Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Army

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NEW YORK — As the Irish started their jog for the Yankee’s dugout after the game, strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo gave defensive coordinator Bob Diaco a very large bear hug. This was one of those jubilant celebratory embraces, the byproduct of both men’s work culminating in another absolutely dominant defensive performance and a 27-3 win for Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night.

It was Diaco’s defense that won the game for the Irish, stiffening after giving up a 17 play, 78-yard drive on Army’s opening drive that culminated in a field goal and a 3-0 lead for the Black Knights. But Diaco’s troops countered, playing inspired defense and answering any questions posed by the doubters who wondered if Diaco had the chops to stop an option attack that was similar to the one that carved up an Irish defense just 28 days ago.

While Diaco produced the scheme, it was Longo’s work that allowed the Irish to dominate the line of scrimmage and out-physical an undersized team that frankly should have been pushed around. This Irish defense, still missing missing two key cogs on the interior with nose tackle Ian Williams out and Carlo Calabrese incredibly limited, has given up only one touchdown in the last 13 quarters, none in the month of November, and came up with their own score for the first time since Robert Blanton ran back an interception against Purdue in 2008.  Here is the Irish defense that Brian Kelly promised Irish fans that Longo would deliver, a group that would physically win the battles and play better in November than they did in September, something Irish fans haven’t seen in a long time.

With six wins, the Irish have officially qualified for a post-season bowl game, and now head to Los Angeles for an intriguing finale against Lane Kiffin’s USC Trojans. Before we turn the page to Southern Cal, let’s take a look at the five things we learned in Notre Dame’s 27-3 victory.

1. Tommy Rees is the perfect triggerman for Brian Kelly’s offense.

Before the game, Irish quarterbacks Nate Montana, Andrew Hendrix, and Tommy Rees took turns throwing patterns to the Irish receiving corp. Montana spun relaxed spirals that reminded you who his father was. Hendrix looked like the impressive athlete with the quick release that Irish fans drooled over during last season’s recruiting. And Tommy Rees looked like an 18-year-old kid slinging the ball around North Quad with his roommates.

But the pride of Dillon Hall is the perfect fit for Brian Kelly’s spread attack. Since taking over the reins of the offense, Rees has piloted the Irish offense in a way that Dayne Crist couldn’t, and it’s a testament to Rees’ preternatural football IQ, not his physical prowess.

Rees throws a wobbly football with not a particularly strong throwing arm, but he’s quick with his decisions, calm in the pocket, and most often very smart with his reads. Throw out Rees’ interception on the game’s opening drive, and the true freshman played a wonderfully efficient game. He bought time in the pocket, opening up the crossing routes needed to beat Army’s man coverage. He showed touch on deep throws to Tyler Eifert, moving the offense vertically. He even showed savvy when things went wrong, eating the ball on a low snap and taking the occasional negative play instead of compounding the error trying to do too much.

Rees has a week to prepare for the two-headed monster of Monte Kiffin and Ed Orgeron, and skill and speed at defense that he hasn’t seen yet. But Rees seems truly like a freshman that won’t come unglued steering the Irish offense, even if you question if he’s old enough to legally drive it.

2. Bob Diaco has turned this defense around.

While his largest challenge will come next Saturday, it’s been nine quarters since Bob Diaco and the Irish have given up a touchdown. The last time that’s happened? The 1988 National Championship team. That’s a downright shocking statistic, and if you asked Irish fans if that was possible using personnel that remained largely unchanged from the S.S. Tenuta, they’ve have laughed at you.

But Diaco has turned this defense around stressing the simplicity of the message, and his defense has stopped thinking and started reacting.

