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.

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well put.

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

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

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

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

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

Cue end of rant.

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

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

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

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

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

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

RELATED READING:
Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.