Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Navy

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With the Notre Dame offense unable to play their top three receiving threats and with running back Armando Allen well below 100 percent, it’s not a complete surprise that the Irish offense struggled against Navy’s bend, but not break, defense.

What is a surprise is the complete collapse of the Irish defense, which was absolutely decimated by the Navy option attack, captained by quarterback Ricky Dobbs and driven by fullback Alexander Teich. Last year, fullback Vince Murray had a career day against defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s scheme. This year, against Bob Diaco’s 3-4 front, Teich (who lost his job last year to Murray when he was injured but regained it when Murray went down earlier this season) set a Navy record for a fullback with 210 yards on the ground, destroying the interior of the Irish defense and opening up things for Ricky Dobbs around the edge, where he scored three touchdowns and completed both official passing attempts for gigantic plays.

“You get what you deserve,” head coach Brian Kelly said immediately after the game. “Navy was the better team today. We had no answer for them.”

After 43 years of this match-up going solely in Notre Dame’s direction, Navy has now won three of the last four games against the Irish, turning this “rivalry,” not into a hotly contested game, but a seesaw leaning in Navy’s direction thanks to a precision option attack and a flawless game plan.

Here’s what we learned this afternoon.

1. If you can’t stop the fullback, you can’t beat Navy.

I mentioned it in the Navy preview, but had the wrong fullback listed. With Vince Murray out, Alexander Teich rammed the football down the Irish’s throat, completing obliterating any hope that the Irish had of beating the Midshipmen. If the Irish had to play “assignment correct football” to win, it was impossible after the dive play worked with such incredible success.

With Navy able to turn the dive play into a major weapon, they nullified any speed advantage the Irish defenders may have had, causing the Irish to read… then react, a dilemma that Ricky Dobbs was able to exploit to perfection for much of the game.

Watching tape earlier in the year, the Irish should have been able to notice Maryland using heavy A-gap blitzes into the teeth of Navy’s line to success, but the Irish steered clear of sending blitzers and deferred to a conservative game plan. But when Bob Diaco did dial up a blitz, Niumatalolo had the perfect play designed — a screen pass for a touchdown in the first quarter, and a deep throw that beat Gary Gray for Dobbs’ second completion.

Schematically the the game was lost on the dive play, with the middle of Notre Dame’s defense unable to stop the first piece of the triple option.

2. There isn’t a quarterback controversy… yet.

Earlier in the week, Brian Kelly told everyone that’d listen that the Irish needed a very good game out of quarterback Dayne Crist if the Irish were going to win.

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

The Irish offense was stuck in neutral because there continue to be growing pains for the Irish on the offensive side of the ball when Crist hits a cold patch. Crist’s two interceptions were both critical mistakes, the first an absolute back-breaker at the end of the first half, throwing into a heavy zone from deep in his own territory with under two minutes to go. The second interception Crist looked off an easy completion on a drag route to TJ Jones and instead threw to a well-covered Duval Kamara, with Navy cornerback Kwesi Mitchell stepping in front for an easy pick.

It’s clear that Dayne Crist is the most talented quarterback on the Irish roster. What’s also clear is that Crist is struggling to make the right decisions, something you just can’t do in a QB-friendly spread offense.

Credit Kelly for bringing in freshman Tommy Rees, and credit Rees for leading the Irish down the field for an impressive touchdown drive, albeit against a vanilla scheme. Rees took the underneath throw because it was available and a high-percentage play. While Rees didn’t take the shots down the field that Crist does, he still managed to complete six of his seven throws for an average of 11.3 yards per throw. Crist checked away from the shorter attempts, choosing downfield receivers, and averaged less than six yards per throw, made even worse with two interceptions.

It’s only Crist’s eight start at quarterback, but he’s got to start showing better touch on short patterns and better recognition of what defenses are trying to do.

3. Different year, same result for the Irish secondary.

Even with the Irish cornerbacks playing some of their best football coming into the game, Notre Dame was victimized all three times Navy dropped back to pass. The Irish knew they needed to avoid giving up the big play when Navy decided to put the ball in the air, and instead they gave up three big ones on all three attempts.

Credit a great play call on Dobbs’ first attempt, and credit Teich for a wonderful one-handed catch on a screen pass where he weaved through Irish defenders before rumbling to the end zone. But the Irish secondary looked terrible on the next two throws Dobbs made, with safety Harrison Smith panicking and taking a 15 yard interference penalty when he was in good enough position to simply turn and look for the football on a reverse pass. On a 2nd and 12, the Irish defense should have been prepared for something a bit off balance, and Smith’s played too much football to make the same mistakes repeatedly.

On 3rd and 6 on Navy’s first drive of the second half, the Irish also got beat one-on-one with Gary Gray tripping on himself, tugging his way back into position, then stumbling again as Dobbs lofted a pass high in the air for receiver Greg Jones to run under. Gray had no help over the top, but the Irish came up empty all three times Navy threw the ball — in situations where the Irish could have been expecting a pass.

