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Pregame Six Pack: Momentum before the Midshipmen

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Coming off an overdue win, Notre Dame looks to ride their momentum into Jacksonville. That’s where the Navy Midshipmen await. For the 90 straight years that the Mids have been on the schedule, they’ve never been a tougher out than they are now, with Ken Niumatalolo taking his program to new heights.

Most expected a rebuilding year for Navy. But with an upset win over Houston and the Mids sitting atop their division in the American, it’s a new challenge for an Irish team that’s not looking forward to 2017, but rather hoping to see real improvements in the season’s final month.

“We’re measuring progress by how we play in the month of November,” Brian Kelly said Thursday, before the team took off for Florida. “We were 1-3 in September, we were 2-2 in the month of October, we need to see a really good November.

“If there’s any looking ahead, which I’m not really doing that, but when you look at the big picture this is an important month for us to show some progress with a young football team.”

Let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. Here are six storylines I’ll be watching during the early kickoff from Everbank Field.

 

With Daniel Cage out from a concussion, Jarron Jones faces his next big challenge. 

We watched Jarron Jones have the most impactful game behind the line of scrimmage of any Notre Dame defender since 1997. And after obliterating Miami center Nick Linder, he’s got a new task ahead—blowing up the interior of the Midshipmen’s offensive line.

Jones will have many challenges on hand. And as Joe Schmidt mentioned in my column yesterday, a big one might be the mental battle that comes with facing an offensive line that’ll (legally) be cut-blocking.

Unlike usual seasons where Navy’s offensive line gives up a major size differential to the Irish, Midshipman center Maurice Morris will actually go pound-for-pound, the senior listed at 327 pounds. But Morris is also the lowest-graded player on the Navy offensive line (as measured by PFF) giving Jones a huge advantage in the trenches if he can effectively blow up the point of attack and disrupt the fullback dive.

“If he’s explosive and he gets off the ball, there’s really no worries about how to play this game up front,” Kelly said. “You just need to be explosive. We’re not going to get into a read-react thing with him. He’s a big fella, and he makes all his plays being explosive. So the best way not to get cut is to blow your guy up. That’s kind of what we’re talking to Jarron about, and he kind of likes that right now.”

 

Keep your eye on third downs, with conversions likely being the story of the game. 

As you crunch numbers and look at the statistical breakdown of this matchup, one stat sticks out more than others—third down conversion rate. Navy is one of the country’s very best. Notre Dame is on the other side of that equation.

The Irish sit at 98th in the country, converting at only 36 percent. Navy is fifth in the nation, converting 51 percent of the time. So while we’ve already put the focus on the turnover margin and red zone conversions, Navy play-by-play announcer Pete Medhurst pointed to this matchup—on both sides of the ball—as the one to watch.

“Navy must convert on third down,” Medhurst told me this week. “They absolutely have to win third down on both sides of the ball. If you convert third downs you keep Notre Dame off the field offensively.”

With the option allowing a full menu of play calling even if the Mids get behind the chains, keep your eye on this battle—it’ll likely be key in determining the game.

 

Accidental starting quarterback Will Worth adds a new dimension to Navy offense with a strong passing game. 

Replacing perhaps the best Navy quarterback since Roger Staubach is no simple challenge. Especially if you weren’t expected to contribute this season. But Will Worth has been up to the challenge. And after filling in for starter Tago Smith after a torn ACL in the season opener, Worth has actually expanded the Midshipmen’s offensive playbook with his throwing ability.

“They keep rolling offensively. They lose their starting quarterback. Will Worth comes in and picks up where they left off,” Kelly said. “You think they lose Keenan Reynolds and there’s going to be a dropoff, but the production has been unbelievable.”

Worth leads the Mids with 13 rushing touchdowns on 161 attempts, nearly 100 more than the fullback Chris High, who has 65 carries. He’s completing 60 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and just three interceptions. And as opponents sell out to stop the option, Navy’s countered by throwing against man-to-man coverage, something they’ll see plenty of this weekend, a match-up to watch with senior receiver Jamir Tillman a physically imposing, 6-foot-4 target.

 

Getting Greer Martini back is a huge win for the Irish defense. 

While Daniel Cage didn’t travel this weekend, the Irish will get Greer Martini back for the weekend. And he’s a huge piece of the puzzle for Notre Dame’s defense, an option specialist last season who racked up some very nice numbers the past few years against this offense.

Martini started against Navy and Georgia Tech last season, two of his four starts. He had eight tackles against the Yellow Jackets, while matching his career-high of nine against Navy a few weeks later—the same number he put up in 2014. That two-game output nearly matched his stat line for the rest of the season.

Racking up tackles wasn’t the only thing Martini did last season. His PFF grade confirms the statistical output he had, one of the team’s best mistake-free option defenders last season. Martini played a team-high 76 snaps against Georgia Tech, graded only below Jaylon Smith last year, while grading out as the team’s best linebacker against Navy.

So while there’s no Smith to chase down runners and no Schmidt to see things from the middle, Martini will be back and playing a very big role.

 

Even if all the focus is on stopping the option, Notre Dame’s offense has plenty of pressure on it. 

The focus will always be on stopping the triple-option. But if the Irish are going to win, they’ll need to be effective offensively. So the fits and starts we’ve seen from DeShone Kizer and the inconsistent Irish offense need to be ironed out this weekend. Because Navy’s offense and their ability to possess the ball will mean limited opportunities for the Irish offense.

“You understand that you have to be patient in what you’re doing, understand that your possessions are going to be limited. If they are, you can’t go out there expecting to score a thousand touchdowns,” Kizer said. “But with that you also have to understand when you do touch the ball, your ultimate goal needs to be a touchdown no matter how it comes.”

It’ll likely come by running the football. Kelly has done a nice job running to win, carrying the ball 40, 39, 36, and 46 times in the last four matchups against the Midshipmen. And even if the Irish ground game has failed to hit its stride this year with the offensive line still trying to find its footing, expect the Irish to marry the ground game with tempo, something we saw (too briefly) against Miami.

“As a high-tempo offense that we are, we find our success when we’re up and rolling. So we got to make sure when we’re back out there, we’re doing the exact same things we have been doing to be successful,” Kizer said. “Our offense is spread, it is fast. It may not seem like that when I’m up there checking a play a thousand times. The emphasis is to be fast. So if we have the opportunity to just call and haul, we’re going to do so.”

 

More than ever, a special teams mistake would be catastrophic. 

Let’s be very clear. This is not the week for special teams to determine the football game. Because if we’ve seen anything this season, it’s that the Irish special teams have found terrible times to impact a ballgame.

So Scott Booker’s unit better bring their A-game. There’s no room for a muffed punt. There’s no room for getting caught on a surprise onside kick. And with possessions limited and holding serve essential, keeping things vanilla in the game’s third segment might just be the best way to guarantee success.

Chris Finke is now competing with C.J. Sanders as the team’s primary punt returner. Finke delivered a nice return when the game was on the line against Miami, but if he’s back there, it won’t necessarily be to make plays, but rather to not make bad ones. So if that’s fair catching punts—or making sure they’re simply caught in the air and not bounced off a teammate’s unsuspecting leg—that’s a move that’s a necessity.

Because you have to expect Navy to try and make a big special teams play. The Irish have seen breakdowns with punt blocks, kickoff returns and everything in between, so  the Midshipmen will try and steal a possession if the game offers that opportunity.

 

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)