Noah Copeland

And in that corner… The Navy Midshipmen

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Every year since 1927 Notre Dame and Navy have played football. While the Irish have won 73 of those games, the rivarly is known less for its one-sided nature than for its mutual respect.

And that’s before Navy made things competitive.

For a long time, Notre Dame was Navy’s shot at Mt. Everest. Even though Notre Dame won this game annually for 43 straight years, the Midshipmen geared up for their shot at one of college football’s powers.

That Navy finally toppled the Irish in 2007, one of Notre Dame’s worst teams in program history, matters not to any fan of the Midshipmen. It opened the gates of belief, and the Midshipmen nearly pulled off a last minute upset in 2008, before winning incredibly in ’09 and decisively in ’10, Brian Kelly’s first year in the program.

Since that run of three out of four, last done in 1963, and before that in 1936, the Irish have taken back the power, winning by 40+ points each of the past two seasons. But it’s clear that Kelly and his staff understand what Ken Niumatalolo has built in Annapolis.

To get us up to speed on all things Navy, Bill Wagner of the Capital Gazette answered some questions for me. Bill took time out of his already busy schedule to slide in my questions after already working with a handful of other Notre Dame-based publications, so for that I’m eternally grateful.

I asked, Bill answered. Let’s get to it.

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Q: At 4-3, this team may not be the best of the Niumatalolo era, but it might not be that far behind. Impressive wins versus Indiana and Pitt, a tough loss against Toledo. How dangerous is this team compared to the ones that beat Notre Dame three out of four?

Navy continues to recruit better talent in terms of size, speed and strength. Joining a legitimate conference has helped the staff get better players. So talent-wise, I think Navy is as good or better than it’s ever been.

Obviously, chemistry and intangibles are hard to measure so until this team wins 10 games like some of those in the past it cannot lay claim to being the best during this current unprecedented run of success. I think that period in which Navy won three of four was more about the state of Notre Dame’s program than Navy’s.

Clearly, Brian Kelly has the Fighting Irish program back to an elite level and that means a loss to Navy would be the huge upset it would have been during the historic 43-game winning streak in the series.

Q: Notre Dame fans got a look at quarterback Keenan Reynolds in his debut last season. He’s played a lot of football since. Can you assess the progress he’s made?

Keenan Reynolds is well on the way to becoming the finest quarterback of the triple-option era. That is because he possesses all three attributes you look for. He has a strong, accurate arm, is an effective – even dangerous – runner and does a superb job of reading defenses. Past Navy quarterbacks may have possessed one or two of those traits. Ricky Dobbs was a fine passer and a strong, powerful runner, but struggled to make the reads necessary to run the triple-option. Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada was one of the best at reading defenses and ran well, but could not throw worth a darn. Reynolds does everything well and is also a leader and a winner.

Q: The Midshipmen defense has made some steady progress. It’s sitting right in the middle of the pack statistically at 60th in total defense. Are we seeing something different out of the group? Has the personnel gotten better?

Navy’s defense has really been up and down this season. At times, the unit has looked quite good. At others, it has been terrible. Navy played solid defense against Delaware, Western Kentucky and Pitt. The Midshipmen were completely shredded by Indiana, Duke and Toledo. In the Toledo game, the defense was solid for one half then awful for another. I don’t know that Navy’s defense is any different than it’s ever been.

Perhaps the overall personnel is better than years past, but the key is how well the Mids play the bend-but-don’t-break philosophy espoused by defensive coordinator Buddy Green. Navy’s goal is to not give up big plays, rally multiple defenders to the ball, get ball-handlers on the ground and force the offense to snap the ball over and over in hopes it will commit a penalty, turnover or some other sort of mistake that kills the drive.

Q: We’ve spent a lot of time this year talking about “Rivals.” Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick has made a commitment to keeping Navy on the schedule, a product of one of the longest running rivalries in college football. Outside of Air Force and obviously Army, is this the next biggest game for Navy? Has the intensity worn off from the boiling point this game was at during Navy’s 3 out of 4 run? Things got pretty intense there for a bit, at least from Notre Dame’s perspective.

I actually think there is a lot of mutual respect between the two schools and the two football programs. Playing Notre Dame annually helps Navy with recruiting and generally raises the profile of the program. Junior safety Parrish Gaines told me this week that it’s “Army, Air Force and Notre Dame” in that order in terms of big games for Navy.

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(I limited Bill’s questions to four because of his other commitments to ND Blogs. So check out his work at the Capital Gazette and give him a follow on Twitter @BWagner_CapGaz

Quenton Nelson will return for his senior season

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Getty
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Brian Kelly’s talked about the rare 6-star recruit: Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Michael Floyd, Zack Martin. Well, add Quenton Nelson to the list. Notre Dame’s starting left guard has made it official that he’ll return for his senior season.

The New Jersey native adds another key building block to the Irish offensive line, returning with Mike McGlinchey to anchor Harry Hiestand’s unit. Like McGlinchey, Nelson had an option to be selected high in next year’s NFL Draft, staying in school even after receiving a second-round grade from the NFL’s Advisory Board, per Irish Illustrated.

Nelson took to social media to make the news public, with the NFL’s declaration deadline set for January 16.

“Excited for this team to grow every day this offseason by putting in nothing but hard work and grinding together. When we reach our full potential, look out. I’m right behind you Coach.”

Nelson was named a team captain for 2017 at the year-end Echoes Awards Show. He earned second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated and was rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 1 offensive guard in the 2017 draft class, a grade he’ll likely carry into next season.

Clark Lea formally named Linebackers Coach

clark-lea
UND.com
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Notre Dame formally introduced new linebackers coach Clark Lea on Thursday. The press release for the 35-year-old  included the following quote from the new assistant who has worked at Bowling Green, UCLA and Wake Forest, and rejoins Mike Elko in South Bend.

