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.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

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Notre Dame’s secondary presents one position of such strength it is continually pondered if raiding that depth could salvage the near-vacuum in the other half of the Irish defensive backfield. That was true before the season, and it remains the case now.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
A bounty of cornerbacks, led by sophomore Julian Love, provided some sense of comfort in the Irish defense’s back line. A finally-healthy junior Shaun Crawford could finally contribute as a nickelback, and senior Nick Watkins, largely thanks to his length, established himself as a starter during spring practice.

That marked three bona fide starters before even acknowledging the depth provided by sophomores Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride.

Then there were the safeties. Such confidence in the depth chart did not exist in the spring or at any point of the preseason. Junior Nick Coleman secured one safety spot in the spring, while sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill failed to separate from each other in the competition to line up alongside Coleman. To be clear, that was not a credit to both showing such great abilities.

When the NCAA denied sophomore Alohi Gilman’s waiver for immediate eligibility following his transfer from Navy, Elliott became the de facto starter.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
On paper, Love’s season was essentially unparalleled. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns and nearly managed a third. Rare can a coaching staff genuinely and reasonably discuss moving a position’s best player, but Love very well may be the best Irish safety, as well. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has admitted as much as a distinct possibility.

Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford did quite a bit of everything for Notre Dame in his first healthy season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

For now, though, Love remains at cornerback. Crawford complemented him excellently in a playmaking sense, forcing his impact upon the game even more than could have been anticipated, though it is logical to think finally seeing a season’s worth of action tired his legs by the end.

Watkins, meanwhile, put together a strong season until knee tendonitis limited him — and created an opportunity for Pride to prematurely insert himself into 2018’s conversations — in November. In the moment, Watkins seemed a weakness against Miami (OH) when RedHawks junior receiver James Gardner caught two touchdowns over Watkins. With time diminishing overreactions, Gardner’s success seems a credit to him (and his 6-foot-4 frame) more than a knock on Watkins.

For that matter, it may not have been a knock on Watkins at all. Let’s pull from the respective “Things We Learned”As much as one may want to see Watkins break each of those passes up, it could also be wondered why there was not a safety helping on the occasion. That latter position remains the biggest Irish concern, offensive or defensive.

That concern remains pressing. Coleman played alright, but did not necessarily excel. Any continuing debate between Elliott and Studstill persists yet out of lack of a strong impression. The rest of the Irish defense’s surge limited the dramatic effect of the positional need, but it cannot be denied, nonetheless.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Opponents passed more often against Notre Dame this season than they did a year ago. It makes sense; the Irish led more often and for much of the year, led by large margins. Thus, the averages offer a better comparison between the autumns as a rough estimate of passing efficiency.

2016: 2,357 yards allowed on 193-of-313 passing; 61.66 percent completion rate; 7.53 yards per attempt; 12.21 yards per completion.
2017: 2,562 yards allowed on 233-of-412 passing; 56.55 percent completion rate; 6.22 yards per attempt; 11.00 yards per completion.

So. Julian Love — 62 tackles; three interceptions; 17 pass breakups.
Jr. Nick Coleman — 42 tackles; three pass breakups.
So. Jalen Elliott — 38 tackles; one pass breakup.
Jr. Shaun Crawford — 32 tackles; two interceptions, five pass breakups; two fumbles recovered; one fumble forced.
Sr. Nick Watkins — 27 tackles; one interception; eight pass breakups.
So. Troy Pride — 22 tackles; one interception; two pass breakups.
So. Devin Studstill — 16 tackles.
Fr. Isaiah Robertson — Eight tackles.
So. Donte Vaughn — Six tackles.

COMING QUESTIONS
Earning a nod as defensive scout team player of the year should speak to Gilman’s potential impact in 2018. By all indications, he was the best safety on the roster in 2017 with the arguable exception of Love. Will Gilman live up to this billing?

As it pertains to Love, the coaching staff should move him to safety only if the gap between him and the otherwise starter there is greater than the gap between Love and the next man up at cornerback, presumably Pride. (In this respect, compare it to senior Alex Bars lining up at right guard this season rather than right tackle, his previous position. He was the best option at right tackle, but the drop from Bars to sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey was minimal. The talent discrepancy between Bars and any other right guard option would have been much more drastic.) Is it in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s best interests to keep Love at cornerback or move the excellent defender to safety?

If it is not Love who provides a minimum of depth at safety, it could be a recruit. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith comes to mind not only due to his commitment this week, but also because he fits right into Notre Dame’s needs.

A similar thought applies to current freshman Isaiah Robertson. He saw special teams action this season. A full year readying in a college system could have him poised to contribute, be it in support of Coleman or in place of him.

OUTSIDE READING
ND Insider’s Eric Hansen put together a worthwhile read on Gilman following last week’s program awards: Full speed ahead? There’s no happy medium for Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

— Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
— So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
— Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
— So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
— Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends