Oklahoma v Notre Dame

Ready or Not: Young Irish defenders making moves


Heading into fall camp, surprises were expected on the defensive side of the ball. But while everybody is talking about Brian Kelly naming Everett Golson his starting quarterback, the Irish head coach’s comments about his evolving defense were probably the most illuminating we’ve heard from Kelly in years.

As the depth chart on Brian VanGorder’s defense begins to shake out, it’s becoming clear that the Irish will rely heavily on a group of talented youngsters who have played very little football. Let’s break down what we learned about the Irish defense yesterday.


Get ready for Andrew Trumbetti. 

More than a few fans were disappointed when Kelly didn’t mention Trumbetti among the group of freshmen that he expected to contribute as pass rushers. That’s because Kelly doesn’t view the early-enrollee as a freshman anymore.

“Sometimes I don’t talk about him enough because I sometimes forget he’s a freshman because he’s almost separated himself from this freshman class,” Kelly acknowledged. “He’s a starter for us right now. He’s the other starting defensive end for us. He’ll start as a true freshman for us. He’s just that kind of player. We think that he’s got a huge upside for us in so many areas that sometimes, like I said, I don’t talk about him enough. But a great motor, physical, smart, does all the things that we ask him to do.”

Trumbetti has already passed junior Romeo Okwara for a battle to get on the field, giving you an idea of the impressive summer that the New Jersey native put together. He’ll be the first true freshman defensive lineman to start an opener since Anthony Weaver did it in 1998.



It looks like the move to flip James Onwualu to the defensive side of the ball is working. 

After swimming in the deep-end during spring practice, converted wide receiver James Onwualu appears to be figuring out his role in the Irish defense. After starting spring as a safety, Onwualu slid down into the Sam linebacker spot and has ascended into a starting role, in front of junior John Turner and senior Ben Councell.

After making solid moves switching Bennett Jackson, Troy Niklas, Matthias Farley  and Austin Collinsworth, it appears that Kelly has struck gold again moving Onwualu over to defense, even after the sophomore started four games at wideout last season.

Kelly talked about the role Onwualu is capable of filling in the Irish defense, while also identifying the multiple nature of the Sam spot in the Irish defense.

“Tough and smart. Tough first and smart,” Kelly said. “He’s a very, very good athlete. Now if we’re lining up against Stanford and you want to pound it and you’ve got three tackles on the field then we’re gonna get bigger. Ben Councell’s gonna be on the field. We’ll match personnel. But he’s smart and he’s tough.”


Jon Bonner’s days as a linebacker are over. 

Listed as a 6-foot-3, 269-pound linebacker, Jon Bonner’s going to have his hand on the ground when he takes the field. The explosive young athlete has moved his way into the two-deep at defensive tackle, adding some much-needed depth at a position that was going to rely on little-used veterans Justin Utupo and Chase Hounshell.

Bonner will be playing behind Sheldon Day at the three-technique, a versatile spot on the Irish defensive line and a position that’s capable of racking up some stats. Kelly has seen enough from Bonner, especially after reciting some impressive training numbers before camp started, to expect big things from the youngster.

“Explosive. Explosive off the ball. He’s got toughness,” Kelly said of Bonner. “Plays physical. Plays like a big boy. Doesn’t play like a freshman.”


Have we underestimated Isaac Rochell?

On a defensive line searching for answers, maybe we all skipped by one of the most logical ones. Sophomore Isaac Rochell played in 11 games last season as a true freshman, chipping in 10 tackles from the defensive end position. But at 6-foot-3.5 and 287 pounds, Rochell sounds like a player that’s going to play a big role for the Irish in 2014.

“Isaac Rochell is a beast,” Kelly said, singling out the sophomore.


Are the freshmen going to play like freshmen?

It might take a media guide to watch Notre Dame play defense these first couple weeks. Players like Jhonny Williams, Kolin Hill, Daniel Cage and Nyles Morgan are going to get their opportunities to play. And it’s absolutely a 180 from the attitude that Bob Diaco took with young players.

(Remember when both Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt were healthy scratches against Michigan, when they couldn’t be counted on to play “assignment correct football” against Denard Robinson?)

But Kelly is ready to let these guys learn, with each young player given a role in the defense. After knowing how risky it is to depend on freshmen, Kelly sounded truthful when he said this might be different.

“I think in years past I probably would be but then my eyes tell me something different when I watch them,” Kelly said. “They’ve got an edge to them. Nyles Morgan, Jonathan Bonner, Jhonny Williams, Trumbetti, Kolin Hill. I just watch these guys play… These guys are physical football players and they’ve got an edge to them. [Daniel] Cage is a load. Just all of these guys.

“I’m watching them every day. I’m going against them every day. I’m liking it. I know when you have holes. I’ve been around long enough. I know when you look at them and go, ‘That’s not very good.’ Now they’re young. We might cut a gap loose. We may be in the wrong gap. But it’s not because we’re not ripping and roaring up the field. It’ll be fun but they’re gonna cause a few moments of coach VanGorder throwing his hat on the ground. I’m sure of that. But the thing is, it’s a physical group. It’s a physical group.”



Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”