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said in a statement. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”

That work has already begun, with Lea on the prowl as the recruiting dead period ended and the rebuilt Irish staff hit the road. Yesterday, Lea was with defensive coordinator Mike Elko visiting commit David Adams, a key piece of the Irish puzzle on the defensive side of the ball. That starts a mad rush that’ll keep Lea’s belongs in boxes until after the first Wednesday in February, as Elko and his reshuffled defensive staff open their recruiting board, finding replacements for a handful of de-commitments and pieces that’ll fit Elko’s scheme.

If there’s any reason for optimism after a tough few weeks in recruiting, it’s the young staff that Kelly has assembled. The youth movement includes not just Lea, but the 39-year-old Elko. New offensive coordinator Chip Long is just 33, moving to Notre Dame after one season at Memphis. Running backs coach Autry Denson just turned 40 while special teams coordinator Brian Polian is practically long in the tooth at 42. (All that comes before the expected announcement of 25-year-old Tommy Rees.)

Lea’s pedigree is rock solid, earning kudos in 2012 for his work as Linebackers coach at Bowling Green, Football Scoop’s Linebackers Coach of the Year.

“Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” Kelly said in the release. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system — having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”

 

 

 

Reports: Lea, Alexander added to Irish coaching staff

delvaughn
ASU Sports Information
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Brian Kelly is adding to his rebuilt coaching staff, reportedly finalizing deals with Wake Forest linebackers coach Clark Lea and Arizona State assistant DelVaughn Alexander. Lea will reunite with Mike Elko and coach linebackers and Alexander will coach wide receivers. While both hires are still going through formal university vetting, the Lea hire has long been rumored before being reported by SI’s Pete Thamel. FootballScoop.com broke the news on Alexander, before multiple outlets confirmed the report.

In Lea, Elko brings a piece of his coaching staff with him to South Bend. The 35-year-old spent last season working in Winston-Salem and spent three seasons at Syracuse before that. He worked with Elko and Demon Deacons head coach Dave Clawson at Bowling Green and has spent time as an assistant at UCLA as well. He earned three letters at Vanderbilt, a 2004 graduate.

Alexander is a veteran presence to help replace Mike Denbrock and fill his void coaching receivers. He’s also a coach with first-hand knowledge of new coordinator Chip Long, having worked alongside him in Tempe under Mike Norvell. The move also comes in time for the reopen of the recruiting season’s home stretch, bringing a capable West Coast recruiter to the staff at a time when Notre Dame’s 2017 class is leaking a bit of oil.

Alexander played wide receiver at USC, playing for Larry Smith and John Robinson, before breaking into the coaching ranks there as a graduate assistant. He’s also had stops at UNLV, coached for Jim Harbaugh at San Diego, and spent significant time at Wisconsin and Arizona State where he coached multiple positions, taking over tight ends after Long left for Memphis.

Chip Long in as Offensive Coordinator… and play-caller

chip-long
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Notre Dame’s formal press release introducing Chip Long as the new offensive coordinator did more than confirm news that we’ve known for a few weeks. It let us in on Brian Kelly’s initial plans for his offense heading into a pivotal offseason.

After some struggles in 2016 with DeShone Kizer and an inexperienced wide receiving corps, most expected Kelly to rip back control of the offense after Mike Denbrock called the plays and Mike Sanford coordinated the offense. But Kelly is going to let Long call the plays next season, adding some intrigue to a press release that usually is vanilla.

“Chip will be given the full responsibility to call plays in 2017,” Kelly said in the release. “His offense at Memphis displayed a unique blend of physicality, athleticism, versatility and explosiveness. Chip’s play-calling created mismatches all over the field and did it in a number of different ways. He likes to use players who can fill numerous roles in an array of formations, whether that be two and three tight ends or multiple running backs.

“Chip has experience coaching at almost every position on the offensive side of the ball. He’s worked for and learned from some of the most respected offensive minds in college football — Bobby Petrino, Mike Norvell and Jeff Brohm — to name a few.”

That Kelly is handing over play-calling to Long, who called plays last year for Mike Norvell at Memphis, is a surprise on the surface. But if you listen to Kelly over the past few seasons, he’s always downplayed that responsibility. Most thought he was simply playing coy, though Kelly seems to value game plan and installation as something at least as important as calling the plays.

But after splitting the baby between Denbrock and Sanford these past two seasons (the three-man collaboration worked much better in 2015 than 2016–possibly explained by the personnel) perhaps Kelly sees a singular voice as a key to improving an Irish offense that’ll have to replace Kizer, but should welcome back the majority of offensive playmakers, as well as Alizé Jones. Giving that assignment to Long will also let Kelly dig in as a head coach, working with first-year starter Brandon Wimbush and staying connected to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko and his installation.

Long’s work on campus will likely take flight as soon as the recruiting dead period is over. Known for his tenacity on the trail, Notre Dame is in desperate need of getting back into living rooms, trying to get back some momentum as a few defections have spoiled the 2017 class, and a handful of spots are available in this upcoming signing class.

Long will also likely work with tight ends, a position he played as a D-II All-American and that he coached at Memphis last season. Scott Booker coached tight ends since 2012.

“It’s an honor and privilege to have the opportunity to serve as the offensive coordinator at the University of Notre Dame,” Long said in the statement. “The challenge to lead at a University with such high standards is incredibly motivating. I’m very grateful to Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for extending this opportunity.

“It’s Notre Dame: the values, the culture, and the leadership. My wife, Kari, and I are excited to move to South Bend and to join the Notre Dame family.”