Stephon Tuitt

Blitzes and pressure a two-way street


If Stephon Tuitt was still wondering, life is more difficult being on everybody’s All-American list. A season after exploding onto the scene with 12 sacks during his breakout sophomore campaign, Tuitt has found out that it’s much tougher to impact games when he’s one of the main targets in an opponents scouting report.

For those wondering if Tuitt’s weight gain or recovery from offseason hernia surgery has been the problem, it bears mentioning that everybody’s lock for the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, Jadeveon Clowney, who spent all preseason being discussed as perhaps the greatest-college-defensive-end-in-collegiate-history, has just one more sack than Tuitt through three games. That’s the price you pay for being on every opponents radar.

The focus on Tuitt and fellow All-American candidate Louis Nix has made for some interesting growing pains for the Irish defense. With both linemen looking like double team candidates, it’s opened things up for Sheldon Day to be a little be more productive from his slot at defensive end. But as the Irish focus on getting more pressure on the quarterback, Brian Kelly talked a little bit about the risk reward that comes with bringing pressure to get after the quarterback.

After watching the Irish get burned in man coverage when they brought heat after Devin Gardner, Kelly spoke candidly about the balance of manufacturing pressure on the quarterback.

“The easy answer is probably what you already know. That when you bring pressure, you’re either giving up some zones and zone pressure or you’ve got to play man‑to‑man,” Kelly explained.  “I still think we are not where we want to be defensively in terms of what that structure is going to be yet.”

Structurally, the battle appears to be between three and four man fronts. To get the team’s best players on the field, Kelly often shifts to a four man front, engaging Prince Shembo or Ishaq Williams as a down linemen, while sending four or five rushers to get after the quarterback.

But those blitzes put more pressure on a group of players that aren’t quite as experienced. Having Danny Spond as a field side linebacker in coverage is a lot different than Jaylon Smith or Ben Councell, two guys who are seeing things for the first time. Losing Manti Te’o from the Irish’s zone coverage underneath is like losing a centerfielder that plays daringly shallow. That’s been painfully obvious as opponents have beaten the Irish on screens and picked apart their underneath coverage.

“If you bring more pressure, you’re giving up some zones,” Kelly explained. “So you either have to play some three‑under, three‑deep, which vacates some zones and you’d better get there, or you have to play simply some more man coverage.

“Within that man coverage there’s a lot more technique that goes in, because it’s not simply you line up wide.  It’s bunched formations; it’s picks; it’s fighting through all those complexities of playing man‑to‑man coverage.”

We’ve seen those complexities not quite grasped, with Elijah Shumate and Cole Luke learning the hard way in coverage. Even starters KeiVarae Russell, Bennett Jackson and Matthias Farley haven’t logged a lot of minutes, leading to a situation that’s almost counterintuitive: Playing to the Irish’s strength up front might expose one of their bigger weaknesses.

“We’re probably getting back to finding more about the personnel that we have on the field and what we can and can’t do,” Kelly said.  “We are still trying to find what those groupings are to maximize their potential.”

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.”