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

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In a game decided by a single point, when the two team’s offensive totals nearly duplicate themselves, the outcome is expected to hinge on one or two plays. And down the stretch, with the game on the line, it was Navy that made the plays, and Notre Dame that did not.

Because the afternoon played out to the script that Ken Niumatalolo needed. Quarterback Will Worth executed the offense flawlessly. The Midshipmen’s defense got the red zone field goals they needed. And the Irish—even if the letter of the law shouldn’t have allowed it—made a critical mistake with their 12-men on the field penalty, allowing Navy’s offense back onto the field and eventually into the end zone.

With another painful one-score loss in the books, let’s get on with the good, the bad and the ugly.

THE GOOD

Greer Martini. Back after a concussion last weekend, Martini led the Irish in tackles with 11, adding a TFL as well. It’s the type of production you come to expect from Martini, a highly intelligent football player who has become a bit of an option specialist for the Irish.

In his four games against option teams (three against Navy, one against Georgia Tech), Martini is now averaging more than nine tackles a game. That’s the type of play that’ll come in handy next weekend against Army and likely against Virginia Tech and USC as well.

 

Torii Hunter Jr. Notre Dame’s senior captain had a career high in catches (8) and yards (104) to go along with a touchdown in a losing effort. It was the first 100-yard game of his career and maybe more important than the statistical output was the fact that he bounced back after what looked like it could’ve been a serious knee injury.

Hunter hasn’t become the breakout performer we expected this season. A TJ Jones senior season has actually been more like Jones as a junior—steady, not spectacular, but usually reliable. That’s not enough. But you’ve got to give him credit for taking advantage of the matchup against Navy’s undermanned secondary.

 

Sam Mustipher. After putting up some ugly statistical games, Sam Mustipher was tied for the team’s highest grade along the offensive line with a +2.8. That’s a rebound after a tough few weeks for the Irish center, and his shotgun snaps all found their correct home as well.

 

Third Down Conversions. You wouldn’t know it, but the Irish actually out-converted Navy on third down, making nine of their 13 chances while the Mids only managed eight. And while there are still the third downs that got away, there was plenty of good on this crucial snap, like Equanimeous St. Brown‘s gritty catch and run along with DeShone Kizer’s shoulder-lowering scramble.

Good job, good effort.

 

THE BAD

The Safety Play. Drue Tranquill had built a reputation as one of the team’s top option defenders. But Tranquill had a poor game tackling in space, missing a handful of big tackle before he was taken out of the game for what looks to be a concussion.

Tranquill had been building on some strong play of late, so this step backwards was a surprise. Certainly more so than the challenges Devin Studstill had, the freshman safety struggling to react to the counter option and get quickly into his run responsibilities.

Put simply, Tranquill was a guy the Irish defense desperately needed to play well if they were going to get the stops they needed on defense. He didn’t and the entire Irish defense paid dearly.

 

Learning on the job. The play won’t hold a spot in the history of this rivalry like Ram Vela’s flying game-winning stop, but Troy Pride being flattened with a bone-crushing block as the Midshipmen converted a 3rd-and-long for a game-changing touchdown certainly is the lasting image from the game.

The freshman cornerback was knocked to eternity on a gigantic block right after fellow freshman Julian Love was also caught on a crack block. The two hits opened the sideline to Navy’s Calvin Cass who rumbled in for a gigantic, game-changing 37-yard touchdown.

The youth movement didn’t stop this week just because of the triple-option. And in a game that hinges on the Irish defense reading and reacting as quickly as possible, the freshmen seeing and doing things for the first time came up just a bit short, though did gain valuable in-game experience.

Donte Vaughn played 46 snaps, Studstill 39, Julian Love 36 (before he went into concussion protocol), Jalen Elliott 30, Pride 19, and redshirt freshman Asmar Bilal 12. All will hopefully carry that knowledge into the Army game next weekend.

 

Jarron Jones. A week after playing the game of his career, Jones played just 12 snaps. It’s a decision that made little sense on Saturday and not much more after Kelly explained the rationale on Sunday afternoon during his conference call.

“It really is a whole different animal relative to option. He’s got a job to do, and you know, he can’t be the kind of force he was in a traditional offensive set because, you know, he’s got to play gap and he has a responsibility,” Kelly explained. “If they choose to run triple option, even if he’s a force and he’s destroying his guy and he’s getting upfield, they are going to pull the ball and work the ball out to the perimeter. So you could take a Jarron Jones out of the game, even if he’s being disruptive, and so it really neutralizes players like him and when you play a team like Navy.”

 

Nick Coleman. I was a fan of utilizing Coleman more against the option, the aggressive sophomore cornerback capable of playing run support better than coverage. But with the game on the line and a critical third-down passing play dialed up, Coleman ran through the back of the Navy receiver and handed the Midshipmen a free first down.

Coleman was expected to be the team’s third cornerback, a key piece of the puzzle especially after Devin Butler went down and then was suspended. His season has been a disaster.

 

A Misinterpreted Replay Ruling. 

Brian Kelly expanded on what he said postgame, namely that the replay officials shouldn’t have gotten involved in the call for 12-men, nor should they have made it.

A photo of the snap shows Devin Studstill within a step of the sideline, close enough that Kelly believes a flag shouldn’t have been thrown—let alone replay called in to reverse things.

“The rule clearly states that if he is one step from the sideline, then it is not a reviewable play,” Kelly said Sunday. “Very similar to when I had asked earlier in the game for a review on a Tarean Folston run, I was told by the official on the field that it was not reviewable because his forward progress was deemed stopped, so it could not be reviewed. This would be a similar situation where the play could not have been reviewed if he was within one step of the sideline after the ball being snapped.”

With an American Athletic Conference on-field crew and an ACC replay crew, there was obviously some miscommunication. And Kelly hopes that there can be a national standard set so this type of thing doesn’t happen moving forward.

“[There’s] really a need for uniform and nationalized replay when you have different conferences with different ways of looking at specific plays,” Kelly said. “We’re the only sport that doesn’t have that, so I hope that affect the some form of conversation that we can get to a nationalized replay situation.”

 

Having too many players on the field. Mechanics and blown calls aside, that this is even an issue is ridiculous. As I mentioned in the Pregame Six Pack, a special teams blunder would be catastrophic. Especially against Navy.

And sure enough, this time it was because the Irish didn’t have enough time to go from their regular defense to their punt safe team.

“They are a team that obviously goes for it quite a bit on fourth down. So we had our base defense. We were in a safe punt situation,” Kelly explained. “So you’re keeping your defense out there till the very last second and they raced their team out there quickly and we should have obviously not cut it as close as we did.”

 

THE UGLY

Never getting the ball back. Kelly better explained his rationale for taking the three points off of Justin Yoon’s foot rather than attempting to get the first down on 4th-and-4.

“Look, here is my way of thinking. I kicked into the wind in the third quarter for a reason, and that was to take the wind in the fourth quarter with a thought that the field goal would win the game in the fourth quarter.

“We had many chances to get off the field. We had 3rd-and-9s, 3rd-and-7s, 4th-and 6. We had our own chance to pick up a first down on the offensive side of the ball. They are easily disputed, but I think it was the right call to make it 28-27 with a field goal and the wind to your back to win the game in the kind of game that we played.”

The defense didn’t get off the field, with all those conversions—and all three of Notre Dame’s timeouts—still not getting the ball back with 7:30 of game remaining. So even if you can understandably argue Kelly’s point of view, it doesn’t make it any better.

Two games this season, Kelly has bet on his defense getting a stop and lost. And at this point, it’s hard not to notice the trend of the head coach’s 50-50 decisions going against him and the Irish. That’s likely to happen when you see a team find so many different ways to lose close games, but if this team is going to learn how to win their head coach needs to coach to win, too.

 

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…)