Five things we learned: Notre Dame 41, Navy 24

53 Comments

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

Getty Images
5 Comments

Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

RELATED READING:
Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

Getty Images
15 Comments

Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

Getty Images
29 Comments

It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

RELATED READING:
4 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at QBs (Brandon Wimbush)
Pace of Play: More Snaps Equal More Scoring Chances, Right?

Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

Getty Images
10 Comments

Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.