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…

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.