4. The Irish might have lost the heart of their defense.

While Brian Kelly didn’t have a medical update yet, the Irish are likely bracing for the worst case scenario with nose tackle Ian Williams. Williams was seen on the sidelines with tears in his eyes and his leg in an aircast after an injury in the third quarter took him off the field.Early indications pointed to a knee injury, not a promising thing for a 315-pound defensive tackle.

Williams has been the heart of the defensive line and a true run-stuffer up the middle for the Irish, putting together a terrific senior season that had moved Williams up the draft boards of many NFL teams, and turned him into a team leader.

The loss to Navy likely weighs heavy on Williams, who had an added chip on his shoulder this week after Williams landed in the doghouse last year after the Navy game when he openly commenting that the Irish were “out-schemed” in the 23-21 defeat. According to Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune, Williams was banned from defensive meetings by then coordinator Jon Tentua for insubordination. (A decision that likely didn’t help as the team folded down the stretch.)

5. The Irish will need tunnel vision for the rest of the season after this loss.

There’s nothing quite like a loss to Navy to turn people against a football team, and this one brings the collective back down to the low-water mark of the 2010 season. For the Irish to keep trending upwards, they’ll need to plug their ears, get back to work, and ignore just about everything that’ll be said about them for the next 48 hours.

The defense that had made great progress throughout the year didn’t turn into a bunch of bums this weekend. An offense that was shy its best three receivers and playing with its starting running back well-below 100 percent didn’t turn into an abomination. Take the name off the front of the jersey and the Irish just lost to a 5-2 team that had lost its two games by a total of 11 points and has a quarterback that was a preseason Heisman contender. The Irish turned the ball over twice, got stuffed inside the one-yard line in the red zone, and couldn’t get a defensive stop when they absolutely needed to get one. That’s a recipe for defeat, service academy or not.

Still, the Irish loss shows that Notre Dame has a long way to go within its transformation.

“I like where we’re going,” Kelly said. “I don’t like losing football games along the way.”

For the Irish to stop losing, they’ll need to shake off some remnants that still cling to this team. Those remnants include too many finesse offensive linemen, a group of safeties that don’t play either the pass or the run very well, and a linebacking corp devoid of play-makers.

 

 

Nick Watkins announces transfer from Notre Dame

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With the announcement from fifth-year cornerback Nick Watkins he will seek a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, it may seem the Irish cornerback depth is taking a massive hit. It was actually that depth that likely spurred Watkins’ decision.

The Texas native announced his decision to transfer Thursday afternoon on Twitter.

“When I decided to attend Notre Dame, my primary goal was to earn a degree from this prestigious University,” Watkins wrote, “and I’m proud to say that I’ll achieve that goal.”

Watkins started nine games in 2017 before knee tendonitis slowed him, giving now-junior Troy Pride an opening to take the lead role opposite junior Julian Love. Pride played well and has continued that progress this spring, knocking Watkins from a starting role. Furthermore, senior Shaun Crawford saw some time at cornerback this spring, rather than focusing solely on nickelback, creating even more viable competition at cornerback.

Thus, Watkins will head elsewhere after making 37 career tackles in 35 games with the Irish, including 29 tackles last season with eight pass breakups and one interception. Watkins missed all of his junior season with a broken arm. Since he will graduate before transferring, Watkins will be immediately eligible wherever he ends up.

Notre Dame will also have four more cornerbacks joining the fray this summer when incoming freshmen D.J. Brown, Noah Boykin, Joe Wilkins and Tariq Bracy arrive.

The Irish roster still sits at a projected 87 scholarships for the coming fall, two over the maximum allowed by the NCAA.

Avery Davis’ move bumps Notre Dame’s RB depth from dire to versatile

Associated Press
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It may not be what Avery Davis always imagined, but his move to running back at least gets him on the field in a Notre Dame jersey. From a practical standpoint, Davis offers more than just running back depth amid a depleted Irish backfield. His move from quarterback to running back/receiver creates a new possibility of playmaking. That concept was the primary reason the sophomore welcomes the position switch rather than dreads it.

Davis’ motivations are that pure and simple. After spending the 2017 season preserving a year of eligibility and watching quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book both prove more than capable, Davis could see his chances at quarterbacking for Notre Dame dwindling. The prospect of another year with a similar view was not one to which he looked forward.

“I love the quarterback position, I’ve played it my whole life,” Davis said following the Blue-Gold Game. “But that redshirt season, to be standing on the sidelines knowing you could make an impact, knowing you could make plays, that pushed me into this.

“… What I’m really trying to do is help the team however I can.”

The Irish coaching staff’s motivations are undoubtedly as pure, regarding helping the team however Davis can, but one may wonder if the move would have happened if not for the dismissal of half the running back depth chart following the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU. Regardless, Notre Dame had a need, and Davis’ natural skills can now help fill it.

“It was a mutual understanding,” Davis said. “… I knew they were serious, because I was serious, too. Week two [of spring practices] I got my chance and that’s when it started clicking.”

By the end of spring practice, Davis had pushed his way firmly into the running back rotation, with a few cameos at receiver, as well. He finished the Blue-Gold Game with 30 rushing yards on 11 carries and 24 receiving yards on two catches, to go along with 2-for-2 passing for 26 yards in the closing moments.

The presence of a viable rushing and receiving threat plays right into the hands of Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long’s preferences. The mere presence of Davis on the field will put defenses into compromising positions. At least, that will be the theory.

It will likely not be long into the season when Davis first lines up in the backfield before motioning into the slot position, thus exposing more of the defense’s blitz and coverage intentions, if not outright forcing adjustments to them. Not long after that, Davis will at some point line up wide only to take a jet sweep a la Cam Smith in 2017’s first month and Kevin Stepherson in the latter half of the year.

These are the dilemmas created by a multi-dimensional threat such as Davis appears to be. Sure, it was just the spring game, but it showed the wrinkles he can create. No one else currently among Notre Dame’s running backs or receivers offers such a variety. Sophomore receiver Michael Young may come the closest, but his frame is not designed for the beating of a running back’s workload.

Nor is Davis’ at this point, necessarily, but he knows as much.

“It’s just more of a physical toll on your body,” he said when asked of the greatest difference from the quarterback position. “You take more hits. That’s something that comes with being in the weight room.”

Atop Davis’ offseason to-do list is add more muscle across the chest and in the shoulders. Next will be to work on his routes and pass-catching skills. As far as reading the defense’s approach, quarterback prepared him for that. His focus is now slightly different, looking for gaps at the line rather than gauging coverage holes, but the underlying skills are the same.

Along with the potential poised by Davis’ position switch and the inherent disclaimers attached to any spring successes, two more aspects of the sophomore’s future should be explicitly noted. First of all, he does not let slip even the slightest misgiving about the move from football’s glamor position. Davis knew what the Irish depth chart looked like when he arrived at Notre Dame, and he knew who had already committed in the following class in consensus four-star Phil Jurkovec.

“When it comes down to it, I love playing the game,” Davis said. “Wasn’t too hard for me. It was a personal decision.

“It was a decision to come here, and I’m living with it. I’m really happy with it, to be honest.”

Secondly, this is a move the Irish coaching staff is committed to, but it retains the right to work Davis in at quarterback. Even Jurkovec’s arrival is unlikely to knock Davis from the spot of No. 3 quarterback to be deployed in emergency situations, lest Jurkovec burn a year of eligibility to offer a quarter’s worth of work.

“The conversation we had with Avery is, what do you want to do?” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “If you want to stay [at quarterback], right now it looks like it’s 1A, 1B, and you’re 3. You can stay in that position, or we think you’ve got some talents to help our offense. He wanted to do this.

“He doesn’t want to give up his ability to play quarterback down the road, but in the meantime, you need to play this year. This gives him that opportunity.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS/IS AT RUNNING BACK:
Without Davis and the move of sophomore Jafar Armstrong from receiver, the Irish had two upperclassmen and an early-enrolled freshman at running back this spring. Each of senior Dexter Williams (pictured above) and junior Tony Jones have shown the physical ability to be a loadbearing ballcarrier in the past, but neither has stayed healthy enough to grant peace of mind if in that role. Depth was needed.

Specifically in reference to Williams, Kelly acknowledged past restrictions due to Williams’ durability, or lack thereof.

“How long can you stay on the field?” Kelly said Saturday. “He seemed to be a guy that we couldn’t keep on the field very long. He had a really good spring. He wasn’t a guy that we had to pull out or wasn’t conditioned well enough.”

Much like Davis, Armstrong’s emergence this spring soothes some of those concerns. In the Blue-Gold Game, he finished with 48 yards on five carries along with one catch for 21 yards, showing decent quickness with a burst that will become only more decisive with more experience.

Armstrong should be more than capable of replacing Deon McIntosh as the No. 3 or 4 running back who can offer some modicum of production. In time, he could certainly become more than that.

Early-enrollee Jahmir Smith did about what one would expect from a high school senior taking part in collegiate practices, and that is meant as a compliment, but by no means did he lay the groundwork to force his way into the rotation by September.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE:
The Irish will welcome C’Bo Flemister as a sixth running back in the fall. Presuming health of the top four (Williams, Jones, Davis and Armstrong), Flemister should join Smith in spending a year in strength and conditioning, perhaps adding some special teams work. More likely, though, at least one of that initial quartet will suffer a plaguing injury, if not something worse, and the freshmen duo could be a sprained ankle away from being activated, just as C.J. Holmes was halfway through 2017.

ONE MORE NOTE, NFL DRAFT-WISE:
The NFL draft begins tonight (Thursday). Former Notre Dame running back Josh Adams will not hear his name called in the first round, but it is likely his name comes up Saturday, somewhere between late in the fourth round and the end of the sixth round.

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

rivals.com
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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

Associated Press
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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.