Notre Dame v Navy

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Navy

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With Irish fans migrating back across the Atlantic to get home for Labor Day, it’s time to put a bow on Notre Dame’s dominating 50-10 victory over Navy. After starting the 2011 season in such calamitous fashion, the Irish left no shadow of doubt, scoring touchdowns on their first three offensive drives, the first time they did that since 2009’s home shutout against Nevada.

While it’s hard to be too upset about anything in a 40-point victory, let’s get the report card out and start grading.

THE GOOD

The rushing attack. The Irish averaged a gaudy 6.4 yards a carry, with Theo Riddick taking the lion’s share of the work while George Atkinson ran for 11 yards a touch, thanks to his 56 yard touchdown.

Cam McDaniel reminded Irish fans that he’s a pretty good player in his own right, chipping in 60 yards behind a reserve offensive line while Andrew Hendrix rumbled his way for 27 of his own.

There was nothing cute about the Irish’s offensive game plan, which beat Navy into submission and took advantage of the Irish’s sizeable advantages up front while showcasing a ton of talent.

The rushing defense. The Midshipmen averaged only 3.7 yards a carry yesterday, running for just 149 yards, a number that would’ve looked even uglier if it weren’t for Navy’s longest run from scrimmage coming on the game’s final play.

The Irish’s defensive front — with Kapron Lewis-Moore, Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Kona Schwenke all playing solid football — made things easy with their dominating play.

The youth movement. It was a telling sign that when the game was officially out of hand, the Irish had veteran wide receivers John Goodman, Daniel Smith, and Robby Toma flanking junior quarterback Andrew Hendrix.

That’s not to say the Irish are ready to go to battle with the youthful group of Davaris Daniels, Davonte Neal, Chris Brown, and Justin Ferguson but it’s clear that the young skill talent that Kelly has brought to South Bend to upgrade the position group is quickly making it’s move.

There weren’t any breakthrough performances, though Daniels led the team with 49 receiving yards on two catches. Neal was a part of the game plan, getting a few touches while returning punts as well. Ferguson also made his first catch while Brown saw time as well.

Head coach Brian Kelly has said that he’ll use the young receivers in ways that they can best help the team, scheming around their inexperience or deficiencies. But with the running game going well, there was no reason to take it to Navy via the air.

Learning on the job. In a fairly amazing stat, the Irish played 47 different players in the first quarter alone, including 14 that were seeing the field for the first time. It appears any efficiency issues the Irish may have had getting plays in on time have been cleared up, as substitutions were moving fast and furiously and different packages and position groupings moved in and out at breakneck speed.

From the official participation report, here are the first-time players that saw the field:

Justin Ferguson, WR
Chris Brown, WR
Connor Cavalaris, DB
Davaris Daniels, WR
Davonte Neal, WR
Jalen Brown, CB
Elijah Shumate, CB
Nick Baratti, S
Ben Councell, OLB
Romeo Okwara, OLB
Jarrett Grace, ILB
Conor Hanratty, OL
Tony Springmann, DL
Nick Martin, OL
Matt Hegarty, OL
Ronnie Stanley, OL
Sheldon Day, DL

That officially takes the redshirt off Stanley, something Kelly had mentioned earlier in preseason that he didn’t want to do. Yet with Jordan Prestwood off the team and out of school, it was a sooner or later situation for Stanley, and that experience will be a great help.

Seventeen-year-old Romeo Okwara also saw the field, playing with the second-string defense at outside linebacker.

Quick Hits. Boy is it going to be fun watching Elijah Shumate play special teams. Guy is a missile. Same thing for Nick Baratti, who made a nice play and repped in at safety. Matthias Farley is going to be a player. Amazing to think at this time last year he was a wide receiver. He’s got a great physicality. That was a big stick by Zeke Motta. Thought Jalen Brown looked pretty smooth at corner. Linebacker Dan Fox played a really nice game, leading the Irish in tackles and looking really athletic out there.

Loved watching offensive line coach Harry Hiestand coach-up his second unit offensive line. With the starters standing behind the reserves, Hiestand was fiery and animated after the disastrous opening series ended in a three and out. The group rallied for a field goal and touchdown.

When your team beats Navy in the time of possession game, you know you’re doing something right.

Finally: Those helmets looked awesome. Not sure if they look as good on TV, but in person they are amazing. Thought the tweak to the pants made the Irish look a little retro and timeless. Great look.

(And Navy starting the game to Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone is the greatest thing ever.)

THE BAD

The Irish’s pass defense. Let’s just get it out of the way, the secondary didn’t have its best afternoon. Not having the ability to watch the game replay until I get back to my trusty DVR, it’s hard to tell how the coverages broke down, but seeing freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell chasing five yards behind an open wide receiver isn’t a good thing.

But for those that are the doomsday types, playing defensive back against Navy is a daunting task, as you’re often on an island with little support. With the game plan designed to take away the run game, the Irish were fine with Navy trying to beat them by air. That it made the Irish’s young secondary look susceptible to big plays, so be it. There was a noticeable relief in the media room when Brian Kelly talked about the team looking forward to preparing for a more traditional opponent, which they’ll see when they face Purdue on Saturday.

Purdue threw the ball 47 times against Eastern Kentucky while averaging a modest 4.4 yards a carry in their blowout victory. Expect to see the ball in the air quite a bit next Saturday.

Notre Dame’s special teams. Not a great day for the third phase of the Irish, with Nick Tausch missing an extra point and then Ben Turk fumbling another snap. When they’re the difference between putting up 52 points and 50, it tends to be okay, but in the post-David Ruffer era, you’d want to see some more consistency.

Tausch wasn’t the only one who wanted a mulligan after snap-hooking their opening kick. Kyle Brindza rolled over his first kickoff for what looked like an accidental squib kick, drawing the ire of Brian Kelly.

Davonte Neal had a crisis averted when he quickly scooped up the punt that bounced into him, but you don’t want to see plays like that happen. New special teams coordinator Scott Booker has some work on his hands this week.

UGLY

The only thing that was ugly was the scoreboard after the Irish hung a 50 on the Midshipmen for the second straight year. But on a glorious day in Dublin, and a perfectly executed business trip by Notre Dame, there’s nothing to really complain about.

 

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)