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Pregame Twelve Pack: Navy Edition

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Bring on another Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as we head into the Navy game in the new Meadowlands.


1. Want a key to victory? Irish need to win the turnover battle.

Even though the Irish have won the yardage and first down battle in the last three games against Navy, they’ve been absolutely dominated in the turnover margin, losing 9-2 over the span.

In the 2007 triple-overtime Irish loss, the turnovers were tied 1-1, in the 27-21 escape victory in Baltimore in 2008, the Irish turned the ball over five times to Navy’s one, and in the 23-21 loss last season, the Midshipmen were flawless in the turnover department, while ND turned the ball over three times (twice in the red zone) and also missed two field goals.

Navy enters Saturday’s game ranked No. 7 in the country with a +1.2 margin on turnovers, while the Irish rank 57th in the country, so holding onto the football will be critical for the Irish.

2. Add to the critical column: Cut down the offensive three and outs.

The fine folks over at Her Loyal Sons crunched the numbers and found that on just under 22 percent of drives, the Irish go three-and-out. Obviously, that’s way too high of a number, and — well, I’ll let Domer.mq explain the rest:

We already knew that ND’s 82nd national ranking in 3rd down conversions, at just 37.89% was bad. It seems even worse if you consider that the 22 3-and-out drives by ND this season account for about 58% of the drives in which ND punted, meaning there’s quite-a-bit better than a coin-flip’s chance that if ND is punting, they’ve made absolutely no headway in one of the most important aspects of any football game: field possession. Further, at the going rate, almost 1/4th of all of ND’s 3rd down attempts will occur in the first attempt at gaining a new first down and will result in the team punting.

The number gets even uglier when you consider that only ND’s on about the same pace with 3-and-out drives as it is with TD scoring drives. Couple those 3-and-out drives with turnover drives, and the Irish offense’s TD scoring rate is overwhelmed by a “negative result” rate of about 37% over 23%. Even if you pair FGs with the TDs, the “positive result” rate only reaches 34%. More “objectively bad” drives have occurred with ND’s offense to this point in the season than have “objectively good” drives.

Just one more thing to think about: No Navy opponent this year has had more than 12 possessions in a game. Further, Navy’s opponents are only averaging about 10 possessions a game. Notre Dame’s offense averages 14 possessions per game thus far. When an opponent, like Navy, manages to eliminate 3-4 of your possessions simply by virtue of the style of football they play, you truly can’t afford to throw away 22% of the remaining possessions by going three-and-out. Some quick, cocktail napkin math extrapolates that, if all of these rates remain unchanged for the Navy/Notre Dame game this weekend, Notre Dame will only score about 17 points.

If Notre Dame is getting the ball only 10 times on Saturday, they’ll have to do better than punting after three plays on two of their possessions. The good news, as HLS points out, the Irish are trending positive, doing a better job of staying on the field.

3. Offensive efficiency is the key to Kelly’s game plan.

Navy limits teams possessions with their ball-control option attack. Head coach Brian Kelly has made it clear that the Irish are going to have to play a cleaner game of football than they’ve played in the past few weeks.

“We have to be efficient, we have to catch the ball,” Kelly said. “We have to throw it accurately, and we’ve got to run the ball.”

The key to that efficiency will be Dayne Crist, who has played good football in his first season starting at quarterback, but fallen into mini-slumps during each of his seven starts this year.

“The quarterback has to put the ball on guys. He’s got to be on his game,” Kelly said. “If he’s on his game, you know, we’ll be fine. But if he’s not efficient in throwing the football, obviously, we’ll have to struggle at times.

4. Ricky Dobbs will walk away from the Naval Academy as one of its best ever.

While his preseason Heisman campaign probably ended after a season opening loss, Ricky Dobbs is still one of the best players ever to wear the Navy uniform. Dobbs is just three rushing touchdowns shy of tying Chris McCoy‘s school record. (McCoy sits at 1oth in NCAA history for touchdowns by a quarterback.)

Dobbs’ incredible 2009 season included a NCAA single-season record for TD runs by a quarterback with 27, a feat made all the more impressive when you consider that Dobbs played the final six games of the season with a broken kneecap.

Dobbs ran for 102 yards on 31 carries last year against the Irish, and also broke the Irish’s back with a 52-yard touchdown pass on play-action.

5. If Navy wins Saturday, the Midshipmen will make history.

Three wins in four years would help make Navy’s senior class one of the most successful against Notre Dame in school history. A win this weekend by Navy would join the 2010 class with the Class of 1937 and Class of 1964 as the only classes to beat Notre Dame three times.

That 1964 class was captained by Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach.

6. A tip for the Irish defense — Tackle Vince Murray.

Only playing in two varsity games during his first two seasons at Navy, Vince Murray seemed to hit his stride last October. The 215-pound fullback from Union, Kentucky had consecutive games of over 100 yards against Southern Methodist, Wake Forest and Temple before walking into Notre Dame Stadium and setting the world on fire.

Murray absolutely killed the Irish running the ball straight up the gut, and he averaged 11.3 yards per carry against Notre Dame for 158, far and away the best game he’d ever had in a Navy uniform.

Nose tackle Ian Williams and middle linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Manti Te’o will be tasked with making sure Murray doesn’t run wild through the heart of the Irish defense again, though a knee injury may stop Williams Murray before he ever gets the chance to step on the field.

7. Stopping the Midshipmen on 4th down is critical for the Irish defense.

Head coach Ken Niumatalolo is known for his aggressive style, and that’s personified in his penchant for going for it on 4th down. Last year, Navy went for it on 4th down the fifth most times in college football, finishing 4th in the country with 19 4th down conversions and a rate just shy of 68 percent. Navy is converting on two-thirds of their attempts this year, attempting nine 4th downs through six games.

Navy converted both their 4th down attempts last year against the Irish, both on their opening drive on short runs by Dobbs, the final attempt for a one-yard touchdown run. The Irish were 0 for 2, with an incomplete pass at the Navy three-yard line costing the Irish points, and a fourth-quarter attempt going for a safety. A net swing of about nine pretty important points.

8. Bob Diaco versus the Option: A quick look.

It’s hard to complain about the job Bob Diaco has done with the Irish defense, and there’ll be no coach more in the line of fire than Diaco this weekend, who is tasked with stopping an option attack that absolutely ate up the Irish for 404 total yards and 6.1 yards per carry last season.

Earlier in the week, Brian Kelly mentioned that Diaco had experience against the triple-option attack that Navy ran, so I went back and looked for the games. Here’s Diaco’s work against Navy’s triple-option attack:

  • 2003: Navy 39, Eastern Michigan 7. As an outside linebackers coach, Diaco and defensive line coach Mike Elston‘s over-matched Eagle defense held Paul Johnson‘s Navy attack to only 11 first-half points, before the floodgates opened up.
  • 2005: Central Michigan 14, Army 10. Though not running the same attack as Navy, a Diaco coordinated Chippewa defense held Army to 239 yards and only 66 through the air in a tight battle.
  • 2008: Virginia 24, No. 18 Georgia Tech 17. Coaching linebackers under 3-4 guru Al Groh, the Cavalier defense did such a good job against Paul Johnson’s spread option that when Groh was eventually fired as head coach, he was brought on to coordinate Johnson’s Georgia Tech defense.

Looking at the great work the Cavaliers did against a Georgia Tech team that had taken the ACC by storm, Diaco should have a pretty firm grasp on what Navy’s trying to do.

9. Beware of the Red Army.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Al Lesar did a nice job profiling three Notre Dame back-up quarterbacks, Matt Mulvey, Nate Montana, and Brian Castello, a trio of (mostly) benchwarmers that walk the sideline wearing red hats and have the incredibly important job of signaling in the plays.

Lesar recounts offensive coordinator Charley Molnar talking about their importance.

“Let’s just say this, when a mistake occurs, which it does very, very infrequently, from the signalers to the players out on the field, they’ll be the first to hear about it,” said Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar. “There’s a lot of pressure on them.

“They have to be really perfect in their job because your offense has no chance if they’re not. If a signaler would make a mistake, nobody would have confidence in the signals. We can’t play football that way. (The players) have to have great confidence that the signal’s correct.”

“When they get the play call, they have to signal it almost simultaneously. Usually coach Kelly will communicate it. That’s pressure for anybody, believe me.”

Castello joked that the red hats aren’t for quarterback Dayne Crist to easily see them, but for a larger meaning.

“The true meaning of the red hats, as quarterbacks, we call ourselves ‘The Red Army.’ It came about as we all wear red jerseys as we’re all very valuable and breakable; we don’t see a lot of contact during practice. It’s kinda like a fraternity started by Evan Sharpley.

“I think we’re the most feared group on the team; and also (most) respected.”

Between the Red Army and Team Reckless, there are quiet a few funny guys on this football team.

10. David Ruffer’s expertise can be attributed to another former Notre Dame special teamer.

There’s not much left to be written about David Ruffer, the walk-on kicker that’s turned himself into an Irish folk hero. The former walk-on that’d never played in a football game is now a record-setting field goal kicker and potential All-American candidate.

How about this factoid:

Ruffer’s career as a kicker started under the tutelage of another Notre Dame special teams ace, former Irish punter Joey Hildbold, one of the top punters in Irish history. Hildbold was the special teams coach at William & Mary when Ruffer decided that he’d attempt to play football for the first time.

11. Andrew Hendrix is drawing plenty of praise on the scout team.

While he’s playing a position that won’t let him fight his way onto the field, freshman quarterback Andrew Hendrix received quite a bit of praise this week, reminding Irish fans why they were so excited to bring in the rocket-armed quarterback in the first place.

“He’s impressive,” Kelly said of the quarterback that’s playing Ricky Dobbs this week. “The ball comes out of his hand like probably one other guy that I have coached. I mean it comes out that quick and that fast. He has escape-ability and maneuverability. He has all the pieces. It’s now just going to be about getting into the offense and seeing how he picks things up from a spread quarterback standpoint. The tools are pretty impressive. When the defensive coaches rave about somebody, and they don’t do that very often, you know you have somebody who has a chance to be really good.”

I’ve mentioned it a few times this season, but it’s doubtful that all three freshman quarterback remain on this roster until the end of their senior season. Here’s hoping Kelly does a better job convincing guys that they’ve got a chance at winning the quarterback job than Charlie Weis did, who ran both Zach Frazer and Demetrius Jones out of town after it was clear that Jimmy Clausen was being given the starting quarterback job his freshman season.

12. A four game winning streak would be incredibly rare for this team.

If the Irish win Saturday against the Midshipmen, it’ll be a four-game winning streak for Brian Kelly’s bunch. How rare of an achievement is that for this team? Well, consider that not a single senior on this roster has won four straight games.

The only members of the roster that have a four-game winning streak under their belt are Barry Gallup, Chris Stewart, and Darrin Walls, all fifth-year players that were a part of the 2006 team.

It’s been a tough four-year stretch…

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.