Trey Miller Navy Ishaq Williams

Pregame Six Pack: Next up Navy

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As winners of three straight (and five of the last six), Notre Dame’s season is coming into focus after a rough start. The quarterback play of Tommy Rees has improved steadily since back-to-back tough games against Michigan State and Oklahoma. The defense has tightened considerably, playing its best football during the winning streak, with two consecutive second-half shutouts and three straight perfect third quarters.

While injuries have taken their toll on the team, Brian Kelly and the Irish enter November knowing exactly what they need to do: Win.

Now comes one of their most familiar opponents. Notre Dame and the Navy have played every year since 1927, one of college football’s longest running rivalries. After the longest winning streak in college football, the Midshipmen struck back winning three of four, until the Irish took back the power with two-straight 40-point victories.

Let’s dive into the pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame and Navy do battle at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

History is vital in the appreciation of this rivalry. 

Notre Dame and Navy share a mutual respect that exists because of the rich history these two institutions share. Before Notre Dame was one of the most powerful and financially secure universities in the country it was a school that could’ve closed its doors when the war took its toll on enrollment and the student body.

Navy established a college training program in 1943 that saved the university, with enrollment numbers that were down to almost Great Depression era levels skyrocketing back to health. The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, Notre Dame’s beloved former president, talked about how important Navy was to the university.

“All I can say is without the Navy during the war, this institution would have gotten down to a few hundred students,” Father Hesburgh said in 2010. “Instead of that, we were almost twice our normal size during the war, and we were able to contribute something to the Navy.”

If you’re wondering why the Irish will join Navy at the end of Saturday’s game in honoring their school, it’s because the Navy supported Notre Dame in its time of need. That’s something that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

***

Notre Dame’s staff might have been fooled once by Ken Niumatalolo. It hasn’t happened again. 

The loss in 2010 to Navy was one of the most lopsided in Brian Kelly’s tenure in South Bend. Sixty carries for 367 yards, a staggering 6.1 a clip. Since then? The Irish have held Navy under 4 yards a carry, with the Midshipmen failing to break 200 yards in either game since then, and held to just 149 in last season’s opener, Navy’s second-lowest output in a game since late in the 2010 season.

When asked about trying to forget that dreadful day in the Meadowlands, Kelly made it clear neither he nor his staff have forgotten the ugly 35-17 loss.

“I just think that we felt like there’s only been a couple of times since we’ve been here where we felt like we let the players down, and as coaches you never want to feel that way,” Kelly said when thinking back to that game. “I take full responsibility for that. You want your team prepared. That’s why we’re in this profession, to prepare our kids. We weren’t prepared properly. We redoubled our efforts based off that game to make sure that never happens again.”

***

It’ll be a fun game for the Robinson family, who can certainly be considered a house divided. 

Expect to see your fair share of David Robinson on the TV screen this weekend. The seven-foot NBA Hall of Famer is also easy to spot with a TV camera, but Navy’s most famous ex-athlete will also be supporting his son Corey, who will take on the Robinson family’s roots when he goes up against Navy.

Robinson likely always saw this game as part of his future — at least if he was going to play football in college. He just always thought he’d be playing for the other team.

“My whole life,” Robinson said, when asked if he saw himself following his father’s footsteps to Navy. “When Notre Dame offered me, I kind of opened up my mind a little bit.”

Our friends over at Irish Illustrated captured Corey’s interview on Wednesday this week, and the freshman was at least with the camera in his face, full of energy as he talked about the excitement that came with his first touchdown and playing against the Midshipmen.

***

Brian Kelly announced Everett Golson might be back with the team sooner than anybody expected. 

For Notre Dame fans eagerly awaiting the return of Everett Golson from his academic exile, Brian Kelly revealed that day may be coming sooner than anybody thought. When speaking after practice on Thursday, Kelly said that Golson would join the team (in practice) this season, not waiting until spring ball to begin to take reps.

“Let’s say he’s admitted back into school on December 15. He would be eligible to practice,” Kelly said. “If that’s the case, then we would practice him, but he would not, of course, be eligible to compete. Provided of course he gets readmitted.”

Getting Golson back on the field and working with the team would be great for jumping starting development, one of the key factors to Brian Kelly’s bowl preparations. If the Irish get to the BCS, there might not be a better scout team quarterback to face than Golson, who could replicate a dual-threat quarterback like Florida State’s Jameis Winston, or take the place of just about anybody to give the starting defense a good look.

On Thursday, Golson took off from his ten-week training stint in San Diego with quarterback coach George Whitfield. It’s the longest Whitfield has ever had to work with a single quarterback, and catching up with Whitfield, he said Golson’s physical, mental, and mechanical gains were incredible.

Golson’s physical strength also benefitted, gaining almost 15 pounds of good weight, checking in at 204 after joining Whitfield at 190. He’s also throwing the football using the laces, a relief for some Irish fans that worried about the young quarterback’s mechanics looking fairly freestyle.

***

More option, less Louis Nix. (But better depth eases the blow.)

Another week against an option opponent.  And another Irish defense without All-American Louis Nix. The 350-pound senior defensive tackle will sit out this week against the Midshipmen, pushing Kona Schwenke into the starting lineup again next to Stephon Tuitt, who shifts to defensive tackle in a four-man front.

The Irish will also be without defensive end Ishaq Williams, who injured a knee on a low block early in the game against Air Force. But the Irish depth on defense showed itself, with little used veterans like Kendall Moore and Justin Utupo playing very well, two guys that’ll likely see time on Saturday as well.

With Jaylon Smith locked in at outside linebacker, Ben Councell was spotted putting a hand on the ground as well. The Irish also have support with sophomore Romeo Okwara, so while guys like Sheldon Day and Elijah Shumate should be back and playing, there’s confidence being built in the depth chart, a beneficial thing this time of year.

Big defensive plays. Game-changing special teams. Expect the unexpected against Navy. 

Ever since former Notre Dame defensive end Renaldo Wynn ran back a 24-yard fumble for a touchdown in 1996, the Irish and Navy have been making plenty of big plays on defense and special teams. Ten times in the last 17 meetings Notre Dame or Navy has scored a touchdown on defense or special teams, with Stephon Tuitt supplying the highlight last season with his 77-yard fumble return.

Here’s a rundown of the highlights since 1996:

2012: Stephon Tuitt, TD Fumble Return (ND)
2008: Toryan Smith, TD Fumble Return (ND)
2007: Chris Kuhar-Pitters, TD Fumble Return (Navy)
2002: Vontez Duff, TD, Kickoff Return (ND)
2001: Gerome Sapp, TD Fumble Return (ND)
2000: Tony Driver, TD Fumble Return (ND)
2000: Tony Driver, TD Fumble Return (ND)
1999: Davede Alexander, TD Interception Return (Navy)
1999: Chris Oliver, TD Punt Block (Navy)
1996: Renaldo Wynn, TD Fumble Return (ND)

Making things all the crazier? For as many big touchdowns that have happened on defense or special teams, Notre Dame has only managed to punt just seven times in the past eight games against Navy, with three coming during the Irish’s 2008 victory.

The Irish lost in both 2007 and 2009 without punting the football, making them a ridiculous 2-2 against Navy when not punting.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
rivals.com
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.