Offseason Q&A: Pitt

21 Comments

Another season, another head coach for the Pitt Panthers. In what seems like a revolving door atop the Panthers program since Dave Wannstedt was shown the door from his alma mater, Pitt has tapped former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi to run the show, one of the best hires of the offseason.

For Pitt fans, the fit is a perfect one, with Narduzzi’s aggressive, in-your-face defense and refreshing energy a perfect counterpoint for Chryst. And Narduzzi also inherits a team that’s among the most talented on Notre Dame’s schedule, adding another intriguing element to a game that very quietly is one of the most difficult on Notre Dame’s schedule.

Getting us up to speed on the Panthers is our friend Anson Whaley of Cardiac Hill. He was kind enough to answer some questions as we look at November’s first Saturday, when the Irish travel to the Steel City.

Hope you enjoy.

 

Another year, another move at head coach. But in Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, it looks like Pitt hired the best candidate on the market, and someone who feels pitch perfect for the program.

Are we still in the honeymoon period? What’s been your early reaction to Narduzzi, the staff he’s built and his first spring?

Definitely still in the honeymoon period and that will probably last for at least the entire first year, to be honest. Pitt fans have been starved for a guy like Narduzzi to come along for quite some time and I expect that even if the team stumbles this season, that he will still have a lot of fans behind him. The early reaction to him has been overwhelmingly positive. A few people will tell you that it’s even been too positive since it seems like he’s being anointed as the team’s savior without having coached a single game. Overall, though, he’s done a lot of things right.

His first big test came with the hiring of assistants and nearly all had not only prior experience in the same position in which they were hired, but many were viewed as good recruiters and had been in big programs in some capacity. It’s also early in the recruiting season, but Narduzzi has won fans over with his aggressive style. He and his staff are all over Twitter and really seem to ‘get’ the whole recruiting thing. That’s a far cry from the last head coach, Paul Chryst, who not only seemed to want to distance himself from the recruiting game, but also lacked a staff of dynamic assistants.

Pitt’s class has started off pretty slowly thus far, but Narduzzi and his staff are displaying a go-getter mentality that’s been refreshing. One thing I keep coming back to is that Narduzzi has openly admitted to enjoying the recruiting process – I’m not sure Chryst ever felt that way and while he certainly did some good things (such as building up a very weak offensive line), you just don’t get the sense that recruiting is his thing.

Narduzzi also brought back the spring game, which Chryst didn’t even bother with last year. Chryst’s mentality was essentially that it’s more important to get an extra practice in, but so much of spring games is simply the opportunity to market your program. Some schools might not particularly need that, but Pitt is starved for any publicity it can get in an area dominated by the Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins. To not hold the game and give your program a chance to sell tickets, push the football program, etc., was a mistake. Pitt held the event in a small venue this year and while the attendance wasn’t huge, there was a noticeable buzz from the fans afterward.

Narduzzi’s personality has also won him some praise. He is making the rounds at Pitt alumni events throughout the state and reports at every stop have been overwhelmingly positive. Fans have been quick to point out that he comes off as sincere and enthusiastic. Former head coach Todd Graham came off as having a dynamic personality, but there wasn’t the talk of him coming off as a sincere guy. Chryst came off as having the sincerity and down-to-earth personality, but lacking Graham’s attitude. Narduzzi seems to be the perfect mix of both and is winning a lot of people over with that style.

The true test won’t come until later but so far, Narduzzi has made quite the impression.

 

There’s some star power taking the field in the dynamic duo of James Connor and Tyler Boyd. The juniors are All-American caliber players and will certainly be a handful for any opponent.

How good are these two? (Leaving the recent news about Boyd’s legal troubles out of it for now…)

Point blank, both are among the best at their positions. Conner received a lot of Heisman discussion early last year and Boyd still managed to have a big season after a slow first half. Conner, of course, took the world by storm on his way to a monster season, but Boyd’s year shouldn’t be downplayed considering how small of a role he had in the offense early on. He was held to only one 100-yard game in his first seven contests before averaging 127 yards per game over his last five. If Pitt had any semblance of a passing game the first half of the season, Boyd would have had an even bigger season.

Both are All-American candidates for 2015 and it would be a surprise if either came back after this season. Boyd is routinely mentioned as a first-round draft pick and while running backs are devalued in this day and age, Conner should still be picked near the top of his position. Conner, in particular, is really going to benefit by leaving early since his bruising style of running limits his shelf life even more than the typical back.

 

One of the bigger off-field stories in the last few weeks was Tyler Boyd’s arrest for DUI. How big of a deal is this? And what’s it say when one of the program’s most high profile players gets arrested for making a really boneheaded decision?

The stance from several readers on our website was that it wasn’t a big deal. The problem for me was, as you said, he is one of the team’s leaders. While it could have been worse, several bad decisions were made by Tyler. Underage drinking happens on every campus, so the idea that this is some unforgivable crime would be foolish. But to get behind a wheel after you’ve had even a few drinks at approximately 2:30 in the morning, as the reports suggest, just isn’t a great idea. To do it when you’re seen as a team leader is, frankly, even worse.

It’s not the biggest deal in the world but certainly a noteworthy incident that warrants some sort of suspension. And when you consider that under Dave Wannstedt and Paul Chryst, Pitt had a string of embarrassing off-field events, it’s not the kind of publicity the program wants. It took some steam out of a lot of momentum that had been building since Narduzzi’s hire.

 

Notre Dame fans have seen these mistakes punished in different ways. Draconian season-long suspensions. And seemingly progressive changes, like we saw when Michael Floyd returned after being suspended all spring to play his senior season.

What do you expect Boyd’s punishment to be, especially with Narduzzi’s first accountability test as the team’s head coach? And how important do you think the head coach’s handling of this situation will be to his tenure at Pitt?

The general consensus seems to be that it’s a one-game suspension sort of deal, and I’d be fine with that. But with a new head coach, we don’t really have any idea how Narduzzi will handle this. Does he make it a longer suspension to set an example? Does he not suspend him at all and simply make him work harder in practice since Boyd is so valuable? Since Narduzzi is a new coach, we’re kind of in uncharted territory here.

I would be very surprised if it were a long suspension. What he did wasn’t smart, but most reports seem to indicate that he was pretty aware at the time of being pulled over. Also, by giving Boyd a harsh penalty, you leave less wiggle room for bigger penalties for bigger crimes. Drinking and driving is not a minor issue by any stretch of the imagination, but assuming Boyd had little to drink that night, players have done far worse and received lesser suspensions. All of that said, it’s difficult to speculate too much since we’re still waiting on more details.

Whatever the punishment, Narduzzi’s handling of it is extremely important on a couple of fronts. It not only sets the tone in what we can expect from him in terms of being a disciplinarian, but establishes some sort of benchmark for the future for similar incidents.

(Editor’s note: In the time between this Q&A and it’s publication, Narduzzi addressed Boyd’s punishment, though didn’t declare whether Boyd would sit out any games.)

 

Offensively, Paul Chryst seems to have left the cupboard full for new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who just came from coaching with Bret Bielema — about as good as you can do from continuity purposes.

Chad Voytik returns after a good season. There’s a star at WR and RB, and J.P. Holtz feels like he’s been playing at Pitt since Dave Wannstedt was coaching. Throw in a really experienced offensive line and it sure feels like this could be a terrifying offense to face. Am I crazy?

Not at all. In fact, I think many Pitt fans would be disappointed if the offense wasn’t terrifying. There’s really no reason for that group to not put up a lot of points.

There are some questions to be sure. The offensive line lost their best player in tackle T.J. Clemmings (widely projected as a first-round draft pick until an injury issue popped up) and another starter in Matt Rotheram. The team is also trying to determine who will start opposite Boyd at wide receiver – after Boyd, the leading returning wide receiver is Dontez Ford, who had only three catches last year. If you take the unit as a whole, however, there’s good reason for optimism. Voytik has a year under his belt after being a first-time starter, the offensive line has some quality depth, and there’s real talent at the skill positions. Barring injuries, the offense has a chance to be special.

 

The defense has had to retool, but it brings in the country’s finest defensive mind as a head coach and a Broyles Award finalist as defensive coordinator in Josh Conklin.

What type of style change will Narduzzi and Conklin bring to the Pitt defense? And how did the transition go this spring?

Mostly, I would look for the unit to be more aggressive. One example of that is that Pitt often had its secondary play more off of receivers and I think we’ll see the corners get to be a little more physical at the line. But the bottom line is that Narduzzi and company know that unit has a long way to go.

This is really one of those situations where the players will need to be coached up as there’s not a lot of clear, identifiable talent on defense. The unit had next to no pressure last year from the defensive line after the departure of Aaron Donald. The top two linebackers and 2/3 of the starting linebacking corps, Todd Thomas and Anthony Gonzalez, have both graduated. The secondary was questionable for much of the season and while they get a boost with top recruit Jordan Whitehead at cornerback, there are still many questions surrounding that group that was torched repeatedly on long pass plays.

Reports out of the spring were reasonably favorable but it’s also worth pointing out that the defense will look considerably different in the fall. Pitt adds Whitehead, the true freshman, who wasn’t yet with the team in the spring but could potentially start at corner. The Panthers will add Mark Scarpinato, a defensive lineman transfer from Michigan State. There are also several position battles that will take place and things are far from firm. The transition got underway in the spring but is going to continue right up until the start of the regular season. I’d even expect changes once the games begin since that will be the first time the coaches get to evaluate those guys in actual games from the sidelines.

 

Favorable schedule, 15 returning starters, and the energy that comes with a first-year coaching staff. On paper, you could argue this is the most exciting time in Pitt football since… when, exactly? 2008-2009?

That 2009 team approached the top ten and was having a tremendous season that was eventually derailed by the disappointing 45-44 loss to Cincinnati in the unofficial Big East title game. That was the last time a Pitt team had this kind of optimism that I can remember.

In terms of actual buzz, there’s a lot of excitement around this team. There was certainly some enthusiasm after the hirings of Todd Graham and Paul Chryst, but even that was tempered because of the drastic changes in style on offense each time. Narduzzi not only has some talent to work with, but is also keeping the offensive system pretty similar to what was already in place.

Fans would probably feel a little better if Narduzzi had a year of experience heading into this one but things line up pretty well for the Panthers in 2015 to, if nothing else, break their string of four consecutive 6-6 regular seasons.

Notre Dame turns to its strengths to slip past Navy, 24-17

Associated Press
3 Comments

NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Navy did what Navy does, wear down its opponent, rely on the option and shorten the game. No. 8 Notre Dame overcame the Midshipmen’s relentlessness 24-17 on Saturday only after the Irish remembered what they do best: Run, run and run to set up the pass.

Four handoffs to Irish junior running back Josh Adams set up a 30-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson in the third quarter, tying the game at 17. Notre Dame’s next drive featured five runs mixed in with six passes, again culminating in a Stepherson touchdown reception and the winning margin.

“[We] got that close win that everybody’s been waiting for, so we checked that box,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We were able to come up with a victory against a team that’s really difficult to defend, and [Navy] played really well today.”

The Midshipmen playing well most shows itself in their rushing statistics, obviously. They gained 277 yards on 72 carries, an average of 3.85 yards per rush, but perhaps more notable is Navy’s time of possession of 42:42. As best as can be reckoned in the Notre Dame Stadium press box to this point, the Irish have never held the ball for so little time in a game. If they have, it was long, long ago.

“In a game like this you don’t worry about rhythm. You worry about being efficient and being effective with the possessions that you have,” Notre Dame junior running back Josh Adams said. “… Whatever chance I get to contribute I have to take advantage of that because you just never know with a great team like Navy — the way they control the ball and control time of possession — when you’re going to get out there.”

Adams finished with 106 yards on 18 carries, including 69 yards on eight carries in the second half alone. Seven of those eight rushes came on the two key touchdown drives, setting a tone for what would lead to success. That is, what would lead to success whenever the Irish had the ball, as rare as that was.

“Any time we go out to the field and take the field as an offense, it’s time to get physical,” fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “It’s who we are, it’s who we’ve been. We take a lot of pride in being able to pound people. [Adams] is as big a part of that as anybody.”

Complementing Adams, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush ran for 44 yards and a touchdown on seven carries (sack adjusted) while completing nine of 18 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns through the air.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
When halftime came around and the score was tied at 10, concern may have been understandable, but not to an excess. When Navy used the first eight minutes (7:59 to be exact) of the second half to march 72 yards to the end zone and a 17-10 lead, that concern rightfully gained magnitude.

Then came a six-yard Adams carry, followed by a five-yard rush and a seven-yarder from Adams. Next, he broke loose for 30 yards to get into Midshipmen territory. Just when it seemed the Irish were going to match Navy’s triple-option with their own brand of monotonous pounding, Wimbush found Stepherson streaking to the end zone for a 30-yard score and a tie game.

Touchdown answered by touchdown, no matter the offensive means.

Even if Adams was not the final piece of the puzzle, the ground game created the opportunity.

“Obviously it’s no secret that the running game has definitely opened up a lot of things for us this season,” Wimbush said. “Josh came out in the second half and he saw a little bit more, holes were opening up and he did have a more effective second half running the ball.”

Every eight-minute Navy touchdown drive made Notre Dame wonder, if we don’t score here, when is the next time we will even get the ball? By rendering the first half of that thought moot, the Irish put the pressure entirely back on the Midshipmen.

Navy responded to that pressure by settling for a field goal attempt on the next drive, missing it wide left. With that sliver of a window, Notre Dame followed the same recipe, relying on Adams to open up the defense before finding Stepherson to capitalize. Such begat the 24-17 result.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
After junior Chris Finke fumbled a punt, Navy took over possession at the Irish 39-yard line midway through the second quarter with the game still tied at three. Perhaps the best example of the Midshipmen’s habit of wringing the life out of a game, they took more than five minutes to cover those 39 yards for a score.

Navy took its sweet time to such a degree, Kelly considered surrendering a touchdown once the Midshipmen were inside the five-yard line. If they were going to score anyway, why not expedite the process to get the ball back for a chance to answer before halftime?

“It was just one of those things where clock had been utilized to the point where we needed the ball back,” Kelly said. “We felt like we could score if we just got the ball back. There were a lot of things going through my head at that time.”

Kelly opted to play it out, and Navy scored two plays later with 1:08 left on the clock. Notre Dame quickly ran six plays to get within two yards of the end zone with 14 seconds left in the half, lacking any more timeouts.

Wimbush ran up the middle, struggling through a few tacklers, falling into the end zone. If he had not gotten across the goal line, the clock would likely have run out, sending the Irish to halftime trailing by a touchdown and giving the Midshipmen a chance to go up two touchdowns halfway through the third quarter.

“That was huge. We were pretty upset with ourselves for not having points on the board prior, but it gave us a big boost coming into halftime,” McGlinchey said. “We had a great drive there. … Great execution, great job by our quarterback and by our receivers making plays, and we protected pretty well on that drive.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
On the final meaningful play of the game, Navy hoped its insistence on the option had loosened up Notre Dame’s defense enough to catch it off guard. Irish senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti was not fooled.

With a fourth-and-five from the 25-yard line, the Midshipmen were out of timeouts and absolutely needed to gain the yardage. The game was quite literally on the line. Rather than entrust junior quarterback Zach Abey to make the correct read on a typical option play, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo had Abey pitch to senior back Darryl Bonner, in motion. Bonner was to then find senior Tyler Carmona downfield with a halfback pass.

Trumbetti reached Bonner before he could set his feet, forcing a fluttering pass attempt, off-target and short. Senior linebacker Greer Martini had joined sophomore cornerback Troy Pride in vainly trying to catch up to Carmona after initially assuming a run would be coming toward them.

“I saw [Bonner] kind of pulling the ball back so I knew something was up there,” Martini said. “I just looked and [Carmona] was kind of wide open, so I just ran to him.”

If Bonner’s throw was on-target, Carmona likely reaches the end zone without much difficulty. It certainly would have been a first down, if nothing else. Trumbetti made sure none of that would become reality.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Stepherson’s progression from a vague September suspension to the most-reliable and most-productive receiving option is complete. Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown was knocked out in the first quarter after jumping for a high pass led to him falling on his head/neck on the turf. (Kelly said St. Brown is being evaluated for a head injury.) While sophomore Chase Claypool was productive, finishing with two catches for 28 yards, Wimbush’s focus settled on Stepherson.

“You see from the results that he is such a huge factor now in our offense and he just adds to the already dynamic receiving corps,” Wimbush said. “… I think he did a good job of all the way through to when he was able to get back on the field of preparing himself to take advantage of this opportunity when he got it.”

Stepherson’s route running and hands were both on display on each of his touchdown grabs, quite a transformation from when he was simply seen as a speed threat, albeit an elite speed threat.

His availability and capability also helped Wimbush settle down after a slow start. He reached halftime 4-of-10 for 72 yards, then going 5-of-8 for 92 yards and the two scores in the second half. Four of those completions and 80 of those yards were via connections with Stepherson.

STAT OF THE GAME
A year after having all of six possessions against Navy, the Irish welcomed nine Saturday. Well, technically nine. One of those drives lasted all of two strides before Finke fumbled a punt right into a Midshipmen’s hands. Two kneels to end the game made up the ninth possession. So that makes seven genuine chances with the ball.

Three of those turned into touchdowns and a fourth into a field goal.

Such is how it is when facing Navy.

The obvious impact of those limited possessions and limited time of possession is just that: Fewer chances to score means fewer scores. The inherent side effect is there is no offensive rhythm to be established. Eight game minutes can pass between snaps, after all.

“It’s definitely difficult and coach harped on it a little bit throughout the week that we only had six possessions last year,” Wimbush said. “… I know it was important to take advantage of every opportunity that we got and obviously we didn’t do that, but still came out on top.”

For context’s sake, Notre Dame had 13 possessions in last week’s loss at Miami.

QUOTE OF THE EVENING
Saturday marked senior day, the last home game for most of the 26 recognized beforehand and even for those who may return next year, that is not a sure thing just yet.

It made sense to also ask Adams if it was his last home game. His NFL Draft prospects have certainly bettered since August.

“My last home game? Nah, no, no, man,” Adams responded. “I owe this team too much to even think about something like that. We’ve worked too hard to get where we are to let any one guy focus on themselves and be selfish. It’s just too important to us as a team to focus on stuff like that.”

Call it a good non-answer, if nothing else.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
4:31 — Notre Dame field goal. Justin Yoon 29 yards. Notre Dame 3, Navy 0. (11 plays, 58 yards, 2:51)

Second Quarter
12:21 — Navy field goal. Owen White 39 yards. Notre Dame 3, Navy 3. (13 plays, 49 yards, 7:10)
1:08 — Navy touchdown. Zach Abey one-yard rush. Navy 10, Notre Dame 3. (11 plays, 39 yards, 5:02)
0:08 — Notre Dame touchdown. Brandon Wimbush two-yard rush. Notre Dame 10, Navy 10. (7 plays, 62 yards, 1:00)

Third Quarter
7:01 — Navy touchdown. Craig Scott 12-yard reception from Abey. White PAT good. Navy 17, Notre Dame 10. (15 plays, 72 yards, 7:59)
5:33 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Stepherson 30-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Navy 17. (5 plays, 78 yards, 1:28)

Fourth Quarter
11:49 — Notre Dame touchdown. Stepherson nine-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Navy 17. (11 plays, 80 yards, 3:31)

Notre Dame vs. Navy: Who, what, when, where, weather, why and by how much

Getty Images
48 Comments

WHO? No. 8 Notre Dame (8-2) vs. Navy (6-3).

WHAT? It is a storied series, if not necessarily a rivalry. Partly due to that, partly as an homage to the original “House That Rockne Built” and partly because otherwise there would be no alternate uniform this season, the Irish will be wearing “Rockne Heritage” uniforms.

WHEN? 3:41 p.m. ET. Considering Notre Dame will recognize 26 seniors before kickoff, tuning in a bit early would include a few of those moments. The last half dozen are likely to be the six senior captains. In order: former walk-on receiver Austin Webster, linebacker Greer Martini, linebacker Nyles Morgan, left guard Quenton Nelson, linebacker Drue Tranquill and fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.

WHERE? For the seventh and final time this season, Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.

NBC has the broadcast, which means an online stream is available at: http://ndstream.nbcsports.com/

For those on the move, take a look at the NBC Sports app. If abroad, enjoy NBC Sports Gold.

WEATHER? It’s mid-November in northwestern Indiana. An unpleasant outdoor experience is something of a given. This weekend is no different. Precipitation is all-but guaranteed, the only question is if it will be rain or snow, with temperatures reaching as high as 50 degrees before falling just below freezing.

WHY? By now, most are familiar with the Navy’s role in keeping Notre Dame’s doors open during World War II. That bit is not legend. It is very well-established fact. That is also the company line as to why this series continues on with never a thought of a break.

On a more philosophical level, they play this game because strange things happen in football and taking the time to reach a result is often worthwhile. If not, the world would be robbed of this Allen Rossum memory from 1997.

BY HOW MUCH? A spread on this game was only intermittently available this week, due to questions about who Navy will start at quarterback. That should hardly matter. To use Irish coach Brian Kelly’s phrase, the Midshipmen triple-option offense is “plug-and-play” at quarterback. Kelly meant it as quite the compliment to Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo.

When available, the line has consistently favored Notre Dame by 17.5 with a combined points total over/under of 59.5, making for a theoretical 38-21 conclusion.

Using that as a baseline, let’s expect the Irish defense to be motivated to have a good showing for the first time in three weeks.

Notre Dame 38, Navy 14. (7-3 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:

Monday’s Leftovers: A need to execute and a need for continued defensive line improvement

Question for the Week (rather, for the Year): On Notre Dame, pride and progress

Notre Dame’s bowl likelihoods and opponents round-up

And In that Corner … The Navy Midshipmen with that pesky triple-option

Things To Learn: Will Notre Dame, and Wimbush, rebound?

Friday at 4: To the seniors, the leaders

Friday at 4 (Oct. 27): If/when Notre Dame loses, shed the disappointment

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE MIAMI GAME:
Notre Dame’s Playoff hopes drowned by Hurricanes

Things We Learned: Without a passing game, Notre Dame is not *there* yet

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Atmosphere, crowd & turnovers doomed Irish from outset

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
The Observer profiles all 26 Notre Dame seniors

After brief benching in Miami beatdown, Brandon Wimbush regroups with Navy on deck

For Durham Smythe, patience finally pays

Leaving a legacy: Mike McGlinchey cements place as leader for Notre Dame

All-American mentality: Quenton Nelson instills high standard as Irish leader

Always working: Drue Tranquill focuses on growth in all aspects of life

Friday at 4: To the seniors, the leaders

Getty Images
8 Comments

Of all the things Notre Dame and Irish coach Brian Kelly changed this past offseason, one difference between that 4-8 disappointment and this season’s surprising success had little to do with those program renovations.

Kelly brought in three new coordinators and a new strength coach, he engaged with his team more often, he developed a more easy-going persona. All those changes played large roles in making Notre Dame a Playoff contender into November this season, but one alteration mattered more. It made the offseason workouts more effective, it made the locker room more intertwined, and it created more on-field accountability.

The seniors became leaders.

In the preseason, Kelly shouldered some of the fault for the 2016 Irish lacking tone-setting leadership. That ownership fit into the aforementioned attitude shift from the head coach.

“I realized that we had some issues going into the season,” he said before preseason practice. “Clearly, we had some off-the-field issues leading into the season. We had some things that I had done a poor job in developing our leadership and the message was not clear within the program.”

Among those off-the-field issues would be the arrests of seniors Max Redfield and Devin Butler, both expected to be veteran presences in the Notre Dame secondary. As a whole, the 2016 senior class was lacking in bar-raising leaders. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones has more personality than can be succinctly described, but he was not necessarily a presence to be followed. Running back Tarean Folston’s knee injury knocked him down the depth chart, through no fault of his own, cutting into any credibility he may have had in front of the locker room. The same could be said for quarterback Malik Zaire.

Linebacker James Onwualu and defensive lineman Isaac Rochell could do only so much, both soft-spoken by nature.

This leadership void was not the sole reason the Irish fell to 4-8, but it was a big reason why 1-3 became 3-6 and why 3-6 became 4-8.

The likes of fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey, senior left guard Quenton Nelson and senior linebacker Drue Tranquill made sure that would not be the case again. They are just the tip of the leadership iceberg in the current locker room, and they set the stage for something special in years to come. Whether that act is realized or not, this senior class deserves credit for returning it to rational conversations.

“Whether it’s this year or not, the goal is still to win a national championship,” McGlinchey said Wednesday. “If I can do my part and if it’s not this year, going to next year and years to come, if I can try and help out that process and that cause, then I’ll feel pretty good about that as well.”

McGlinchey and Nelson have been the vocal leaders this season, though with very different approaches when speaking, one measured and thoughtful; the other blunt and to the point.

Tranquill has been the definition of leading by example, overcoming two season-ending knee surgeries to now entertain the possibility of heading to the NFL with college eligibility remaining.

It took Greer Martini all of two weeks to go from tearing his meniscus to returning to the field to lead Notre Dame past North Carolina State. Even the week between, a victory over USC, saw Martini dress and lead the sideline celebrations. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini have played through injuries for much of the year, eliminating any excuse anyone else might lean on.

Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe returned for one more go-around after being largely forgotten a year ago, his perseverance creating a needed role on this year’s offense. The same can be said for senior tight end Nic Weishar.

Each one of these, along with a number of others, helped right Kelly’s ship. As much credit as the head coach deserves for this season, the seniors earned an equal share.

“I think the legacy of the senior class was to get Notre Dame on the right track again,” Martini said. “Obviously after a 4-8 season, it was our goal to bring back the prestige to Notre Dame … so even if it’s not College Football Playoffs this year, continuing on to next year’s and creating a culture at Notre Dame that’s going to last.”

It is far too soon to tell if that culture will carry forward into 2018, but before that could even be considered, it needed to be reestablished in the first place.

McGlinchey and Nelson deserve credit for that, along with center Sam Mustipher and right guard Alex Bars.

Tranquill, Morgan and Martini revitalized a lackluster defense, as did cornerback Nick Watkins and defensive ends Andrew Trumbetti and Jay Hayes.

Smythe and Weishar led a young group of offensive skill position players. Austin Webster earned a scholarship and a captaincy by shepherding the walk-ons and raising the bar of expectations for the entire team.

These seniors fixed an adrift program as much as, if not more than, anyone else did.


The first mentions above of the 13 individual seniors named all included hyperlinks to profiles published by the Notre Dame independent student newspaper, The Observer. Every year, The Observer puts together a special section featuring each and every senior — 26 this year, including fifth-years, walk-ons and transfers. It is a Herculean undertaking for such a small staff.

Kudos to Editor-in-Chief Ben Padanilam and Sports Editor Elizabeth Greason for keeping that tradition going, keeping it going with quality, and for filling my Friday afternoon with more worthwhile reading than usual.

All 26 profiles can be found here.

Things To Learn: Will Notre Dame, and Wimbush, rebound?

Associated Press
24 Comments

When Navy and Notre Dame meet, many of the usual barometers of success go by the wayside. No, not because it is such a heated rivalry. Rather, playing the triple-option is a unique challenge for the defense, one otherwise not seen (with the exceptions of the occasional meeting with Army or Georgia Tech), and the Midshipmen’s ball control limits the Irish offense’s chances, minimizing the effect of any talent advantage there.

Simply enough, little of what is learned is applicable so much as a week later.

But one thing this weekend will be quite clear: Will Notre Dame play with the pride necessary to close the season 10-2 just a week after a humiliating loss dashed any national championship hopes?

If the Irish are not whole-heartedly engaged this weekend, if they do not absolutely want to play, Navy will expose that and take advantage of it.

“You can stay focused with Navy for 10 plays, 12 plays, and then if you don’t stay focused they get you with a big play,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “They’re so efficient in what they do.

“The good thing is we’ve been talking about how important our traits are and they really have to be applied this particular week against this team.”

The loss at Miami was ugly in all facets and undoubtedly a difficult humbling for the Irish to swallow. If that still lingers in their minds, it will show in a sluggish start against the Midshipmen. If it has been put in the past and all focus is on finishing this season strongly in a way not seen since 2012, then even the mind-numbing effectiveness of the triple-option should not phase Notre Dame.

How will defensive coordinator Mike Elko handle Navy’s triple-option?

Before Kelly hired Elko away from Wake Forest, he made sure Elko had plans for the option.

“That was something we vetted out in the interviewing process,” Kelly said Tuesday. “[We’re] very comfortable with what we’ll be doing. This isn’t a defensive coordinator that’s coming in inexperienced in terms of stopping the option.”

Indeed, Elko faced Army each of the last three seasons while with the Demon Deacons. Navy may run the triple-option with even more precision than the Knights do, but the tenets are very similar. Aside from his first year there, Elko’s Wake Forest defenses fared pretty well against Army.

In 2014, the Knights ran for 341 yards and two touchdowns on 59 carries, a 5.78 yards per rush average, exceeding their season average of 296.5 yards per game.

In 2015, the Deacons gave up only 186 yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries, a 3.44 yards per rush average, keeping Army well below its season average of 244.2 yards per game.

In 2016, the Knights gained 238 yards on 64 carries, scoring twice and averaging 3.72 yards per rush. They averaged 328.7 yards per game last season.

How will Brandon Wimbush respond to the first genuine adversity of his career?

If Notre Dame’s offense is to return to potency, it will begin with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Sure, the Irish lost to Georgia in week two and the junior quarterback struggled, but that was in his second career start against a known top-flight defense. More may have been wanted from Wimbush then, but little more was genuinely expected Sept. 9.

By mid-November, that is not the case anymore, and his showing against the Hurricanes played a large part in the rout. After all, Kelly benched Wimbush to give him a chance to refocus. Wimbush handled that moment well, but it was still a moment of strife.

“It was tough as a competitor to have someone take your spot,” he said this week. “But I knew it was for the greater good and for the team’s benefit, and I realized that pretty quickly and I went out there and tried to help [sophomore backup quarterback Ian Book] as best as I could because I wanted to win the game just as much as anybody else wanted to win and I wasn’t executing.”

Much like a basketball player needing to hit a few lay-ups to break out of a cold-shooting slump, Wimbush can get back to executing by converting against the Midshipmen.

Which senior will get the loudest ovation?

Notre Dame will honor 26 seniors this weekend before the opening kickoff (3:30 p.m. ET; NBC), and if wanting to learn about each and every one of them, turn to The Observer’s profiles of all 26.

Which senior earns the crowd’s recognition is an unscientific survey and bears no effect on anything, but it is a curious question because there does not seem to be an obvious answer this year. A guess would be either fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey for being both a star on the field and a public face off it, senior left guard Quenton Nelson for being arguably the best player on the team or senior linebacker Drue Tranquill for overcoming two season-ending knee injuries to lead the defense this season.

Then again, there is a good chance Tranquill returns next year — though he says he has not made that decision yet — so perhaps the best bet would be McGlinchey or Nelson. (Yes, Nelson can return in 2018, as well, but he shouldn’t and almost certainly won’t.)

Is this the day, finally, at last, Montgomery VanGorder throws a pass?

The senior and former walk-on quarterback has no career pass attempts. He would need the Irish to have enough of a lead to get into the game, first of all. Then, maybe a third-and-11 would warrant a pass attempt without showing poor sportsmanship. Even to honor VanGorder, Kelly will not risk showing up the Academy.

VanGorder has earned some version of recognition. Most people would have left when their father was fired midseason. Montgomery not only stayed, but he has also remained one of the most beloved players within Notre Dame’s locker room.