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.

 

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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