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.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

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