Ken Niumatalolo, Emmett Merchant

Pregame six pack: Navy edition

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Backed into a corner, Brian Kelly‘s first Irish football team overcame a ton of adversity before finishing last season in style. Facing Todd Graham’s Tulsa squad just days after the death of Declan Sullivan, the Irish lost their starting quarterback in the opening minutes of the game before losing in the final seconds. Given a bye week to gather itself, the 2010 edition of the Irish went on to win their final four games, finishing the season in style.

With the Irish sitting at 4-3, the 2011 Irish have a chance to avenge one of their worst defeats from last year. But don’t expect Kelly to find too many parallels between last year’s challenges and those that face this team.

“Last year’s team overcame adversity,” Kelly said. “This year’s team needs to overcome itself. They need to play better consistently. Adversity to me is a bigger picture. We had adversity last year. This year, our guys just need to play better football.”

It’s a simple solution to grasp. Achieving it has proven to be much tougher. Both Notre Dame and Navy come into this Saturday’s game with a bad taste in their mouths. We’ve spent plenty of time talking about Notre Dame’s disappointing loss to USC. Navy has had its own string of disappointing defeats, the latest coming last Saturday against East Carolina.

As Notre Dame puts its finishing touches on prepping for the dreaded triple-option of the Midshipmen, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to take on Navy at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

***

Don’t hold your breath on the Jumbotron. But a new playing surface might be right around the corner.

Earlier in the week, Brian Kelly got some Irish traditionalists up in arms with his open embrace of a Jumbotron in Notre Dame Stadium.

“Eventually, we want a big Jumbotron in there,” Kelly said. “We think that’s going to be something that adds to the atmosphere, too. It won’t be my decision to make. I can only give you my thoughts, and I think I have sprinkled that in the conversations. I don’t think it’s a mystery that we would like that, but it’s not going to be my call.”

Opponents of a video-board seem to think that it’ll turn the “stadium experience” into some kind of slimy commercialized product-placement fest. Proponents see it as an obvious way to keep the fans engaged, promote the unparalleled traditions and history Notre Dame has, while actually helping people see what happened on the field.

(If you were at Yankee Stadium last year, you’ll know how great it was. Come to think of it, if you were at the Compton Family Ice Arena last weekend, you’d have seen it first hand, too.)

Any number of the Irish’s main corporate partners would be happy to help offset the cost of the video board. That said, don’t look for a video-board anytime in the near future. But when it comes to a new field surface, that change might not be too far away.

One source close to the football program has told me that Notre Dame will begin serious research on replacing the stadium’s natural grass as soon as the season finishes. No option has been taken off the table yet — keeping the natural surface is certainly still in play. So is replacing the grass with field turf, the surface already on the LaBar practice fields.

An interesting option that might make everybody happy is a surface to what the Packers use in Green Bay. It’s a natural grass surface that’s also reinforced with man-made synthetic fibers, that’s set on a sand-based soil.

Beneath the field is a heating system, irrigation lines and drainage system that has turned the surface into some of the best and safest in the NFL. It’s also designed to keep the grass and ground at 55 degrees even on a day when the temperature is well below freezing.

After years of mediocre playing surfaces often times holding back the athleticism on Notre Dame’s sidelines, any change to the current grass would be a good one. And at a place like Lambeau Field, where tradition also has its own very important place, the Irish might have a perfect match.

***

Stop the fullback, win the game.

Two years ago, it was Vince Murray. Last year it was Alexander Teich. Whoever it is, the Irish need to tackle the fullback.

In Charlie Weis and Jon Tenuta’s last game against the Midshipmen, Murray averaged 11.3 yards a carry — a career game for the Navy fullback. Last year, Teich went for a career high 210 yards on 26 carries.

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco knows the pressure is on his unit, a year after allowing 367 yards on the ground, the most ever by Navy in the 85 year history of this rivalry.

“They’ve seen every single thing that can be done to defend the offense,” Diaco said of the challenges Navy presents. “There are only a few things that can be done, so effort and fundamentally sound football and a clear understanding of the plan, and it always helps to get the team off schedule.”

As we mentioned yesterday, Navy will be without Kris Proctor, the Midshipmen’s leading rusher with 591 yards and 8 touchdowns. And while Teich got off to a quick start before he was suspended for the Southern Miss game, he’s had a modest 30 carries for 110 yards in the two games since, numbers the Irish would certainly take on Saturday.

Still — The Midshipmen have had a fullback come out of the woodwork in each of the last two years to star. If they can stop that from happening, they’ll be in good shape.

***

Putting together winning streaks hasn’t been easy.

People hardly noticed, but the loss to Southern Cal broke just the second four-game winning streak that the Irish have had since back in 2006. Up until the closing four games of the season, this senior class just hasn’t been able to string together victories, something that’s frustrated Kelly and this coaching staff.

“They either can’t do it or won’t do it, and I’ve got to cure the can’ts and the won’ts, and that’s the process,” Kelly said. “We’re a work in progress. We’re working through it. We can win three or four in a row, but we can’t string together seven or eight or nine or 10 in a row. I want to string together 12 and 13 in a row. We can string together three or four and that’s not good enough.”

Kelly used the “can’t and won’t” parallel a few times on Thursday, making an interesting distinction on players that can be taught the right way to do things and players that simply won’t do things the right way. He said it’s his job to teach those that want to learn and leave behind those that won’t. It’ll be interesting to monitor if there are veterans that suddenly see the field less in the coming weeks.

“It’s not about being physical,” Kelly said about adjusting his practices in hopes of getting consistent play. “It’s about being accountable, it’s about doing it the right way all the time, and we’re in that conscious incompetent stage.”

***

Even in the midst of a ugly run, Navy’s got a chance to set a school record.

With a 2-5 record and victories against only Delaware and Western Kentucky, the Midshipmen look every bit the twenty-point underdog that Las Vegas considers them. But there’s every reason to believe that Navy will consider this the biggest game left on their schedule, even taking into consideration the Army game that always closes the season.

If Navy wins on Saturday, it’ll be the first time in school history that Navy would defeat the Irish in three consecutive games. It’d also mark the first time the Midshipmen have won three straight games in South Bend. A victory would give Navy four wins in five tries after losing an NCAA record 43 times in a row.

“We’re at the lowest of the lows,” Navy defensive captain Jabaree Tuani said after losing another heartbreaker to East Carolina. “I know this team has a great fighting spirit and will continue to work.”

With everybody in the stadium concentrating on the Navy triple-option, sophomore quarterback Trey Miller might give the Navy offense an added dimension.

“In every one of their games, they’ve hit the shot pass for a TD,” Kelly said. “They’re going to get matchups to throw the ball. The option game isn’t just the run game, you’ve gotta stop the pass game too.”

Irish fans still cringe thinking about one-on-one pass coverage, especially on underthrown routes. While Miller might give the Irish a break on their true option responsibilities, his ability to throw could add another wrinkle to the game plan.

***

The Navy defense is there for the taking.

If you’re looking for a reason that the Midshipmen have fallen back to earth after an astounding run, the defensive stats tell the story:

  • 103rd in rushing defense
  • 111th in passing efficiency defense
  • 95th in total defense
  • 83rd in scoring defense
  • 110th in sacks
  • 117th in TFLs.

The defensive ineptitude is even more incredible when you consider that Navy possesses the ball for over 31 minutes a game, only about 20 seconds less than they did last year. But Buddy Green‘s unit is injury ravaged, a horrible mix when you’re already dealing with subpar talent. Green has talked about changing things up as he prepares for a talented Irish offense.

“The changes we’re talking about are basically personnel. We’re out of linebackers. We’re running low on corners. We’ve got defensive linemen banged up,” Green told the Annapolis Capital Gazette. “We’re looking at getting personnel in different places because we’ve got so many people hurt. We’re trying to find the right places for everyone and pulling together a two-deep.”

