Counting Down the Irish: 2016’s Top Five

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We’ve reached the top of the roster on Brian Kelly’s seventh team. And while it is no match for last season’s star-studded top five, this group has a chance to put together a tremendous season—and all but one of them have a season (or more) of eligibility remaining.

That’s the rub with this football team. As Brian Kelly explained in his introductory remarks heading into training camp, there’s no shortage of talent on this roster, but they’ll need to grow up quickly and prove that they can do the ordinary things right.

While the top of the heap had some consensus, there were still some wildly different evaluations out there. And you can validate any opinion at this point, just because the top three players on this list all have just one year of starting experience.

Young teams can certainly win football games. But they’ll need to come together quickly. As we move beyond prognosticating, it’ll be interesting to see if this roster—and the panel’s selections— plays to our expectation or if they can exceed it.

 

2016 Irish Top 25 Rankings
25. Equanimeous St. Brown (WR, Soph.)
24. Durham Smythe (TE, Sr.
23. Justin Yoon, (K, Soph.)
22. Tyler Newsome (P, Jr.)
21. Daniel Cage (DT, Jr.)
20. Sam Mustipher (C, Jr.)
19. Jerry Tillery (DT, Soph.)
18. Max Redfield (S, Sr.)
17. CJ Sanders (WR, Soph.)
16. Drue Tranquill (S, Jr.)
15. James Onwualu (OLB, Sr.)

14. Alex Bars (RT, Jr.)
13. Alizé Jones (TE, Soph.)
12. Shaun Crawford (DB, Soph.)
11. Nyles Morgan (LB, Jr.)
10. Tarean Folston (RB, Sr.)
9. Jarron Jones (DT, GS)
8. Josh Adams (RB, Soph.)
7. Cole Luke (CB, Sr.)
6. Malik Zaire (QB, Sr.)

 

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 31: Torii Hunter Jr. #16 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass and is tackled by Avery Williams #2 of the Temple Owls on October 31, 2015 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Temple Owls 24-20. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

5. Torii Hunter Jr. (WR, Senior): The only regular returning to the receiving corps, Hunter will be the primary target for Notre Dame’s still-to-be-determined starting quarterback. A smooth athlete with better than advertised speed, Hunter has taken his time developing in the program, with injuries setting him back in two different seasons.

With his baseball career on hold for the time being, Hunter is all about football. And he’ll have every chance to be force-fed the ball this season, with the receiving corps as top heavy as we’ve seen it, especially when it comes to experience.

Hunter isn’t Michael Floyd, Will Fuller or Golden Tate. But he could be senior-season TJ Jones, a versatile playmaker who can bounce around the field and do a little bit of everything. That seems to be the bar we’ve set with Hunter in the top five, mostly based on reputation and a strong spring.

Highest Rank: 3rd. Lowest Rank: 10th.

 

Keenan Reynolds, Isaac Rochell

4. Isaac Rochell (DE, Senior): One of the ironmen of the roster, Rochell led the defensive line in snaps and put together a rock-solid junior season at strong side defensive end. Entering his final year of eligibility, Rochell is healthy and capable of playing just about anywhere, a candidate to move both inside and out.

Rochell has ascended into Sheldon Day’s leadership role, a likely captain as the 2016 squad evolves. If he’s able to turn in Day’s performance wreaking havoc behind the line of scrimmage, the Irish have an intriguing NFL prospect who could have a long football career ahead of him.

A stout run defender who will be difficult to move off the point of attack, Rochell needs to improve as a pass rusher, finding a way to impact the game by getting to the quarterback. If he can add that element to his repertoire, he could have a special season.

Highest Rank: 2nd. Lowest Rank: 11th.

 

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

3. Quenton Nelson (LG, Junior): In just 11 starters, Quenton Nelson has established himself as one of college football’s top guards. A big, strong and long player, Nelson’s got the physical gifts of a tackle and the nasty demeanor of a lineman built for the inside of the trenches.

One of the most powerful run blockers in the country, Nelson will only improve in all facets of the game as he enters his second season in the starting lineup. Lined up next to Mike McGlinchey, the duo might be one of the most physically imposing in all of college football—650 pounds of granite that should protect quarterbacks and power the ground game.

Highest Rank: 2nd. Lowest Rank: 7th.

 

DeShoneKizer

2. DeShone Kizer (QB, Junior): It’s staggering to think that at this time last season, not a single vote was cast for DeShone Kizer. (A sampling of those that received votes: Incoming transfer Avery Sebastian, Nick Watkins, true freshman Justin Yoon and redshirt Jay Hayes.)

What a difference a year makes. Kizer very nearly topped our list, the smallest variance of any player in the eyes of the panel.

Kizer does everything a quarterback should do in a Brian Kelly offense—and has a few other traits that feel like the cherry on top. With the size of a prototype NFL player and the skills of a zone-read runner, Kizer’s offseason was likely spent preparing for a camp competition with Malik Zaire that both players think they’ll win.

At his best, Kizer has the upside of an NFL starter. And with another season under his belt, there’s only room for improvement after seeing and doing things for the very first time in 2015. Two of Notre Dame’s best players are quarterbacks. It’s a tough problem to have, but one every coach would kill for.

Highest Rank: 1st. Lowest Rank: 4th.

 

McGlinchey

1. Mike McGlinchey (LT, Senior): After producing two-straight first round left tackles, the Irish have a third in McGlinchey. While he’s only a second-year starter, McGlinchey came into the preseason viewed as one of college football’s premier talents, understandable when you dig deeper into his performance last season—not to mention just look at him.

McGlinchey was born to be an offensive tackle, and physically he might be the most gifted we’ve seen in recent years. While he’ll be seeing and doing things for the first time, he’s talented enough to use his extraordinary physical gifts to dominate— long arms, quick feet, and great strength, all in a body that could dominate on the basketball court.

Passed the leadership baton from Martin to Martin, McGlinchey is a near lock to be a team captain. And he has a fifth year of eligibility remaining.

Highest Rank: 1st. Lowest Rank: 13th.

 

***

Our 2016 Irish Top 25 panel:
Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish
Bryan Driskell, Blue & Gold
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Nick Ironside, Irish 247
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Eric Murtaugh, 18 Stripes
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
Jude Seymour, Her Loyal Sons
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago
John VannieNDNation
Joshua Vowles, One Foot Down
John Walters, Newsweek 

Path to the Draft: Jaylon Smith

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Part three of our Path to the Draft series. See earlier entries on Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller

 

JAYLON SMITH
No. 34 to the Dallas Cowboys

From the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus, most saw the linebacker’s NFL future clearly. A physically gifted freak athlete who excelled as the exact type of linebacker the NFL covets, Smith’s rare mix of size and speed—not to mention a clean on and off-field reputation—made him the closest thing to a lock we’ve seen at Notre Dame in decades.

So while Smith did all we could’ve ever asked from him—Butkus Award and All-American status on his way to a three-and-out career at Notre Dame—we shouldn’t take for granted the fact that he did exactly that.

Set aside the knee injury that’s hogging all the headlines. That Smith went from being one of the best high school football players in the country to being one of the top players at his position drafted (even with a “career threatening” knee injury) is an extraordinary accomplishment.

At pick No. 34, only Ohio State’s Darron Lee came off the board ahead of Smith as a true linebacker. Considering that a healthy Smith would’ve been in competition to be the first overall pick, that’s probably the best barometer of the player that he’s become under head coach Brian Kelly and two different defensive coordinators.

Do you credit the program for developing Smith? You have to. Especially when you look at the other top-of-the-pile recruits that didn’t do as well after being heralded as high school players.

The 2013 recruiting class is a rare group that saw their Top 10 talents play up to their potential—and even that needs some qualifying. Robert Nkemdiche, Vernon Hargreaves, Laquon Treadwell and Jalen Ramsey all turned into first round picks. Kendall Fuller went in the third round.

From there, it remains to be seen. Auburn’s Carl Lawson needs to put a healthy season together to play up to his reputation. Kenny Bigelow and Max Browne need to kick-start (and turn around) their careers at USC to establish NFL dreams.  Derrick Green has proven to be a washout, leaving Michigan after failing to make an impact and hoping to succeed as a graduate transfer.

The point of that exercise isn’t to cry about Smith’s injury but rather to compliment his development. Especially when the track record of five-star recruits is hardly a smooth path to NFL success.

Now consider some of the challenges Smith faced. He came into the program as a drop linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme. It’s a position where sometimes the best work went uncredited on the stat sheet. But even as a freshman learning a difficult spot on the job, he was one of the defense’s best playmakers.

From there, Smith was asked to transition under Brian VanGorder. A natural outside linebacker, Smith retrained himself, play inside-out in a new scheme that also forced Smith to learn how to play in the trenches, not just as an exceptional athlete in space. Regardless of the assignment or scheme, Smith’s elite traits were always evident.

Named a captain heading into his junior season, Smith was given a leadership position because he was clearly a standout on the field. And that added responsibility only seemed to mature the Fort Wayne native, growing into that leadership role and also turning into a assignment-correct football player who lost some of his free-styling tendencies as a sophomore.

Deficiencies in personnel (and structure) likely limited Smith from doing some of the things that could’ve turned his impressive numbers into something even more game-wrecking. For all the skills many expect Smith to flash in the pass rush game, his value in coverage—especially after Notre Dame’s nickel and dime packages went up in smoke—kept him from chasing down quarterbacks. Also limiting Smith’s productivity? The fact that teams wanted nothing to do with the Irish All-American.

Take this quote from Navy’s Keenan Reynolds:

“He’s the best player I’ve ever played against,” Reynolds told The Sports Junkies (via Irish247). “He had the mental and the physical. I mean, mentally he was on another level. Physically, he was a freak. He was faster than everybody. Stronger than everybody. He was bigger than everybody. He just dominated. We centered our offense away from him when we played them.”

Smith’s knee was protected by a loss of value insurance policy that kicked in after he wasn’t selected in the first round. But Dallas made sure to lock up Smith in the opening minutes of round two, leaning on their team doctor’s look at Smith on the operating table before making the gamble.

All those doomsday reports we heard during the run-up to the draft? Sure, they could end up being true. But more likely? They were NFL reporters being played by teams wanting the chance to gamble on Smith.

Already, the news is trending in the right direction, with Cowboys owner and GM Jerry Jones saying he’ll keep Smith off the I.R. so he could “be back for the playoffs.”

That’s a long way off for a linebacker who is still waiting for his nerve to fully recover and allow him full functionality with his foot. But not many people have succeeded by doubting Jaylon Smith.

So as we continue to see Smith attack rehab in the days and weeks following his life-changing injury, the former Notre Dame linebacker is well on his way back to being the football star we knew he was from the moment we first spotted him.

Notre Dame Football: 2015 awards banquet predictions

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Notre Dame’s football family will unite on Friday night and celebrate the 2015 season with their annual ECHOES Awards, the 95th Notre Dame football awards banquet. With a slew of recruits in South Bend on an unseasonably warm weekend, it’s a big couple of days on campus as the Irish take a brief break in their preparations for Ohio State and look back on the year that was.

Last year, Joe Schmidt was voted team MVP by his teammates, the headliner among the 15 awards given. This year, we’ll take an opportunity to make our predictions for the awards given out—going out on the rare ledge.

Below are my predictions for the annual ECHOES.

 

Scout Team Player of the Year: Offense Rob Regan

Notre Dame’s SWAG team quarterback has already been heralded plenty this season for his work prepping the Irish for both Georgia Tech and Navy. But the true freshman deserves to take home some hardware Friday night after replicating Justin Thomas and Keenan Reynolds all season.

 

Scout Team Player of the Year: Defense Connor Cavalaris

This one is a bit of a hunch, but Cavalaris fits the mold of a guy that deserves some kudos for his work over four seasons. The fifth-year cornerback has played in 30 games in his Notre Dame career, making two tackles against Alabama in the 2012 BCS title game. He’s chipped in two tackles this year but likely carries the load Monday through Friday on the practice field.

 

Newcomer of the Year: Offense — Josh Adams

The record-setting freshman averages 7.3 yards per carry and is second on the team with 757 rushing yards. He’s scored six touchdowns and provided clutch depth behind C.J. Prosise after Notre Dame got a combined three carries out of Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant combined.

 

Newcomer of the Year: Defense — Jerry Tillery

This one seems like a no-brainer to me as well. Tillery went from offensive line prospect to starting defensive tackle, trading starts with Daniel Cage as the Irish defense did battle without Jarron Jones. Tillery’s statistical impact may have been limited to 12 tackles and two TFLs, but he played huge in the trenches as a true freshman.

 

Special Teams Player of the Year — Justin Yoon

This was a toss-up between Yoon and punter Tyler Newsome, but I went with Yoon just because of his ability to step onto the field as a true freshman and deliver a consistent season. Yoon gutted his way through an early-season slump and managed to make 15 of his 17 field goal attempts and 46 of his 48 extra point attempts.

 

Offensive Lineman of the Year — Ronnie Stanley

Stanley looks poised to win this award for the second time in as many seasons. Notre Dame has been spoiled by the play of their left tackles the past six seasons with Stanley filling in amazingly well for Zack Martin.

 

Irish Around the Bend — Matthias Farley

A complete guess on my part, but I just kind of assumed that one of the many hats that Farley wears is that of an active participant in the community. I’m preparing to be wrong here, but this is kind of like those Oscar pools where you’re guessing on the animated shorts. Plus the fifth-year captain just deserves an award for his awesome career and this fits with the many hats that Farley wears.

 

Moose Krause Lineman of the Year — Sheldon Day

Notre Dame’s best defensive lineman was clearly Day, with the senior leading Notre Dame in TFLs and elevating the play of all those around him. I think it’s going to be a big day for the senior captain.

 

Father Lange Iron Cross — Nick Martin

Another hunch, but this feels like a great time to award one of Notre Dame’s toughest guys and a two-time captain. Martin worked his way through another season that presented a nagging ankle injury that could have derailed him. He didn’t let it and played great football at center all season, a position with no established depth behind him. Martin will be missed.

 

Pietrosante Award — Joe Schmidt

I could easily see this going to fellow linebacker Jarrett Grace, but I’ve got him slotted for some different hardware. Schmidt’s senior season wasn’t the MVP campaign that he had in 2014, but he was still at the center of the action, leading the defense and serving as the central nerve center. His physical limitations were often exposed, but he was Notre Dame’s best middle linebacker and a player too valuable to take off the field.

 

Rockne Student-Athlete — Jarrett Grace

Corey Robinson won this last year, otherwise I’d have put him back in this slot. But Grace deserves some type of kudos after an impressive senior season, one that could see him play a lot of football in the Fiesta Bowl, against a team many in his neighborhood grew up cheering for, the Ohio State Buckeyes.

 

Tire Rack Play of the Year — DeShone Kizer to Will Fuller at Virginia

No play meant more to the Irish season that Kizer’s late-game touchdown pass to Fuller. Notre Dame escaped with a win over the Cavaliers, surviving the injury to Malik Zaire. Fuller showed his unbelievable playmaking ability and Kizer displayed the clutch skill-set he utilized so often this year.

 

Offensive Player of the Year — Will Fuller

Notre Dame’s All-American receiver makes too much sense here. One of the most dangerous players in college football, Fuller disappeared a few times this season but still managed to build on his breakout 2014 season, topping his yardage totals even with 20 less catches.

 

Defensive Player of the Year — Jaylon Smith

Another easy selection as Smith led Notre Dame in tackles and served as a dominant force every week. The junior put together back-to-back 100+ tackle seasons for the first time since Manti Te’o.

 

Next Man In Award — DeShone Kizer

Easiest selection of the show (which means I’ll end up being wrong), as Kizer exemplified what Brian Kelly’s mantra is all about, picking up the offense after Malik Zaire went down and putting together an amazing first season.

 

Most Valuable Player — Sheldon Day

While Smith did the most on the stat sheet, the heart of the defense was Sheldon Day, who served as Notre Dame’s only true weapon in the trenches. The two-time captain made the decision to come back to South Bend for his senior season and put together an incredible year, already named to a first-team All-American team. Day led by example, he lead at practice and he mentored the young defensive lineman who’ll try to fill his shoes.

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

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Notre Dame beat Navy by 17 points, the final quarter a comfortable finish in a series that doesn’t always afford one. And with victories over both the Midshipmen and Georgia Tech, the coaching staff’s work over the offseason achieved its desired result.

Yes, the game was sloppy. Notre Dame was gashed by the fullback dive, a struggle that felt a little bit like a regression, especially with everybody seemingly understanding that Job No. 1 is, and always will be, stopping the fullback.

So while Quentin Ezell awoke the ghosts of Vince Murray and Alexander Teich, the defense tightened up in the second half. And winning the turnover battle decisively helped make up for a less explosive Irish offense, with the Midshipmen able to keep Notre Dame from breaking a play of longer than 30 yards.

It’s time for USC. So let’s put the triple-option to bed with the Good, Bad and Ugly and then get ready for the Trojans.

THE GOOD

Forcing Turnovers. Navy turned the ball over three times after having just one turnover through the first four games of the season. That played a huge factor in the victory, allowing the Irish a considerable margin for error on offense as they struggled early to score points.

Elijah Shumate made an excellent interception to seal the deal. Jaylon Smith was opportunistic when an option pitch fell through the hands of Chris Swain. And a key strip by Nyles Morgan led to Devin Butler recovering the opening kickoff of the second half and turning the game on its head. (Butler had to fight through a scrum to secure the ball, after missing an easy opportunity when the ball originally popped out.)

The Irish won the turnover battle for the first time since 2012. Not surprisingly, that allowed the Irish to get Navy off-schedule, and the result was some breathing room during the fourth quarter, with the Irish controlling the football and the game clock with three consecutive drives of 10 plays or more to end the game.

 

Getting Out Injury Free. On Sunday’s teleconference call, Brian Kelly confirmed what we thought we saw on Saturday—the Irish survived against Navy’s offense with no major injuries. Kelly credited that to good luck, but also talked about the continual work against the SWAG team, who cut block against the starting defense the week of the Georgia Tech game as well as this week.

“We had no injuries again—knock on wood—this week to anything below the waist for any of our linemen,” Kelly said. “They’re a little sore, obviously, but no major injuries there, again, for playing two very physical teams that play the triple option.”

Jerry Tillery did sprain his elbow, though Kelly said the freshman will wear a brace and continue to play. Nick Martin tweaked his ankle, though returned to play. And Kelly talked about how nice it’s been these past few Sundays after a nightmarish start to the season.

“My 1:30 (Sunday) meeting with the doctors has been my most anxious time of the year,” Kelly quipped. “So the last couple of weeks, the last two, three weeks have been pretty good. Hopefully, that trend continues because we get USC this week, and then we get a week off. So that’s going to be helpful as we move into the back end of the season.”

 

Robby Regan. Notre Dame’s freshman walk-on was awarded the game ball after Saturday’s victory. That a high school athlete better known for his wrestling ability was able to play such a significant role in the first half of the Irish season without ever taking the field says something about his value to the team.

“The guys love him. He sang the fight song,” Kelly said Sunday. “That’s the first time we had a true freshman stand up, and he got the game ball and sang the fight song, and there was a huge roar from the team.”

Regan helped give Notre Dame their best practice look at the option. And while he’ll never be Keenan Reynolds or Justin Thomas, he makes decisions at game-speed, something vital to the team’s preparation.

After surviving a week of getting pounded by Notre Dame’s starting defense, Regan became the first walk-on in Kelly’s memory to ever receive a game ball.

 

Justin Yoon. After looking really shaky earlier in the season, Yoon jump-started the Irish with a career-long 52-yard field goal as the first half expired, and was pure on every one of his other kick attempts, too.

After drilling a big field goal at Clemson in the rain storm, Yoon seems to have regained his confidence and the momentum he had going during fall camp, something he talked about after the game.

“Trying to get my momentum as a freshman wasn’t easy. A freshman going on the football field for the first time is a big spotlight, and that’s a difficult experience,” Yoon said. “I’ve progressed through the games, my teammates have put their trust in me. That’s the biggest thing.”

 

Jarrett Grace. We touched on this postgame, but Grace’s role meant more to the team that just a veteran backup making some big plays when his number was called. Inserted into the game to try and add some bulk to the Irish defense, Grace played big minutes, something that Kelly couldn’t help but marvel at during the Sunday teleconference.

“It was as meaningful for him as it was for me, just to know what he’s gone through and to be called upon to come in and play a very important role for us,” Kelly said. “If you watched him last year in August and September, you’d say there’s no way he’s going to be able to play again…

“To see him get out there and play on Saturday was pretty gratifying that he could get out there and help us.”

Kelly mentioned that in Grace’s introduction before speaking at the pep rally, he only had highlights from special teams. He knew that was selling him short, perhaps a good final reminder that the Cincinnati native could help this defense play smash-mouth football.

“He was one of our speakers at the pep rally, and all they showed him was on special teams, and I was like, dang, he’s much more than that.”

 

Quick Hits: 

* Another option opponent, another monster day by Greer Martini. Notre Dame’s sophomore linebacker has been a wonderful weapon for the Irish in triple-option games, mostly because of his ability to do his job.

“He’s got a really good understanding of his job and he’s a disciplined player, so when we ask him to do his job, he’s going to get it done,” Kelly said. “He just fits really well with the scheme that we’re employing and so it’s just a really good fit.”

* He already earned mention in our Five Things yesterday, but Sheldon Day‘s been incredibly disruptive, as we saw with nine tackles and two TFLs.

* Another game, another monster day from C.J. Prosise. While some want Prosise to get the national attention they feel like he deserves, it should be enough that he’s filling the stat sheet while also learning what he’s doing.

Prosise still isn’t the natural inside the tackles runner you might want a 220-pounder to be, but his ability to get to the edge and run through tackles is really, really impressive.

* It doesn’t seem fair when DeShone Kizer buys time rolling out and then finds Will Fuller. Not too many defenses can stop that type of scramble drill, and Kizer’s ability to keep his eyes down field is really impressive for a young kid.

* Coming into the game Navy was one of the best 3rd down teams in the country. Notre Dame’s defense held them to just 2-of-11.

 

THE BAD

A tough start. If you were thinking the Irish were in for a long Saturday after going three-and-out and then letting Keenan Reynolds slice and dice the defense in under 80 seconds, you weren’t alone. (I was with you.) But credit this group for showing resilience.

Kelly talked about not letting that start get in the way, especially after a good week of practice.

“I thought we responded very well offensively. And I think that response in scoring right away, kind of settled everybody down,” Kelly said.

 

Interior running struggles. Notre Dame attacked the perimeter yesterday, with C.J. Prosise getting to the edges via the quick pass or outside handoffs. But the Irish seemed to struggle running north and south, disappointing against a defense like Navy’s.

Alex Bars started for the first time, as Quenton Nelson’s ankle wasn’t ready to be tested. Nick Martin will need to get healthy after a tweaked ankle. But against USC, the Irish will need to be able to move the point of attack, something they didn’t necessarily do consistently against the Midshipmen.

 

Consistency in the secondary. It didn’t take long for Max Redfield to be replaced by Matthias Farley, especially after Redfield missed tackles while overrunning his alley. And while Elijah Shumate’s interception was a great step forward and Navy’s quarterbacks completed just three of six throws for 22 yards, the performance of the back end of the defense is still the one thing holding this defense back.

Kelly talked about what he wants to see from his secondary, and how two games against option competition might have actually been part of the problem this year.

“I still think consistency in the back end of our defense,” Kelly cited when asked where the team needs its best growth. “I think that’s the biggest thing. It’s kind of difficult. We played two option teams over the last four weeks. It makes it hard to continue to evolve defensively. I think that’s probably the area that we want to see continued growth is the back end of our defense.”

With USC’s talented skill players coming to town and the Irish just a season removed from getting absolutely demolished in coverage at the Coliseum, all eyes will be on Shumate, Redfield, KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke next weekend.

 

THE UGLY

Call it a big victory or call it mutual respect, your choice. This section is staying empty after a 17-point win.

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 41, Navy 24

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Notre Dame beat Navy for the fifth-straight time on Saturday afternoon, sprinting away from the Midshipmen after a strong third quarter and cruising to a 41-24 win. Against one of Ken Niumatalolo’s best teams, the Irish handed Navy their first loss of the season, winning the turnover battle 3-1 while also holding the Midshipmen to just 102 yards in the second half.

As an annual opponent, Notre Dame’s yearly dates against Navy usually fit into one of four categories: The program-rattling loss, the white knuckle, pray-you-get-out-alive close victory, the frisky battle where the Irish pull away, and the occasional boat race. Expect Brian Kelly to place this one in the third bucket, and then be thankful that Notre Dame can go about their business for the rest of the season.

“Thank gosh,” Kelly said after the game, when told he was done preparing for the option until next season.

No, it wasn’t pretty. Led by Keenan Reynolds and a powerful pair of fullbacks, Navy ran for 238 yards in the first half. But after Justin Yoon kicked a 52-yard field goal to close the first half, the Irish forced a turnover on the opening kickoff of the third quarter and scored touchdowns on their first two drives. That was essentially that.

Navy knew they needed to play perfect to beat Brian Kelly’s most talented team. And with two personal foul penalties, three turnovers and some missed opportunities, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo was frustrated the Midshipmen didn’t bring their best to South Bend.

“We knew we need to play perfect against these guys and this was probably our worst game of the season,” Niumatalolo said. “Against a good team like Notre Dame, that spells disaster.”

Let’s find out what we learned during the Irish’s 17-point win.

 

Georgia Tech and Navy are behind Notre Dame and the Irish went 2-0. But more importantly, a system has been established inside the program on how to defend and practice against the option. 

Brian Kelly gave the game ball to scout-team quarterback Rob Regan, the recruited walk-on who came to Notre Dame to most likely never step on the field and get beaten up by the starting defense at practice. But Regan did his job well this season, providing a critical service as the quarterback of the triple-option scout team known as the SWAG team.

While there were some struggles early getting to the fullback dive and keeping Keenan Reynolds contained, Kelly talked about how happy he was with the week of practice the Irish had, focused solely on the task at hand, not the devastating loss from a week earlier or the date with USC next weekend.

“We beat a very good team by 17 points. That’s validation,” Kelly said. “I thought we had a great week of practice. I thought we prepared very well. I don’t know what else to do… I was so pleased with the way they were focused during the week, preparing for Navy.”

Credit for this victory starts nine months ago, with senior advisor Bob Elliott taking a deep dive into the option. And as Notre Dame devised a game plan to keep the option a consistent part of every week’s preparation—not just a crash course the week of Navy or Georgia Tech—from a program-building perspective, Kelly feels confident that he and his coaches have devised a way to successfully defend one of the most schematically challenging games of each season.

“There’s always things we can work on to get better,” Kelly said, after being asked about his team’s job against the option this season. “But I think we’ve established something that I wanted to establish: A base way to play option teams. ”

 

 

C.J. Prosise has emerged as Notre Dame’s leading man on offense. And he continues to get better and better as he learns on the job.  

Leading Notre Dame’s offense with 129 yards and three touchdowns, C.J. Prosise put together his fourth 100-yard day of the season on the ground. His three touchdowns mark the second time Prosise has scored a hat trick this season, the first time that’s happened at Notre Dame since Reggie Brooks pulled the same feat in 1992.

Prosise was deadly on the perimeter of the defense, breaking off big-chunk runs, including a 22-yard touchdown. (He had another long touchdown run called back for a questionable hold.) Adding 56 receiving yards to his stat-line—glorified runs that required DeShone Kizer to quick flip the ball to Prosise—and Notre Dame’s game plan was to get Prosise on the perimeter and let him utilize his unique blend of size and speed.

“We were trying to find different ways to get him on the perimeter,” Kelly explained postgame. “Just trying to get one of our skilled players on the edge of our defense was part of our plan.”

The plan worked, with Prosise once again serving as the engine of the Irish offense. But even more impressive is the senior’s evolution. Just five games into his career as a running back, he’s become the identity of Notre Dame’s offense.

Kelly credits that to a balanced offensive attack, acknowledging that the run game will be their secret to success. But he also praised Prosise’s preparation, a senior digging into his job like a freshman just learning the ropes.

“I think what I like most about him is that he’s in that learning curve and he’s excited every single day, working to become a better running back,” Kelly said.

 

Notre Dame’s ability to force turnovers and disrupt Navy’s offense turned this into a relatively easy Irish victory. 

You couldn’t have asked for a tougher start. After returning the opening kickoff, Notre Dame went three-and-out. It took the Midshipmen just three plays to go 70 yards, scoring in just 74 seconds. But after weathering the storm, the Irish actually became the team that forced the mistakes, usually the other way around when these two teams play each other.

Two fumble recoveries and a very nice interception by Elijah Shumate gave Notre Dame an extra handful of possessions against Navy, one of the keys to beating the Midshipmen. And while Notre Dame’s offensive efficiency wasn’t through the roof, having a few extra possessions more than nullified the two punts and DeShone Kizer’s lone interception.

“Huge possessions. We were able to gain more possessions in this game than any other game we’ve played against Navy,” Kelly said postgame.

 

While the defense certainly didn’t lock down Navy’s option like they did Georgia Tech’s, they do deserve some credit for the struggles the Midshipmen had converting drives. Even after going four of four on fourth-down conversions, the Irish got Navy off the field six of ten times without scoring points, forcing two punts, two fumbles, an interception and a missed field goal.

Pair the defensive effort with Notre Dame’s offense controlling the clock in the second half after scoring two early touchdowns, and it’s a perfect recipe for victory against Navy.

 

Sheldon Day is playing the type of dominant football Notre Dame fans have been expecting for three seasons. 

From the moment Sheldon Day stepped onto campus, Notre Dame coaches thought they had something special. And during his senior season, Day is showing why.

The senior captain tied for the team lead with nine tackles on Saturday, adding two more TFLs in the process. Tasked with what he called the easiest job of anybody on the defense against the option, Day managed to wreak havoc in the trenches against consistent double teams, making up for some of the early troubles the Irish defense had slowing down Navy’s stout fullbacks and Keenan Reynolds to open the game.

Day played nearly the entire snap, shifting outside and in, taking on multiple Navy blockers as he went toe-to-toe. And after Jerry Tillery sat most of the second half with what looked like an elbow injury, Day’s consistency and work volume proved vital, with really no backup behind him.

Debating a departure to the NFL after last season, Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick pitched Day on the many reasons why coming back to South Bend and earning his degree would be important. Now Day’s also showing NFL scouts what the Irish staff knew all along.

 

The Irish once again went to their depth chart to lock down a victory.

With the Irish defense struggling with some scheme tweaks and in need of a fix against Navy’s option, Brian Kelly once again called on his depth chart to help secure the victory. Kelly made two very big moves to help slow down Navy, and both paid dividends.

Starter Max Redfield had the first shot at playing safety. But after over-running his assignment on Keenan Reynolds, Matthias Farley entered the game and didn’t come off the field until tallied seven tackles and sang the alma mater.

Kelly also went bigger with his linebacking corps. Already starting Greer Martini at one linebacker spot, the Irish swapped former wide receiver James Onwualu out of the game and inserted senior Jarrett Grace. The 255-pounder helped plug the leak that Navy’s fullbacks exploited in the first half, part of the reason Notre Dame held Chris Swain and Quenin Ezell to just 3.8 yards a touch in the second half.

“We went with Grace in the second half and he was able to get himself down onto the fullback in the second half,” Kelly said. “It was a little bit of scheme and a little bit of execution. They keep prodding and looking for opporutnities to run their offense and they did effectively until we made some adjustments at halftime.”

The opportunity for Grace had to be a cherished one and you could see the veteran’s confidence grow as the game continued. After two seasons recovering from a severely broken leg, Grace earned his first extensive playing time on defense this afternoon. While he tapped his chest and acknowledged he was late to his assignment on his first snap in after replacing Onwualu, Grace was in and around the pile nonstop, putting a big stick on quarterback Keenan Reynolds on a fake then making five tackles as he showed that the Irish have another weapon at their disposal as they get back to their winning ways.