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.

Swarbrick talks improvements to Shamrock Series opponents

Shamrock Fenway
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Notre Dame is taking 2017 off from the Shamrock Series. When it comes back, expect to see an improvement in opponents.

With the remodeled Notre Dame Stadium set to be finished in 2017, playing seven home games is a natural fit. But with the neutral-site series set to return in 2018, athletic director Jack Swarbrick has grand plans for improving the series that’s taken the Irish to some iconic venues, but has lacked much punch when it comes to high-profile opponents.

Speaking exclusively with Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated, Swarbrick laid out some grand plans for the revitalization of the game.

“When the opponent and the venue and the place all contribute to the story, that’s when it works the best,” Swarbrick told Irish Illustrated. “I still want to maintain that. The difference will be that many more of them now will be led by the opponent.

“Now it can be, ‘I got this opponent.’ Now where can we go with them that works with what we’re trying to do?”

With Notre Dame returning to San Antonio for the second time in the Shamrock Series and repeating an opponent with Army as well, it’s clear that this year’s game checked off some other boxes when it got decided. Swarbrick acknowledged some of the restrictions that have held him back, with the reboot of Notre Dame’s schedule with five ACC games and other television considerations really limiting the team’s options.

“What we’ve been able to do in the Shamrock Series to this point is limit ourselves to games we already had scheduled that we would move,” Swarbrick told Sampson. “It was a very small range of people that we could do these deals without getting into television conflicts. With more lead time we have the runway we need to make these games, the three pieces of it – geography, venue and opponent – come together a little bit more.”

Rumors of new venues aren’t new. Brian Kelly has discussed Lambeau Field before. There’s been talk of a game in Rome. And rumblings of Michigan’s return to the schedule won’t go away.

Just recently Kelly tweeted out a picture from another venue that wouldn’t be too shabby.

But there’s an opening for another step forward for the program and Swarbrick is the right man to lead the change. He’s already led the Irish athletic department through a move to the ACC and helped navigate the “seismic changes” that resulted in the College Football Playoff. With the ambitious Campus Crossroads project near complete this seems like a perfect next project for the head of Irish athletics to take on.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
via Twitter
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Notre Dame’s incoming freshman steps into one of the most harrowing depth charts in college football. But he also comes to South Bend prepared, a freshman season where anything is possible.

Book may be No. 4 in a four-deep that includes three of the most intriguing quarterbacks in college football. But he’s also a play away from being the team’s backup. That’s the plan heading into freshman year, with Brandon Wimbush hoping to keep a redshirt on this season after being forced into action in 2015.

A highly productive high school quarterback, Book didn’t wow any of the recruiting evaluators. But Mike Sanford took dead aim at Book and landed a quarterback he thinks can step in and be ready if needed.

 

IAN BOOK
6’0″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, No. 4, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Three-star prospect who had offers from Boise State and Washington State before Notre Dame jumped in and landed him. His previous relationship with Mike Sanford from his time in Boise made the difference.

Undersized but cerebral player who was highly prolific in high school. Named conference MVP in senior season at Oak Ridge high school and was the No. 14 overall pro-style QB according to Rivals.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

If Book is going to be a big-time college quarterback, it’ll be because he’s got a knack for the game that you don’t see from his physical skill-set. He’s undersized and a little bit slight. He’s got good wheels, but doesn’t play like a speed demon.

You don’t need an elite set of tools to be successful in Brian Kelly’s system. And while a comparison to Tommy Rees will come off as a slight, it’s a compliment—especially after hearing the staff speak confidently about Book’s ability to come in and know the system well enough to be ready to play as a freshman, if necessary.

(Book is also faster than Rees, so relax everybody.)

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Unless the sky is falling, Book is wearing a redshirt. And that’s the best thing for him—even if he’ll prepare as the emergency No. 3, a duty Wimbush was pushed into last year.

A look at Notre Dame’s depth chart and the war chest of talent accumulated at the position makes these next five years look like an uphill climb to get onto the field. But until Book steps foot on campus, all bets are off.

Remember, Tommy Rees entered Notre Dame with two other quarterbacks at his position, both rated better than him by recruiting analysts. But it was Rees that pushed past the five-star recruit already on campus for two seasons and his two classmates.

Of course, DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush aren’t Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa. But until we see Book at the college level, it’s a wait and see proposition.

But the freshman has a key role on the 2016 team. Even if everybody hopes he won’t have to do it.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
Rivals via Twitter
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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.