Malik Zaire

Practice Report Breakdown: Day Five


There’s a ton of great information on the internet right now with Friday afternoon’s practice open to the media. You’d do yourself a favor to check out all the great stuff out there, but as always, here’s another way too close look at the Practice Report.

While it felt like they were editing a Jerry Bruckheimer movie with the quick cuts that makes it tough to decipher who is actually doing what, I took my best shot, and wore out the pause button, trying to make every little frame count.

The complete video is below, but here goes nothing.

0:55 — Bennett Jackson (2) walks in looking like the real deal. He was limited during practice today according to various reports, but Notre Dame might have their first All-American cornerback since what, Shane Walton?

1:01 — Fifth-year senior Tyler Stockton (92) broke down the team before getting to work. After a nice spring, Stockton has fallen in line behind Louis Nix, Kona Schwenke and some other players.

It’s interesting to note that Stockton’s “great” spring likely put a charge into Schwenke, who looks really fit during the snippets we’ve seen. That’s paying it forward for Schwenke, who was used as a similar prop when Louis Nix was on the outside of the starting lineup looking in a few springs ago.

(Motivation is a beautiful thing.)

1:05 — Don’t look now, but from this wide view, we can see that the Irish cornerbacks are running man-to-man with receivers. I think you can count on one hand how often that happened last year.

1:07 — We’re going into lightning cuts here (what is this, Transformers?), so it might be tough to stay up. We caught a flash of Prince Shembo before George Atkinson caught a kickoff. GA3 needs to get the spark back in his return game after a mediocre sophomore season.

1:09 — Corey Robinson (88) runs a pattern. We’ll see more from him in a few frames.

1:14 — Ugh. Here’s an educated guess on what we just saw. Cam McDaniel go through the gauntlet and run off tackle. Carlo Calabrese meets a back in the hole. Stephon Tuitt takes on Alex Welch. Center Nick Martin leads Will Mahone through a hole.

(Mahone put himself back on the map today, reminding people that he’s not just here to sit sixth on the depth chart.)

1:18 — Cam McDaniel cuts hard into a hole. Greg Bryant does the same, with Jaylon Smith crashing down hard to make a tackle, before Jarron Jones (94) helps clean up.

1:21 — Davaris Daniels (10) sits down in the zone and makes a strike from Tommy Rees (11).

1:26 — Heckuva play by Lo Wood (23), going up and taking a one-on-one ball away from Daniels on a deep throw by Rees.

1:28 — Greg Bryant hits the breaks before bursting through a hole. George Atkinson just gets into the second level of the defense before hitting the gas. Cam McDaniel reads his blocks for a big gainer.

1:33 — Steve Elmer is no match for Stephon Tuitt, who swallows Bryant whole in the backfield for an impressive stop.

1:37 — It looks like this coaching staff has uncovered a gem in Corey Robinson. Here the once unranked recruit, who received his first scholarship offer from Notre Dame, goes up and wins a 50-50 ball for a huge gain, making a nice catch on Lo Wood.

1:41 — Ishaq Williams drags down a ball carrier. Carlo Calabrese breaks up a pass heading Troy Niklas’ way. And Corey Robinson catches an end zone fade thrown by Tommy Rees for a touchdown.

(If Rees gets a little bit more accurate with the fade route in the end zone, that’s big trouble for opposing defenses.)

1:50 — You win the Practice Breakdown Power Ball if you had Will Mahone for play of the day. Here the sophomore back takes a quick throw from Tommy Rees and turns it into a big gainer.

2:00 — George Atkinson in the open field has to make opposing coaches sweat at night.

2:02 — Another nice Mahone run.

2:05 — A very nice block by Matt Hegarty who looks to have worked his way into the mix after a very scare medical scare last season.

2:08 — Is the future now? Jaylon Smith runs down the option, stretching the pitch play out and then tracking down the running back in the backfield. With Danny Spond out today with a minor nick, Smith took advantage of the additional time, shared with Ben Councell, who ran with the No. 1 defense.

That Smith sounds as good as advertised, certainly says something.

2:13 — Tommy Rees have a handoff in the backfield to McDaniel before delivering a strike to Davaris Daniels on a deep dig route. Daniels is met with a pretty large hit by Elijah Shumate, but not until a 20-yard pickup.

That gain was on the No. 1 defense, so an impressive play.



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.”