Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Utah

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It was an analogy Brian Kelly didn’t want to use, but football is a lot like the game of life. Ebb and flow. Highs and lows. Good and bad. And after three solid weeks of nothing but negativity, Kelly’s Notre Dame squad went out on Senior Day and summarily dispatched Utah 28-3 on Saturday afternoon.

“Through the last three weeks, we certainly have had a great deal of adversity that we’ve had to overcome together as a group,” Kelly said. “In those times, to steal a quote from Coach Parseghian, adversity elicits traits sometimes that we didn’t think we ever had.”

After counter-punching much of the first quarter and spotting Utah a field goal on a failed fourth down gamble, the Irish got a big special teams play from cornerback Robert Blanton, who blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown. From there, the Irish systematically beat down the No. 15 Utes, giving the Irish their biggest win over a ranked opponent since 2005.

Any hope Utah had of overcoming a 14-3 halftime deficit was eliminated thirteen seconds into the second half, when freshman Austin Collinsworth stripped Shaky Smithson on the opening kickoff and Tommy Rees found senior Duval Kamara in the corner of the endzone to push the score to 21-3. Kamara would add another touchdown catch in the third quarter to seal the deal.

After losing a plethora of starters and last minute games to Michigan, Michigan State and a shocking defeat to Tulsa, the Irish finally came unbridled, finding their stride.

“You saw today a football team that didn’t have on their shoulders the traditions and reputations and all the things that you have to worry about sometimes being a football player at Notre Dame, and they just flat out played,” Kelly said.

And for the first time since the gallows of 2007, the senior class walks away from Notre Dame Stadium with a win, celebrating with a student section that had no intent of leaving the field.

Here’s what we learned in Notre Dame’s commanding 28-3 victory over No. 15 Utah.

1) That’s a cathartic victory for Notre Dame.

As dark as the loss to Tulsa was for Notre Dame collectively, you can’t help but feel great for the players, coaches, students and staff at the university. Just a few weeks after a student mockingly suggested storming the field on Senior Day to celebrate the Class of 2010’s ineptitude after a near-certain loss to mighty Utah, students stormed the field in jubilance, unwilling to let go of the euphoric feeling that comes with winning a big game, “what though the odds be great or small.”

Brian Kelly spent the entire week talking about the foundation that this senior class was building for the football program, and after the game freshman quarterback Tommy Rees talked about how important it was to win a game for them.

“That was our number one goal,” Rees said. “Seniors have done an unbelievable job all year. Whether it be preparing us or keeping us focused, especially in the past two weeks. You know, to send them off with a win is truly special.”

2. That was the most important win for Brian Kelly of his career.

It’s easy to get caught up in hyperbole, but make no mistake — that’s the most important victory Brian Kelly’s ever had as a head coach. With the vultures circling his football program after the death of videographer Declan Sullivan, and his own fanbase openly questioning if Kelly and his staff were too “small-timey” or too hellbent on imposing his offensive system, Kelly and his lieutenants put together a flawless game plan.

“We wanted to get the game into the fourth quarter,” Kelly said. “That was the most important. Our theme this week was get it to the fourth quarter and let’s put this nonsense to bed that you can’t win games in the fourth quarter.”

Thanks to excellence on special teams, an efficient offensive day, and a rabid defense, the only thing decided in the fourth quarter was when to let senior walk-on quarterback Matt Castello take some snaps.

A week after Tommy Rees threw the ball 54 times for 334 yards, the Irish ran it 29 times for 127 yards compared to just 20 throws for 129 yards. Even though the Irish were playing a Utah team that had been stout against the run and the Irish had shown no ability to move the ball with the run, Kelly made it clear that the offensive line was going to determine whether or not the Irish would win the football game.

“We had talked all week about there has to be a time and place where you win the game up front,” Kelly said about his offensive line. “It can’t be finesse football and fast break, and 30, 40 throws. There’s got to be time and place. This was a game where it had to be won up front. I think just putting it on their shoulders from that perspective, and committing to it and staying with it. This game was won up front.”

3. Brian Smith and Duval Kamara, two unsung seniors, led the day for the Irish.

With Carlo Calabrese and TJ Jones unable to answer the bell this afternoon, Brian Kelly turned to two reserve seniors that have drawn the ire of Notre Dame fans in the past, and the duo lead the team to victory. Both Brian Smith and Duval Kamara, playing in their final games in Notre Dame Stadium, played heroic football, large keys to the upset of Utah.

Smith’s 10 tackles playing out of position at inside linebacker led the defense in stops. Kamara’s two catches both resulted in touchdowns, capitalizing for an offense that was working at maximum efficiency. Kamara’s big day was a critical part of the Irish game plan.

“We told Duval for the last ten days, this is your game,” Kelly said. “You’re going to get matched up. You’re 6’4″, you’ve got to help us. You’ve got to be there for us. And he was huge.”

It wasn’t that long ago that Kamara led the Irish offense in receiving as a true freshman in 2007. After getting lost in the shuffle with the ascension of Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, Kamara stuck with it and turned his final game in Notre Dame Stadium into one for the memories.

As for Smith, Kelly was incredibly candid earlier in the week about the linebacker he inherited from the previous regime. But one look at the emotion in the eyes of both Smith and his father as tears flowed during the pregame ceremony, and you know how important Irish football is to him.

4. Bob Diaco’s defense was astounding in every sense of the word.

If a coaches reputation can be made (or ruined) in one Saturday, Bob Diaco tested the theory during the Irish’s loss to Navy. Unable to solve even the most rudimentary elements of the Midshipmen offense, Diaco admitted that the 35-17 loss was his most frustrating as a defensive coordinator.

While Kelly caught some flack for keeping Diaco and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar away from the media this week, the move obviously paid dividends, as Diaco’s defense put together their most complete performance of the season, holding a Utah team that averaged 41 points a game to a single gimme field goal, one that was courtesy of an offense that turned the ball over on downs at midfield.

How dominating was the Irish defense’s performance? Consider that it was only after the score was 28-3 that Utah put together a drive that was over 24 yards. The front seven of the Irish defense completely dominated the line of scrimmage, holding a powerful Utah running game to 2.4 yards a carry and under 100 yards, even without interior stalwarts Ian Williams and Carlo Calabrese. The pass rush pressured Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn endlessly, and the secondary blanketed Utah receivers, with Harrison Smith making the best interception of his career and Gary Gray in the right place at the right time all day.

Diaco deserves all the credit in the world for dialing up a game plan that terrifically suited an Irish defense still incredibly thin due to injury. Even more impressive, the development of the defensive roster is incredibly apparent after 10 football games, with freshman like Prince Shembo and Kona Schwenke making big plays, and guys like Kapron Lewis-Moore and Sean Cwynar rising to the occasion. It’s easy to see how defensive line coach Mike Elston, linebacker coaches Diaco and Kerry Cooks, and secondary coach Chuck Martin have put their fingerprints on this unit. Their performance might get lost in the shuffle, but it certainly shouldn’t tonight.

5. There’s plenty to like about this Notre Dame football team.

Brian Kelly was asked earlier in the year if he’d have been happy playing for bowl eligibility during the home stretch of the season, and it was clear then that he — like most fans — expected more from this football team. But this 5-5 Irish squad is certainly one that Notre Dame fans should be proud of.

Consider the decimation to the Irish roster. We’ve discussed it before, but the Irish beat their first ranked team in over five years without their starting quarterback, running back, tight end, two wide receivers, nose tackle, middle linebacker, outside linebacker and safety. That doesn’t happen with a football coach that doesn’t know what he’s doing.

While Kelly has been pointing at things that have been happening behind closed doors, he opened up a bit after the game about the process of transforming this football team.

“You’re still trying to lay the foundation of how you play this game,” Kelly said. “You play it hard for four quarters. You get it to the fourth quarter and you close. My career has been built on closing games out and building the mentality of that football team. That’s what we had to make sure we got done.”

Even more interesting, Kelly gave us a true look behind the curtain when he was asked if this was “the moment” that the Irish football team had been waiting for.

