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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.

 

Report: Corey Holmes set to transfer

Irish Illustrated / Matt Cashore
Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated
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Receiver Corey Holmes is transferring from Notre Dame. The junior, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, will look for a new program after earning his degree this summer, Tom Loy of Irish247 reports.

Holmes told Irish247:

“It’s just the best decision for me. I’m graduating this summer and I’m just going to find the best fit for me to finish things up.”

Even after a strong spring, Holmes saw little action this season, though he played extensively against USC in the season finale. He had four catches against the Trojans, a large part of his 11 on the year, also his career total.

That Holmes wasn’t able to find a consistent spot in the rotation is likely a big reason why he’s looking for a new opportunity. After opening eyes after posting a 4.42 40-yard dash during spring drills, the Irish coaching staff looked for a way to get Holmes onto the field. But after losing reps at the X receiver on the outside, Holmes bounced inside and out, never finding a regular spot in the rotation, playing behind Torii Hunter Jr. and Kevin Stepherson on the outside and CJ Sanders and Chris Finke in the slot.

Holmes has two seasons of eligibility remaining, redshirting his sophomore season. Because he’ll earn his degree this summer, he’ll be able to play immediately next year. Irish 247 reports that Holmes is looking at Miami, UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona and North Carolina, though he’ll have a semester to find other fits.

 

Mailbag: All about BK

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17:  (L-R) Sam Kohler #29, head coach Brian Kelly, Grace Kelly and Hunter Bivin #70 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Welcome to a fairly action-packed Mailbag. Why didn’t one of you guys remind me to do these more often?

This one, as the title suggests, is all about Brian Kelly.

 

@chrise384: Do you think that silence from Swarbrick this week means anything or do you think it’s status quo and BK is back in ’17?

I think Swarbrick’s been silent because there’s nothing else to say. He made his comment to ESPN that Kelly would be back in 2017. Why would it benefit him to say anything else?

Kelly also made comments—10 feet away from his boss—that he’d be back and doesn’t want to go anywhere. So other than releasing a 2:37 a.m. tweet reiterating Kelly’s intentions—and essentially calling B.S. on the reports that BK was looking to get out—there’s no reason to respond to the noise, when there’s a ton of work to do and big decisions still to make.

Speaking of those…

 

Domer521: Keith – The banquet is next Friday evening. Do you expect any announcements regarding recruits or DC/assistant coaches before then?

I don’t. For a variety of reasons, I think Kelly is waiting to make any formal moves on his staff until after that evening. And in reality, any college assistant that’s going to come to Notre Dame is probably coaching in a bowl game, and won’t leave his program until after that game is played.

(That doesn’t mean that BK isn’t lining things up. I expect that he is.)

So while the idea of getting a coordinator on hand now might be ideal, the reality of the situation is that you need someone ready to hit the recruiting trail after the New Year, taking the world by storm for that final month and closing stretch until Signing Day.

 

@GhostAKG: Many are saying Charlie Strong for our new DC. Is that good/realistic? And what are some of the names you’ve been hearing more?

I was one of the people to speculate, but the more you think about it the less it makes sense. Charlie Strong is a head coach. And a good one. Any return to South Bend would feel incredibly temporary, with the circus following every job vacancy that opens up—with fans and media speculating, “Is this the one to get Strong back to the head job?”

That’s not a headache BK and company would want to deal with, especially when you consider how much this collective fanbase sweats out coordinator hires or parallel moves.

(Remember when Tony Alford left after Signing Day and it felt like someone died around here?)

Charlie Strong is a good man and a good coach. But that’s the wrong type of hire for ND. I think he’ll probably take a year off to examine the landscape, continue to cash those fat checks coming from Austin, and then get back into it next year.

 

irishwilliamsport:

Keith, I know this is an exercise in futility but I’ll ask a mailbag question… What would you guess BK’s combined job approval rating is among all fan bases ?

You’ve got me. No clue. Does anybody have a good job approval rating?

At this point, I don’t think anybody’s approval rating is all that high at 4-8, to the point that Jack Swarbrick—a guy who might be the most powerful and intelligent athletic director in the country—has seen fans turn on him as well.

I wasn’t quite sure what you were getting at with your question about “all fan bases,” but maybe you were talking about the perception of Kelly both inside and out of the program? If so, I thought Colin Cowherd’s take on Kelly, at least from a national perspective and a guy who watches a lot of college football, is interesting. (It’s a perspective that’s pretty common, I must say.)

 

codenamegee: 

What has Brian Kelly done to make you think he can win a championship at Notre Dame. Looking at his FBS coaching resume his teams have never beaten a top 5 team. I just don’t get why everyone thinks he’s a good coach. Notre Dame is poorly coached (too many mental breakdowns), offense lacks imagination (Running plays are too predictable, no tail back screens, no delay draws, lack of counters and traps). Yet all I hear how Brian Kelly is this great coach or Brian Kelly is a great offensive mind. If he is, he hasn’t showed it since he’s been in South Bend.

Well, first off—and this is a biggie—he played for one. So let’s not ignore that. And he was maybe one play away from getting invited to playing for another last year, a game-winning, last-second field goal against Stanford knocking the Irish from the playoff.

