offense once before,
when both were assistants at Eastern Michigan in 2003. EMU spent most of
the game in an odd front, alternating between a 5-man front (3-4) and a
3-3-5. Paul Johnson tinkered with a few different formations in the
first quarter to see how the EMU defense would react. Whenever Navy
would line up in what’s called “Over Right Brown” or “Over Left Brown”
(twin WR and a slotback on one side of the formation, with a slotback on
the other side of the formation on the line of scrimmage like a tight
end), EMU’s linebackers would shade toward the side of the formation
with the slotback on the LOS. This created a numbers advantage going the
other way, and Navy stayed in that formation running plays away from
the linebackers pretty much the rest of the game. Navy ran for 372 yards
that day in a 39-7 win, so I’m not sure how much of that game
plan Diaco will want to repeat. The closest thing to Navy that Notre
Dame has faced this year is Michigan. The Irish spent most of that game
in a 4-man front, so already Diaco has done things differently.
I expect Notre Dame to run the ball a little more than usual this
week. Running the ball out of the spread formations that Charley Molnar
and Brian Kelly prefer puts a lot of pressure on individual defenders
because they’re usually isolated. Maryland and Louisiana Tech were both
able to have some success catching Navy’s new linebackers out of
position by doing just that. The LBs have improved in recent weeks, but
I’m sure that Notre Dame will put that improvement to the test.

ITI: With the Meadowlands likely a wash for homefield advantage, what’s your gut feeling on Saturday’s game? Who comes out with a win?

MJ: Let’s not kid ourselves; Notre Dame is going to have the home field
advantage at the Meadowlands, not that it really matters. I don’t like
to predict winners, but I will say that I think the game is going to go
quickly. Navy is going to take their time when they have the football,
and their defense will keep everything in front of them to force the
Irish offense into long drives. Notre Dame is favored for a reason. Navy
won’t keep the Irish from moving the ball between the 20s. Whether
those drives end in field goals or touchdowns will be the story of the
game.

*****

Great stuff from Mike, especially the in-depth look at Bob Diaco and Mike Elston’s first run at the Navy triple-option. For more Navy perspective and a healthy dose of postgame haikus, head over to The Birddog.

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.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.

Notre Dame adds two top defensive back commits; Elliott officially a ‘Husker

allen
rivals.com
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It’s early. It’s really, really early. Not in the day, though this post is scheduled for an a.m. hour. No, it is early in the 2018 recruiting cycle. Any piece of news, each commitment, everything should be taken with two grains of salt.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame—and more specifically, new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght—enjoyed Tuesday’s recruiting news when two consensus four-star coverage men committed to the Irish.

Safety Derrik Allen (Lassiter High School; Marietta, Ga.) and cornerback Kalon Gervin (Cass Tech; Detroit, Mich.) joined a class of now eight commitments, six of which play on the defensive side of the ball.

Gervin, the No. 11 cornerback in the class according to rivals.com, waited mere days after attending Notre Dame’s Junior Day over the weekend. Irish coach Brian Kelly and staff’s failure to land a recruit at Gervin’s position in the 2017 haul actually helped reel in the recruit with offers from Florida, LSU, Michigan and dozens others.

“The opportunity to play right away, they didn’t sign a cornerback this last class,” Gervin told Blue & Gold Illustrated helped sway him. “Also, the education is second-to-none. It speaks for itself.”

Allen, pictured at top, has leaned toward Notre Dame for months. The No. 3 safety in the country per Rivals, he chose the Irish over the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Florida State.

Elliott officially to Nebraska

The two highly-touted defensive backs will not have the chance to learn under the tutelage of Bob Elliott. Nebraska officially announced the hiring of the former Notre Dame safeties (2012-13) and linebackers (2014) coach. Elliott spent the last two seasons serving as a special assistant to Kelly, focusing largely on defending the triple-option attacks of Army, Navy and Georgia Tech.

Elliott rejoins former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in Lincoln. Diaco was hired as the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator in January.

The Lincoln Journal Star’s Brian Cristopherson reports Elliott will make a nice wage in eastern Nebraska.

Could Kelly move a receiver to cornerback?

PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 30:  Bennett Jackson #2 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish intercepts this pass intended for Michael Rector #3 of the Stanford Cardinal during the fourth quarter at Stanford Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Before the weekend, Notre Dame already had 10 receivers on its depth chart, all with at least two seasons of eligibility remaining. Cornerback, meanwhile, is a position where the roster seems to be lacking, with only seven currently on scholarship. The only fact staving off panic is that all seven also have two years of eligibility in hand. Nonetheless, an additional body in the defensive backfield at practice would seem to be a reasonable want, if not quite a necessity.

Thus, the addition of graduate transfer receiver Freddy Canteen—himself having two seasons of potential college football to go—brought the return of wonderings: Should one of the plethora of Irish receivers switch to breaking up passes?

Aside from balancing the roster and easing some concerns should an injury strike, such a move could also present the player a chance at increased playing time. By no means would the maneuver need to be a selfless one.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has had success with such positional flipping. Specifically, Kelly and his coaching staff have overseen the successful switches of receiver-turned-cornerback Bennett Jackson and receiver-turned-safety-and-then-linebacker James Onwualu. Furthermore, defensive backs Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell both arrived at Notre Dame expecting to be on the offensive side of the ball before changes early in their careers.

BENNETT JACKSON
A three-star receiver recruit, Jackson stuck with Notre Dame during the transition from Charlie Weis to Brian Kelly, signing with the Irish only weeks after Kelly took the lead of the program. In his freshman season, Jackson carried the ball plenty, as the kick returner. Aside from fielding kickoffs, he had only one carry for 20 yards. That was it for his offensive playmaking.

On special teams, however, he excelled without the ball, too. Jackson finished with 10 tackles, including four against Purdue to start the season. That nose for the ballcarrier prompted the coaching staff to switch Jackson’s positional group. In the following three seasons, he amassed 147 tackles, 11 pass break-ups and two interceptions.

Before Notre Dame faced Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, Jackson looked back on his career change.

“I liked receiver. Obviously, I wanted to be a guy with the ball in my hands,” he said. “At first, I wasn’t mad about it, but I wasn’t fond of it.

“As time went on, I actually liked the position a lot more. I had a lot more fun and I got to compete a lot more.”

JAMES ONWUALU
A four-star recruit with the ambiguous “athlete” designation in 2013, Onwualu—like Jackson—spent his freshman season as a receiver. Unlike Jackson, he actually caught some passes. Two, to be exact, for a total of 34 yards. Continuing on a parallel to Jackson, Onwualu totaled six tackles on special teams.

Years later, it is easy to see the receiving depth in Notre Dame’s class of 2013. Onwualu aside, the Irish brought in Corey Robinson, Torii Hunter, Jr., and Will Fuller. It was going to be a tough road to featured playing time for Onwualu. Realizing this, he set to finding a different path.

“I honestly wasn’t sure receiver was the spot for me anyway, so I walked right up to coach Kelly’s office and we had a talk about where I wanted to go and what my thoughts were for my career,” Onwualu told und.com early in his senior season. “We ended up agreeing that the defensive side, we might as well give it a shot, and it worked out.”

Initially, that conversation landed Onwualu at safety. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, he found himself at linebacker pretty quickly thereafter.

“That was a tough one for me because he’s so valuable offensively in a number of ways,” Kelly said before 2014 spring practice. “He’s such a consistent player and he loves to compete. But he’s got great contact skills.”

Onwualu ended his Notre Dame career with 143 total tackles, including those pivotal six his freshman season, along with six sacks.

MATTHIAS FARLEY & KEIVARAE RUSSELL
Both Farley and Russell entered Notre Dame as “athletes”, the former a three-star recruit and the latter a four-star prospect. While Farley was expected to line up at receiver and Russell at running back, each switched to safety and cornerback, respectively, before ever joining the Irish offense. Safe to say it worked out rather well for each.

WHO NOW?
Far be it for the internet to speculate, but that seems to be one of its three primary purposes in the 21st century.

None of the current 11 receivers entered college deemed “athletes” by recruitniks. One does mirror Jackson and Onwualu in that he excelled on special teams last year. Rising sophomore Chase Claypool recorded 11 tackles in his debut season to go along with his five catches for 81 yards. Claypool notched multiple tackles against Nevada, Syracuse and Virginia Tech.

Kelly and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko very well may choose to test fate in 2017 and rely on only seven cornerbacks. After all, how often would the Irish ever have more than four on the field, anyways?

But if Kelly and Elko err on the side of caution, whoever makes the positional switch should not cringe in doing so. It has worked out pretty well both for his predecessors and for Notre Dame.