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

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Notre Dame beat Navy by 17 points, the final quarter a comfortable finish in a series that doesn’t always afford one. And with victories over both the Midshipmen and Georgia Tech, the coaching staff’s work over the offseason achieved its desired result.

Yes, the game was sloppy. Notre Dame was gashed by the fullback dive, a struggle that felt a little bit like a regression, especially with everybody seemingly understanding that Job No. 1 is, and always will be, stopping the fullback.

So while Quentin Ezell awoke the ghosts of Vince Murray and Alexander Teich, the defense tightened up in the second half. And winning the turnover battle decisively helped make up for a less explosive Irish offense, with the Midshipmen able to keep Notre Dame from breaking a play of longer than 30 yards.

It’s time for USC. So let’s put the triple-option to bed with the Good, Bad and Ugly and then get ready for the Trojans.

THE GOOD

Forcing Turnovers. Navy turned the ball over three times after having just one turnover through the first four games of the season. That played a huge factor in the victory, allowing the Irish a considerable margin for error on offense as they struggled early to score points.

Elijah Shumate made an excellent interception to seal the deal. Jaylon Smith was opportunistic when an option pitch fell through the hands of Chris Swain. And a key strip by Nyles Morgan led to Devin Butler recovering the opening kickoff of the second half and turning the game on its head. (Butler had to fight through a scrum to secure the ball, after missing an easy opportunity when the ball originally popped out.)

The Irish won the turnover battle for the first time since 2012. Not surprisingly, that allowed the Irish to get Navy off-schedule, and the result was some breathing room during the fourth quarter, with the Irish controlling the football and the game clock with three consecutive drives of 10 plays or more to end the game.

 

Getting Out Injury Free. On Sunday’s teleconference call, Brian Kelly confirmed what we thought we saw on Saturday—the Irish survived against Navy’s offense with no major injuries. Kelly credited that to good luck, but also talked about the continual work against the SWAG team, who cut block against the starting defense the week of the Georgia Tech game as well as this week.

“We had no injuries again—knock on wood—this week to anything below the waist for any of our linemen,” Kelly said. “They’re a little sore, obviously, but no major injuries there, again, for playing two very physical teams that play the triple option.”

Jerry Tillery did sprain his elbow, though Kelly said the freshman will wear a brace and continue to play. Nick Martin tweaked his ankle, though returned to play. And Kelly talked about how nice it’s been these past few Sundays after a nightmarish start to the season.

“My 1:30 (Sunday) meeting with the doctors has been my most anxious time of the year,” Kelly quipped. “So the last couple of weeks, the last two, three weeks have been pretty good. Hopefully, that trend continues because we get USC this week, and then we get a week off. So that’s going to be helpful as we move into the back end of the season.”

 

Robby Regan. Notre Dame’s freshman walk-on was awarded the game ball after Saturday’s victory. That a high school athlete better known for his wrestling ability was able to play such a significant role in the first half of the Irish season without ever taking the field says something about his value to the team.

“The guys love him. He sang the fight song,” Kelly said Sunday. “That’s the first time we had a true freshman stand up, and he got the game ball and sang the fight song, and there was a huge roar from the team.”

Regan helped give Notre Dame their best practice look at the option. And while he’ll never be Keenan Reynolds or Justin Thomas, he makes decisions at game-speed, something vital to the team’s preparation.

After surviving a week of getting pounded by Notre Dame’s starting defense, Regan became the first walk-on in Kelly’s memory to ever receive a game ball.

 

Justin Yoon. After looking really shaky earlier in the season, Yoon jump-started the Irish with a career-long 52-yard field goal as the first half expired, and was pure on every one of his other kick attempts, too.

After drilling a big field goal at Clemson in the rain storm, Yoon seems to have regained his confidence and the momentum he had going during fall camp, something he talked about after the game.

“Trying to get my momentum as a freshman wasn’t easy. A freshman going on the football field for the first time is a big spotlight, and that’s a difficult experience,” Yoon said. “I’ve progressed through the games, my teammates have put their trust in me. That’s the biggest thing.”

 

Jarrett Grace. We touched on this postgame, but Grace’s role meant more to the team that just a veteran backup making some big plays when his number was called. Inserted into the game to try and add some bulk to the Irish defense, Grace played big minutes, something that Kelly couldn’t help but marvel at during the Sunday teleconference.

“It was as meaningful for him as it was for me, just to know what he’s gone through and to be called upon to come in and play a very important role for us,” Kelly said. “If you watched him last year in August and September, you’d say there’s no way he’s going to be able to play again…

“To see him get out there and play on Saturday was pretty gratifying that he could get out there and help us.”

Kelly mentioned that in Grace’s introduction before speaking at the pep rally, he only had highlights from special teams. He knew that was selling him short, perhaps a good final reminder that the Cincinnati native could help this defense play smash-mouth football.

“He was one of our speakers at the pep rally, and all they showed him was on special teams, and I was like, dang, he’s much more than that.”

 

Quick Hits: 

* Another option opponent, another monster day by Greer Martini. Notre Dame’s sophomore linebacker has been a wonderful weapon for the Irish in triple-option games, mostly because of his ability to do his job.

“He’s got a really good understanding of his job and he’s a disciplined player, so when we ask him to do his job, he’s going to get it done,” Kelly said. “He just fits really well with the scheme that we’re employing and so it’s just a really good fit.”

* He already earned mention in our Five Things yesterday, but Sheldon Day‘s been incredibly disruptive, as we saw with nine tackles and two TFLs.

* Another game, another monster day from C.J. Prosise. While some want Prosise to get the national attention they feel like he deserves, it should be enough that he’s filling the stat sheet while also learning what he’s doing.

Prosise still isn’t the natural inside the tackles runner you might want a 220-pounder to be, but his ability to get to the edge and run through tackles is really, really impressive.

* It doesn’t seem fair when DeShone Kizer buys time rolling out and then finds Will Fuller. Not too many defenses can stop that type of scramble drill, and Kizer’s ability to keep his eyes down field is really impressive for a young kid.

* Coming into the game Navy was one of the best 3rd down teams in the country. Notre Dame’s defense held them to just 2-of-11.

 

THE BAD

A tough start. If you were thinking the Irish were in for a long Saturday after going three-and-out and then letting Keenan Reynolds slice and dice the defense in under 80 seconds, you weren’t alone. (I was with you.) But credit this group for showing resilience.

Kelly talked about not letting that start get in the way, especially after a good week of practice.

“I thought we responded very well offensively. And I think that response in scoring right away, kind of settled everybody down,” Kelly said.

 

Interior running struggles. Notre Dame attacked the perimeter yesterday, with C.J. Prosise getting to the edges via the quick pass or outside handoffs. But the Irish seemed to struggle running north and south, disappointing against a defense like Navy’s.

Alex Bars started for the first time, as Quenton Nelson’s ankle wasn’t ready to be tested. Nick Martin will need to get healthy after a tweaked ankle. But against USC, the Irish will need to be able to move the point of attack, something they didn’t necessarily do consistently against the Midshipmen.

 

Consistency in the secondary. It didn’t take long for Max Redfield to be replaced by Matthias Farley, especially after Redfield missed tackles while overrunning his alley. And while Elijah Shumate’s interception was a great step forward and Navy’s quarterbacks completed just three of six throws for 22 yards, the performance of the back end of the defense is still the one thing holding this defense back.

Kelly talked about what he wants to see from his secondary, and how two games against option competition might have actually been part of the problem this year.

“I still think consistency in the back end of our defense,” Kelly cited when asked where the team needs its best growth. “I think that’s the biggest thing. It’s kind of difficult. We played two option teams over the last four weeks. It makes it hard to continue to evolve defensively. I think that’s probably the area that we want to see continued growth is the back end of our defense.”

With USC’s talented skill players coming to town and the Irish just a season removed from getting absolutely demolished in coverage at the Coliseum, all eyes will be on Shumate, Redfield, KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke next weekend.

 

THE UGLY

Call it a big victory or call it mutual respect, your choice. This section is staying empty after a 17-point win.

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.