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.

 

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover