Five things we learned: Notre Dame 56, Navy 14

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With a tip of the cap to Mark Twain, perhaps the reports of Notre Dame’s internal revolt were greatly exaggerated. With much of the last 36 hours dedicated to rumors of a potential implosion inside the Irish locker room, the squad united quickly, putting together their most complete performance of the year as they demolished Navy 56-14 on Saturday afternoon.

“You saw a team that played together,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “I told our team that’s the best collection of plays relative to all 11 players playing together.”

A week after Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood combined for only nine carries, the Irish ran for a staggering seven touchdowns on Saturday afternoon, with Gray running for three and Wood rushing for two.

After losing the past two years to Navy, the Irish put up an astounding 56 points against the Midshipmen while holding them to only 229 yards of total offense. It was the most points for the Irish against Navy since 1994 and the 42 point win was the largest margin of victory since 1987.

Thanks to a dominant performance on both sides of the ball, the Irish righted a ship that seemed to be teetering this week. Let’s find out what else we learned during Notre Dame’s dominant 56-14 victory over Navy.

After an embarrassing Saturday, the Irish just needed to get back on the field.

Nobody inside the Notre Dame football program felt good about last weekend’s performance against USC. After spending a week beating themselves up, they took out their frustrations on Navy.

“They whipped our butts today,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said after the Irish’ 42 point victory. “Not going to make any excuses. That’s my 14th team playing Notre Dame, and that’s the most full butt-whipping. Coach Kelly did a great job getting his guys ready, bouncing back after the USC game. They cam prepared and focused and they got after us in all three phases. They got after us offensively, defensively and special teams. Just a total butt whipping.”

We’ll find out what this afternoon’s performance means, but if it’s any indication, a difficult week of practice and some harsh realities simply put this football team in a bad mood and very eager to prove some doubters wrong.

From the opening series of the game, it was clear the Irish brought incredible intensity to the field, and after stopping a 12-play Navy drive to start the game, the Irish opened the flood gates, jumping to a quick 14 point lead and never looking back.

“Today was a great example of the kind of football — everybody together, everybody playing hard for each other — that’s what we expect,” Kelly said. “We don’t want to just do it for four weeks. We want to do it for eight, ten, 12.”

Bob Diaco has officially exorcised his Navy demons. 

It might get lost amidst the off the field soap opera, but Bob Diaco dialed up the most impressive game plan of his career, shutting down a Navy offense that undressed the young defensive coordinator last year.

Without starting defensive ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore, Diaco spent the majority of the game in a four-man front, putting Prince Shembo and Darius Fleming at end, with Stephon Tuitt, Sean Cwynar, and Louis Nix anchoring the inside.

The front four was key to shutting down a Navy running attack that averaged 325 yards a game and 5.7 yards a carry. The Irish held the Midshipmen to just 196 yards on the ground, and only 3.9 yards a carry on 50 attempts.

“We couldn’t move the ball,” Niumatalolo said. “They stopped us. We couldn’t move the ball which compounded things for our defense because they kept coming on the field and we couldn’t get any conversions.”

Like he did against Air Force, Jamoris Slaughter slid down to outside linebacker, joined by Dan Fox on the other side. While Te’o’s play was excellent, the trio of Tuitt, Nix and Cwynar was really impressive.

“Our front was outstanding,” Kelly said. “Our two inside guys didn’t give much. You’re not going to talk a lot about them, Tuitt and Cwynar, they were really good inside. They took the fullback away and forced the ball out on the perimeter. Those two guys played really well.”

While Aaron Lynch stole most of the preseason publicity, Tuitt has quietly emerged as one of the Irish’s most versatile defensive weapons. His seven tackles from the inside of the defensive line were incredibly impressive, and the freshman has quickly adding another difference-maker to a front seven in need of someone ready to step up.

After taking a lot of heat after last season’s loss, Diaco deserves a ton of credit — showing some great versatility with his defensive structure, and quieting the critics that blasted him last year. The Irish shut down Navy like no other team has done this year, the only team to keep the Midshipmen below 300 yards.

“I think we can put that to rest, about our ability to defend a very, very good football team,” Kelly said.

A week after disappointing, the Irish’s two star players came to play.

It didn’t take long to notice Michael Floyd or Manti Te’o. A week after quiet performances by the Irish’s two star players, both leaders stepped up with dominating performances.

Floyd led Irish receivers with six catches for 121 yards, including a 56 yard touchdown catch on a deep post thrown perfectly by Tommy Rees. He also contributed another score, running a tightrope up the sideline on a quick pass deemed a lateral for a second touchdown. It took just one play to realize that Floyd would present big problems for Navy, with the senior wide receiver beating two tacklers on the first play from scrimmage for 25 easy yards.

“The guy was unbelievable,” Niumatalolo said. “The kid is a complete player. The guy played well. What he did wasn’t a surprise. We knew we had to try to find a way to stop him, but we couldn’t get it done.”

On the other side of the ball, Te’o played one of the most complete games of his career. He led the Irish with 13 tackles, three behind the line of scrimmage, and his nearly error-free performance anchored everything Diaco’s unit did to stop Navy.

“We could not block Manti,” Niumatalolo said. “We have been doing this for a long time. We tried a lot of different schemes and tried a lot of things to block him, but the kid played phenomenal.”

The best way for veteran to lead his team is on the football field. Saturday afternoon, the Irish leaned on their two most important veterans and got everything they needed.

Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray are officially 1A and 1B.

Brian Kelly didn’t make a big deal out of it, but it was Jonas Gray that started in the backfield against Navy, not Cierre Wood. Gray embraced the role, setting the offensive tone with bruising runs of nine, eleven, and six yards, before charging into the endzone on a four-yard run. Four carries, 30 yards, and a touchdown for Gray on the tone-setting drive, numbers that actually hurt his season average.

“He was what we wanted him to be when we talked about how important he was to us when we started the year,” Kelly said of Gray. “He ran physical. He’s got burst, he’s got speed. He breaks tackles. He’s a valuable player, as well as Cierre Wood. Him getting off to a good start — he sets a physical presence for us.”

While neither back busted a long run, Gray and Wood put up almost identical numbers with the duo combining for 23 carries for 135 yards and five rushing touchdowns. More importantly, Gray’s emergence has helped keep Wood fresh, with both backs feeding off each other.

A solid running game is a recipe for red zone success, and Saturday’s seven for seven performance inside the Navy red zone was made possible by a stout running game.

“I think we probably ran the ball a little bit more effectively in those situations,” Kelly said of his teams performance inside the Navy 20. “We put more emphasis on the run game in that area, and i think that is a direction we want to keep moving.”

A week after forgetting about the ground game, everybody in the stadium was reminded that the Irish have a potent rushing attack, something that’ll serve the Irish well as they move into November football.

Brian Kelly has his finger on the pulse of this team better than anybody else.

Brian Kelly wasn’t in the mood to rehash what was said on Friday when he and his football team discussed his controversial comments from Thursday.

“I can tell you that as a family, we all have good days and bad days,” Kelly said after the game. “And you work through that as a family. And we had to work through some things this week. But in the end, like all families, if there’s a disagreement, if there’s any kind of need to communicate, it needs to get done and we did that. We communicated with each other as a team and as a family, and you saw it today. You saw a team that played together.”

While Kelly was mum about what happened behind closed doors, offensive tackle Zack Martin gave a succinct summary of Friday’s events.

“Coach Kelly apologized to us. We took his apology and we were fine with it,” Marin told the Chicago Tribune‘s Brian Hamilton. “He’s our leader.”

It certainly doesn’t pay for a head coach to differentiate between his guys and the previous regimes’ players, the only dicey thing Kelly said in my opinion. But Kelly — one of college football’s most media savvy head coaches — didn’t become stupid over night. Anything he said on Thursday was said for a reason, and it looks to have paid off, as the Irish went out and blew out a Navy team that’s turned one of college football’s most one-sided rivalries on its head in recent years.

While you may not agree with his tactics, Kelly inherited a senior class that was one of the most heralded recruiting groups in the country, yet has played below .500 football up until this point of their career. After replacing a coach that had different rules for different players, Kelly would much rather play bad cop and let a group of assistants he knows and trusts keep the team together, than except mediocrity when pressure is at its highest.

Nowhere in Brian Kelly’s job description does it say he needs to be a players’ coach. After watching his team play undisciplined and lackadaisical football for seven games, Kelly decided to use the media to send a message to the leadership of his football team. The press obliged and the veterans took the bait. Using one of the oldest tricks in the book, Kelly galvanized his team as they head into November.

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.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

RELATED READING:
4 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at QBs (Brandon Wimbush)
Pace of Play: More Snaps Equal More Scoring Chances, Right?

Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.

Te’o to New Orleans; Booker to Nebraska

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Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o has signed a two-year contract with the New Orleans Saints, per reports.

Once recovered from a torn Achilles, Te’o will join a crowded Saints linebacker corps. The Saints signed A.J. Klein—formerly of the Carolina Panthers—to a three-year, $15 million contract earlier in March and return Craig Robertson, who finished 2016 with 115 tackles.

All three have experience at the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 defense, though Klein and Robertson are both capable of playing at the strong side position, as well.

Before his week three injury, Te’o had started 34 of 38 games for the San Diego Chargers and notched 221 career tackles. With the Saints, he rejoins linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who held the same position with the Chargers in 2015 when Te’o finished with a career-high 83 tackles.

BOOKER REJOINS DIACO
It appears former Notre Dame tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Scott Booker will join the Nebraska coaching staff. Two former Irish coaches—defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and safeties coach Bob Elliott—already have seats in the Lincoln coaching room, which is quickly becoming something of a Notre Dame West.

Booker will reportedly join the Cornhuskers staff as a special teams analyst. He served as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator from 2012 to 2016 before this past offseason’s extensive staff changes.

PRO DAY THURSDAY
A reminder: Notre Dame will hold its Pro Day this Thursday. Nine players will partake, obviously highlighted by quarterback DeShone Kizer.

The others: long snapper Scott Daly, running back Tarean Folson, tight end Chase Hounshell, defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, cornerback Cole Luke, safety Avery Sebastian and linebacker James Onwualu.

Kizer hopes to prove himself worthy of a first-round draft pick, while Jones and Rochell may be in the mix for a second-day pick, meaning in the second or third rounds.

As it is draft season, this discussion of why mock drafts exist even though most prognosticators cannot stand them is worth the few minutes needed to read.

MARCH MADNESS UPDATE
The majority of the “Inside the Irish” bracket pool’s leaders escaped the weekend’s chaos, though frontrunner andy44teg will not hold onto that top spot for long after his titlist pick, Duke, exited late the tournament late Sunday.

That will leave some character named Dennis and his North Carolina prediction as the presumptive favorite to win, well, to win absolutely nothing.

Five of the top 10 expect North Carolina to win the championship.