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Will Polian’s return reinvigorate Irish special teams?

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Much has rightfully been made of Notre Dame’s new coordinators Chip Long and Mike Elko, on the offensive and defensive sides, respectively. For that matter, Irish coach Brian Kelly spent a good portion of his press conference previewing spring practice instead raving about new director of strength and conditioning Matt Balis.

Nonetheless, one should not—and Kelly has not—overlook new special teams coordinator Brian Polian. Or should that be former-and-new special teams coordinator? Past-and-present special teams coordinator? No matter the phrasing, it is indeed the same Brian Polian who lead the Irish special teams under Charlie Weis from 2005 to 2009.

“In terms of special teams, that was a position that I thought was important to immediately address and upgrade,” Kelly said when introducing his new hires at the end of January. “We were able to hit a home run here with Brian Polian…

“He’ll be charged with developing our entire special teams, and we think that we’re going to be able to provide an incredible opportunity for all those that are going to be playing under his guidance.”

When it comes to special teams coaches, nearly the entire roster usually falls under their guidance. With the possible exception of the starting quarterback, there is a possible role for every player somewhere in the mix of kickoff coverage, punt coverage, field goal block, etc. This is the very reason special teams coaches are often named interim head coaches when necessary, rather than the seemingly more obvious choices of offensive or defensive coordinators. Exhibit A: The Denver Broncos and Joe DeCamillis in week six of this past season.

How important was the hiring of Polian in Kelly’s eyes? As much as Notre Dame may be relying on junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to lead a young offense this fall, Kelly said he would have chosen to hire a special teams coach rather than Tommy Rees as quarterbacks coach. This hypothetical warranted asking as Rees’s hiring only came about due to the NCAA’s presumed approval of a 10th assistant coach, be it for the 2017 or 2018 season.

“It was the first decision that I made coming out of the gates, if you will,” Kelly said. “I wanted to get Brian on, and I wanted special teams to be addressed immediately.”

Taking a look at Polian’s most-recent stint as Nevada’s head coach from 2013 to 2016, Notre Dame could very well expect to see special teams improvement in the coming season(s). Compared to the Irish averages over the same four-year stretch, Polian’s Wolfpack gained 1.6 yards more per punt return and stopped opposing returns 2.12 yards shorter on kickoff returns and 0.75 yards shorter on punt returns.

Notre Dame gained 1.39 more yards per kickoff return, aided by junior C.J. Sanders’ three touchdowns, including two in 2016. Nevada returned one kickoff for a score in the four-year stretch.

Before listing off all those individual statistics for whatever little more they may illustrate, a couple notes on why only those four years and figures are considered:

— Before the 2012 season, the NCAA moved kickoffs up to the 35-yard line, from the 30, and kickoff touchbacks to the 25-yard line, from the 20. Thus, looking at statistics from Polian’s original Notre Dame stretch would be distorted.
— Actual returns theoretically depict coverage on the defensive side and aggressiveness on the offensive side. Kickoff or punt distance may not only be influenced by one particular player, but also by field position itself. Was the punter trying to pin the opposition inside the five-yard line, even though booting from only the near 40? Was the kicker trying to keep the ball away from a dangerous returner and thus drilling line drives out of the end zone?

2016 Nevada: 28 kickoff returns for 571 yards for an average of 20.39 yards per return; 33 kickoffs covered for 627 yards for an average of 19.0 yards allowed per return; nine punt returns for 101 yards and an average of 11.2 yards per return; 13 punts covered for 127 yards and 9.77 yards allowed per return.
2015 Nevada: 31 kickoff returns for 752 yards and a touchdown for an average of 24.26 yards per return; 36 kickoffs covered for 903 yards for an average of 25.08 yards allowed per return; 12 punt returns for 152 yards and an average of 12.67 yards per return; 16 punts covered for 199 yards and 12.44 yards allowed per return.
2014 Nevada: 18 kickoff returns for 389 yards for an average of 21.61 yards per return; 46 kickoffs covered for 918 yards for an average of 19.96 yards allowed per return; 18 punt returns for 163 yards and an average of 9.06 yards per return; 25 punts covered for 195 yards and 7.80 yards allowed per return.
2013 Nevada: 37 kickoff returns for 662 yards for an average of 17.89 yards per return; 43 kickoffs covered for 886 yards for an average of 20.60 yards allowed per return; 16 punt returns for 124 yards and an average of 7.75 yards per return; 24 punts covered for 233 yards and 9.71 yards allowed per return.
Four-year averages: 20.82 yards per kickoff return; 21.10 yards per kickoff covered; 9.82 yards per punt return; 9.67 yards per punt covered.

2016 Notre Dame: 38 kickoff returns for 877 yards and two touchdowns for an average of 23.08 yards per return; 42 kickoffs covered for 935 yards and two touchdowns for an average of 22.26 yards allowed per return; 21 punt returns for 191 yards and an average of 9.10 yards per return; 21 punts covered for 316 yards and two touchdowns and 15.05 yards allowed per return.
2015 Notre Dame: 38 kickoff returns for 825 yards and a touchdown for an average of 21.71 yards per return; 58 kickoffs covered for 1,283 yards for an average of 22.12 yards allowed per return; 27 punt returns for 215 yards and two touchdowns and an average of 7.96 yards per return; 22 punts covered for 194 yards and 8.82 yards allowed per return. (Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story included an inaccurate calculation for the average yards allowed per return. 8.82 is the correct figure.
2014 Notre Dame: 45 kickoff returns for 921 yards for an average of 20.47 yards per return; 26 kickoffs covered for 609 yards and a touchdown for an average of 23.42 yards allowed per return; 23 punt returns for 195 yards and an average of 8.48 yards per return; nine punts covered for 48 yards and 5.33 yards allowed per return.
2013 Notre Dame: 42 kickoff returns for 998 yards for an average of 23.76 yards per return; 40 kickoffs covered for 1,027 yards for an average of 25.68 yards allowed per return; 15 punts returned for 106 yards and an average of 7.07 yards per return; 17 punts covered for 161 yards and 9.47 yards per return.
Four-year averages: 22.21 yards per kickoff return; 23.22 yards per kickoff covered; 8.22 yards per punt return; 10.42 yards per punt covered.

“Inside the Irish” March Madness Pool
Brackets lock when games tip Thursday at 12:15 ET with Notre Dame taking on Princeton. Enter your picks prior to that if you feel like challenging for bragging rights. Until then, allow blissful ignorance to convince you to have faith in the nearly impossible. For these three-plus days, each of us can believe we—or at least our brackets—are special.

Notre Dame vs. Navy: Who, what, when, where, weather, why and by how much

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WHO? No. 8 Notre Dame (8-2) vs. Navy (6-3).

WHAT? It is a storied series, if not necessarily a rivalry. Partly due to that, partly as an homage to the original “House That Rockne Built” and partly because otherwise there would be no alternate uniform this season, the Irish will be wearing “Rockne Heritage” uniforms.

WHEN? 3:41 p.m. ET. Considering Notre Dame will recognize 26 seniors before kickoff, tuning in a bit early would include a few of those moments. The last half dozen are likely to be the six senior captains. In order: former walk-on receiver Austin Webster, linebacker Greer Martini, linebacker Nyles Morgan, left guard Quenton Nelson, linebacker Drue Tranquill and fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.

WHERE? For the seventh and final time this season, Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.

NBC has the broadcast, which means an online stream is available at: http://ndstream.nbcsports.com/

For those on the move, take a look at the NBC Sports app. If abroad, enjoy NBC Sports Gold.

WEATHER? It’s mid-November in northwestern Indiana. An unpleasant outdoor experience is something of a given. This weekend is no different. Precipitation is all-but guaranteed, the only question is if it will be rain or snow, with temperatures reaching as high as 50 degrees before falling just below freezing.

WHY? By now, most are familiar with the Navy’s role in keeping Notre Dame’s doors open during World War II. That bit is not legend. It is very well-established fact. That is also the company line as to why this series continues on with never a thought of a break.

On a more philosophical level, they play this game because strange things happen in football and taking the time to reach a result is often worthwhile. If not, the world would be robbed of this Allen Rossum memory from 1997.

BY HOW MUCH? A spread on this game was only intermittently available this week, due to questions about who Navy will start at quarterback. That should hardly matter. To use Irish coach Brian Kelly’s phrase, the Midshipmen triple-option offense is “plug-and-play” at quarterback. Kelly meant it as quite the compliment to Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo.

When available, the line has consistently favored Notre Dame by 17.5 with a combined points total over/under of 59.5, making for a theoretical 38-21 conclusion.

Using that as a baseline, let’s expect the Irish defense to be motivated to have a good showing for the first time in three weeks.

Notre Dame 38, Navy 14. (7-3 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:

Monday’s Leftovers: A need to execute and a need for continued defensive line improvement

Question for the Week (rather, for the Year): On Notre Dame, pride and progress

Notre Dame’s bowl likelihoods and opponents round-up

And In that Corner … The Navy Midshipmen with that pesky triple-option

Things To Learn: Will Notre Dame, and Wimbush, rebound?

Friday at 4: To the seniors, the leaders

Friday at 4 (Oct. 27): If/when Notre Dame loses, shed the disappointment

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE MIAMI GAME:
Notre Dame’s Playoff hopes drowned by Hurricanes

Things We Learned: Without a passing game, Notre Dame is not *there* yet

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Atmosphere, crowd & turnovers doomed Irish from outset

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
The Observer profiles all 26 Notre Dame seniors

After brief benching in Miami beatdown, Brandon Wimbush regroups with Navy on deck

For Durham Smythe, patience finally pays

Leaving a legacy: Mike McGlinchey cements place as leader for Notre Dame

All-American mentality: Quenton Nelson instills high standard as Irish leader

Always working: Drue Tranquill focuses on growth in all aspects of life

Friday at 4: To the seniors, the leaders

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Of all the things Notre Dame and Irish coach Brian Kelly changed this past offseason, one difference between that 4-8 disappointment and this season’s surprising success had little to do with those program renovations.

Kelly brought in three new coordinators and a new strength coach, he engaged with his team more often, he developed a more easy-going persona. All those changes played large roles in making Notre Dame a Playoff contender into November this season, but one alteration mattered more. It made the offseason workouts more effective, it made the locker room more intertwined, and it created more on-field accountability.

The seniors became leaders.

In the preseason, Kelly shouldered some of the fault for the 2016 Irish lacking tone-setting leadership. That ownership fit into the aforementioned attitude shift from the head coach.

“I realized that we had some issues going into the season,” he said before preseason practice. “Clearly, we had some off-the-field issues leading into the season. We had some things that I had done a poor job in developing our leadership and the message was not clear within the program.”

Among those off-the-field issues would be the arrests of seniors Max Redfield and Devin Butler, both expected to be veteran presences in the Notre Dame secondary. As a whole, the 2016 senior class was lacking in bar-raising leaders. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones has more personality than can be succinctly described, but he was not necessarily a presence to be followed. Running back Tarean Folston’s knee injury knocked him down the depth chart, through no fault of his own, cutting into any credibility he may have had in front of the locker room. The same could be said for quarterback Malik Zaire.

Linebacker James Onwualu and defensive lineman Isaac Rochell could do only so much, both soft-spoken by nature.

This leadership void was not the sole reason the Irish fell to 4-8, but it was a big reason why 1-3 became 3-6 and why 3-6 became 4-8.

The likes of fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey, senior left guard Quenton Nelson and senior linebacker Drue Tranquill made sure that would not be the case again. They are just the tip of the leadership iceberg in the current locker room, and they set the stage for something special in years to come. Whether that act is realized or not, this senior class deserves credit for returning it to rational conversations.

“Whether it’s this year or not, the goal is still to win a national championship,” McGlinchey said Wednesday. “If I can do my part and if it’s not this year, going to next year and years to come, if I can try and help out that process and that cause, then I’ll feel pretty good about that as well.”

McGlinchey and Nelson have been the vocal leaders this season, though with very different approaches when speaking, one measured and thoughtful; the other blunt and to the point.

Tranquill has been the definition of leading by example, overcoming two season-ending knee surgeries to now entertain the possibility of heading to the NFL with college eligibility remaining.

It took Greer Martini all of two weeks to go from tearing his meniscus to returning to the field to lead Notre Dame past North Carolina State. Even the week between, a victory over USC, saw Martini dress and lead the sideline celebrations. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini have played through injuries for much of the year, eliminating any excuse anyone else might lean on.

Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe returned for one more go-around after being largely forgotten a year ago, his perseverance creating a needed role on this year’s offense. The same can be said for senior tight end Nic Weishar.

Each one of these, along with a number of others, helped right Kelly’s ship. As much credit as the head coach deserves for this season, the seniors earned an equal share.

“I think the legacy of the senior class was to get Notre Dame on the right track again,” Martini said. “Obviously after a 4-8 season, it was our goal to bring back the prestige to Notre Dame … so even if it’s not College Football Playoffs this year, continuing on to next year’s and creating a culture at Notre Dame that’s going to last.”

It is far too soon to tell if that culture will carry forward into 2018, but before that could even be considered, it needed to be reestablished in the first place.

McGlinchey and Nelson deserve credit for that, along with center Sam Mustipher and right guard Alex Bars.

Tranquill, Morgan and Martini revitalized a lackluster defense, as did cornerback Nick Watkins and defensive ends Andrew Trumbetti and Jay Hayes.

Smythe and Weishar led a young group of offensive skill position players. Austin Webster earned a scholarship and a captaincy by shepherding the walk-ons and raising the bar of expectations for the entire team.

These seniors fixed an adrift program as much as, if not more than, anyone else did.


The first mentions above of the 13 individual seniors named all included hyperlinks to profiles published by the Notre Dame independent student newspaper, The Observer. Every year, The Observer puts together a special section featuring each and every senior — 26 this year, including fifth-years, walk-ons and transfers. It is a Herculean undertaking for such a small staff.

Kudos to Editor-in-Chief Ben Padanilam and Sports Editor Elizabeth Greason for keeping that tradition going, keeping it going with quality, and for filling my Friday afternoon with more worthwhile reading than usual.

All 26 profiles can be found here.

Things To Learn: Will Notre Dame, and Wimbush, rebound?

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When Navy and Notre Dame meet, many of the usual barometers of success go by the wayside. No, not because it is such a heated rivalry. Rather, playing the triple-option is a unique challenge for the defense, one otherwise not seen (with the exceptions of the occasional meeting with Army or Georgia Tech), and the Midshipmen’s ball control limits the Irish offense’s chances, minimizing the effect of any talent advantage there.

Simply enough, little of what is learned is applicable so much as a week later.

But one thing this weekend will be quite clear: Will Notre Dame play with the pride necessary to close the season 10-2 just a week after a humiliating loss dashed any national championship hopes?

If the Irish are not whole-heartedly engaged this weekend, if they do not absolutely want to play, Navy will expose that and take advantage of it.

“You can stay focused with Navy for 10 plays, 12 plays, and then if you don’t stay focused they get you with a big play,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “They’re so efficient in what they do.

“The good thing is we’ve been talking about how important our traits are and they really have to be applied this particular week against this team.”

The loss at Miami was ugly in all facets and undoubtedly a difficult humbling for the Irish to swallow. If that still lingers in their minds, it will show in a sluggish start against the Midshipmen. If it has been put in the past and all focus is on finishing this season strongly in a way not seen since 2012, then even the mind-numbing effectiveness of the triple-option should not phase Notre Dame.

How will defensive coordinator Mike Elko handle Navy’s triple-option?

Before Kelly hired Elko away from Wake Forest, he made sure Elko had plans for the option.

“That was something we vetted out in the interviewing process,” Kelly said Tuesday. “[We’re] very comfortable with what we’ll be doing. This isn’t a defensive coordinator that’s coming in inexperienced in terms of stopping the option.”

Indeed, Elko faced Army each of the last three seasons while with the Demon Deacons. Navy may run the triple-option with even more precision than the Knights do, but the tenets are very similar. Aside from his first year there, Elko’s Wake Forest defenses fared pretty well against Army.

In 2014, the Knights ran for 341 yards and two touchdowns on 59 carries, a 5.78 yards per rush average, exceeding their season average of 296.5 yards per game.

In 2015, the Deacons gave up only 186 yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries, a 3.44 yards per rush average, keeping Army well below its season average of 244.2 yards per game.

In 2016, the Knights gained 238 yards on 64 carries, scoring twice and averaging 3.72 yards per rush. They averaged 328.7 yards per game last season.

How will Brandon Wimbush respond to the first genuine adversity of his career?

If Notre Dame’s offense is to return to potency, it will begin with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Sure, the Irish lost to Georgia in week two and the junior quarterback struggled, but that was in his second career start against a known top-flight defense. More may have been wanted from Wimbush then, but little more was genuinely expected Sept. 9.

By mid-November, that is not the case anymore, and his showing against the Hurricanes played a large part in the rout. After all, Kelly benched Wimbush to give him a chance to refocus. Wimbush handled that moment well, but it was still a moment of strife.

“It was tough as a competitor to have someone take your spot,” he said this week. “But I knew it was for the greater good and for the team’s benefit, and I realized that pretty quickly and I went out there and tried to help [sophomore backup quarterback Ian Book] as best as I could because I wanted to win the game just as much as anybody else wanted to win and I wasn’t executing.”

Much like a basketball player needing to hit a few lay-ups to break out of a cold-shooting slump, Wimbush can get back to executing by converting against the Midshipmen.

Which senior will get the loudest ovation?

Notre Dame will honor 26 seniors this weekend before the opening kickoff (3:30 p.m. ET; NBC), and if wanting to learn about each and every one of them, turn to The Observer’s profiles of all 26.

Which senior earns the crowd’s recognition is an unscientific survey and bears no effect on anything, but it is a curious question because there does not seem to be an obvious answer this year. A guess would be either fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey for being both a star on the field and a public face off it, senior left guard Quenton Nelson for being arguably the best player on the team or senior linebacker Drue Tranquill for overcoming two season-ending knee injuries to lead the defense this season.

Then again, there is a good chance Tranquill returns next year — though he says he has not made that decision yet — so perhaps the best bet would be McGlinchey or Nelson. (Yes, Nelson can return in 2018, as well, but he shouldn’t and almost certainly won’t.)

Is this the day, finally, at last, Montgomery VanGorder throws a pass?

The senior and former walk-on quarterback has no career pass attempts. He would need the Irish to have enough of a lead to get into the game, first of all. Then, maybe a third-and-11 would warrant a pass attempt without showing poor sportsmanship. Even to honor VanGorder, Kelly will not risk showing up the Academy.

VanGorder has earned some version of recognition. Most people would have left when their father was fired midseason. Montgomery not only stayed, but he has also remained one of the most beloved players within Notre Dame’s locker room.

And In That Corner … The Navy Midshipmen with that pesky triple-option

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If Notre Dame ends its season with two wins, a headline-grabbing bowl berth will be assured and the Irish will have rebounded quite nicely from a 4-8 campaign only a year ago. If, however, Notre Dame loses this weekend, the talk of the issues that led to that dismal season will abound anew.

First up in the concluding fortnight is Navy. For some intel on the Midshipmen, let’s chat with Ava Wallace of The Washington Post.

At 6-3, the Midshipmen are already bowl eligible, but do not have a genuine chance at the American Athletic Conference title game. That makes the focus rather narrow this week, simply on beating Notre Dame. For so long, this series was decisively one-sided. Obviously that has shifted in the last decade. Does that diminish Navy’s reaction to getting the win last year at all? How much does that carry over to this point?

Ken Niumatalolo has seen all sides of the Notre Dame-Navy series, being on the sideline for all four Midshipmen wins in the last 52 years.

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo actually addressed this in practice this week. He mentioned Navy’s four wins against Notre Dame since 2007, but one thing that’s pretty deeply ingrained in the team culture under Niumatalolo is humility. The Midshipmen know they are oftentimes not as big, strong or fast as their opponents that can recruit without the restrictions that come with being a service academy. A win over a program as elite as Notre Dame is always a big deal for these guys, and even if his players are used to a more even series with the Irish, Niumatalolo was around when Navy was losing year after year. He makes sure his guys realize how meaningful a win over Notre Dame is. (Niumatalolo was an assistant at Navy from 1995-1998 and 2002-2007, at which point he became head coach when Paul Johnson headed to Georgia Tech, partly thanks to finally beating Notre Dame in 2007.)

It has been an up-then-down season for Navy, opening 5-0 before losing three straight. What was the downfall during that stretch? I would blindly chalk it up to the competition, but Memphis only squeezed by 30-27 and Irish fans know Temple is not what it used to be.

Part of the reason for Navy’s slide was teams started to figure out junior quarterback Zach Abey’s tendencies. He stays in the middle and doesn’t execute on the perimeter as much as, say, sophomore Malcolm Perry did against Southern Methodist. Once teams figured out how to slow Abey, defenses had an easier go of it. (Temple held them to a season-low 136 yards rushing.) Niumatalolo also said speed was a problem for his team during those losses, as in, the defense wasn’t reacting quickly enough.

To my understanding, any one of three quarterbacks could get the start this week, Abey, Perry and junior Garret Lewis. Who do you think will start, and what differences do each of them bring to the offense?

Niumatalolo said it’s likely Perry, who sprained his ankle last weekend against Southern Methodist, won’t be healthy in time for the Notre Dame game. Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper is left to decide between Abey and his backup Lewis, who has been used strictly for cleanup duty so far this season. Niumatalolo said Navy might not reveal its starter until kickoff.

If his non-throwing shoulder is healthy enough to play, Navy junior quarterback Zach Abey will give Notre Dame’s defense all it can handle. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Though players and coaches call Perry the team’s best athlete, Abey is the Midshipmen’s leading rusher, averaging 150.2 yards per game. He hurt his left, non-throwing shoulder earlier in the year and is still a little beat up, which is why he didn’t play at all against SMU. But Niumatalolo praises Abey for his toughness above all else — he was an accomplished rugby player in high school in Baltimore — and the junior can execute Navy’s triple-option offense, whereas Niumatalolo calls Lewis a spread quarterback at heart. I wouldn’t be surprised if Abey gets the start against Notre Dame — the Mids need all the toughness they can get.

Last year Notre Dame got the ball a total of six possessions against the Midshipmen. How much of an anomaly is that when going against Navy? Obviously, the Irish hope to have the ball a bit more often this weekend.

Six possessions is low even for Navy’s defense, but because they run the triple-option, the Mids tend to out-possess their opponents regularly. This season, they’ve had the ball for an average of 35:48 each game, compared to their opponents’ 25:12.  Niumtatlolo is conscious the Irish are running the ball more this year, so that may skew in Notre Dame’s favor against a tired Navy defense.

As it seems is often (always??) the case, opposing teams do not struggle to put up points against the Midshipmen, averaging 30.3 points per game. They just can’t stop Navy’s triple-option attack. Looking at the first aspect of that, how much will Niumatalolo focus on simply keeping the ball out of Notre Dame’s hands compared to actually stopping the Irish outright?

Niumatalolo would certainly say he’ll try to do both, but you’re completely right — his teams go as the offense goes. Part of why he started Perry against Southern Methodist was because the team needed a spark on offense. Correcting the defense wasn’t less of his focus, per say, but in my opinion that move showed what Niumatalolo values most. If his team isn’t running the ball well, there aren’t many teams Navy can beat. I think the Temple game showed that.

The spread is currently 18 points. As much as a score prediction, how competitive do you expect Saturday afternoon to be?

Notre Dame 38, Navy 28.