John Goodman, Tyler Eifert

Breaking down 4-0: The receiving corps


Part three in our bye week feature on Notre Dame’s 4-0 start. For more, check out our introduction, the secondary and the running backs.


All-American Tyler Eifert was a proven commodity. Everybody else? Well… After a run of highly productive receivers started almost a decade ago, the Irish said goodbye to Michael Floyd and hoped to possibly replacement him with a tight end. That’s no knock on Eifert’s ability, but a realistic appraisal of the options Notre Dame had with the cupboard filled with mostly unproven talent or journeymen headed into the season.

With the team’s leading returning wide receiver now playing running back, it was up to unheralded veterans like TJ Jones, Robby Toma, and John Goodman to team with talented youngsters like Chris Brown, Davonte Neal, and Justin Ferguson to replace Floyd and support an undecided quarterback if the Irish were going to get their offense on track.


The pass catchers lost Theo Riddick to the offensive backfield, but welcomed linebacker Troy Niklas to the tight ends collection. That unit in particular held some promise, with sophomore Ben Koyack expected to do big things after a solid freshman season and Alex Welch looking more than capable as well. Those hopes would be muted when Welch went down for the season with a knee injury, as the Irish lost some versatility at the position.

Notre Dame would welcome Davaris Daniels to action after sitting out his freshman season. They’d lose another young receiver with Matthias Farley moving into the secondary and have Luke Massa slow to return after a knee injury in the spring.

John Goodman, Sr.
Robby Toma, Sr.
Daniel Smith, Jr.
Luke Massa, Jr. (A knee injury this spring likely limits Massa this fall.)
TJ Jones, Jr.
Davaris Daniels, Soph.
Matthias Farley, Soph. (Now starting at safety.)
Chris Brown, Fr.
Davonte Neal, Fr.
Justin Ferguson, Fr.

Tyler Eifert, Sr.
Jake Golic, Sr.
Alex Welch, Jr. (An ACL injury erases Welch’s 2012.)
Ben Koyack, Soph.
Troy Niklas, Soph.

There isn’t anybody in this group that can replace Michael Floyd’s production, but heading into the season the plan was to replace the Irish’s all-time leader with different players in different roles. With speedster Chris Brown looking like a deep threat, Davaris Daniels with great athleticism and ball skills, and Tyler Eifert looking pretty solid on the fade and screen game, the plan hasn’t necessarily come into fruition, but the pieces look to be there.


You probably wouldn’t have expected it, but through four games the Irish are actually averaging more yards per catch than they did last season. You can credit that to some big plays by Davaris Daniels, who is averaging 17.7 yards a catch and healthy early numbers put up by Eifert, Niklas, Goodman and Cam McDaniel.

With sophomore quarterback Everett Golson learning on the fly and Tommy Rees coming in to spell him in relief, offensive coordinator Chuck Martin has been candid about the need to jump start the passing game. Here’s what the Irish aerial attack looks like through four games, compared to last season’s stats.

Yards Per Game:
2011: 252.6 (40th)
2012: 211.o (86th)

Yards Per Catch:
2011: 10.9
2012: 13.0

Receptions Per Game:
2011: 23.2
2012: 16.25


It’s clearly been a step back in the passing game, which has been expected. With a bye week to get some things straightened out, and the nation’s No. 100 defense waiting for them in Soldier Field, the Irish hope to get on track with some better execution at the quarterback position.

Even with Eifert being held mostly in check this season, the unproven Irish receivers are playing better than expected, with solid contributions from veterans while the youngsters get accustomed to life in college football.

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”