Five things we learned: Notre Dame 45, Air Force 10

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Things may not have started out as planned for Notre Dame. The offense’s eleven-play opening drive ended with Kyle Brindza’s field goal attempt blocked. Then Air Force proceeded to march ten plays for 71 yards and a quick touchdown in under four minutes. But the Irish shrugged off a challenging start and cruised to an easy 45-10 victory, powered by a career-day by senior quarterback Tommy Rees.

The Falcons defense has struggled against good quarterbacks this season and Rees certainly looked like one on a perfect Saturday afternoon in Colorado Springs, throwing five touchdown passes while completing 17 of 22 passes for 284 yards, moving ahead of Ron Powlus for third place in career touchdown passes.

Freshmen Corey Robinson and Will Fuller caught their first touchdown passes. Sophomore Chris Brown did as well. Ben Koyack and TJ Jones also got into the action, with Jones catching a touchdown in his fifth straight game. After the slow start, Bob Diaco’s defense played very well, forcing two turnovers and allowing just ten points on the afternoon.

An easy win pushes the Irish to 6-2 and likely into the Top 25. Let’s find out what else we learned in Notre Dame’s 45-10 victory over Air Force.

No Nix, no problem for the Irish defense. 

You could understand why Irish fans would be nervous without Louis Nix, the tip of the spear for the Irish defense. The 350-pound All-American defensive tackle stayed home this weekend, resting a balky knee and shoulder, as his teammates picked up the slack for him. With Kona Schwenke stepping in and Stephon Tuitt sliding inside, the Irish defense rallied after a slow start to hold the Falcons to just ten points and 339 total yards.

As predicted, the Irish started Ishaq Williams and Prince Shembo at defensive end and used Tuitt and Schwenke on the inside. We also saw plenty of reserves getting opportunities, with freshman Isaac Rochell playing (against his brother), Jarron Jones contributing, Tyler Stockton taking reps along with a disruptive performance by Justin Utupo.

The Irish will face a similar scheme next week with Navy likely to be a tougher challenge than Air Force. But getting Nix some rest and recovery, and having the defense pick up the slack, is a good sign.

Matched up in man coverage, Tommy Rees made Air Force’s secondary pay. 

A week after missing most of the second half after taking a vicious hit, Tommy Rees dusted himself off and torched the Air Force defense. Rees may have missed one or two throws he’d like to have back, but he completed an impressive 17 of 22 for 284 yards and five touchdowns, fully in control of the offense against an overmatched Falcons secondary.

It’s hard to draw conclusions after a comfortable victory like the one we just witnessed. But if there’s a step forward Rees made it was with his accuracy throwing against man-to-man coverage. Rees routinely hit on deep throws, many sparked by playaction or double-moves, and connected on a 20-plus yard completion with five different receivers.

Getting into the act was a freshman class that just hasn’t had much opportunity yet this year. Corey Robinson made the type of catch we’ve been looking forward to seeing, snatching a deep throw away from a defensive back before scoring a 35-yard touchdown. Will Fuller also got behind the defense, only the third time in school history that two freshmen have caught touchdowns in a game.

Probably just as important as Rees’ impressive afternoon was the fact that it let Andrew Hendrix see the field and get the taste from last week’s game out of his mouth. Hendrix still struggled, but looked better against Air Force, completing one of his four passes for a 47-yard connection to Fuller and ran for a touchdown.

Jaylon Smith continues to make his move. 

It took a few plays for Jaylon Smith to get up to speed with the Air Force offense. Whether it was his fault or not, Smith lost contain as he tried to read both the run and the pitch as the Falcons got outside of him for a few big gains early. But the freshman showed how quickly he learns on his feet, and rebounded to co-lead the Irish in tackles with eight.

The production the Irish are getting out of Smith at the drop linebacker position is amazing when you consider the true freshman is learning on the job and still not as big as Bob Diaco would like him to be. Through eight games, he’s already matched Danny Spond’s tackle total from last season. In fact, one look back at the Irish defense during the Kelly era and you get an appreciation of how dangerous and productive Smith already is.

Through eight games, here are Smith’s cumulative numbers, compared to the full season stats of other Dog linebackers playing in Kelly’s hybrid 3-4/4-3 system.

Jaylon Smith: 39 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR
Danny Spond: 39 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT,
Prince Shembo: 31 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 Sacks,
Kerry Neal: 42 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1.5 Sack, 1 FF, 1 FR

Smith was all over the field on Saturday afternoon, and was a referee’s inadvertent whistle away from scoring his first defensive touchdown. It’s becoming abundantly clear that Smith’s moving quickly past the learning phase and that greatness might be sooner than later.

***

In a muddled running back depth chart, Tarean Folston took an important step forward. 

If there’s one disappointing stat on paper in the Irish’s 35-point victory it’s the lack of running game. Against a unit that ranked among the worst in the country in stopping the run, the Irish only averaged 3.6 yards a carry, running for a modest 135 yards on 37 attempts.

Brian Kelly talked at halftime about Air Force’s decision to challenge Rees to beat the Falcons in man coverage. He did that, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that the ground game wasn’t as efficient as it could have been.

George Atkinson looked hesitant out of the gates, forgetting to run like a 220-pound power back. Amir Carlisle was nonexistent on his three touches. While Cam McDaniel led the team with 61 yards on ten carries, it was freshman Tarean Folston that had the most carries, gaining 47 yards on his eleven attempts.

As Brian Kelly still tries to sort out his running back depth chart, Folston helped his cause on Saturday by looking the part. The freshman ran with a spark and explosiveness that the other backs just don’t possess, looking comfortable running in Kelly’s zone blocking attack, and showed great ability to find creases in the defense and run effectively off his blocks.

The Irish will have another chance to overpower an opponent next weekend when they face an undersized Navy defensive front that entered Saturday 98th against the run. Don’t be surprised to see Folston and McDaniel start to separate themselves from the pack.

As the calendar turns to November, it’s worth watching a few injuries that could prove significant. 

After losing Christian Lombard for the season, Brian Kelly had to be holding his breath when he saw senior Chris Watt down, needing the assistance of two trainers to help him off the field. Kelly already plugged freshman Steve Elmer in at right guard, but the loss of Watt pushes Conor Hanratty into the lineup and weakens a left side that’s one of the finest in college football.

Freshman Mike McGlinchey made the trip on Saturday, an emergency option for the Irish in case there were bodies needed. But it’s worth keeping an eye on Watt’s health for next week, as the depth chart still isn’t as stocked as this staff wants it to be, especially with the hopes of redshirting everybody but Elmer from the rookie class.

Another injury worth keeping an eye on is the ankle of Sheldon Day. After playing early, Day was in street clothes during the second half, likely the product of tweaking an injury that sometimes takes months to get right. Without Day, the Irish production drops off a cliff in a hurry.

Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated noted that the starting three of Day-Tuitt-Nix allowed just 1.62 yards a play against USC. Compare that to the trio of Schwenke-Tuitt-Nix, who allowed 6.5 yards per play. It might not matter against Navy, but against BYU and Stanford the Irish will need all hands on deck.

Watt was still in uniform as the No. 2 offensive line worked while Day watched the end of the game in street clothes, a good sign if you’re looking for them. He’s also played in all 47 games of his career, a testament to Watt’s durability. That’ll likely come in handy as he spends some extra time in the training room this week.

 

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

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

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

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