Five things we learned: Notre Dame 44, Army 6

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In a season filled with unpredictable results, Notre Dame’s one-sided victory fit the bill. Because even if the Irish had the Black Knights over-powered and out-manned at every position, their 44-6 blowout victory wasn’t one many saw coming.

But a week after Navy’s triple-option kept the Irish offense off the field, Notre Dame’s defense responded. And lined up against the nation’s No. 6 defense, the Irish physically dominated with a 38-point first half that made for a extraordinarily comfortable final 30 minutes.

In a Shamrock Series game that lacked any distinguishable storylines, the Irish—to their credit—made sure this one featured no drama. And after C.J. Sanders took back the opening kickoff for a 92-yard touchdown, the Irish forced a punt, scored on their next drive, and were on their way.

In a much-needed easy win, the Irish got their fourth victory of the season. Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Army isn’t Navy. But the Irish did a much better job of dictating terms. 

Fast starts are the name of the game against a triple-option opponent. And with C.J. Sanders spotting the Irish an early special teams score and the Notre Dame’s defense breaking serve on the first series, the Irish made sure they didn’t allow last weekend to repeat itself.

Of course, playing Army helped. So did a few early yellow flags—thrown against the Black Knights but kept in the referees’ pockets against the Midshipmen.

But credit is owed to the team who sprinted out of the gate and ended this football game before halftime. And scoring on all six first-half drives (five touchdowns) while forcing Army to punt on their first two touches made certain that the latest Shamrock Series game in San Antonio was just as one-sided as the series debut back in 2009.

 

DeShone Kizer’s confidence is growing just in time for two games that’ll test him the most. 

We knew Army’s defense hadn’t played many tough offenses on their way to a statistically dominant season. But that doesn’t take away from DeShone Kizer’s impressive afternoon. Notre Dame’s junior quarterback played another efficient game, throwing for three touchdowns while completing 17 of 28 throws and running for 72 yards as the Irish offense rolled.

Once again, Kizer played distributor. This time, with the Notre Dame offense without senior captain Torii Hunter, he spread the ball around to 11 different receivers, as Hunter’s replacement, freshman Kevin Stepherson, paced the attack with five catches for 75 yards and a touchdown. (That number would’ve looked a lot better had Stepherson reeled in a well-thrown deep ball that went through the freshman’s hands.)

A second-half red zone interception ruined an otherwise perfect day, but Kizer continues to make improvements, with the offense incredibly efficient on third downs, converting 10 of 13 as Notre Dame won the possession battle, controlling the ball for over 34 minutes.

“He’s maturing as a quarterback. He got the game ball,” Kelly of Kizer postgame. “I liked his leadership all week. I liked his toughness.”

 

An additional week of preparation and a simplified scheme helped the Irish slow down Army’s triple-option. 

The chess match that Ken Niumatalolo and Ivin Jasper won last week flipped the other way this weekend. And simplification of the defensive scheme might have helped. Postgame, Army coach Jeff Monken said the Irish played them with just one coverage scheme and alternated between two fronts. That’s down from the five different looks that Monken saw Irish throw at the Midshipmen on tape.

Some of that was because Army quarterbacks Chris Carter and Malik McGue can’t throw the football like Will Worth. The Irish surviving in man coverage all game certainly helped the front seven. A big part of that was the trust the staff continued to put in freshmen like Julian Love and Donte Vaughn.

Love slid to safety and delivered another solid game—a goal-line interception and a tackle for loss highlights for the true freshmen. Vaughn did a nice job not being noticed (always a good feature for a cornerback against an option team), tipping a ball that Cole Luke nearly intercepted on one of Army’s eight passing attempts.

More important than the play of the young secondary was getting off the field. A week after Navy kept possession of the football by converting 12 of 18 third and fourth-down attempts, the Black Knights were just four of 14 on the same two critical downs.

Postgame, captain James Onwualu, who led the Irish with 13 tackles and a sack, was asked about what made the difference. Familiarity was a big key.

“I think it’s more of just getting guys used to it,” Onwualu said. “Having that back to back helped a lot.”

 

Don’t look now, but Notre Dame won the special teams battle. 

We’ve been tough on Scott Booker’s special teams unit. But Saturday it was the Irish who preyed on a deficient third phase. So between the opening touchdown and taking advantage of Army’s inability to kick and punt, Notre Dame had a rare win in all phases of the game.

Sanders opening touchdown was a nice start. But don’t discount the Irish learning from their previous mistakes, with Durham Smythe routinely fair-catching an Army pooch kick that tried to catch the Irish napping was a win.

So a nice day by Chris Finke returning punts, no attempts by Tyler Newsome and the Irish routinely winning the field position battle all added to a rare clean day on special teams.

 

It wasn’t flashy. But a win in the Shamrock Series lets the Irish continue to fight for their postseason life. 

There are no grand declarations after a victory over Army. Especially in a game where Black Knights head coach Jeff Monken pointed out the obvious—these two teams don’t really belong on the same field. But as the university puts to rest (temporarily) their annual barnstorm, a win over Army on Veterans Day weekend reminds everybody—on a week where sports certainly took a backseat—that games against the service academies have a different importance as well.

“We play these games for a reason,” Kelly said after the game. “Navy and Army are tough teams to play. But when you’re done playing the game, there’s just a natural respect for how they do their business. In the classroom, out of the classroom, their preparation, their sacrifice. And then to go on the football field and compete against them and share in signing the alma mater together, it makes it a special event.”

A fourth win at least guarantees that this won’t be a historically terrible season. And getting out of the game healthy ensures that Notre Dame will be ready next week to battle a Virginia Tech team that just saw how difficult it is to stop the option themselves.

The win does little to advance any cause—big or little, macro or micro. But it does allow a young team the chance to build confidence against the option for next year and go into Senior Day with some positive momentum.

You can only win one game a Saturday. And in a season where the Irish have found new and depressing ways to lose them, a win is a win is a win. And with the triple option behind them, Onwualu said it best postgame to Kathryn Tappen.

“We’re going to have to get back to playing normal football.”

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

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