Keenan Reynolds, Justin Utopo, Cole Luke

The good, the bad, and the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Navy

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After eight lead changes, Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame team did just enough to keep Navy from springing an upset that would’ve undone much of the positives that have come from a season that hasn’t come easy. At 7-2, the Irish will likely climb a few more spots in the polls if only because of attrition, as teams get into the meat of their schedules.

We’ll hear later today just how bad the injury situation is for the Irish, with Kelly updating the media in his usual Sunday conference call. But before that, let’s get into the good, bad and ugly from Saturday’s wild 38-34 victory.

THE GOOD

Tarean Folston. The freshman running back looked the part on Saturday afternoon, running for 140 yards on 18 carries, carrying the load for the Irish down the stretch when Notre Dame turned to the ground game.

After rarely trusting a freshman with key touches in games that are tight, that Kelly turned to Folston to be the chain mover was telling. (Then again, every other back has had fumble problems.)

The freshman ran with power and speed, showing great cutback ability and vision as he diced the Navy defense down the stretch.

Kona Schwenke. The senior defensive lineman had an impressive  11 tackles before leaving the game with an injury, wreaking havoc on the interior of the Navy offensive line.

We will see how serious the leg injury Schwenke suffered is, but it’d be a shame if this was a career-ending injury for the Hawaii native, who would likely be returning for a fifth year if Kelly and the coaching staff had any depth along the defensive front when they arrived in South Bend.

TJ Jones. The senior receiver connected with Tommy Rees on a beautiful 35-yard post route for a touchdown, Jones’ sixth consecutive game with a touchdown and his fourth 100 yard game of the season. While his slip on a crossing route resulted in an interception, Jones has been the most reliable Irish receiver all season, and had a 19-yard punt return called back because of a block in the back.

Ben Koyack. Another game, another touchdown for Koyack, who is starting to show how effective the Irish can be with two tight end sets. Koyack’s 17-yard touchdown catch was a perfect design and setup by offensive coordinator Chuck Martin.

The running game. So THIS is the running game Notre Dame fans have been waiting for. The Irish rushed for 268 yards even with Conor Hanratty and Steve Elmer starting at guard. In addition to the nice game by Folston, George Atkinson averaged over 10 yards a carry and ripped off a 41-yard touchdown run early. Cam McDaniel averaged 7.4 yards a carry and had a 16-yard touchdown run called back as well.

Offensive efficiency. The Irish averaged 9.0 yards per offensive play, the most since the 1998 season, a remarkable 15 years. While the two turnovers the Irish committed kept the Midshipmen in the game, the Irish offense is rounding into form at the right time, especially with the attrition on the defensive side of the ball.

THE BAD

Injuries. There’s no way around it, this team is ravaged by injuries right now, especially on the defensive side of the ball. For those wondering why the Irish struggled against the option after doing so well the previous two seasons, consider the fact that Bob Diaco’s unit barely resembled the group on the field the past two seasons.

Here’s a quick look at the significant injuries the defense has faced:

OLB Danny Spond – Out for Season (Migraines)
DE/DL Tony Springmann – Out for Season (Knee)
S Nicky Baratti – Out for Season (Shoulder)
DE Chase Hounshell – Out for Season (Shoulder)
LB Jarrett Grace – Out for Season (Knee)
DE Sheldon Day – Missed multiple games (Ankle)
DT Louis Nix – Missed multiple games (Knee/Shoulder)
OLB Ishaq Williams – Missed multiple games (Knee)
S Elijah Shumate – Missed multiple games (Hamstring)
DE Kona Schwenke – Left game against Navy (Lower Leg)
OLB Ben Councell – Left game against Navy (Knee)

Councell’s injury looked to be serious, with the junior linebacker carted to the locker room with a wrap on his knee after an injury covering a kickoff.

Containing the option. It’s hard to say just one segment of the option attack killed the Irish since everybody but Keenan Reynolds averaged 4.8 yards or more per rush. But if there was a surprising problem for Notre Dame, it was the fact that the Midshipmen got outside the Irish’s leverage so often.

Multiple times it looked like the defense had Navy strung out only to see the pitch man or quarterback get outside the edge and turn a play in the backfield into a big gainer. It was especially demoralizing for the Irish after making decent plays early in a series only to give it all back a play later.

Third down defense. Maybe the most disappointing stat of the game for Notre Dame is the fact that Navy converted on 10 of 16 third downs, moving the chains often and contributing to a really lopsided time of possession ratio, with Navy possessing the ball for 37:36 to Notre Dame’s 22:24.

Tough penalty flags. The call against Justin Utupo (or Matthias Farley) was a complete debacle. The refs called it on the wrong player, diagnosed the call incorrectly, and then couldn’t explain what exactly was called when Brian Kelly asked for clarification.

The extra 15 yards took Navy out of a sure punt situation and gave the Midshipmen a much needed first down that turned into a touchdown drive.

While Navy wasn’t flagged once, multiple flags against Notre Dame appeared suspect on second glance including the touchdown that was wiped out thanks to a “holding” call on Troy Niklas. (Replay showed it as a perfect pancake block, though a second hold was called on No. 1 (Greg Bryant?) but was meant for DaVaris Daniels, a penalty that didn’t look like much of one when reviewed again.)

Irish turnovers. In a game where the Irish absolutely NEEDED to turn the ball over to keep Navy in it, the offense obliged, with an ugly interception courtesy of the turf monster (we’ll get to that later) keeping ND from stretching the game to a two-touchdown lead early.

The second interception came after DaVaris Daniels lost the battle for a 50-50 ball on the first play of an Irish two-minute drive, a pass that Tommy Rees threw to the outside and Daniels didn’t get to. It wasn’t one of Rees’s better passes on the day, but the quarterback showed faith that Daniels could beat the Navy cornerback and Daniels didn’t do it.

Three plays that changed the game. If you’re looking to distill this game into a three-play sequence, you could do it. The Irish’s fate changed early in the second quarter as the offense was marching to take a 10-point lead that could’ve forced Navy out of its game plan.

But then this happened:

* Cam McDaniel’s 16-yard touchdown run was called back because of Troy Niklas (and Davaris Daniels) holding penalty.
* On 1st and 20, the Irish offense set up a perfect running back screen. With blockers in front of him, Amir Carlisle couldn’t hold onto the quick throw from Tommy Rees, and the pass fell incomplete.
* 2nd and 20, Rees threw a in-cut to TJ Jones, who slipped on the break and had the pass intercepted.

Problems compounded and ten plays later, Navy scored a touchdown to take the lead.

THE UGLY

Notre Dame’s playing surface. Weather played a factor all across the Midwest yesterday, so Notre Dame Stadium wasn’t the only slippery track in college football. But after spending years and thousands of dollars trying to keep a natural playing surface inside Notre Dame Stadium, it’s beyond clear that the fight isn’t one that can be won without some drastic steps.

When asked about the field after the game, Kelly — who has openly talked about wanting FieldTurf — didn’t throw anyone under the bus.

“Our field people work their butts off, though, to try to get it the best they could,” Kelly said. “This is something that has been inherited in a large degree over a long period of time.

 

“It’s going to be resolved.  It will be handled.  Jack Swarbrick will take care of it. It will be handled. It’s not an easy fix. This is not just roll out some grass and tamp it down. So it will be something that will have to be worked on in the off‑season, looked at extensively, and we’ll come up with a solution.”

Plans are already underway to turn the stadium into something that’s used for more than just seven Saturdays a year, a renovation that could include additional luxuries boxes, classrooms, a potential video board and other modern amenities.

And while people point to hybrid surfaces like Green Bay or great natural turf like Michigan State, the work that needs to be done to allow the grass to hold is a costly and time consuming renovation that might not be possible for reasons other than money.

 

Either way, expect the final home game against BYU to be the final game for natural grass.

 

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

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.