The Irish don’t expect to completely shut down the Navy offense. But the Irish should be able to dominate both on the ground and in the air against Navy. It’ll just be up to them to convert their opportunities in the red zone.

***

The future is now for Tuitt, Lynch, and Hounshell.

Needless to say, the earliest anybody saw a starting trio of Aaron Lynch, Louis Nix, and Stephon Tuitt was in 2012, not after seven games of their first season. But that’s the way 2011 has played out, with Sean Cwynar limited for much of the year with a broken hand, Ethan Johnson hobbled by a high ankle sprain, and now Kapron Lewis-Moore sidelined with knee surgery.

“”It is what it is, I’m not making an excuse for it,” Diaco said this week. “The young guys are playing roles they really shouldn’t have to be playing right now. They’re really not ready to play the amount of reps they’re having to play each week.”

But that certainly won’t stop them. Expect a healthy dose of Lynch, Tuitt, Chase Hounshell and probably Troy Niklas as well on Saturday. That group will have to go up against the strength of Navy’s football team, an offensive line that propels one of the nation’s best rushing attacks.

“It’s an outstanding offensive line,” Kelly said. “It’s much better than Air Force’s offensive line. That’s the strength of this team, those returning starters. They can control the ball.”

For Tuitt, we’ve already seen that he can succeed playing against an option team, as he was active against Air Force. Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune points out that it was likely from Tuitt’s experience playing for a high school team that ran the trip option itself.

“Our own offense is triple-option, so in spring practice and for the first three weeks of fall camp, he saw it and played against it every day,” high school coach Matt Figg told Hansen. “He was so good at it in high school, he could take the dive and the pitch.”

Just as important as Tuitt, Lynch needs to rebound after doing more to hurt the Irish than help them last week. Lynch let his frustration get the best of him, committing his fourth personal foul of the season, a number that speaks to a freshman needed to gain some maturity.

With a front line on the field that’s a year or two from being ready, Kelly didn’t seem to worked up about his personnel choices.

“You’d rather have veterans in there, but those guys will be fine,” Kelly said.

Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.

Five things we learned: Signing Day 2016

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. Kelly has agreed to a six-year contract to stay on as coach at Notre Dame through 2021, the school announced Friday, Jan. 29,2 016.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
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There were no last minute defections. No roller coaster recruits or down-to-the-wire decisions. Heck, there were no fax machines—with Notre Dame ditching the office dinosaur for a wireless, smart phone option.

Brian Kelly inked another Top 10 recruiting class on Wednesday. And he did so in decidedly uneventful fashion.

“It’s awesome. I think that everybody should try it once in their career,” Kelly said.

So while Kelly and the Irish staff hold out hope that 5-star talents Caleb Kelly and Demetris Robertson still decide to spend their college careers in South Bend, the 23-man class announced Wednesday was another Top 10 effort and a step in the right direction for a program on very stable ground.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s staff continued to focus on rebuilding the secondary and rushing the passer. 

Yes, Brian Kelly saw what you saw—a group that struggled getting to the passer or to field a nickel or dime personnel grouping. So they countered that in the best way they knew how: By continuing to stockpile talent.

Notre Dame added seven defensive backs and four edge defenders in the cycle. They include safeties Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill and cornerbacks Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn. Perhaps just as important is the impression some of these defenders made in their time on campus, with Kelly pointing to Elliott and Studstill’s work during summer camp really making them must-have recruits.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting,” Kelly said. “Same thing with Devin Studstill. His skill level was of corner-like ability but had the size of the safety, and so our guys went right to them early on, and that was a focal point because we got a chance to see them up close and personal.”