“You missed the point,” Kelly said. “It’s not a moment. It’s the culmination of what we’ve been working on since December. You don’t just pull these out of a hat. You don’t just wake up and go, ‘Let’s rise up today.’ It’s the consistency of an approach from a day to day basis and how we go to work every day. We’re not a finished product by any means, but we’re starting to develop the mental and physical toughness for the way you need to go and approach this game.”

That process continues next week as the Irish battle for bowl eligibility against an Army team that’s already earned its way to the postseason, the first time the Knights have done so n 14 years. Adding to the intrigue, Army runs the same triple option attack that absolutely flummoxed the Irish defense less than a month ago. This season may not have been the one Irish fans (or players and coaches) envisioned, but next Saturday’s date in Yankee Stadium, not to mention the upcoming clash in the Coliseum, remind us that there’s still plenty to play for this season.

What a difference 24 hours make.

Four-star OL John Olmstead chooses Notre Dame over Michigan

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With the addition of a consensus four-star offensive lineman, Notre Dame gained its fourth commitment in the class of 2019 on Friday afternoon. John Olmstead (St. Joseph High School; Metuchen, N.J.) becomes the first offensive lineman to join the class.

He cited the tradition of the Irish program as a key factor to his decision.

Considered the No. 10 tackle prospect in the country per rivals.com — also the No. 1 player in New Jersey and No. 63 recruit in the country — Olmstead is the third consensus four-star in the class, all trench factors. He held a lengthy offer sheet, including the likes of LSU, Florida and Oklahoma, but Olmstead had narrowed his final choices to the Irish, Michigan, Mississippi, Minnesota and Rutgers.

When Olmstead arrives at Notre Dame, he will have some time to wait before an opportunity is readily-available at tackle. Rising-sophomore Robert Hainsey and rising-junior Liam Eichenberg are positioned to start at right and left tackle, respectively, this season. Each has three years of eligibility remaining, meaning Olmstead would likely spend at least his first two seasons in strictly a reserve role.

The Irish signed four offensive linemen in the class of 2018, but all were a bit less-heralded than the usual recruit Notre Dame hauls in at the position. New offensive line coach Jeff Quinn played a vital role in gaining the National Signing Day pledge of rivals.com three star tackle Jarrett Patterson, whose pass protection skills mark him as a high-ceiling contributor in years to come.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s running game and depth lead Blue-Gold Game questions

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For every strong performance in tomorrow’s conclusion to Notre Dame’s spring practices, a misstep or mistake will inherently match. If rising-senior running back Dexter Williams breaks loose for a 40-yard touchdown run, a critic might note the lack of speed in the Irish secondary. Should the Notre Dame defensive line wreak havoc in the backfield all afternoon, it may be due to a shoddy offensive line rather than a stellar defensive front. Interceptions will be considered equal parts a quarterback’s failing and a defensive back’s playmaking.

A year ago, defensive end Daelin Hayes recorded multiple “sacks” in the Blue-Gold Game. Whether or not he actually tackled a quarterback, the pressures indicated to the public’s eye that the right side of the Irish offensive line would be a 2017 weakness. Instead, they should have sparked no offensive line worry, only taken as a precursor to Hayes’ three real-world sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in the fall. The right side of the line, manned by the tag-team of Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey, was actually a strength, part of the country’s best offensive line.

Such are the flaws to over-analyzing an intrasquad scrimmage.

With those disclaimers in mind, the things to learn in the Blue-Gold Game hinge more on scheme, order of appearance and type of usage. Throughout the spring, the Irish offense has focused on the passing game. Yes, the running game drove the Notre Dame offense throughout 2017, but it is now without two All-American offensive linemen and a record-setting running back. At some point, the ground game needs to be proven all over again, and that point is supposedly Saturday.

“As it relates to our offense against our defense, we’ve thrown the ball much more than we’ve run it because of those things that we’ve wanted to grow in,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said over the weekend. “The spring game, we’ll get a better sense because we’ll run the ball a whole lot more and we’ll be who we have been.”

Rising-senior Dexter Williams is Notre Dame’s presumptive starter at running back, but finally showing an eagerness to engage in pass blocking could cement that status. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

That sense will begin with Williams and rising-junior Tony Jones (pictured at top). Williams appears to have the starting position within his grasp, but picking up a few pass blocks against the likes of Hayes would solidify that pecking order. Aside from that, perhaps the greatest thing to learn regarding Williams and Jones is, can they get through a competitive environment without injury?

Of course, limiting their carries will not only help that cause, but also reveal what kind of running back depth Notre Dame has. After the two injury-plagued upperclassmen, all the Irish can claim is an early-enrolled freshman, a receiver-turned-hybrid and a quarterback-turned-running back/receiver.

The Irish desperately need at least one of, preferably two of, Jahmir Smith, Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis, respectively, to step forward.

The offensive line has set itself. With four returning starters and a long-touted tackle-of-the-future in rising-junior Liam Eichenberg along the front, the blocking is not the concern in the running game. Williams’ speed and Jones’ versatility offer promising potential when healthy. But this is football, both will not be healthy throughout the fall. Other carries need to be handled ably by at least a portion of that trio.

Though he may be the youngest, Smith may be the best option, simply because Armstrong’s and Davis’ responsibilities vary so greatly as they bounce between running back and receiver and, in Davis’ case, quarterback.

How will offensive coordinator Chip Long deploy Armstrong and Davis? Will they spend more time in the backfield or at slot receiver?

The addition of the two pass-catching backs increases the likelihood of Long using his favorite alignment, one with two running backs, at least one of which is a veritable route-runner and pass-catcher. Williams has never proven himself to fit that description, though Long noted Williams has improved his pass-catching as of last week. When Jones was injured last year, Long could no longer deploy the two-back set that quickly puts opposing defenses in unavoidable binds.

“That was a big part of our offense in spring ball, fall camp, then the backs got knocked out and hobbled,” Long said. “We couldn’t use that part of our offense. It hurt us.”

Should Jones twist an ankle again in September, Armstrong and/or Davis should keep that option available for Long’s play calls.

“Just having the ability with more depth back there, those type of guys, instead of just being Tony, now you have Avery, possibly Jafar,” Long said. “Injuries can’t take us out of that personnel.”

When he was healthy, Jones would often motion out of the backfield in those alignments. Although he finished the year with only six catches for 12 yards, the mere threat of his receiving abilities altered defensive approaches.

At other points, Jones was a bulldozer of a blocker, taking on multiple defenders to help spring either quarterback Brandon Wimbush or now-NFL-bound Josh Adams for a longer gain. Jones is likely to remain the best at this varied skillset, but having depth in the role is a luxury critical to Long’s preferred offensive scheme.

Most starting positions are settled, especially with the offensive line now set. Safety is not. Who will start at safety? Who will be the second-unit?

Rising-junior Jalen Elliott’s tackling miscues of the past have not yet prevented him from sitting atop Notre Dame’s depth chart at safety, though new challengers have joined the mix this spring in Alohi Gilman and Houston Griffith. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Even the candidates at safety have ebbed and flowed this spring. Rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath now appears to be headed toward a future at linebacker and rising-senior Nick Coleman has dabbled at nickelback while early-enrollee Houston Griffith moved from cornerback to safety to become another considered option.

At this point, rising-juniors Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman appear to be the likely starters, with Griffith offering a possibility of that changing as he learns the position over the summer. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea has certainly left the door open for just such a development, or even the emergence of incoming-freshman Derrik Allen.

“The depth back there has yet to really take shape and we’re not in a hurry to dictate who is the 1 and who is the 2,” Lea said Tuesday. “… Those guys have a lot on their plate, it takes some time. They need some time to be able to execute those responsibilities at a high level. We’re getting to that point, I don’t think we’re all the way there yet.”

Learning who the starting duo is, and who fills in the second unit — be it still Genmark-Heath or Coleman, or rising-junior Devin Studstill or rising-senior Nicco Fertitta — the concerns of tackling from the position or attacking the ball in the air will be naturally included. Elliott’s physical gifts have long been evident, but he has lacked in both those areas. If he trots out with the starting defense but does not exhibit improvement in both categories, that will be portend another year of poor play along the defense’s back line, no matter what Lea may say publicly.

“I do think we’re not doing as much to adjust for the need for time to let them come along,” he said. “I think we’re allowed to get back into what is the base of the package, which is exciting.”

Notre Dame had a strong defense in 2017. Aside from the precarious positions offensive turnovers put the defense in at Miami and Stanford, it rarely buckled. Realizing the defense played that well while only occasionally getting into its most basic package because the safety play was so dismal is a sobering conclusion. It is also a tantalizing thought of what could come in 2018 with nine returning starters and improved safety play.

Lastly, who be the fourth Irish captain? When Kelly named fifth-year center Sam Mustipher, fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome and fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill captains early in spring practice, he said a fourth would be voted upon by the team as spring came to its close.

At that point, the most-likely candidates, all rising seniors or fifth-year graduates, seemed to be defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te’von Coney, left guard Alex Bars, quarterback Brandon Wimbush, tight end Nic Weishar or cornerback Nick Watkins. Rising-junior cornerback Julian Love’s talent alone made him an outside contender.

As spring practice has progressed, reading between the lines might reduce that pool to three front-runners of Tillery, Coney and Bars. The first two of those three have had disciplinary issues during their time at Notre Dame, oftentimes an exclusionary factor in this conversation. To hear offensive line coach Jeff Quinn on the issue, the fourth captain should be Bars.

“Anytime your big guys run the program, I think you always have a better chance of succeeding,” Quinn said Thursday.

Two more quick-hitters:
— How will Coney fare in pass coverage?
Coney may not play that much this weekend. He does not need to prove anything in the 15th spring practice, while his backups need every rep they can get. When Coney is on the field though, watching him in coverage against any of the Irish tight ends could be revelatory. Lea has put the onus on himself for Coney’s past coverage woes.

“Coverage is a product of teaching,” Lea said. “Coverage deficiency can be a product of teaching deficiency. … Some guys do it naturally and some guys don’t, they have other things they have strength with. … As a unit, we’ve put a focus here on the end of spring practice in playing better in coverage and as a result, we’re seeing that play out in skeleton and team periods.”

— Will the receivers flash any speed?
When it comes to the positioning and usage of unique talents, the mismatches created by Armstrong and Davis may be the most predictive, but Notre Dame lost much of its outside speed with the departures of Equanimeous St. Brown (to the NFL) and Kevin Stepherson (to repeated disciplinary issues). The defensive headaches caused by those two-back sets are best taken advantage of when a receiver can also take the top off a defense. Rising-sophomore Michael Young and rising-senior Chris Finke are both quick and shifty, but neither has shown truly top-end speed to this point. Despite his 6-foot-4, 227-pound, frame, rising-senior Miles Boykin has apparently improved his burst quite a bit this offseason. Fifth-year Freddy Canteen landed on the Irish roster last offseason largely due to his natural speed, before injury cut short his first season with the Irish.

Can any of them single-handedly alter a defense’s coverage, or will Notre Dame need to turn to incoming freshmen for that threat?

Notre Dame announces two-game series with Alabama

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A decade from now, Notre Dame and Alabama will meet in the regular season for the first time since 1987, a 37-6 victory for the Irish. Notre Dame announced a home-and-home series with the Crimson Tide for 2028 and 2029. Both contests will open their respective seasons.

Notre Dame Stadium will host the first leg of the series Sept. 2, 2028. The Irish will then travel to Tuscaloosa for the first time in program history Sept. 1, 2029.

Of course, Notre Dame and Alabama most-recently met in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami to conclude the 2012 season. It remains hard for Irish fans to forget how that game went.

Considering Tide head coach Nick Saban is currently 66 years old and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is entering his ninth season with the Irish, neither is likely to be at the helm in 2028.

Instead of acknowledging who will not be holding a clipboard for the two-game tilt, it can be worth pondering who will be, albeit with a tongue planted firmly in one’s cheek.

And who will be playing? This scribe’s nephew is in first grade. He will be a freshman in college in 2029, presuming he continues to get the grades to gain admission for a post-secondary education.

On a more serious note, adding Alabama to the schedule continues a deliberate effort by Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick to get more SEC contests on the schedule in years to come. The Irish will face Vanderbilt in 2018, Georgia in 2019, Arkansas in 2020 and 2025, and Texas A&M in 2024 and 2025. Notre Dame also hosted Georgia in 2017.

This plan is a part of Swarbrick’s hopes of having data points against four of the Power Five conferences each year, with the SEC and the Big 12 the conferences needing a bit more foresight and extra effort in order to get on the schedule. The Irish already face five ACC teams per year, two Pac-12 programs in Stanford and USC each season and have Big Ten matchups scheduled through at least 2028 already. No Big 12 games are currently scheduled, though Notre Dame recently concluded home-and-home series with both Oklahoma and Texas.

As linebacker depth questions persist, Notre Dame turns to a safety

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Go back a month in this space and of the biggest questions entering Notre Dame’s spring practices, a defensive reserve merited mentioning. “Another early-enrolled freshman could be the answer to the question of, who will be the fourth linebacker?”

It looks less and less likely the Irish will rely on a freshman to provide the entirety of depth at linebacker. For that matter, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea does not expect to need one backup to learn multiple positions a la Te’von Coney at the beginning of last season.

(In the above photo, Coney, No. 4, is featured, as the defense will do this season. In the background, Asmar Bilal, No. 22, can be seen as a factor in the play, a defensive hope in 2018.)

Between Coney, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, Lea had three capable linebackers to fill the two interior positions in 2017. By cross-training Coney at both Mike and Buck, the Irish did not need to lean on any other substitute.

“In some ways, that’s unfair at times because the Mike and Buck, though conceptually tied together, they’re different,” Lea said Tuesday. “Different body types, different people. We’d rather not do that. We’d rather not go three-for-two. We’d rather go two-for-two and make it like a hockey line (substitution). That would be the way it would work best. I’m not sure how that’s going to shape up right now.”

Throughout spring, the presumption was rising-senior Asmar Bilal would both start at rover and provide injury-protection depth along the interior, with fifth-year Drue Tranquill starting at Buck and remaining a break-in-case-of-emergency option at rover, his 2017 position. Such a scenario still needed a fourth linebacker to offer some snaps of rest for the starters. Either one of the three early-enrolled freshmen would need to grasp that task or rising-junior Jonathan Jones would claim it.

“They know they’re competing for a chance to play,” Lea said. “Where [Jones] might have fallen into a lull mid-spring, I think here in the last few days he’s come out here and really changed his game.”

Joining Jones this week, rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath moved up a level from the safeties to try his hand at linebacker. Per Lea, the move mirrors Bilal’s cross-training on the interior — Notre Dame would rather know what it has available long before it is needed.

“We don’t move a guy unless we identify things that he brings to the table that allow him to be successful,” Lea said. “It’s not just throwing paint at the wall. We’ve seen him play in a manner that we know he can handle the Buck position. I would argue he’s looked very natural there.

“… You know what he can do for you at safety, too, so we’re not closing our eyes to that possibility. You have a short window here where you have a chance to get a look at somebody who makes you more athletic at the second level.”

The mixing and matching of the Irish linebacker reserves will continue for at least the rest of this week, and almost certainly into preseason practices. Unlike the beginning of spring practice, however, it does not hinge on only one name, and the early-enrollees are not seen as the saving graces.

Instead Jones may back up Coney, Genmark-Heath support Tranquill and either rising-sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah or classmate Isaiah Robertson provide depth behind Bilal.

“You always want the ability through the course of the season to have your best three on the field,” Lea said. “You always want to have an idea of what that three look like if injury happens or if a young player comes along and how you can shift and shape the pieces to ensure that you’re at your competitive best.”