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Things to learn: Notre Dame’s defense filled with questions as camp begins

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In some respects, the wait is over. New football activity is here. In many other respects, competitive football is not yet imminent — Sept. 2 remains 33 days away.

The Irish will need that month to answer a number of questions. There are the obvious unknowns that will only be clarified with genuine games. Will junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush be ready to lead both in word and in action as the unquestioned starter? Will any freshmen emerge as more than special teams contributors from the outset? Will multiple bolts of lightning reduce the new video board to ash the moment it is turned on in Notre Dame Stadium with thousands watching?

Then there are the position battles, position vacuums and general ponderings which might find answers in practice. When Irish coach Brian Kelly meets with the media today (Monday) at noon ET, he will not have any of these questions solved, but he will likely allude to a few of them.

How well will the defense take to defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s aggressive scheme?
Admittedly, this will not be adequately answered until it is seen in measurable ways on a Saturday in September, but its groundwork began in the spring and will continue this month.

By now, everyone can cite last year’s pertinent numbers without much difficulty. Part of that ease is due to the symmetry. Notre Dame sacked its opponent a total of 14 times last season and created a total of 14 turnovers (eight interceptions, six fumble recoveries). If the Irish are to have even a mildly-successful 2017, both those numbers will need to increase by more than a small margin.

Kelly indicated those tendencies were taking root back in March and April. If that growth continues, it will likely be most-readily noticed by watching sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes and sophomore cornerback Julian Love.

For that matter, will someone step forward and make an impact at defensive tackle?
Hayes’ task of sacking the quarterback will become much easier if an interior push prevents the quarterback from stepping up in the pocket to evade Hayes’ rush. Junior Jerry Tillery and senior Jonathan Bonner are the presumptive starters at the moment. Tillery has shown the talent necessary to provide the desired effect, but it has been on display inconsistently at best.

If a freshman is to jump into a role anywhere, this may be the position, despite the physicality natural to interior line play at the collegiate level. The class contains three defensive tackles in Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Darnell Ewell. If one or more of them can contribute to a defensive tackle rotation, Elko, Kelly and Hayes would all be grateful.

Who will line up alongside junior Nick Coleman at safety?
After a solid spring, it would be a surprise to see Coleman lose his position as the starter at field safety. Which sophomore, Jalen Elliott or Devin Studstill, will get first crack at boundary safety?

In all of reality, this distinction may not be that vital, but given the lack of experience Notre Dame can enjoy at safety, it would be a relief for Elko to settle on one option and focus on getting that young player ready for September’s bruising schedule.

On the other side of the ball, who will get the nod at right tackle?
Four-fifths of the Irish offensive line is all but carved into stone. Perhaps more importantly, that 80 percent is as experienced as any offensive line in the country. From left to right: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey, senior Quenton Nelson, senior Sam Mustipher, senior Alex Bars and then there is a question mark.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg alternated first-team opportunities throughout most of the spring. Kraemer seemed to have the edge, but by no means was it definitive, and his Blue-Gold Game performance did not do anything to assuage concerns or to dissuade Eichenberg.

Unlike at safety, this decision will matter, as will its timing. Naming a starter and allowing the offensive line to work as a unit for as long as possible will lead to much better cohesion.

With any smoke seemingly dissipated, will sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson reinsert himself into the starting conversation?
Something or other limited Stepherson’s action in spring practice. That seems to have passed, but in that meantime, offensive coordinator Chip Long discovered how imposing the size of Notre Dame’s receivers could be.

To take it to the extreme, Wimbush could drop back against Temple in a two tight end set and look to a quintet of targets with the shortest being junior Miles Boykin at 6-foot-4. The slightest would be junior Equanimeous St. Brown at a listed 204 pounds. (Look for that figure, along with most weights, to be updated and raised in the fall’s depth chart.) At 6-foot and 180 pounds, Stepherson would hardly be a blip on that radar amid those two, sophomore Chase Claypool, junior tight end Alizé Mack and fifth-year senior tight end Durham Smythe. Those five average 6-foot-4 ¾ and 231 pounds.

Stepherson, though, does offer breakaway speed and exhibited big-play potential in his debut campaign. If anyone is going to break through that size to be a featured target to start the season, he seems the most likely candidate.

Questions for the week: If without St. Brown, who will Notre Dame turn to?

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Equanimeous St. Brown may not have matched his breakout sophomore season of a year ago, but his junior year has been nothing to scoff at. Despite being held without a catch in Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory over Navy on Saturday, primarily due to injury, the junior receiver stands second in all Irish receiving categories.

If St. Brown is not cleared from the concussion protocol by the end of the week, he will be missed at Stanford (8 p.m. ET; ABC).

How will Notre Dame adjust without its most consistent receiver?

St. Brown has 26 catches for 357 yards and three touchdowns this season. Sophomore Chase Claypool exceeds the first two figures and sophomore Kevin Stepherson caught his third and fourth touchdowns against the Midshipmen. Those two are the obvious candidates to replace St. Brown’s production.

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson led all Irish receivers with five catches for 103 yards and two touchdowns during Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory over Navy on Saturday. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

That applies to Stepherson more than Claypool, despite the greater physical disparity from St. Brown. Simply enough, Stepherson’s continued increase in prevalence in the Irish passing game would likely surpass a healthy St. Brown this weekend.

The other possibility is junior Miles Boykin. In St. Brown’s absence this past weekend, Boykin caught two passes for 33 yards. His physicality and skillset most mirrors St. Brown’s, and plugging him into any three-receiver sets would allow Stepherson and Claypool to stick to the roles they regularly rehearse.

Will Notre Dame slow Stanford star running back Bryce Love? Rather, will the Irish need to?

Continued ankle and lower leg injuries have hampered Love for much of the season now. They kept him on the sidelines when the Cardinal barely slipped past Oregon State a few weeks ago, and they limited his fourth quarter this past weekend during Stanford’s 17-14 victory against Cal. The junior finished with 101 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Backup Cameron Scarlett added 61 yards on 14 carries.

Injuries have been about the only thing capable of consistently stopping Stanford running back Bryce Love this season. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

In the fourth quarter, Love took four carries for 11 total yards. For a running threat rarely stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, it was startling to see him take one of those carries to the line and no further while another gained just one yard.

Thus, there seems to be some logic to Stanford keeping Love sidelined once more. If Washington beats Washington State on Saturday — played concurrently on FOX with the game at hand — then the Cardinal heads to the Pac-12 title game. As much as Stanford undoubtedly wants to beat Notre Dame, there are many more rewards available for winning the conference, such as a nice New Year’s holiday spent in Phoenix, Ariz., instead of a Christmas week spent at home preparing for the Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif.

Will there be any movement within the College Football Playoff poll?

When it comes to tonight’s poll, not much, if any, of note. Few games registered on the national radar last week, and none resulted in top-10 upsets.

One development affects it looking forward, though. West Virginia quarterback Will Grier underwent finger surgery Sunday and will not lead the Mountaineers against Oklahoma as a result (3:45 p.m. ET; ESPN). If West Virginia ever stood a chance at the upset — and greatly helping any Irish dreams of still reaching the Playoff — it was likely going to need an otherworldly performance from Grier.

With a win this weekend, the Sooners would all but assure themselves priority over Notre Dame, even if Oklahoma loses to TCU in the Big 12 championship.

Will Miami finish the regular season undefeated?
Similarly, a win this weekend should lock the Hurricanes ahead of the Irish no matter next week’s results. Miami heads to Pittsburgh (12 p.m. ET on Friday; ABC), but that should not be seen as the sure thing instinct might imply it is. A mere 54 weeks ago, a middling Panthers team upset the No. 3 team in the country, stopping Clemson’s pursuit of a perfect slate.

Can Georgia survive Georgia Tech’s option?
Again, a Bulldogs win (12 p.m. ET, ABC) should secure them a nice spot in any chaos-filled future pecking order. However, that will not be an easy task. Paul Johnson will be sure of that.

Can North Carolina State hit the over?
This may not be as consequential, but before the season, this space predicted the Wolfpack would exceed 7.5 wins this regular season, and a win over North Carolina (3:30 p.m. ET; ESPNU) is needed for that cause.

Lastly, remember folks, you won’t nod off late Thursday afternoon because turkey has an excess of tryptophan. Chicken actually has more per ounce. Rather, you simply ate too much of the fowl.

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame on the precipice of a rare three-year stretch

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Thanks to its win Saturday over Navy, Notre Dame will have two chances to reach double digit victories this season. As Irish coach Brian Kelly pointed out after the 24-17 victory, reaching that mark for the second time in three years is not a common occurrence at Notre Dame. The last time the Irish achieved such success was at the peak of Lou Holtz’s career, never falling below 10 wins from 1988 to 1993.

“There’s a lot to play for, for these guys,” Kelly said. “[The seniors] have done an incredible job of leading us back to where we should be.”

If — and that two-letter word still looms large over this possibility — Notre Dame reaches 10 wins this season, it will actually be only the third time in program history to meet that mark twice in three seasons. Even though the Irish have played at least 11 games every season since 1969, only Holtz’s stretch and the 1973-74 seasons under Ara Parseghian qualify. (One exception: Notre Dame declined a bowl game in 1971 after finishing 8-2.)

While the 4-8 debacle in 2016 mitigates some of the luster of this distinction, realizing how infrequent such consistency is also underscores some of the outlier nature of last season.

Other coaches make inexplicable mistakes, too.

When the Midshipmen needed to gain five yards on their final drive, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo resorted to a halfback pass. To that point, his offense had converted four of five fourth-down attempts, falling barely a yard short on a fourth-and-five try on its first drive, stopped by Irish senior linebacker Greer Martini, naturally.

Since then, three consecutive conversions, including a 21-yard pass from quarterback Zach Abey. Yet, Niumatalolo opted for the trick play. It would have worked, too if Notre Dame senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti had not set the edge, recognized the play and quickly closed on running back Darryl Bonner, forcing the flutter of a pass attempt.

“If we would have gotten the ball off, he was open,” Niumatalolo said. “We didn’t block. We missed the block on the edge. If we get the block on the edge, we had a shot.”

Missed block or not, a triple-option team should not revert to a halfback pass when in a do-or-die situation. Ride with the horse that brought you. Win or lose with your fastball. Insert a third cliché here.

They are clichés for a reason.

Keven Stepherson points to the name on the back of the jersey.

Watching a replay of sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson’s first touchdown Saturday, a 30-yarder to tie the game at 17, one cannot help but notice he exuberantly points to the nameplate above his number.

In this instance, that was not a selfish or self-promotional gesture. The “Rockne Heritage” uniforms all had ROCKNE across the back.

“He’s had many chances to fold under the scrutiny that he’s been under,” Kelly said of Stepherson. “But he’s persevered and Notre Dame’s been great for him.”

Now, about traveling to Stanford …

The last time Notre Dame won at Palo Alto was a full decade ago, prevailing 21-14 in 2007.

With a loss to the Irish but perhaps a bowl win, the Cardinal should finish the season in the top 25. The last time Notre Dame went on the road and beat such a team was five full years ago, topping Oklahoma.

That can be a somewhat misleading fact, though. Those opportunities are not very common, partly because the Irish play only five true road games a season and partly because the opponent needs to be good enough to stay in the rankings despite a loss, an inherently detrimental result when it comes to rankings. Since Norman, Notre Dame has played only seven such games, including this year’s loss at Miami. (That does not include winning at Michigan State this year, as it is no sure thing the Spartans will finish the season ranked, whereas such can be readily presumed with the Hurricanes.)

Whether he returns for his senior season or not, Josh Adams has made his mark on Notre Dame’s record books. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Josh Adams now has more than 3,000 career rushing yards.

The numbers can speak for themselves. With 106 yards on 18 carries this weekend, the junior running back now has 3,105 career yards, good for No. 5 all-time at Notre Dame. Darius Walker (2004-06) sits 144 yards ahead of him.

Adams has 1,337 yards this season, exactly 100 fewer than the all-time Irish mark set by Vagas Ferguson in 1979.

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Defensive counter to Navy’s option helps Irish put Miami in past

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Getting a team to heed the details necessary to counteract Navy’s triple-option attack is challenging enough. Getting Notre Dame to do it on the heels of its letdown at Miami a week ago made it even more difficult.

“The bigger shift this week was mentally get [the team] away from the Miami game to the Navy game,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “That was a bigger challenge this week [than preparing for the option], quite frankly.”

Finding that focus allowed Notre Dame to handle the Midshipmen 24-17 on Saturday, despite hardly possessing the ball, including only 6:24 of meaningful time in the second half. It may have been a victory by only seven points, but it was a return to the level of execution the Irish displayed all season long before heading to south Florida.

“If there’s one game we’d like to have back, and I take the responsibility for the preparation of our team, for Miami,” Kelly said. “Wake Forest proved to be a pretty good opponent. We were up 41-16 in that game and maybe lost a little bit of concentration.

“Other than the Miami game, which was our one hiccup this year, I’m pretty pleased with our football team.”

To slow the triple-option, Kelly and defensive coordinator Mike Elko relied on a variety of looks from their defensive front, forcing Navy to make the adjustments the Midshipmen usually impose upon their opponents. In doing so, Notre Dame narrowed Navy’s offense from the triple-option to largely leaning on a quarterback sweep. Junior Zach Abey finished with 87 yards on 29 carries, not the efficiency the Midshipmen need for success.

“Our plan was really good about changing things up with our fronts and who had pitch, who had QB, and that made it difficult for them,” Kelly said. “… It really just became how the fullback was loading on our cornerback.”

That cornerback was often sophomore Troy Pride, usually a reserve. In order to better utilize sophomore cornerback Julian Love’s physicality, Kelly moved Love to safety and inserted Pride into the starting lineup. Along with a crucial fourth-quarter interception halting a Navy drive deep in Irish territory, Pride made six tackles.

“Troy Pride had to play physical for us,” Kelly said. “Here’s a guy who was a wide cornerback [back-] pedaling most of his time here. Now he had to go mix it up. He played real well, real physical.”

Though he finished with 14 tackles, Love will remain at cornerback this season, but Kelly acknowledged he very well could be Notre Dame’s best safety.

“If we could clone him, I’d like to do that. … Could he be our best safety? Yes. He’s definitely our best corner. The problem is we can only play him at one of those two positions.”

On receiver injuries
Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown is in the concussion protocol after landing on his head/neck in the first quarter. Sophomore Chase Claypool could have returned to the game Saturday despite a banged up shoulder, but the Irish had found a rotation Kelly felt comfortable with at that point, leaning on sophomore Kevin Stepherson and junior Miles Boykin.

Claypool finished with two catches for 28 yards. Stepherson had five receptions for two scores and 103 yards. Boykin added 33 yards from two snags.

Things We Learned: Notre Dame will do what it takes to develop its passing game

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Notre Dame knows it needs a worthwhile passing game. The debacle at Miami made it clear some semblance of an aerial threat must be feared by the opposing defense. Thus, the Irish set to working on that deficiency in a 24-17 victory over Navy on Saturday.

At halftime, those efforts struck a pessimist as dismal. A cynic found them necessary, and an optimist might have even considered them as having taken a step in the right direction.

Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush reached halftime 4-of-10 for 72 yards. On one hand, he had completed only 40 percent of his passes. By no metric is that good enough. That was the pessimist’s supporting fact.

The cynic looked back a week, remembering when the Hurricanes focused entirely on the Irish rushing game and Wimbush still completed only 10 of 21 passes. The cynic then reaches for a thesaurus and finds synonyms for necessary. Required. Imperative. Vital.

The optimist realized 10 pass attempts gaining 72 yards is an average of 7.2 yards per attempt. That would outdo all but two of Wimbush’s games this season, his 8.65 yards per attempt at Michigan State and his 9.33 yards per attempt against Wake Forest just two weeks ago. Settling anywhere north of seven would be a great step forward for this passing attack.

By the end of the game, the pessimist, cynic and optimist all had to see the same thing: When effective, Wimbush is a bona fide quarterback. Yes, at some point in the future, that initial distinction needs to no longer be part of the equation, but this still qualifies as progress. Yes, that initial distinction is a heftily-meaningful alteration to any phrase, but this establishing itself as fact still marks progress. Wimbush started poorly, but he kept his concentration and finished impressively.

“I thought he settled down into the game,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “What we’re looking for is a guy that will take what’s happened early and kind of reset a little bit, which he did, and refocus. He came back and made some really big plays for us.”

Wimbush completed five of eight second-half passes for 80 yards and two touchdowns, leaning heavily on sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson.

“I think I just started seeing things a little bit more clearly and adjusted to the tempo that Navy was playing at and went from there,” Wimbush said.

Notre Dame relies on its rushing game. There is no doubt the ground attack is the stirrer in this Irish coffee. (Consider that a wit’s attempt at saying, the straw that stirs the drink.) Wimbush throwing 18 times against Navy — not to count the couple other times he dropped back with intentions to pass but pulled the ball down — is not Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long reverting to Kelly’s form of the past, the form of the pass.

Instead, it is the Irish desperately trying to find Wimbush rhythm, if not confidence, in the passing game. As competitive as Navy kept Saturday, this was a week the inefficiency of the educational effort could be afforded.

Notre Dame can, in fact, win a one-possession game.

The last time the Irish did so was against Miami, Oct. 29, 2016. Prior to that, the most-recent close Notre Dame victory came at Boston College, Nov. 21, 2015. Including the victory over the Hurricanes, the Irish had gone 1-9 in the interim.

“For us, it was just a gritty victory,” senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini said. “… I think that’s the next stepping stone for us on to Stanford.”

The nature of Navy’s game plan keeps games close no matter a talent disparity. Finding its way to a tight victory bodes well for Notre Dame, no matter the opponent. In many respects, this remained a mental hurdle needing clearing.

Greer Martini will (not) miss playing against the option.

And he might be the only Irish defender in history to feel that way. In 48 career games to date, the senior captain and linebacker has made 184 tackles, including 15 on Saturday. In six career games against option-specific options, Martini has made 61 tackles. In some respects, Martini made his career excelling against the triple-option, an approach most defenders avoid like a plague.

“It’s just the idea that it’s a lot of run, run downhill, run around,” Martini said. “Just play with a lot of enthusiasm, run sideline-to-sideline.”

Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo has gotten fed up with Martini, apparently confirming with both Kelly and Martini that he had seen his last of the linebacker. Both assured him he had.

“[Niumatalolo has] tried to block him, he can’t block him,” Kelly said. “… [Martini] just has a really good nose for the football, good sense. What you saw today was the physicality and bending back on the fullback. He was physical, played with the top of his pads.

“It was a clinic in terms of the way he played the linebacker position today.”

Martini insists he will not miss seeing the option, but it cannot be denied the effect the opposing attack had on Martini’s career. As a freshman, he made 26 total tackles. Nine came against Navy.

Notre Dame will host the NHL Winter Classic in 2019.

Yet, the Irish will hope to not be in attendance.

NBC and the NHL announced during the game the 2019 Winter Classic will be held at Notre Dame Stadium on Jan. 1, 2019, between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Burins.

“We are very excited to welcome the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins and NHL to Notre Dame Stadium for the 2019 Winter Classic,” Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick said. “I believe it’s only fitting that two of the NHL’s legendary Original Six teams will take the ice for the first hockey game in one of America’s most iconic athletic facilities. Hosting two franchises with so many connections to Notre Dame also provides a unique opportunity to celebrate our hockey legacy.”

On New Year’s Day, a Tuesday next year, the Notre Dame football team will hope to be involved in a major bowl game. Given recent history, it will prefer the Cotton Bowl in Dallas rather than the Orange Bowl in Hard Rock Stadium in Miami.

Mike McGlinchey may be a behemoth of a man with shocking agility for his size, but in at least one respect, he is just like the rest of us.

Wouldn’t you struggle to keep your emotions in check taking the field to the “Rudy” soundtrack in your last home game after a five-year career at Notre Dame? Okay, insist you wouldn’t. What if your mom was waiting for you on the field?