Now I get that playing for one isn’t the same as winning one. And when it comes to comparing this program to Alabama’s, frankly I don’t think Notre Dame has a chance to get to that level until Nick Saban retires… or the NCAA finds something illegal in his program. So if that’s the bar you’ll set, I’m not sure he can get there. And I’m not sure Notre Dame is willing to do what it takes to get there. And frankly, that’s something I’m okay with—especially as you

Last point for you—have you really heard anybody calling Brian Kelly a good coach lately? Is anybody following Notre Dame saying Kelly’s done a good job this season? Has the coach himself even said that? Have I?

Listen, I get it. Losing seasons are terrible. They are really painful and this one came out of nowhere, making it worse. Then throw on top of that just how close the games were—each week a decision here or there, or a blown assignment or missed opportunity sometimes the singular difference between a win and a loss.

That all adds up. And it certainly will carry into next season, a direct reflection on the coach’s job status, regardless of the length of his remaining contract.

 

irishdog80: Can Brian Kelly truly survive and thrive as head coach at Notre Dame or is his best opportunity a fresh start at a new school or pro team?

I don’t think Kelly would’ve stayed if he didn’t think he could thrive. He could get another job if he wanted one. And I don’t think Swarbrick would’ve let him stick around if he didn’t have comfort that the football program—a team that he spends more time around than anybody outside the players and the coaches—was in good hands, and that this was a bad season, not a bad program.

That’s a really good question though, Irishdog. We’ve seen Bob Stoops rally. We’ve seen David Shaw bounce back, though neither pulled a four-win season. And for now, I think Kelly can, too. But it’s worth pointing out that the rumor everybody seemed to be fired up about, three-win & nine-loss Mark Dantonio, would be a huge coaching upgrade over Kelly is funny, considering Dantonio just took a College Football Playoff team and drove it off a cliff.

 

 

irishcatholic16: With reports that Brian Kelly is seeking job opportunities outside of Notre Dame then shortly after saying that he’s committed to Notre Dame along with him bolting Cincinnati in the same fashion (saying he would stay then leaving), do you think he will lose the trust of his team and could we see more decommits as a result? Will the team trust him knowing that he isn’t fully committed?

I have no belief that those reports are true. And I have no reason to think that Kelly’s team—seven years in—would have their trust of the man leading the program hinging on reports from national media pundits.

Are we still talking about the way he left Cincinnati? Because it sure looked to me an awful lot like every coach leaves their program—Tom Herman just the latest example of a coach left in an unwinnable situation, with the media ready to pounce by asking unanswerable questions.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt that Kelly’s agent was talking to teams. He was. He’s the same guy that reps Herman, and a handful of other top-shelf coaches. But that’s what agents do. They talk about their clients, 99% of the time without the client ever having any idea he’s doing it.

 

 

bjc378:

I’ll ask the obvious question. Sorry, I didn’t listen to the podcast.

Do you (still) think BK should be the Irish coach next year? If so, how long of a leash do you give him next year and what changes would you demand? If not, or if he decides to coach elsewhere, what’s your wish list look like?

No apology necessary, first off, on the podcast. It’s supplemental, but listen for John Walters’ wisdom, it’s basically like telling your friends you subscribe to Newsweek.

As for BK, yes I do think he should be the coach next year. I don’t think Notre Dame is a program that should fire someone for a single bad season—period. I didn’t like it when they did it to Ty (in retrospect it was the right thing to do), and I wouldn’t like it if they did it to Kelly, a year off a ten-win season and a Fiesta Bowl appearance.

(Also worth noting, they don’t do it in hockey, basketball, baseball, soccer, or any other sport.)

As for the leash? That’s hard to say. I think we’ll know quite a bit about this team at the end of next September. They’ll have played Temple (the potential AAC champ coached by one of the nation’s underrated head coaches in Matt Rhule), Georgia, Boston College, Michigan State and—don’t laugh—Miami (Ohio), who has got it going now under Chuck Martin. So if that month goes sideways and the season does too, I won’t have any problem with Swarbrick trying to upgrade and make a change.

As for the wish list? No clue. Not at this point. I’ll take Jon Gruden off of it, so cross him off before anybody asks me. And any other NFL head coach.

But I’d start by looking at someone like Willie Taggart, a young Harbaugh protege who coached at Stanford and has now done good work as a head coach at both Western Kentucky and USF.

Drue Tranquill named first-team Academic All-American

Drue Tranquill
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Drue Tranquill was named a first-team Academic All-American. The junior safety, who returned from his second major knee injury during his three-year career, earned the honors after posting a 3.74 GPA in mechanical engineering.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s first academic All-American since Corey Robinson earned the honor after the 2014 season. He finished second on the team in tackles with 79 and lead the team in solo stops with 52. He also had two TFLs and an interception.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s 60th Academic All-American, the third-most of any school behind Nebraska and Penn State. He’s active in the university community, serving as a mentor for the Core Leadership Team for Lifeworks Ministry, and is a member of Notre Dame Christian Athletes. He is a also member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) and Rosenthal Leadership Academy.

 

Postseason Mailbag: Now Open

SAN ANTONIO, TX - NOVEMBER 12: Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly leads his team onto the field before the start of their game against Army in a NCAA college football game at the Alamodome on November 12, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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It’s been too long. Let’s talk about the season, the decisions ahead and where Notre Dame stands after its nightmare of a 2016 season.

Drop your questions on Twitter @KeithArnold or in the comments below.

 

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If you’re interested in hearing my recap on the USC game and where Notre Dame’s goes now that the season is over, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, with Newsweek’s John Walters.