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.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.