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

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters. 

Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller taken in first round of NFL Draft

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller were taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. Both came off the board on night one, with Stanley the first offensive tackle taken and Fuller the second receiver selected.

Stanley joins the Baltimore Ravens, a key addition to a franchise needed help along the offensive line. He’s Notre Dame’s first Top 10 pick since 1994, ending a draught that’s spanned since Bryant Young was taken by San Francisco.

Fuller will join a Houston Texans offense that just spent major money on quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller. To back up that investment, the Texans added college football’s most dangerous deep threat, trading up to spot No. 21 to pair Fuller with DeAndre Hopkins on the outside.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith was not selected in the first round. Both he and Myles Jack, widely considered to be Top 10 talents, slid down the board because of knee injuries. (Both also have loss-of-value insurance policies, cushioning that blow.)

The draft continues tomorrow with rounds two and three. Smith should be selected then, along with Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, and potentially C.J. Prosise.

Demetris Robertson set for Sunday decision (finally!)

Demetris Robertson
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Five-star recruit Demetris Robertson is ready to make a college decision. Finally.

Months after National Signing Day, the last recruit on the board for Notre Dame is ready to pick the place he plans to go to college. And after setting an announcement date for Monday, Robertson is even pushing things forward, with a Sunday decision now in the books.

For Irish fans still paying attention to the twists and turns of this recruitment, Robertson will announce his decision from the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta. (An homage to Jimmy Clausen, anyone?)

Here’s Rivals.com with the news after talking with Robertson’s brother and guardian.

“We were going to have it on Monday, but things got mixed up so we moved it up a day,” Carlos Robertson said. “It will be at 1 p.m., right there in that 1-2 time frame, somewhere in there.”

But it’s happening.

“His mind’s made up,” Carlos Robertson said. “Everything’s locked, but he wanted to have it, have a little public deal, but I think he knows where he wants to be.”

Robertson also cleared up why the decision is being held in Atlanta.

“We’re not from Savannah, we’re actually from right below the Atlanta area, so it will give everybody, the aunts, the uncles, everybody a chance to come,” he said. “It only made sense.”

While this recruitment has felt like a soap opera, it’s worth pointing out that there’s absolutely no reason to fault Robertson for making this decision on a timeline that he decides. National Signing Day may feel like a holiday to college football fans, but it’s really just the earliest date a letter-of-intent can be signed.

With hopes of gaining admittance into Stanford, Robertson reportedly retook his ACT multiple times, trying to make a better score. Usually that’s cause for applause, not derision. He’s also spent time further evaluating his other options, some closer to home—Georgia, Alabama—others with a significant academic profile—Cal and Notre Dame among them.

The Irish’s pursuit of Robertson has been well documented, including a visit from the team semi-truck. It’s also a recruitment where most are still in the dark. While Notre Dame is certainly still in the running, there’s no gut feeling on this one way or the other, even among those inside the program.

After averaging 15 points a game as a guard for the Savannah Christian basketball team, Robertson is preparing to compete in the state track meet, running multiple sprint events and the long jump. That type of athleticism is what has the Irish coaching staff sold on Robertson as a wide receiver, a potential replacement for Will Fuller (and two other starters) as Notre Dame restocks a depth chart that’ll also feature spring star Kevin Stepherson and incoming freshmen Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley.

With some feeling home state Georgia has moved ahead in the race, Robertson’s brother Carlos says his younger brother did what was best for him, taking his time and making a decision for himself.

“It was totally his decision, lock himself in the room, however he had to do it. This was something he had to decide on his own,” the elder Robertson told Rivals.com.