Russell and Neal will get looks at cornerback


There’s no question that Notre Dame lacks quality depth at cornerback heading into the season. Needing to replace both Robert Blanton and Gary Gray, the Irish will look to first year starter Bennett Jackson on the short-side of the field as Lo Wood and Josh Atkinson will take their competition for the field cornerback position into training camp.

With converted running back Cam McDaniel added to the mix this spring, and Jalen Brown looking the part but still learning, the Irish essentially have five cornerbacks with zero experience that’ll need to hold passing games in check if Notre Dame has BCS aspirations. That sound you hear? It could be quarterbacks Landry Jones and Matt Barkley, two Heisman Trophy candidates, getting ready for a signature game opportunity.

With Tee Shepard never making it into a Notre Dame uniform, Ronald Darby defecting after a long standing commitment to the Irish and Yuri Wright and Anthony Standifer kept out for non-football considerations, Kerry Cooks’ cornerbacks will need to hold down the fort until reinforcements come in 2013.

Unless of course those reinforcements are already on campus.

Head coach Brian Kelly revealed that talented two-way freshmen Davonte Neal and Keivarae Russell will both get a look on the defensive side of the ball, potentially adding some dynamic depth (albeit youthful) to the rotation, while the running back and slot positions are filled with proven talent.

“I think we’ve got to have all of the options open when we go into camp,” Kelly told the South Bend Tribune. “With those two kids in particular we’ve had conversations with them to be flexible.

“We’re going to do what’s best for our team. I think everybody knows where we need to continue to build some depth in certain areas. We’re going to keep open-minded and give them an opportunity to compete.”

It’s a common sense move, especially considering the depth chart Neal and Russell find themselves walking into on the offensive side of the ball. Neal was recruited by some colleges as a two-way player and many see the 5-foot-10, 175-pounder to be a potential lockdown cornerback.

Russell, who showed tremendous versatility during his high school career, is also said to be coming into South Bend with an open mind.

“He didn’t go in there thinking he wanted to be one spot,” Mariner High head coach Dave Odrizack told “He didn’t go in thinking, ‘I want to be a corner,’ or ‘I want to be a running back.’ He just went in to be a football player.”

At 6-foot, 180-pounds, Russell has the size coveted by Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. He’s also showed good speed, running in the state finals of the 100m dash and having a vertical leap of 37-inches. He saw time all over the field and on both sides of the ball as a running back, receiver, cornerback and safety, making any transition a little bit easier.

Of course, after having no depth at safety the past two seasons, the Irish will now have a whopping 12 scholarship safeties this season. Even with Austin Collinsworth lost for the season, you’ve got to think the coaching staff will be looking for candidates to play on the edge of the defense as well. That might mean talented rising sophomore Eilar Hardy could get a look. It could also mean that Jamoris Slaughter still dabbles at cornerback, entrusting the alignment duties to fellow senior Zeke Motta.

Even with two returning starters, the cornerbacks disappointed in 2011, with Gray regressing in his final season at Notre Dame. There’s no room for regression with this group, as each candidate will go in essentially a blank slate.

We’ll find out in a few months if that’s a good thing.

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”