After five first downs on their opening drive, Army was only able to get three more for the rest of the ballgame, with the Irish defense holding the Knights offense to less than 100 yards for the remaining three-plus quarters. The defense held Army fullback Jared Hassin to just 23 yards on eight carries and quarterback Trent Steelman to just 24 yards on 14 carries before knocking him out of the game. How dominant was the Irish’s performance stopping the run? Consider that the two longest plays on the ground for Army — a Steelman run of 16 yards and backup quarterback Max Jenkins’ 18-yard scamper — came on broken pass plays, with both quarterbacks forced to run away from a stout pass rush.

After going 1-8 the past two seasons in November, the Irish are 2-0 this month, playing their best football as the season comes to a close.

3. The Irish have guaranteed themselves that the season doesn’t end next Saturday.

It’s still far too difficult to determine where Notre Dame will be playing during bowl season, but the Irish have guaranteed that they’ll be playing somewhere, something that didn’t seem all that possible a few weeks ago when Irish fans wondered how Notre Dame would be able to win two of its final three football games.

(Consider that the Irish might also be facing USC without the services of quarterback Matt Barkley, who was carted off the field after suffering a high ankle sprain.)

Still, while a pre-New Years bowl game was hardly the goal, the Irish getting to the postseason guarantees something far more important: 15 more practices.

“As you continue to develop your program, those 15 practices are very important,” Kelly said after the game. “Now, if I brought that up in the locker room, my players don’t want to hear about 15 more practices. They want to hear about what’s the bowl destination. but as you continue to build and develop your program, those are important, but also getting to a bowl game and continuing to build off of the month of November.”

It’s not hard to see young talent developing before our very eyes as the season progresses and the Irish battle multiple injuries. Fifteen more practices — the equivalent of another spring season — will mean the world to the 2011 Fighting Irish.

4. Brian Kelly understands the importance of stability, depth and development.

Nobody should jump to conclusions after stirring victories over Utah and Army, but if Brian Kelly is going to succeed at Notre Dame, it’s because he understands that three critical facets of playing winning college football are stability, depth and development.

In a calendar year that’s seen incredible upheaval, consider the steady hand that Kelly has used to guide this program. While fans have questioned his gambling mentality and his refusal to change on Saturdays, Kelly and his staff have remained consistent.

“It’s a culmination of just the same message,” Kelly said after the game. “I know it’s boring and it’s not a great story for you. But it’s just a consistency in our approach every single day. Guys are really understanding where they fit and how to play the game.”

If stability is paramount, Kelly’s ability to develop depth is something that Irish fans should be very happy about. Consider Robby Toma. The proverbial Little Mac of the Irish roster, Toma made four catches for 63 yards, continuing to make big plays in place of injured slot receivers Theo Riddick and TJ Jones. Here’s a low-star player, a recruiting afterthought, putting together big games for the Irish, when it’s usually the Irish getting less with more talent than just about every major program in college football.

5. Another neutral site game, another success for Notre Dame.

There are still those that think giving up a home game is stupidity defined, but if tonight’s game in Yankee Stadium proved anything, it’s that these neutral site games are a huge positive for the University of Notre Dame. With thousands of Irish fans invading Manhattan, Notre Dame’s game in Yankee Stadium took on the  same barnstorming feel that helped create the Irish brand to begin with. While ESPN decided to focus its attention on a game being played in one end zone at Wrigley Field, tonight’s event at Yankee Stadium was electric.

“A night like tonight reinforces our goal of continuously bringing memorable, meaningful events to Yankee Stadium and the Bronx throughout the years to come,” Yankees managing partner Hal Steinbrenner said. “We want to thank and commend Notre Dame and Army for their dedication and desire in bringing a historic night of football to Yankee Stadium. We can think of no two finer educational institutions to christen our new home with the great game of football. Their impact on the landscape of our nation — scholastically, athletically and through service — cannot be overstated enough.”

While tonight’s game didn’t amount to much on the football field, the atmosphere surrounding Yankee Stadium reminds everyone that Notre Dame is still the premium brand in college football, and the 50th meeting between Army and the Irish was one to remember.

 

 

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Associated Press
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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

rivals.com
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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

Associated Press
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A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills