Five things we learned: Notre Dame 41, Navy 24

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Notre Dame beat Navy for the fifth-straight time on Saturday afternoon, sprinting away from the Midshipmen after a strong third quarter and cruising to a 41-24 win. Against one of Ken Niumatalolo’s best teams, the Irish handed Navy their first loss of the season, winning the turnover battle 3-1 while also holding the Midshipmen to just 102 yards in the second half.

As an annual opponent, Notre Dame’s yearly dates against Navy usually fit into one of four categories: The program-rattling loss, the white knuckle, pray-you-get-out-alive close victory, the frisky battle where the Irish pull away, and the occasional boat race. Expect Brian Kelly to place this one in the third bucket, and then be thankful that Notre Dame can go about their business for the rest of the season.

“Thank gosh,” Kelly said after the game, when told he was done preparing for the option until next season.

No, it wasn’t pretty. Led by Keenan Reynolds and a powerful pair of fullbacks, Navy ran for 238 yards in the first half. But after Justin Yoon kicked a 52-yard field goal to close the first half, the Irish forced a turnover on the opening kickoff of the third quarter and scored touchdowns on their first two drives. That was essentially that.

Navy knew they needed to play perfect to beat Brian Kelly’s most talented team. And with two personal foul penalties, three turnovers and some missed opportunities, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo was frustrated the Midshipmen didn’t bring their best to South Bend.

“We knew we need to play perfect against these guys and this was probably our worst game of the season,” Niumatalolo said. “Against a good team like Notre Dame, that spells disaster.”

Let’s find out what we learned during the Irish’s 17-point win.

 

Georgia Tech and Navy are behind Notre Dame and the Irish went 2-0. But more importantly, a system has been established inside the program on how to defend and practice against the option. 

Brian Kelly gave the game ball to scout-team quarterback Rob Regan, the recruited walk-on who came to Notre Dame to most likely never step on the field and get beaten up by the starting defense at practice. But Regan did his job well this season, providing a critical service as the quarterback of the triple-option scout team known as the SWAG team.

While there were some struggles early getting to the fullback dive and keeping Keenan Reynolds contained, Kelly talked about how happy he was with the week of practice the Irish had, focused solely on the task at hand, not the devastating loss from a week earlier or the date with USC next weekend.

“We beat a very good team by 17 points. That’s validation,” Kelly said. “I thought we had a great week of practice. I thought we prepared very well. I don’t know what else to do… I was so pleased with the way they were focused during the week, preparing for Navy.”

Credit for this victory starts nine months ago, with senior advisor Bob Elliott taking a deep dive into the option. And as Notre Dame devised a game plan to keep the option a consistent part of every week’s preparation—not just a crash course the week of Navy or Georgia Tech—from a program-building perspective, Kelly feels confident that he and his coaches have devised a way to successfully defend one of the most schematically challenging games of each season.

“There’s always things we can work on to get better,” Kelly said, after being asked about his team’s job against the option this season. “But I think we’ve established something that I wanted to establish: A base way to play option teams. ”

 

 

C.J. Prosise has emerged as Notre Dame’s leading man on offense. And he continues to get better and better as he learns on the job.  

Leading Notre Dame’s offense with 129 yards and three touchdowns, C.J. Prosise put together his fourth 100-yard day of the season on the ground. His three touchdowns mark the second time Prosise has scored a hat trick this season, the first time that’s happened at Notre Dame since Reggie Brooks pulled the same feat in 1992.

Prosise was deadly on the perimeter of the defense, breaking off big-chunk runs, including a 22-yard touchdown. (He had another long touchdown run called back for a questionable hold.) Adding 56 receiving yards to his stat-line—glorified runs that required DeShone Kizer to quick flip the ball to Prosise—and Notre Dame’s game plan was to get Prosise on the perimeter and let him utilize his unique blend of size and speed.

“We were trying to find different ways to get him on the perimeter,” Kelly explained postgame. “Just trying to get one of our skilled players on the edge of our defense was part of our plan.”

The plan worked, with Prosise once again serving as the engine of the Irish offense. But even more impressive is the senior’s evolution. Just five games into his career as a running back, he’s become the identity of Notre Dame’s offense.

Kelly credits that to a balanced offensive attack, acknowledging that the run game will be their secret to success. But he also praised Prosise’s preparation, a senior digging into his job like a freshman just learning the ropes.

“I think what I like most about him is that he’s in that learning curve and he’s excited every single day, working to become a better running back,” Kelly said.

 

Notre Dame’s ability to force turnovers and disrupt Navy’s offense turned this into a relatively easy Irish victory. 

You couldn’t have asked for a tougher start. After returning the opening kickoff, Notre Dame went three-and-out. It took the Midshipmen just three plays to go 70 yards, scoring in just 74 seconds. But after weathering the storm, the Irish actually became the team that forced the mistakes, usually the other way around when these two teams play each other.

Two fumble recoveries and a very nice interception by Elijah Shumate gave Notre Dame an extra handful of possessions against Navy, one of the keys to beating the Midshipmen. And while Notre Dame’s offensive efficiency wasn’t through the roof, having a few extra possessions more than nullified the two punts and DeShone Kizer’s lone interception.

“Huge possessions. We were able to gain more possessions in this game than any other game we’ve played against Navy,” Kelly said postgame.

 

While the defense certainly didn’t lock down Navy’s option like they did Georgia Tech’s, they do deserve some credit for the struggles the Midshipmen had converting drives. Even after going four of four on fourth-down conversions, the Irish got Navy off the field six of ten times without scoring points, forcing two punts, two fumbles, an interception and a missed field goal.

Pair the defensive effort with Notre Dame’s offense controlling the clock in the second half after scoring two early touchdowns, and it’s a perfect recipe for victory against Navy.

 

Sheldon Day is playing the type of dominant football Notre Dame fans have been expecting for three seasons. 

From the moment Sheldon Day stepped onto campus, Notre Dame coaches thought they had something special. And during his senior season, Day is showing why.

The senior captain tied for the team lead with nine tackles on Saturday, adding two more TFLs in the process. Tasked with what he called the easiest job of anybody on the defense against the option, Day managed to wreak havoc in the trenches against consistent double teams, making up for some of the early troubles the Irish defense had slowing down Navy’s stout fullbacks and Keenan Reynolds to open the game.

Day played nearly the entire snap, shifting outside and in, taking on multiple Navy blockers as he went toe-to-toe. And after Jerry Tillery sat most of the second half with what looked like an elbow injury, Day’s consistency and work volume proved vital, with really no backup behind him.

Debating a departure to the NFL after last season, Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick pitched Day on the many reasons why coming back to South Bend and earning his degree would be important. Now Day’s also showing NFL scouts what the Irish staff knew all along.

 

The Irish once again went to their depth chart to lock down a victory.

With the Irish defense struggling with some scheme tweaks and in need of a fix against Navy’s option, Brian Kelly once again called on his depth chart to help secure the victory. Kelly made two very big moves to help slow down Navy, and both paid dividends.

Starter Max Redfield had the first shot at playing safety. But after over-running his assignment on Keenan Reynolds, Matthias Farley entered the game and didn’t come off the field until tallied seven tackles and sang the alma mater.

Kelly also went bigger with his linebacking corps. Already starting Greer Martini at one linebacker spot, the Irish swapped former wide receiver James Onwualu out of the game and inserted senior Jarrett Grace. The 255-pounder helped plug the leak that Navy’s fullbacks exploited in the first half, part of the reason Notre Dame held Chris Swain and Quenin Ezell to just 3.8 yards a touch in the second half.

“We went with Grace in the second half and he was able to get himself down onto the fullback in the second half,” Kelly said. “It was a little bit of scheme and a little bit of execution. They keep prodding and looking for opporutnities to run their offense and they did effectively until we made some adjustments at halftime.”

The opportunity for Grace had to be a cherished one and you could see the veteran’s confidence grow as the game continued. After two seasons recovering from a severely broken leg, Grace earned his first extensive playing time on defense this afternoon. While he tapped his chest and acknowledged he was late to his assignment on his first snap in after replacing Onwualu, Grace was in and around the pile nonstop, putting a big stick on quarterback Keenan Reynolds on a fake then making five tackles as he showed that the Irish have another weapon at their disposal as they get back to their winning ways.

 

 

 

 

 

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Associated Press
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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

rivals.com
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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

Associated Press
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A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills