Five things we learned: Notre Dame 50, Navy 10

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DUBLIN — After an offseason and training camp spent listening to talking heads and columnists shovel dirt onto a once proud football program, Notre Dame spent a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Ireland letting out some frustration. For one Saturday, it appears the death of a once proud football program was greatly exaggerated, as Notre Dame turned back the clock to their glory years, beating Navy 50-10 in front of 48,820 fans in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium.

The 50-10 win was the second consecutive 40-point beating, the first time the Irish have done that in over 40 years, putting to rest any worries that the Midshipmen would continue to close the gap in a rivalry that was once one of the nation’s most one-sided, while also serving notice that the Irish might not be so terrible after all.

Powered by a run game that almost doubled Navy’s vaunted triple-option attack, the Irish racked up 490 yards of offense behind the running of Theo Riddick, George Atkinson III, and Cam McDaniel, as first-time starting quarterback Everett Golson‘s debut was a solid one.

After opening last season in nightmarish fashion, the Irish scored touchdowns on their first three possessions, were deadly efficient on third downs, and spent the second half getting the youth on their roster highly valuable game experience.

“I think the storyline for me is the ability to control both lines, offensively and defensively, and to play between 15 and 20 first time participants,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “We had a lot of young players getting some valuable experience today.”

Let’s find out what we learned during Notre Dame’s 50-10 victory.

Running behind a powerful offensive line, Notre Dame’s ground attack is going to power the offense.

The suspension of starting running back Cierre Wood didn’t stop Notre Dame from running all over Navy. Senior running back Theo Riddick paced the offense with 107 yards on 19 carries with two touchdowns, while George Atkinson III chipped in 99 yards on only nine carries. His two touchdown runs included an electric 56-yard sprint that off and running by the middle of the first quarter. Cam McDaniel paced the second string offense with 59 yards on nine carries while chipping in 20 more through the air.

New offensive line coach Harry Hiestand‘s offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage, with the Irish front five appropriately over-powering the undersized Midshipmen. After spending much of the first two years in the shotgun, the Irish turned back the clock and played smash mouth football up front, with Golson under center and a running back deep in the backfield.

With the game well in hand, the starting offensive line gave way to the second string, letting youngsters like Matt Hegarty, Nick Martin, Conor Hanratty, and true freshman Ronnie Stanley take their first collegiate snaps. After struggling on their first series, the second unit took control of the line of scrimmage as well, driving the ball down the field for a field goal and a late touchdown as well.

Predicting future success after pushing around one of college football’s worst rushing defenses isn’t a safe assumption, but it isn’t hard to see the strength of this team thanks to the skill of Riddick and Atkinson running behind a veteran unit powered by Braxston Cave, Zack Martin, Chris Watt and company. With Wood back in game three and Amir Carlisle about to be healthy as well, it’ll be a crowded — and talented — ground attack for Notre Dame.

***

In his first start, sophomore quarterback Everett Golson was up to the task.

Any concerns Irish fans had about rookie quarterback Everett Golson were likely alleviated early. The talented sophomore quarterback looked calm and poised as he made his collegiate debut and the moment — a truly unique one in Ireland — never got too big for him.

“We knew what we were going to get with Everett,” Kelly said after the game. “This wasn’t something where we didn’t know what was going to happen. There is always going to be some learning and he’s going to continue to learn all year. We would not have put him out there unless he had a good grasp of the offense. This was really just getting live snaps and experiencing the flow of the game. He’s going to be a much better player each and every week, today was just the start.”

Golson completed 12 of 18 throws for an efficient 145 yards, throwing a touchdown to All-American tight end Tyler Eifert and adding his first interception when he forced the ball into coverage to his best receiving threat.

“I think he would probably take one decision back,” Kelly said of Golson’s interception. “The great thing about Everett is he figures it out. He’s not going to make the same mistake twice. Other than that, I was really pleased with the leadership, the ability to get in the right plays and keep our offense running.”

With a high-octane running game, Golson wasn’t asked to do too much, never attempting a run and keeping his eyes down field when the pocket collapsed. He threw two accurate fade routes to Eifert, found his tight ends in play action, worked the screen game effectively and had a nice connection down field with Davaris Daniels as well.

The Irish will likely incorporate the zone read running principles soon, saving one more dimension of their offense for future opponents. But any worries that Golson wasn’t ready for the big stage were put to rest this afternoon, with the Irish offense firmly in the hands of its talented youngster.

Moving forward, the job is Golson’s to lose, with the battle now for No. 2 behind him between juniors Andrew Hendrix and Tommy Rees, now back from suspension.

***

Losing Aaron Lynch didn’t strip the front seven of all its playmakers.

You have to wonder if Aaron Lynch, Notre Dame’s freshman All-American that transferred to South Florida this spring, watched his former teammates shut down the Navy option attack and force quarterback Trey Miller to run for his life. While many thought the loss of Lynch was a debilitating loss, the Irish front seven was active and relentless, another good sign for Irish fans.

Sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt had the games most exciting play, returning a Miller fumble 77 yards for a touchdown, as the 6-foot-6, 305-pound brute seemingly pulling away from the Navy players giving chase. Tuitt added a sack and wreaked havoc at both end and tackle all afternoon.

The Irish defense had seven tackles for loss and three sacks while holding Navy to 3.7 yards per carry, with Ishaq Williams supplying constant pressure off the edge with Prince Shembo. Louis Nix and Kona Schwenke did a great job clogging the interior of the line as well, collecting a sack and 2.5 tackles-for-loss combined.

Add in Manti Te’o‘s brilliance — the senior linebacker filled the stat sheet with six tackles, a fumble recovery and an interception before he was pulled early in the fourth quarter — and the Irish made a resounding statement up front, shutting down Navy’s triple-option attack while holding the Midshipmen to just 10 points.

“I think we’re just carrying on from where we were last year as a defense that’s very stingy against the run,” Kelly said. “We’re very blessed with a physical group and a great scheme that’s well coached. Any time you can hold Navy to 10 points with one touchdown through the air, you’re feeling pretty good.

***

While the run defense looks good, there are plenty of question marks in the secondary.

Perhaps the most alarming part of the Irish’s 40-point victory was the restocked Irish secondary. Breaking in three new starters, Navy’s only success on offense was through the air, not exactly a reassuring thought with some prolific passing offenses on the schedule. Freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell showed up a few times on the wrong end of a highlight, while cornerback Bennett Jackson and safety Zeke Motta had their struggles as well.

With Miller often running for his life in the backfield, he was still able to complete 14 of 19 passes, throwing for 192 yards and a touchdown. The secondary was asked to cover man-to-man quite a bit, but even without their first two receiving options, Navy was able to move the ball in the air.

It wasn’t all bad news for the unit, with safety Matthias Farley getting a surprising start at outside linebacker and playing very well. Bennett Jackson led the team in tackles with seven, and the Irish were able to get Russell, Jalen Brown, and Josh Atkinson plenty of experience as well.

“I thought they did some great things,” Kelly said of his young secondary. “I’m really excited about their ability to go out there and compete. The learning experience that we got today is something invaluable.”

Yet with the Irish so sturdy up front and so green in the secondary, expect opposing offenses to take dead aim at the Irish secondary, throwing early and often against a group that’s learning on the fly. Co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks and safeties coach Bob Elliott have their work cut out for them, and it’ll be up to Bob Diaco to script a game plan that protects his secondary while the young defenders get up to speed.

***

After starting the 2011 season off on the wrong foot, Saturday’s win was cathartic for the Irish.

After a season where just about every break when against the Irish, Saturday’s victory was a stark reminder that last season is in the past. After so many low-lights gutted the Irish in 2011, Saturday afternoon the shoe was on the other foot. It was Notre Dame running an opponent’s fumble in for a touchdown. It was the Irish getting a break in the return game, when Davonte Neal avoided catastrophe when he quickly grabbed a punt that hit him and scampered for 12 yards, a return that tripled the team’s net yardage total from last season.

After consistently being the team that made the mistakes, this Irish team handled their business with a ruthless efficiency, rising to the occasion while keeping their mistakes in check.

“We knew what we could do coming into the game, Te’o said. “We knew what we were capable of. As coach put it in the locker room, this is a celebration of all the work we put in.”

That maturity was evident in Golson’s play and the young quarterback talked about how the coaching staff preached a calm demeanor heading into the season opener.

“I think everybody was comfortable. Part of that is due to the coaches,” Golson said. “Coming into this game, the main thing was everybody is going to make mistakes, but you just have to relax. You’re going to make mistakes, but make them going full speed.”

Thanks to the comfortable victory, plenty of youngsters were able to get their first snaps out of the way. The Irish had a whopping 17 players get their first game action today, a huge benefit moving forward.

“We all know this is going to be a long season,” Kelly said. “We need all those players to play certain roles for us.”

In many ways, this was a picture perfect opening game for the Irish. A 40-point whipping where Kelly was able to empty the bench in an easy victory, but also a ton of teaching points to cover throughout the week. Botched extra point attempts need to be cleaned up. Coverage breakdowns need to be corrected. Young quarterbacks need to stop throwing into coverage. All par for the course in a season’s opening game. And all infinitely more acceptable when you’re blowing out your opponent.

With the Irish already on their way to the airport and heading back across the Atlantic shortly, Kelly and his team accomplished everything they wanted… and still have plenty to work on as they get ready for Purdue.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

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

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“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, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)