Navy players celebrate after defeating Notre Dame 28-27 in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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Five things we learned: Navy 28, Notre Dame 27

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It looked like just another careless mistake—this one only caught by replay officials during an extended commercial break. But the result was another Notre Dame special teams calamity that ends up being the difference between a win and a loss.

The Irish’s 28-27 loss to Navy has many culprits, but none more striking than the 12th man on the field for Scott Booker’s special teams. And of all the catastrophic special teams blunders that have infected this season, this time it was Notre Dame’s inability to field a properly-sized unit that re-routed the football game.

Beause the 4th-and-6 mistake caught after a long TV timeout turned a Navy punt into a five-yard penalty, returning the Midshipmen to the field as they converted the 4th-and-1. That gift allowed Navy to put together their longest scoring drive of the season, a 16-play, nine-minute opus, a clock-eating, game killer that gave the Midshipmen just enough points to pull off the upset.

As the Irish fall to 3-6 and lose their first game to Navy since 2010, let’s find out what we learned.

 

When push came to shove, Notre Dame’s defense couldn’t get off the field. 

With the game on the line and the young Irish defense asked to get a stop, they couldn’t do it. Navy made all the big plays down the stretch, converting third and fourth downs to win the football game.

The Midshipmen converted eight of 13 third downs. They converted four of five fourth downs. And those chain-moving plays allowed Navy to hold Notre Dame to just six offensive possessions, the lowest in a college football game since 2008, when the Midshipmen held Northern Illinois to the same number.

At no time were those conversions more critical than in the fourth quarter. After Notre Dame’s special teams gift, the Mids capped off their nine-minute drive with a 27-yard rushing touchdown by Will Worth, a 3rd-and-7 conversion that began a string of clutch plays for the Navy offense.

After Brian Kelly decided to kick a field goal to pull the game to within a point, Navy ate the game’s final 7:28, never giving the Irish the ball back, even as Kelly used all three of his timeouts to try and control the clock.

The defense had their chances. After getting a break on Donte Vaughn’s downfield coverage, Navy drew a pass interference flag on Nick Coleman, the sophomore out of the doghouse after Julian Love left the game with a head injury. Coleman had a chance to make a play on the football, but instead ran through the receiver, moving the chains on third down with a pass interference penalty.

From there, the Navy did it again and again, gaining six on 3rd-and-7 before converting a Worth sneak on 4th-and-1.

Even as the Irish managed to get Navy behind the chains, the Mids fought their way out of it. With the Irish burning their timeouts and turning 2nd-and-9 into a 4th-and-6 for the ball game, Worth found senior receiver Jamir Tillman for the game-clinching catch. It was Navy’s fourth conversion on fourth down that afternoon, a brutal back-breaking efficiency that allowed Navy to end the game in victory formation.

 

With just six opportunities to score, DeShone Kizer missed one too many times. 

Early in the second quarter after the defense turned over Navy with a fourth-down stop, DeShone Kizer missed his chance to go for Navy’s throat. The junior quarterback got the matchup he was looking for—freshman Kevin Stepherson against a linebacker. But Kizer air-mailed the throw, missing long when Stepherson had nobody close to him, turning an easy touchdown into an incompletion. Two plays later, the Irish would punt.

Kizer did a lot of good things on Saturday afternoon, completing 19 of 27 throws for 223 yards and three touchdowns. But being accurate with the football wasn’t one of them.

With the Navy secondary beat up and the Midshipmen defense selling out to stop the run, Kizer missed early and often with some easy possession throws. While he fought his way through the tough afternoon by converting a few critical third downs with his legs, it was missed pitch and catch opportunities—and blown reads—that ended up costing the Irish.

Kizer spoke earlier in the week about the need to convert opportunities. And even if the Irish only punted once, two of those six drives ended in field goals, the inability to get seven points costing the Irish in the end.

With just four games left in Kizer’s season, the talk with only amplify about the junior’s stay-or-go decision at year-end. And while most pundits see Kizer as a first-round talent and the prevailing wisdom around the program leads you to believe this will be at for him at the college level, there’s an awful lot of tape that leads you to believe that Kizer isn’t ready to step in at the NFL level—especially when it comes to accuracy.

Completing 70 percent of your throws is hardly the game to make this point. But in four of nine games this season Kizer has completed less than 60 percent of his throws. Add last year’s games at sub-60 percent against Clemson, Boston College, Stanford and Ohio State and that’s enough film to punch holes in the narrative that Kizer’s a premier quarterback, ready to change an NFL franchise’s fortunes.

That’s not to say Kizer won’t be the Irish quarterback to break Notre Dame’s cold streak at the next level. But before anybody punch’s the Toledo native’s ticket into the first round, he’ll need to show that his accuracy is ready for the challenge of the next level.

 

 

 

In an evenly matched football game, Scott Booker’s special teams let the Irish down. (Again.) 

 

Each team had 21 first downs. Two yards separated the two teams offensive totals. Third down conversions, red zone attempts and yards per play were all closely aligned.

That’s what makes Notre Dame’s latest special teams nightmare so maddening. And that’s what makes the decision to keep Scott Booker in charge of this unit so difficult to contemplate moving forward.

Brian Kelly won’t likely fire his second assistant mid-season. But a week after watching C.J. Sanders give away a touchdown and Jalen Elliott brain-cramp in the middle of an onside kick attempt, Devin Studstill’s 12-men penalty is the latest self-inflicted mistake to cost the Irish dearly.

Kelly said after the game that two referees told him that Studstill had gotten off the field in time. The replay booth disagreed. And the head coach made it clear that he didn’t hold the referees accountable for the momentum changer.

“Navy won the game. I’m not here to cry over that call,” Kelly said.

So even if the rest of the special teams performance was fairly anonymous—it was Chris Finke in for Sanders on the punt that didn’t count—it still found a way to change this game. And at this point, we’re running out of excuses to make for Booker’s unit.

 

Another tight game, another coaching decision that went the wrong way for Brian Kelly.

With the Irish facing a 4th-and-4 and down four points in the fourth quarter, Kelly decided to trot out Justin Yoon to kick a 31-yard field goal. That brought the game to within one point, and necessitated the Irish defense to get a stop—one they couldn’t get.

After the game, Kelly was asked about the decision to take his offense off the field and put the game on his defense’s shoulders.

“I certainly thought about going for it. In hindsight, we didn’t get the ball back,” Kelly said in his postgame comments. “Even if they scored a touchdown we’d still have the opportunity to score and get the two-point conversion.”

That logic seemed understandable in real time, considering Kizer’s struggles and the Irish ground game’s modest production. But even without the benefit of hindsight, another conservative coaching decision gives you the feeling that maybe even the head coach has become gun-shy during this nightmarish run.

Notre Dame’s sixth one-possession loss follows the trend of coin-flip sequences that haven’t gone Notre Dame’s way. But at this point, you’ve got to wonder what Kelly is waiting for—the stats to change, or his team to go out and seize the moment.

Not going for two against Texas in overtime of the season opener is one thing. Not trying to rip back the lead in the middle of a mostly meaningless November game against Navy is another.

So if the head coach’s edict for his team is to play fast, play loose and play to win, it’s time for the coaching staff to do the same thing. And with a chance to take the lead and play aggressive, Kelly went the other way—and lost.

 

One team executed their game plan. The other team goes home with their sixth loss.

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo won his third game against Notre Dame, clinching a bowl bid for the Midshipmen with the clutch victory. And after the game, all the kind things Kelly could say about his teams effort and passion were eclipsed by his praise for the Midshipmen.

“They executed flawlessly. It’s what we expect every time we play Navy,” Kelly said. “They made the plays necessary late.”

Those plays took the ball out of Notre Dame’s hands. That flawless execution included an incredible 12 of 18 conversion rate on third and fourth down. And with the Mids doing everything right and the Irish doing just enough wrong, the loss adds another black mark to a season that most wish would just end already, a bowl berth now requiring the herculean task of beating Army, Virginia Tech and USC.

Just days after putting the emphasis on a strong November, the Irish now go back to the drawing board. They’ll need to fix their safety play against the option to beat Army. They’ll need to get their offense on track to keep up with Virginia Tech and USC. And they’ll need to make all the right moves on the coaching front to get Kelly’s program back on track after this multi-car pileup.

 

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.

Notre Dame adds two top defensive back commits; Elliott officially a ‘Husker

allen
rivals.com
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It’s early. It’s really, really early. Not in the day, though this post is scheduled for an a.m. hour. No, it is early in the 2018 recruiting cycle. Any piece of news, each commitment, everything should be taken with two grains of salt.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame—and more specifically, new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght—enjoyed Tuesday’s recruiting news when two consensus four-star coverage men committed to the Irish.

Safety Derrik Allen (Lassiter High School; Marietta, Ga.) and cornerback Kalon Gervin (Cass Tech; Detroit, Mich.) joined a class of now eight commitments, six of which play on the defensive side of the ball.

Gervin, the No. 11 cornerback in the class according to rivals.com, waited mere days after attending Notre Dame’s Junior Day over the weekend. Irish coach Brian Kelly and staff’s failure to land a recruit at Gervin’s position in the 2017 haul actually helped reel in the recruit with offers from Florida, LSU, Michigan and dozens others.

“The opportunity to play right away, they didn’t sign a cornerback this last class,” Gervin told Blue & Gold Illustrated helped sway him. “Also, the education is second-to-none. It speaks for itself.”

Allen, pictured at top, has leaned toward Notre Dame for months. The No. 3 safety in the country per Rivals, he chose the Irish over the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Florida State.

Elliott officially to Nebraska

The two highly-touted defensive backs will not have the chance to learn under the tutelage of Bob Elliott. Nebraska officially announced the hiring of the former Notre Dame safeties (2012-13) and linebackers (2014) coach. Elliott spent the last two seasons serving as a special assistant to Kelly, focusing largely on defending the triple-option attacks of Army, Navy and Georgia Tech.

Elliott rejoins former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in Lincoln. Diaco was hired as the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator in January.

The Lincoln Journal Star’s Brian Cristopherson reports Elliott will make a nice wage in eastern Nebraska.

Could Kelly move a receiver to cornerback?

PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 30:  Bennett Jackson #2 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish intercepts this pass intended for Michael Rector #3 of the Stanford Cardinal during the fourth quarter at Stanford Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Before the weekend, Notre Dame already had 10 receivers on its depth chart, all with at least two seasons of eligibility remaining. Cornerback, meanwhile, is a position where the roster seems to be lacking, with only seven currently on scholarship. The only fact staving off panic is that all seven also have two years of eligibility in hand. Nonetheless, an additional body in the defensive backfield at practice would seem to be a reasonable want, if not quite a necessity.

Thus, the addition of graduate transfer receiver Freddy Canteen—himself having two seasons of potential college football to go—brought the return of wonderings: Should one of the plethora of Irish receivers switch to breaking up passes?

Aside from balancing the roster and easing some concerns should an injury strike, such a move could also present the player a chance at increased playing time. By no means would the maneuver need to be a selfless one.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has had success with such positional flipping. Specifically, Kelly and his coaching staff have overseen the successful switches of receiver-turned-cornerback Bennett Jackson and receiver-turned-safety-and-then-linebacker James Onwualu. Furthermore, defensive backs Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell both arrived at Notre Dame expecting to be on the offensive side of the ball before changes early in their careers.

BENNETT JACKSON
A three-star receiver recruit, Jackson stuck with Notre Dame during the transition from Charlie Weis to Brian Kelly, signing with the Irish only weeks after Kelly took the lead of the program. In his freshman season, Jackson carried the ball plenty, as the kick returner. Aside from fielding kickoffs, he had only one carry for 20 yards. That was it for his offensive playmaking.

On special teams, however, he excelled without the ball, too. Jackson finished with 10 tackles, including four against Purdue to start the season. That nose for the ballcarrier prompted the coaching staff to switch Jackson’s positional group. In the following three seasons, he amassed 147 tackles, 11 pass break-ups and two interceptions.

Before Notre Dame faced Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, Jackson looked back on his career change.

“I liked receiver. Obviously, I wanted to be a guy with the ball in my hands,” he said. “At first, I wasn’t mad about it, but I wasn’t fond of it.

“As time went on, I actually liked the position a lot more. I had a lot more fun and I got to compete a lot more.”

JAMES ONWUALU
A four-star recruit with the ambiguous “athlete” designation in 2013, Onwualu—like Jackson—spent his freshman season as a receiver. Unlike Jackson, he actually caught some passes. Two, to be exact, for a total of 34 yards. Continuing on a parallel to Jackson, Onwualu totaled six tackles on special teams.

Years later, it is easy to see the receiving depth in Notre Dame’s class of 2013. Onwualu aside, the Irish brought in Corey Robinson, Torii Hunter, Jr., and Will Fuller. It was going to be a tough road to featured playing time for Onwualu. Realizing this, he set to finding a different path.

“I honestly wasn’t sure receiver was the spot for me anyway, so I walked right up to coach Kelly’s office and we had a talk about where I wanted to go and what my thoughts were for my career,” Onwualu told und.com early in his senior season. “We ended up agreeing that the defensive side, we might as well give it a shot, and it worked out.”

Initially, that conversation landed Onwualu at safety. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, he found himself at linebacker pretty quickly thereafter.

“That was a tough one for me because he’s so valuable offensively in a number of ways,” Kelly said before 2014 spring practice. “He’s such a consistent player and he loves to compete. But he’s got great contact skills.”

Onwualu ended his Notre Dame career with 143 total tackles, including those pivotal six his freshman season, along with six sacks.

MATTHIAS FARLEY & KEIVARAE RUSSELL
Both Farley and Russell entered Notre Dame as “athletes”, the former a three-star recruit and the latter a four-star prospect. While Farley was expected to line up at receiver and Russell at running back, each switched to safety and cornerback, respectively, before ever joining the Irish offense. Safe to say it worked out rather well for each.

WHO NOW?
Far be it for the internet to speculate, but that seems to be one of its three primary purposes in the 21st century.

None of the current 11 receivers entered college deemed “athletes” by recruitniks. One does mirror Jackson and Onwualu in that he excelled on special teams last year. Rising sophomore Chase Claypool recorded 11 tackles in his debut season to go along with his five catches for 81 yards. Claypool notched multiple tackles against Nevada, Syracuse and Virginia Tech.

Kelly and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko very well may choose to test fate in 2017 and rely on only seven cornerbacks. After all, how often would the Irish ever have more than four on the field, anyways?

But if Kelly and Elko err on the side of caution, whoever makes the positional switch should not cringe in doing so. It has worked out pretty well both for his predecessors and for Notre Dame.