The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Air Force

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For much of the season, Notre Dame hasn’t done a great job playing as a favorite. That changed Saturday afternoon, as the Irish shrugged off Air Force’s opening score and proceeded to roll through an overmatched Falcons team.

The Irish scored 45 points, the most since last season’s opener against Navy. They racked up 466 yards, even with the No. 1 offense gone by the start of the fourth quarter. Steve Elmer’s false start on the game’s opening drive was the only penalty against Notre Dame. All in all, it was a very clean performance for Brian Kelly’s team, a group that looks to be coming together as they head into November.

The victory pushed Notre Dame back into the Coaches Poll at No. 25, though they are still unranked by the AP, even though they’ve beaten both Michigan State and Arizona State, the two teams standing between the Irish and Michigan.

With a month left in the season, there’s still plenty of football to play. So let’s take a look at the good, bad and ugly during Notre Dame’s 45-10 victory over Air Force.

THE GOOD

Tommy Rees. It was a heckuva day for the senior quarterback who threw as many touchdown passes as incompletions. Here are a few fun facts produced by Notre Dame’s Sports Information department to help put into context the afternoon Rees had.

* Most touchdown passes in a game since Jimmy Clausen threw five against Stanford in ’09.
* Efficiency Rating of 260.71, the best for an Irish quarterback since Clausen vs. Nevada in ’09.
* First time in school history that five different players had a TD catch in same game.
* Rees’ efficiency rating was the fifth best game of any college quarterback this season against an FBS team.
* Only six quarterbacks in the country have thrown more TDs than Rees.

Games like this one often times serve the purpose of inflating stats, but you still need to give Rees credit for taking advantage of it. Probably more important than anything, outside of one bad throw against Arizona State, Rees has been very accurate with balls thrown into coverage since a mid-season slump, and that showed yesterday.

Young Receivers. It was great to see Will Fuller, Corey Robinson and Chris Brown get in on the action this weekend, with all three making big plays. Robinson’s touchdown looked like something out of a spring practice video on UND.com.

Fuller’s two big catches showed us the speed that Brian Kelly has talked about since the moment the Philadelphia native stepped onto campus. When asked about Fuller, Kelly was complimentary about the young receiver.

“Elite speed. And he will come down with the football,” Kelly said. “We really like the way he tracks the ball.”

Probably the best touchdown of the afternoon came on Rees’ back-shoulder throw to Brown, a perfectly placed ball that was also a nice catch by the sophomore. After disappearing a bit these past few weeks, building some confidence for Brown as the Irish prepare to head into the season’s final month will be key.

Jaylon Smith. Smith led the Irish in tackles again and nearly had himself a defensive touchdown. The freshman outside linebacker is turning himself into one of the Irish’s best playmakers and his football IQ is growing by the day.

To start the game, it looked like Smith was struggling with the option. When asked about the early success Air Force had running at Smith, Kelly talked about the schematic challenges that contributed to those problems.

“We were in some coverages that really put him as the only player on the perimeter. We didn’t help him very much,” Kelly said.

“We had to make some changes. He battled, he played well. He’s just a tough, physical kid. It was just a matter of time to give him some support.”

Cornerbacks. Kerry Cooks’ cornerbacks had a nice performance on Saturday afternoon. Asked to roll up into the box on the field side, KeiVarae Russell, Cole Luke, Lo Wood, Bennett Jackson and Devin Butler combined to make 22 tackles, with Russell and Luke leading the way with six each.

“They were a huge difference in the game on Saturday. They were physical. They whipped the blockers,” Kelly said Sunday. “We didn’t get a whole lot more out of our inside-out pursuits, so our corners were having to whip blockers on the perimeter, and they did a very, very good job.”

Tarean Folston. It was nice to see the freshman running back step forward in the running game, positioning himself to take more and more carries in a crowded backfield that’s starting to sort itself out.

Kelly talked about that progress on Saturday after watching the game film.

“We think he’s making nice progress.,” Kelly said. “He’s trying to take reps away from George Atkinson, who’s been in the program for three years; Amir Carlisle, who played at USC as a freshman and transferred in with very good ball skills; and Cam McDaniel, who’s been a tough, physical runner for us.

“You’ve got to be really good to take reps away from each one of those guys, but he’s done that. He ran the ball well and effectively, and he continues to get better each and every week.”

TJ Jones. Another Saturday, another touchdown for Jones, who went over 100-yards for the third time this season. He’s now scored a touchdown in five consecutive games, just three behind the record by Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate.

Ben Koyack. Don’t look now, but the Irish are developing the type of tight end depth many hoped to see this year. Koyack caught two passes, including a 22-yard touchdown, his second TD of the season.

“We think Ben Koyack is a guy that we wanted to get more playing time for,” Kelly said. “We thought we could get some particular matchups that we could get with Ben on the field that we like.”

Nice Kick, Kyle Brindza. 

THE BAD

Running Game Struggles. The Irish didn’t have the best game running the football, averaging just 3.6 yards a carry on Saturday. Kelly attributed some of that to Air Force stacking the box, but also to some struggles blocking the nose guard in the 3-4 system.

That forced the Irish to run some plays outside of their usual inside-outside zone blocking scheme, springing Cam McDaniel and Folston with some gap and pull techniques. Kelly talked a little bit more about the need to be versatile on the offensive line.

“I think we’ve got to just keep changing them up,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to run zone schemes. We’ve got to run gap schemes. We need to do a better job of mixing those up.”

Blocked Field Goal & Slow Start. This is the sixth game that the Irish have allowed their opponents to score first. While the Irish have come back to win four of those games, starting fast has still been a challenge for this group.

Also frustrating was the block of Kyle Brindza’s field goal. Troy Calhoun’s teams have been very good at getting to kicks, but this type of thing can be a game-changer, and the Irish need to tighten that up.

A knee injury to Ishaq Williams. The junior outside linebacker started the game at defensive end, but was lost early with a knee injury. In his Sunday check in with the media, Kelly would only say that Williams is doubtful for this Saturday against Navy.

THE UGLY

Other than the fact that the TV broadcast looked like it was from 1992, there’s nothing much to complain about after the Irish victory, Notre Dame’s 26th in the last 30 games.

Reports: Notre Dame taps North Carolina’s Terry Joseph as safeties coach

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Notre Dame will hire North Carolina defensive backs coach Terry Joseph to lead the Irish safeties, per reports. Irish Illustrated’s Tom Loy first reported the staff addition. Sports Illustrated‘s Bruce Feldman confirmed the report.

Joseph has been with the Tar Heels for just one season, spending the three prior in the same role at Texas A&M. He will take over the positional duties once held by former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko who, coincidentally enough, took the same position at Texas A&M. Irish linebackers coach Clark Lea was promoted to the defensive coordinator slot.

Joseph’s résumé includes stops at Nebraska, Tennessee and Louisiana Tech, with the latter two stints including recruiting coordinator duties. Joseph’s rise up the collegiate coaching ranks began 12 years ago as a defensive graduate assistant at LSU. Before that, he worked as a high school assistant in the New Orleans area for seven years.

Any passing defense certainly includes contributions from many aspects aside from the defensive backs — pass rush, intended defensive scheme, a rash of injuries etc. That said, North Carolina finished with the country’s No. 80 pass efficiency defense this season. Notre Dame, though, did not much test that unit in its 33-10 victory this past October. With sophomore quarterback Ian Book starting in place of an injured junior Brandon Wimbush, the Irish gained only 146 yards on 17-of-31 passing. The Tar Heels picked off Book twice, both via the playmaking of sophomore safety Myles Dorn.

Dorn finished the 2017 season with 71 tackles, the third-most on North Carolina’s defense, including 2.5 for loss. He added five pass breakups. Dorn’s freshman season, without Joseph’s tutelage, featured 32 tackles, one for loss and one pass breakup.

Dorn’s positional partner, sophomore Myles Wolfolk, made 32 tackles with 4.5 for loss and another five quarterback hurries.

Continuing with a micro look at players from his past, Joseph played a role in the development of three eventual NFL players while at Texas A&M. In two seasons, safety Justin Evans went from a junior college transfer to a second-round draft pick, making 165 tackles in the span with six for loss, five interceptions and 11 pass breakups.

Cornerback Brandon Williams spent one season in the defensive backfield at A&M, previously spending his time in the offensive backfield as a running back. That one season saw him make 37 tackles, including one for loss, and break up seven passes. The Arizona Cardinals then drafted him in the third round in 2015.

Cornerback De’Vante Harris, a four-year contributor for the Aggies, became an undrafted free agent signed by the New Orleans Saints in 2015 after playing two seasons under Joseph. In those two seasons, Joseph broke up 13 passes.

Developing players such as Dorn, Evans and Williams undoubtedly elevated Joseph’s profile during Notre Dame’s search, more than high-profile experience, recruiting bona fides or personality. The Irish safeties need to make great leaps forward to complete what could be, perhaps should be, a promising 2018 defense.

Friday at 4: What a defensive difference two weeks makes

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The college football offseason is approximately 33 weeks long, from the national championship game to Labor Day Weekend. Obviously, for 127 teams each year, that stretch is at least one week longer.

It is vital to remember how interminably it lasts when overreacting to each and every personnel development. Consider just two weeks ago, the sky seemed to be falling in on Notre Dame’s defense. Coordinator Mike Elko had left for the same position at Texas A&M. The odds were, at least, 50/50 he would take linebackers coach Clark Lea with him. Junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery had not yet declared for the NFL draft, but the coaching change made both departures appear more likely.

The news cycle moved so quickly, this weekly spot published 12 hours early so as not to risk a development usurping the intended premise.

Now, that defense returns 10 starters and stability in coaching. Its reserves show such promise, those 10 will not all start against Michigan on Sept. 1. The only position group with depth concerns is also the one bringing in four highly-touted linebackers as freshmen.

What a difference two weeks makes.

That “Friday at 4 a.m.” included quick mention of the concern regarding Coney and Tillery.

“Like Tillery, [Coney] is considering heading to the NFL. If he does so specifically because of Elko’s exit, that may be the costliest result of this coaching carousel for the Irish.”

Just a week ago, it was possible, even likely, only defensive end Jay Hayes (93) would return from this trio, but defensive tackles Jonathan Bonner (left) and Jerry Tillery (99) burgeoned the Irish interior depth by returning for one more season at Notre Dame. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

It is unlikely Coney and Tillery both returned only because head coach Brian Kelly promoted Lea to defensive coordinator and retained Mike Elston as defensive line coach. What matters is they did. It is also unlikely any of those factors were the deciding aspect for senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner opting to reverse course and enjoy a fifth year at Notre Dame. What matters is Bonner did.

With those luxuries, Lea will have eight players who started all 13 games this season to steer his way as a first-time coordinator. He will also have current senior cornerback Nick Watkins and sophomore Troy Pride, who combined for 13 starts as Pride filled in for an injured Watkins in the final month, and Coney, who technically started only seven games, though he split time with graduating senior Greer Martini all season.

That makes 10 veritable returning starters. If nothing else, sophomore safety Alohi Gilman will force his way into that mix now that he’s eligible following his transfer from Navy.

Compare those 10 to the recent past. Heading into 2017, the Irish returned two 12-game starters, Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill. Seven total returning defenders had started at least seven games in the dismal 2016 season.

Speaking of that 4-8 debacle, Notre Dame started that year with even less experience. Cornerback Cole Luke had started 13 games in the Fiesta Bowl-concluding 2015 campaign; defensive end Isaac Rochell claimed 12. After them, linebacker James Onwualu had started nine games and defensive tackle Daniel Cage had notched seven. That was it for playing time worth acknowledging.

Starts are somewhat arbitrary, though, as perhaps best illustrated by Coney technically having only seven to his name despite finishing as the defense’s leading tackler this season.

How vital were his, Tillery’s and Bonner’s return to Lea’s future? With the three of them, 10 of the leading 12 tacklers will be back in 2018. Looking backward once more, the Irish returned four of their eight leading tacklers entering the season opener against Temple. Want the quickest summary of the 2016 failure? Realize Notre Dame had only one of its top-five tacklers from the College Football Playoff contender the year before, and two of the top 10. NFL dreams, suspensions and injuries left that defense with neither experience nor production.

To anyone wondering if these statistics diminish a secondary’s impact — considering most defensive backs do not rack up tackle totals — the trends all apply there, as well. The Irish return six defensive backs who saw genuine playing time this season, plus Gilman. The safety play was inarguably disappointing, but that position will presumably not get worse. For thoroughness’ sake: Only two defensive backs had seen notable playing time heading into 2017, and only Cole Luke could claim such entering 2016.

Barring a rash of injuries or suspensions, this defense will be better in 2018. It returns too many pieces to propose otherwise, and experience this broad benefits all involved.

The easily-tracked indicators for coming success hardly even factor in the likes of freshman defensive tackle Kurt Hinish and his development. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

That can be said before even expecting increased contributions from current freshmen defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish, without pinning hopes to the quartet of incoming linebackers, including three who enrolled early, and without projecting further development from sophomore defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara.

Two weeks ago, this defense faced the prospect of learning a new scheme with only two of its top-six tacklers returning. It may have needed to claim the secondary as its most-experienced position group, the only position group ever lampooned in 2017. Resetting despite a strong defensive season highlighted by back-to-back weeks of stymying top-flight offenses in mid-October was a disappointing prospect, to put it mildly.

Now, this defense has a chance to enjoy growth in consistency and excel at every level. Performances like those seen against USC and North Carolina State could conceivably become the norm.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: USC and Stanford lost the most in early departures to NFL

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Notre Dame’s roster fared better than was anticipated when it came to players entering the NFL draft with remaining collegiate eligibility. Left guard Quenton Nelson was always expected to take the leap, as any possible top-five pick should. Running back Josh Adams may have considered returning to the Irish, but logic sent him to the pros, as well. Receiver Equanimeous St. Brown long seemed to be leaning that way.

Those were not surprises.

Getting both linebacker Te’von Coney and Jerry Tillery to return was a bit of a shock, and a welcome one for head coach Brian Kelly and his staff.

Of Notre Dame’s 2018 opponents, a few saw top-flight talent depart. Their coaches had assuredly hoped, with varying degrees of reasonability, such players would stay. These losses lower a team’s ceiling, but it does not necessarily spell trouble. USC will not altogether mind quarterback Sam Darnold hearing his name called early in the first round if incoming freshman — and reclassified recruit, at that, having actually been only a junior in high school this fall — J.T. Daniels proves to be the better coming of Matt Barkley.

Speaking of the Trojans, they lead a listing ordered by obvious impact lost:

USC: Not much more really needs to be said about Darnold. His 2017 was filled with stellar comebacks necessitated by poor decisions.
— Receiver Deontay Burnett: With 86 catches for 1,114 yards and nine touchdowns in 2017, it made sense for Burnett to test the next level. Eight of those catches went for 113 yards and a touchdown against the Irish. He had 56 catches for 622 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago.

Ronald Jones (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

— Running back Ronald Jones: Finishing his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and 39 career rushing touchdowns, Jones proved plenty at the college level. Notre Dame bottled him up this October, but he gashed the defense for 134 yards and a score on only 16 carries in 2016.
— Defensive end Rasheem Green: His final season with the Trojans featured 12.5 tackles for loss, including 10 sacks, amid 43 tackles.

Stanford: The Cardinal lost the core of its defense, but the early departure cost could have been much worse. Junior running back Bryce Love returned for another season, waiting until after the declaration deadline to make his decision public.

— Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips: Rarely does a defensive tackle lead his team in tackles, and rarely does a defensive tackle total more than 100 tackles. Phillips led the Cardinal with 103 tackles including 17 tackles for loss with 7.5 sacks. Stanford genuinely loses a force with his exit.
— Safety Justin Reid: Only Phillips made more tackles for the Cardinal than Reid’s 99. He added five interceptions and six more pass breakups. Against the Irish in November, Reid managed nine tackles, one sack and one pass breakup.
— Cornerback Quenton Meeks: Stanford lost its fifth-leading tackler, as well, with Meeks taking his 65 tackles away, along with two interceptions and eight pass breakups.
— Tight end Dalton Schultz: He could be a physical presence in the NFL, although he also displayed strong hands throughout his career, finishing 2017 with 22 catches for 212 yards and three touchdowns.

Florida State: The Seminoles may have had a disappointing season, but there was still plenty of talent on the roster. The defense, especially, held up its end of the bargain. Some of that left, but keep the talent pool in mind when Florida State is undoubtedly hyped in August.
— Safety Derwin James: The Seminoles’ No. 2 tackler with 84, including 5.5 for loss, James also tallied two interceptions with 11 pass breakups.
— Defensive end Josh Sweat: Trailing James, Sweat made 56 tackles, highlighted by 12.5 for loss with 5.5 sacks, adding 3 pass breakups to the slate.

Auden Tate. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

— Defensive end Jalen Wilkerson: Only 19 tackles may not jump off the page, but six of them were for loss.
— Cornerback Tarvarus McFadden: Providing strong coverage no matter whom Florida State faced, McFadden complemented 30 tackles with 10 pass breakups.
— Receiver Auden Tate: At 6-foot-5, Tate turned a quarter of his 40 catches into touchdowns. His 548 receiving yards were second on the team.
— Tight end Ryan Izzo: His 20 catches were not necessarily that many, but Izzo’s 317 receiving yards and three touchdowns were each third on the team.

Virginia Tech: If noticing an imbalance tilted toward defensive players heading to the NFL throughout this list, that reflects football as a whole. The League is willing to invest in defenders. Most offensive playmakers are seen as a bit more replaceable. On the college level, the best defenses carry teams to the College Football Playoff (see: Clemson), thus getting those individual stars more attention and raising their draft prospects.
— Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds: The Hokies’ leading tackler with 109, Edmunds also managed 14 for loss while notching 5.5 sacks.
— Safety Terrell Edmunds: Virginia Tech’s No. 5 tackler with 59, Edmunds added two interceptions and four pass breakups.
— Defensive tackle Tim Settle: 36 tackles with 12.5 for loss and four sacks this year.

Pittsburgh: The Panthers have made a habit of tripping up a top-ranked team each fall. Losing three contributors will not help that cause, but head coach Pat Narduzzi will certainly have Pittsburgh ready to go Oct. 13.
— Offensive tackle Brian O’Neill: After starting 13 games at right tackle a year ago, O’Neill moved to left tackle with little trouble in making 12 starts this season.
— Safety Jordan Whitehead: The Panthers’ No. 3 tackler, Whitehead added four pass breakups and an interception to his 60 tackles.
— Receiver Quadree Henderson: Only 17 catches for 186 yards is hardly something to speak of, but Henderson did return two punts for touchdowns this season and averaged 20.96 yards per kick return.

Jessie Bates (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Wake Forest: Wherever safety Jessie Bates goes in the draft, Irish fans should take note. His development under former Demon Deacons and then Notre Dame and now Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko was exceptional. Elko may be gone, but his scheme remains. Any version of such development at safety could be the final piece to the Irish defense in the fall.

Healthy throughout 2016, Bates made 100 tackles with seven for loss and picked off five passes. Injuries slowed him toward the end of 2017.

Michigan: None of the other 2018 opponents had players head to the NFL before they had to, but it warrants mentioning the Wolverines didn’t in part because they had 11 drafted in 2017.

A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s defensive roster

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Following a week of moves to and from Notre Dame’s roster, most notably — certainly most positively — on the defensive side, a quick look at the numbers at each position can shine a light on the months to come. Just like last week’s brief glance at the offense, the order of this listing is not intended to stake a stance on positional competitions. (In other words, it doesn’t try to figure out the mess at safety.)

For the time being, the years listed remain those currently. There is no clean date to transition forward a grade in this space. Thus, when senior linebacker Drue Tranquill’s name shows up, it is because he will be around yet in 2018. This is intended to aid conversations and debates in-person and online as they pertain to the coming season. Looks further ahead with thoughts on eligibility concerns will be more focused at some point in the coming offseason.

One last note: In looking at the linebackers, do not be surprised if the experience gap is filled by Tranquill and rover becomes even more of a matchup-based concept. Spring practice should shed some light on that possibility.

As of this morning, the Irish roster has 84 names on it, expecting at least three more commitments by Feb. 7, if not a graduate transfer or two. As always, the NCAA allows a maximum of 85 come fall.

Defensive end (7):
So. Daelin Hayes
Sr. Jay Hayes
So. Khalid Kareem
So. Julian Okwara
So. Ade Ogundeji
Fr. Kofi Wardlow
Inc. fr. Justin Ademilola

Defensive tackle (8):
Jr. Jerry Tillery
Sr. Jonathan Bonner
Fr. Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa
Fr. Kurt Hinish
Fr. Darnell Ewell
Jr. Micah Dew-Treadway
Inc. fr. Ja’Mion Franklin
Inc. fr. Jayson Ademilola

Linebacker (8):
Jr. Te’von Coney
So. Jonathan Jones
So. Jamir Jones
Early-enrolled fr. Jack Lamb
Early-enrolled fr. Bo Bauer
Fr. Drew White
Fr. David Adams
Early-enrolled fr. Ovie Oghoufo

Rover (4):
Sr. Drue Tranquill
Jr. Asmar Bilal
Fr. Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah
Inc. fr. Shayne Simon

Cornerback (7):
So. Julian Love
Jr. Shaun Crawford
Sr. Nick Watkins
So. Troy Pride
So. Donte Vaughn
Inc. fr. Tariq Bracy
Inc. fr. Joe Wilkins, Jr.

Safety (11):
So. Alohi Gilman
Jr. Nick Coleman
Inc. fr. Derrik Allen
Early-enrolled fr. Houston Griffith
So. Jalen Elliott
So. Devin Studstill
Fr. Jordan Genmark-Heath
Fr. Isaiah Robertson
Jr. Nicco Fertitta
So. D.J. Morgan
Inc. fr. Paul Moala