At defensive end, the Irish welcome 5-star recruit Daelin Hayes, getting him on campus as he recovers from shoulder surgery. He’s joined by former Alabama commit Khalid Kareem, the strongside counterpart that is an early candidate to see the field, especially as the staff looks for someone to spell Isaac Rochell for a few snaps. Longer-term prospects include a few speed rushers—Julian Okwara (younger brother of Romeo) and Ade Ogundeji, a long-limbed, below-the-radar edge rusher.

“We’re pretty excited about the potential for some guys in this class that can answer some four-man pass rush needs that we do have,” Kelly said.

 

It may not be the biggest group, but Brian Kelly is excited about his offensive line—especially the guys he pulled from Ohio State’s backyard. 

Three recruits in the offensive line class point to a big 2017 at the position. But the three the Irish did sign—guard Parker Boudreaux and tackles Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer—have Kelly very happy.

“Parker Boudreaux has that physical presence inside like, and I’m not comparing him, but he’s a Quinton Nelson in terms of size and physicality,” Kelly said. “And then two edge guys with Liam and Tommy on the outside. Those two kids are as good as you’re going to find in the country, and couldn’t be more excited to have two kids from the state of Ohio, from two great Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Cincinnati Elder from the state of Ohio.”

Both Eichenberg and Kraemer were priority targets for Urban Meyer and company, with neither wavering after committing to Notre Dame. Kraemer was Ohio’s Gatorade Player of the Year and an Army All-American. He’ll be able to step into the two-deep immediately, capable of playing up front if the Irish need him. Eichenberg more than held his own at the Under Armour All-American game and has a high ceiling, especially as he learns the game under Hiestand.

It doesn’t take away the sting of the Fiesta Bowl. But it’s a nice consolation prize.

 

Irish legacies Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara may have big brothers who played for Brian Kelly, but they earned scholarships on their own. 

Classmates Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara will turn over the reins to their younger brothers, linebacker Jamir Jones and defensive end Julian Okwara. The younger duo’s commitments felt all but inevitable throughout this recruiting cycle—even if that wasn’t always the case.

Jones had to come to camp to earn a scholarship. Having played quarterback and tight end as a high school standout in Rochester, the defensive staff had to see how he moved before they could find a position for him to play.

Similarly, Okwara’s journey to Notre Dame shouldn’t be taken for granted. While his older brother leaves Notre Dame the team’s leading quarterback sacker, Julian has a better natural pass rush skill-set than the 2015 team-leader.

“Julian can separate himself in a way because he has an elite initial movement and speed that Romeo has had to try and develop,” Mike Elston said in Okwara’s Signing Day video. “Romeo has the size and the power and the aggressiveness, but Julian can really add value for us right away.”

Kelly talked about how important it was to not just land this duo, but to have them already understand what the journey is that lies ahead.

“We didn’t recruit them because their brothers were here. We recruited them because we thought they were players that fit here at Notre Dame that would be very successful,” Kelly said. “Obviously it helps when their brothers have a great experience here and really enjoy their Notre Dame experience as a student and as an athlete, so that helps you in the recruiting… those kids really fit and can stand on their own two feet.”

 

Even without Demetris Robertson in the fold, Notre Dame’s receiving class is a group to watch. 

You want productivity? Throw on a highlight tape of Javon McKinley. You want an intriguing set of physical tools? Look no further than Chase Claypool. You want a sleeper prospect who out-performed every elite prospect who came to the Irish Invasion camp? Then your man is Kevin Stepherson.

Most of the attention on Signing Day was the fate of 5-star receiver Demetris Robertson. But the trio of athletes that’ll reload the receiving corps is a group that deserves recognition even without an additional infusion.

McKinley provided the day’s only scare when his smart phone struggled to send his signature via electronic fax. Claypool sent his national letter of intent in the day after scoring 51 points on the basketball court. And Stepherson is already taking part in team workouts in Paul Longo’s strength facilities, getting a jump start with the spring semester and 15 practices as the Irish try to figure out what life looks like after Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

After Fuller left campus early on the back of two record-setting two seasons, Kelly said his staff has become more and more comfortable with the fact that his skill players need to develop quickly—especially with the allure of the NFL just ahead.

“If you’re really that good, you may not be here very long, and we hope that you’re here for four years and you stay, but you’ve got to be ready to compete,” Kelly said. “So our expectation in the recruiting process is for the wide receiver group to come in and compete to get on the field and be a player for us immediately.”

That’ll happen whether or not Robertson is a part of this group.

 

Amidst significant transition on both the coaching staff and recruiting office, Notre Dame managed a Top 10 class. Expect things to only get better from here. 

Let’s go back to Signing Day 2015. Within 24 hours of Brian Kelly’s press conference, he was dealing with two major changes—recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was out the door to Ohio State and Kerry Cooks was headed to Oklahoma. Two aces on the staff were gone, forcing the Irish to not just replace long-time staffers, but to find new area recruiters for the state of Texas and Alford’s stronghold in Florida.

Kelly brought in first-year college assistant Todd Lyght to work with defensive backs. He tapped the school’s rushing leader Autry Denson to handle the backs and duke it out in Florida. Mike Sanford shook up the offense as Bob Elliott moved into an off-field position. But perhaps just as important as those moves, Kelly turned over the administrative reins to Mike Elston, who moved into a recruiting coordinator position he had filled for his boss back at Cincinnati.

Elston had to reorganize a staff that saw relationships walk out the door and reboot a recruiting effort that saw significant changes behind the scenes. And in short order things got back on track and have progressed to the point that the Irish are ahead of the game, setting junior days and summer camp dates earlier than ever.

For those paying attention, they’ve noticed the improvements. Notre Dame has paid more attention to messaging—staffers more active on Twitter. There have been improvements on Instagram, Facebook and Vine—platforms that might sound like gobbledygook to grownups, but are critical pieces to a year-long recruiting effort. That should help this staff press ahead in 2017, a recruiting class that already has five members.

“With that team that we’ve put together, we’re not going to look back. It’s only going to get better,” Kelly said.

It was Elston that engineered the equipment truck visit to Savannah, a late-game recruiting move that drew a lot of attention to Notre Dame. It was recruiters like Denson who went to Alabama and got a visit out of Ben Davis, a Crimson Tide legacy who gave the Irish a much longer look than anybody could have expected. And it’s no surprise that a former Pro Bowler and first-round draft pick like Lyght was able to reel in a large group of defensive backs eager to learn from a guy who was a clear success story.

“I think each and every year, you hope that this group is the best group you’ve ever recruited,” Kelly said. “I’m hoping for that again.”

 

Faxes in: Liam Eichenberg

Liam Eichenberg
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LIAM EICHENBERG
Cleveland, Ohio

Measurables: 6’6″, 280 lbs.

Accolades: 4-Star, Under Armour All-American, 2015 MaxPreps first-team All-American, 2015 American Family Insurance All-USA Ohio, AP All-Ohio Division I first-team.

Impressive Offers: Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Tennessee

Projected Position: Offensive tackle.

Quick Take: Another offensive tackle with sky-high potential, Notre Dame snatched Eichenberg out from under Urban Meyer’s nose, bringing in yet another blue-chipper for Harry Hiestand to mold. More of a developmental project than Kraemer, Eichenberg’s upside could be just as lofty, especially after some time in a weight room and on the practice field.

What he means to the Irish: With numbers at tackle on the light side, Eichenberg won’t be asked to get on the field, but he might start his career in the two deep behind Mike McGlinchey. That could take away a redshirt if things go wrong, but the view from behind McGlinchey is a good spot for him, learning behind another talented athlete who came to campus as a developmental prospect but will enter his senior season (McGlinchey has two years of eligibility remaining) as a legit NFL prospect.

Eichenberg has the same kind of ceiling. He’ll just need to keep improving—something that he’s shown after a strong Under Armour All-American week in Orlando.

Obligatory YouTube clip: