Entering the season, Notre Dame’s defensive line may have been the biggest positional question on the roster. Entering bowl preparations and the subsequent offseason, the Irish front is now the unit with the fewest questions around it.
“Will someone step forward and make an impact at defensive tackle?
“… 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. …”
Tillery was the most-established lineman in a group returning zero sacks from the 2016 season. Note: That is not an exaggeration. No defensive lineman still on the Irish roster recorded a sack a year ago. In April’s Blue-Gold Game, a pass rush was visible, but it was taken with a large grain of salt due to the red jerseys worn by the quarterbacks.
The summer departure of senior tackle Daniel Cage due to health reasons did not help the lack of confidence in the defensive line’s depth, experience or talent pool.
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Let’s start with that stat. The Irish managed 22 sacks this year, led by Tillery’s four and up from last season’s 14 total. Fifteen of this year’s quarterback takedowns came from the defensive front. That alone marked improvement, but it hardly illustrates the reasons for optimism moving forward.
The aforementioned preseason practice ponderings pointed to the three freshmen defensive tackles — Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Darnell Ewell — as possibilities to supplement Tillery. Ewell arrived at Notre Dame the highest-rated recruit of the trio, but it was Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa who contributed greatly this season while Ewell preserved a year of eligibility.
Joining the youth movement, sophomore end Khalid Kareem broke out, surpassing classmate Julian Okwara as a notable threat for seasons to come and possibly pulling even with sophomore Daelin Hayes.
In all these instances, with the arguable exception of Hayes, their stats are worth mentioning, but they do not encompass how many snaps these young players handled, almost all of them competently. (Hayes stands out in a good way: His stats are better.) As a whole, they transformed the defensive line from a position seemingly lacking both talent and depth into the source of the Irish defense’s strength.
In 2016, Notre Dame allowed 182.4 rushing yards per game (No. 72 in the country), 378.8 total yards per game (No. 42) and 39.0 percent of third downs to be converted (No. 60). This season, the Irish have given up 153.2 rushing yards per game (No. 48), 366.7 total yards per game (No. 44) and successful third downs only 33.5 percent of the time (No. 28). Clearly, each metric improved in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s first season with the Irish.
Jr. tackle Jerry Tillery: 52 tackles; 8.5 tackles for loss; 4.0 sacks
So. end Daelin Hayes: 28 tackles; 6.5 TFLs; 3.0 sacks
Sr. end Andrew Trumbetti: 27; 4.0; 0.5
Sr. tackle Jonathan Bonner: 27; 3.5; 2.0
Sr. end Jay Hayes (no relation): 26; 3.5; 1.0
So. end Khalid Kareem: 18; 5.5; 3.0
So. end Julian Okwara: 16; 3.5; 1.5
Fr. tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa: 12; 1.5; 0
Fr. tackle Kurt Hinish: 7; 0.5; 0
Of the above nine-man rotation, only Trumbetti has used up all his eligibility. His was a successful and productive senior season, but not so much so there should be any concern about the combination of Kareem and Okwara seeing more playing time and suitably replacing him.
Both Tillery and Bonner have decisions to make. Each has another year of eligibility remaining. Tillery’s size alone makes him an intriguing NFL prospect. If he were to declare for the NFL Draft, it would be conceivable he be a mid- to late-round pick. Bonner, meanwhile, has said he does not intend to pursue a fifth year, but those things can change when a coach expresses an interest.
As far as forward-looking unknowns, though, the Notre Dame coaches undoubtedly have strong ideas of what to expect in both instances. This is not a position group hinging on a player making some dramatic leap in spring practice to fill an unforeseen hole in the roster. The two Hayes and the bevy of first-year contributors created an established commodity, one Elko will lean on in 2018.
On top of that, add in Ewell. A full season in a collegiate weight room brought the tackle enough development he was being featured in strength and conditioning highlight videos by season’s end. He will play next season, with or without Tillery and Bonner, and he could quickly reestablish himself as the lead force in his class.
A season ago, it was normal to doubt if enough defensive linemen could earn playing time for the Irish. A fall with a nine-man, youth-heavy rotation proved that answer to be a yes, a certain and resounding yes moving forward.
Brian Kelly is thankful for the opportunity to coach football at Notre Dame. Brandon Wimbush claims to be grateful for a room full of media. These typically-rote answers offered by the Irish coach and junior quarterback this week make surface-level sense, especially given the obligatory nature of dealing with that room full of cameras, reporters and recorders.
Senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill provided a more in-depth response Tuesday, thinking of his grandfather, or “Big Daddy.”
“He moved in with us probably about 12 years ago to help my parents taking all the kids to all their sporting events and stuff, and he was always the one taking me to my baseball tournaments, staying in hotels with me and taking me around everywhere,” Tranquill said. “So I’m really thankful for him and just the investment he gave to help me pursue my dream.”
What might Notre Dame fans specifically be appreciative of this holiday? With a likely — somewhat inevitable — personal skewing, let’s run through a few more than three dozen items worthy of giving thanks …
— Defensive coordinator Mike Elko. Last year the Irish defense created 14 turnovers and recorded 14 sacks. With a game to play before matching last season’s 12 games, Notre Dame has forced 18 turnovers and brought down the opposing quarterback 20 times. There is a reason Elko is a Broyles Award finalist, given to the country’s top assistant coach.
— Offensive coordinator Chip Long. His effect may not be as statistically-dramatic as Elko’s, but Long’s influence is rather noticeable, nonetheless. Long took over the play calling of an offense led by a first-year quarterback and — with two exceptions against two of the best defenses of 2017 — created a truly explosive attack.
— Strength and conditioning “coordinator” David Balis. Every indication, both on- and off-field, shows the Irish are in better shape this year, holding up better in fourth quarters and into the final month of the season.
“When you spend nearly 70 percent of your time with those [strength] coaches and with your physical and technical development, that’s key to having a sustainable model in terms of culture of a winning football team,” Tranquill said. “If you look at teams who have been successful, that’s where they’ve started. …
“That’s something we’ve been able to do here this year, and it’s helped us to be successful. I think it’ll continue to help us be successful.”
— Special teams coordinator Brian Polian. Notre Dame’s return units have not been explosive this year, but the coverage units have limited the opposition, something not inherently true the last few seasons. In many respects, with an offense producing as much as Long’s has, those return possibilities are not as vital to the team’s success as the coverage protections are, anyway. Breaking a return also relies on a singular talent more than team-wide coverages do.
“Sometimes to be great, you’ve got to have one great game-breaker,” Kelly said Tuesday. “You’ve got to have somebody that changes the game, and I don’t know that we have that guy right now.”
— White bread, toasted, dry, with nothing on it. And four whole fried chickens and a Coke.
— The emergence of the defensive line. During some back-and-forth banter in fielding this preseason’s ballots for the annual “Counting Down the Irish” series, jokes were cracked about how few defensive linemen warranted even consideration for the top-25 listing. In the end, three made the cut: sophomore end Daelin Hayes at No. 9, junior tackle Jerry Tillery at No. 11 and senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) at No. 20.
By this point, at least two more would land in the top 25, perhaps as many as four.
“Our defensive line has been a consistent group all year,” Kelly said. “… They’ve fought. They’ve been very consistent.”
— Specifically, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem has made himself a known commodity this season, making 5.5 tackles for loss including three sacks. His name will certainly land in next season’s “Counting Down the Irish.”
“This year has been a breakout year for him in [the weight room],” Kelly said. “He’s gained a lot of confidence, and he’s made so much progress in the weight room, so from a physical standpoint he can go in there and he can battle with anybody.”
— Freshmen defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish give even further reason for forward-looking optimism along the defensive front. Neither was expected to be a contributing presence this season. Both have been, and they thus ease concerns about the possible pending departures of both starting defensive tackles, Tillery and senior Jonathan Bonner.
— Senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti may not be the highlight-providing force Kareem or some of the other defensive ends are, but he has provided steady play on both ends of the defensive line. One could even consider his steady play exceptional, if that were not such an oxymoron.
10 — 5-Hour Energy Extra Strength bottles of delight. They are the fuel behind this space multiple times a week, including each and every third quarter. Without them, the frame following halftime would hardly register in memory. Fortunately, they are smaller than 3.4 fluid ounces, meaning they can slip in with one’s toiletries when flying. Thanks, TSA.
— The Irish have been remarkably healthy this season. Perhaps the closest thing to a severe injury timed itself for the bye week, so senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini (meniscus tear) missed only one game.
— In missing that one game, Martini created an opportunity for junior linebacker Te’von Coney to earn both more playing time and more notice. He now leads Notre Dame with 93 tackles through 11 games, even though he had all of 75 entering the season.
The Irish dominated USC without Martini, and he has looked little, if any, worse for wear since surgery to repair the torn meniscus. Thus, there was little-to-no short-term harm. Martini’s missing that game may have served Notre Dame a greater good in the long-term. Look at it this way: In the season’s first six games, Coney had a total of 42 tackles. In only five since, he has 51, including a team-high 11 against the Trojans.
— Bluetooth, one of the more-underrated technological advances that has become a commonplace luxury in the 21st century.
— USC’s gift of a fumbled punt. In retrospect, the Irish outplayed the Trojans in every facet of the game, but they relished the chance to go up 21-0 in the first half after USC muffed a punt inside its own 10-yard line. That moment may have sealed the outcome and will be one of the overlooked but consequential moments of Notre Dame’s 2017.
— Recovering that fumble may be the easiest turnover credit of Tranquill’s career. The most unexpected recurring quote of his collegiate time came following the 20-19 loss to Georgia. On-field, in-house interviews are only a symptom of the video board installed this year. If only for garnering this tidbit, the video board should be appreciated.
— Fettuccini alfredo. It is simple to cook, yet delectable either hot or cold. Even pizza cannot claim all those qualities.
— Shaun Crawford’s forced fumble at Michigan State. The Spartans were literal inches from cutting the Irish lead to 21-7. The junior cornerback’s heady play to not only force the fumble at the goal line but then to also recover it opened the door for a 28-0 halftime lead. Much like Tranquill’s recovery against USC, this low-key highlight need not be forgotten as the season’s end nears.
— Pilot travel centers. Some things can be explained only after eight separate 1,000-mile roundtrip treks of I-94. The hot dogs are tolerable and cost-efficient, the bathrooms clean, the ease of access from the road quick. Not much else can be asked for in this life.
20 — Quenton Nelson, and not just for the above manhandling of Kelly after winning at Michigan State. The senior left guard and captain has been the best player for Notre Dame this season. It is unlikely he accepts Kelly’s offer of the coach’s parking spot to return next season, nor should Nelson do so.
— Mike McGlinchey. The fifth-year left tackle and captain’s on-field performance has been outdone by only Nelson, and McGlinchey’s off-field candor is unrivaled.
— The combination of Nelson and McGlinchey. The two have shifted the line of scrimmage all season. Their dominance allows the Irish to focus any blocking assistance on the right side entirely. It creates a litany of running design possibilities between combination blocks and/or pulling schemes. The two stand alone in many respects.
Such a hand-in-hand fit along an offensive line is rare in the NFL and nearly unheard of in college football. As great as the left guard/left tackle combination of Chris Watt and Zack Martin was just a few years ago — and it was superb — Nelson and McGlinchey have raised the bar even further, both in individual excellence and in the innate chemistry developed by starting alongside each other for multiple seasons.
— Asinine notes courtesy of a character named Edgar starting a thought process of actual, usable fixes.
— Robert Hainsey’s emergence this year. The freshman right tackle has complemented sophomore Tommy Kraemer wonderfully, making for a complete offensive line rather than only 80 percent of one.
“There’s been some learning curves,” Kelly said. “But standing here right now going into the last game, if you ask me about playing two first-time starters, I’m pleased with their performance.”
— The comfort that emergence provides when pondering the 2018 offensive line. Kelly and Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand could have reasonably hoped for one genuine starter to emerge at right tackle this season. To come up with two-fifths of next year’s line is a luxury unexpected but happily welcomed.
— There is an establishment directly across Angela Boulevard from Notre Dame’s campus. After every home game, “Things We Learned” relies on its wifi, its understanding and — especially after night games — its late hours. Even after day games, TWL needs midnight to fly by before conclusion, and that shelter provides a comfortable and nearby venue to function within.
— Offensive sets featuring two running backs, especially when both sophomore Tony Jones and junior Josh Adams are healthy. When afforded that availability, Long has made it a habit to put defenses in compromising positions by moving Jones out wide or using him as a lead blocker. Most every possible play design is feasible with both those ballcarriers in those alignments.
— The “33 Trucking” campaign to get Adams into Heisman contention was short-lived, but it did provide one excellent video.
30 — 70 miles per hour speed limits. Even this memory’s relatively short lifespan notices that uptick.
— Kevin Stepherson’s perseverance to return. The sophomore receiver could have found many easier options than sitting out this year’s first four games, staying engaged the entire time and working his way back into the offensive scheme.
— Caffeinated gum. Before turning to those aforementioned bottles of 5-Hour Energy in the second half, coffee’s faster-acting cousin carries these fingers through the first quarter each week.
— The Irish do not have to return to Miami and Hard Rock Stadium until 2025, unless they end up in the Orange Bowl at some point, which would likely be considered a good problem to have, even if the last two trips to that venue have been complete and utter debacles. If anything, that description is being generous.
— ACC bowl tie-ins. A loss this weekend would send Notre Dame to Orlando for either the Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1) or the Camping World Bowl (Dec. 28). Before the deal with the ACC, it would be much more difficult to provide such a prognostication, and the options posited would be nowhere near as alluring, even after a 9-3 season.
— The College Football Playoff, a debate worth embracing. Arguing with computers in the days of the BCS never felt like the best use of time. At least now conversations can be based on logic, even if that logic is regarding whether a loss to Iowa State is a greater negative than a loss at Miami.
— Noon kickoffs. Oh, wait, well, never mind. 5 p.m. local time could be worse, though it may not be great for anyone hoping to view from London when that local time is on the Pacific coast.
— An unexpected Maui Invitational conversation at an airport bar. Take basketball chats wherever you can find them.
— Exit interviews. Kelly sat down with each and every player following last season to discuss what broader flaws led to the 4-8 disappointment. Suffice it to say, the resulting changes have been noticed. Kelly is yet undecided if he will hold the exit interviews again after this season.
“It was a valuable tool for me last year,” he said Sunday. “I’ll certainly give it some thought after we complete this game, but my focus really is on just trying to prepare our guys this week.”
— Keith Arnold’s poor judgement of capability, competence and character. Truly, thank you, Keith. I raise this glass of nine-year-old Foursquare Rum to you, good sir.
40 — Online commentators. Hopefully placing this acknowledgement here shows where it is amid priorities — last really is least — but still provides enough lip service to serve its purpose. If nothing else, some of those comments justify some other, shall we say, 40 thoughts.
Friday at 4: A statistical look at how Notre Dame routed two top-15 teams in consecutive weeks
Much has been made this week about Notre Dame getting stronger as the season goes on. The unusual aspect of that statement is it is meant literally. Apparently the Irish are still progressing in the weight room, rather than simply holding on through the end of the season as has been the case in years past and quick logic might favor. A football season is brutal enough — why add additional strain each week?
“We’ve made incredible strides during the season,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “We’re a stronger football team today than we were in August.”
This space is not one to deep dive on weight-lifting techniques and physical fitness, especially not at this time in the week. Rather, let’s take senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill’s word for it.
“It just continues to allow us to become stronger as the season goes on,” he said Wednesday. “I think a lot of programs are probably focused on maintenance throughout the year, just keeping their guys ready to play, whereas our staff has really focused on us getting stronger and growing as the season progresses.”
This space, however, is one to notice the on-field effects of that strength. Quite literally, the Irish are a better football team entering November than they were in all of September.
Aside from the loss, it is hard to find fault with a 5-1 start. Notre Dame won those five games by an average of 28 points, after all. Yet, the victory at Michigan State hinged entirely upon three turnovers. The other victories were hardly against tough opponents, even if Boston College has turned around its season since then.
Those beginnings showed little of what was to come in two blowouts of top-15 opponents in consecutive weeks. How did the Irish rout both USC and North Carolina State? Though the passing game is still developing, Notre Dame simply played better than it had all season against the best opponents it faced since losing to Georgia in the second week of the year.
Turning to four statistics referenced here a few times this season, the differences in beating the Trojans and the Wolfpack are stark when compared to the six games before the bye week, even when compared to the Michigan State game in particular.
Third down conversion percentage:
Through six games: 39.56 percent
At Michigan State specifically: 57.1 percent
vs. USC and NC State: 55.2 percent
Third down conversion percentage allowed:
Through six games: 34.95 percent
At Michigan State: 57.9 percent
vs. USC and NC State: 31.0 percent
The Spartans gained yards against the Irish. They kept drives alive. Notre Dame’s defense never granted that luxury to the Trojans or the Wolfpack.
Through six games: +1.17 per game
At Michigan State: +3
vs. USC and NC State: plus four in two games, or +2.0 per game.
Perhaps more vital than the simple margin, Notre Dame did not turn over the ball against the Trojans or the Wolfpack — blocked punt notwithstanding. While the defense continues its aggressive play, the Irish offense has become even more protective of the ball, robbing opponents of chances at short fields or quick points.
Rush attempts per game:
Through six games: 43.17
At Michigan State: 40
vs. USC and NC State: 101 in two games, or 50.5 per game.
Rush attempts against per game:
Through six games: 34.0
At Michigan State: 32.
vs. USC and NC State: 55 in two games, or 27.5 per game.
In a sample size this small, some of that decrease in rush attempts against per game ties to both the Trojans the Wolfpack leaning on their passing games, but that aside, neither wanted to run against Notre Dame in the first place. Meanwhile, the Irish rely on the ground game more than ever.
Average yards per pass:
Through six games: 5.73 yards
At Michigan State: 8.65 yards
vs. USC and NC State: 5.46 yards
Average yards per pass against:
Through six games: 5.85 yards
At Michigan State: 6.51 yards
vs. USC and NC State: 6.48 yards
Frankly, allowing fewer than 6.5 yards against the two best passing attacks seen thus far this season should be considered an accomplishment, even if it is a bump up from the previous marks.
The Irish played well, at least well enough, in the season’s first half. They played much better against superior competition the last two weeks. Rising to that challenge may be seen as a change from recent years. Perhaps the change is more fundamental, and they really are getting better with each week.
Only one rushing touchdown allowed
Notre Dame has scored 30 touchdowns via the rush through eight games while allowing only one. That latter figure leads the country. (The offensive number is tied with Oregon for No. 7 in the nation. Florida Atlantic leads the way with 32.)
Allowing just one running score speaks to the Irish defense’s discipline, of course. No one has broken past its second level to outrace a safety to the end zone. The only touchdown given up was a six-yard run by Georgia’s Sony Michel.
It also speaks to Notre Dame’s ability to stymie opposing drives. Only 23.4 percent of drives have reached the red zone against the Irish defense. (25 times out of 107 tries.)
When it comes to preventing rushing scores, this is a common theme. Alabama and Virginia Tech have given up two touchdowns on the ground apiece. The Tide allow only 17.0 percent of opposing drives to reach the red zone (16 of 94) while the Hokies stifle their opposition to the rate of 13.1 percent (14 of 107).
Anyway, all this is to say, Notre Dame’s defense has blossomed into this team’s strength. USC and North Carolina State boast the country’s No. 35 and No. 38 scoring offenses, respectively. Not only did they rack up all of 21 points against the Irish, they ran a whopping 10 combined plays in the red zone.
A last-minute GameDay question
As these thoughts went through the cheese grater of editing, a very bland name popped up on Twitter.
Where do you see College GameDay at for next week @D_Farmer ND Miami UGA Auburn Bama Miss St TCU Oklahoma Other?
Obviously, this answer hinges on this coming weekend’s results. If both TCU (v. Texas) and Oklahoma (at Oklahoma State) lose, then the Big 12 is all-but knocked out of College Football Playoff contention entirely and sending College GameDay there would be exceedingly unlikely. Likewise, if the Hurricanes lose to Virginia Tech tomorrow, then Miami will plummet down the standings and Lee Corso donning a leprechaun’s hat becomes doubtful, even if the Irish should be favored next weekend no matter how the Hurricanes fare against the Hokies.
Thus, Michael, expect it to be Georgia at Auburn, provided they survive South Carolina and Texas A&M, respectively. In that case, the game in Jordan-Hare will end up in the 7 p.m. ET slot on ESPN.
Now did this need addressing? No. But it granted this scribe a chance to publicly remind Mr. Smith that he owes me a bottle of alcohol of my choosing for accurately predicting DeShone Kizer would start at Texas in the 2016 season opener. It would admittedly be quite welcome right about now.
Three sacks show much more of Notre Dame’s defense
Brandon Wimbush had just made the first real mistake of his time as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback. A very-avoidable interception gave Temple possession a mere 14 yards from the end zone. With the Irish lead only 28-10 and more than 20 minutes remaining, a quick score would have returned the season opener to competitive. When Owls senior tight end Chris Myarick was left uncovered approaching the goal line on the ensuing third down, a touchdown seemed quite likely.
Instead, Temple was forced to attempt a 36-yard field goal, missed wide left.
Well, a lot, and it traces back much further than that third-and-five. The dramatic example simply underscores the differences between the Notre Dame defense a year ago and the version put on display in Saturday’s 49-16 victory over the Owls.
At the snap, senior rover Drue Tranquill crashed toward the line of scrimmage while junior safety Nick Coleman played the space Tranquill left. Senior linebacker Nyles Morgan kept his eyes on the quarterback. Who was supposed to cover Myarick is a question only answerable in the Irish film room. That answer was rendered moot, though, by a charging Te’von Coney.
The junior linebacker locked onto junior quarterback Logan Marchi as he rolled left, taking Marchi down for a 10-yard sack, the third of the day for Notre Dame. By all appearances, Coney prevented a simple pitch-and-catch for a touchdown.
“If he doesn’t do his job, they’re going to find that tight end,” Kelly said Tuesday. “He covers up for a mistake on a play.”
Kelly added Coney would not have made that play a year ago. Instead, he would have been distracted by senior running back David Hood moving from right to left across the line, heading for the flat. Coney would have likely followed Hood, rather than leave the offense’s safety valve to be picked up by sophomore safety Devin Studstill, as happened Saturday.
“We were covering up for [Coney’s] mistakes last year,” Kelly said. “It’s not just the physical talent. He really had that in a large degree. Where he’s taken the huge jump is in his traits. His attention to detail, his focus, he is a locked-in football player. That’s where he’s making the jump.”
Coney’s jump coincides with a defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme, one that perhaps plays to his strengths. For that matter, it may play to every linebacker’s strengths, and it just so happens the Irish have a number of talented linebackers these days.
“It’s the philosophical approach to how we teach the defensive front and the way that it is taught from the very first day that the defense is put in,” Kelly said. “We’re not a read-and-react defense. We’re going to create a new line of scrimmage.
“… The defensive line is going to play in a manner that they’re going to get off the football. Our linebackers are downhill players. You can see that with 11 tackles for loss from 10 different players.”
Especially on that third-and-five, Coney was moving downhill, ignoring the previous line of scrimmage.
Similarly, both Tranquill and senior defensive end Jay Hayes exhibited that purpose on the second play from scrimmage of the second half. Temple set up for a screen pass, but Tranquill was in the backfield so quickly, Marchi no longer had that intended option. Instead, he had Hayes bearing down on him after shedding his blocker with a quick spin move.
Hayes was not officially credited with anything more than a quarterback hurry from that play. That is, not that Hayes. He forced Marchi toward sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes (no relation), who sacked the Owl out of bounds. But it was Tranquill’s coverage and the first rusher that made the play.
Again, that play would not have been made last year. Jay Hayes simply was not capable of it. An offseason spent working with the new strength and conditioning staff as well as the trainers positioned Hayes to start and contribute from week one.
“He needed to match that strength and size with his footwork and change of direction,” Kelly said. “He committed to that in the offseason. Our strength staff did a great job. Rob Hunt and the trainers did a great job on correctives with [Hayes’] footwork and his feet in particular to get him where his change of direction now matches and meets his physicality.
“That’s always lagged behind with Jay. Now it matches who he is and that’s why he’s having the success he’s having.”
These praises of a renewed pass rush and simple aggression in Elko’s defense come without even mentioning Notre Dame’s first sack. Sophomore end Julian Okwara gets the credit for that one, but perhaps more notable: All four defensive linemen on the play were reserves with Okwara joined by freshman tackle Kurt Hinish, junior tackle Brandon Tiassum and senior end Andrew Trumbetti.
An unfinished product
By no means was the Irish defense perfect against Temple. First of all, 16 points proves that. Second of all, it was week one, perfection was unlikely. Third, Kelly has repeatedly asked for excellence, specifically not perfection.
Yet certain mistakes are correctable.
“I’d probably say tackling,” senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini said. “But as a defensive unit, you can always say you can tackle better.”
“We have to tackle better,” he said. “There’s no question defensively. That will start within all phases of our tackling.
“I told our football team situational awareness has to get better. We had some situations where we’ve got to react quicker. … We backed up in the end zone on a throw. We have to know where we are on the field.”
Presumably, Kelly was referring to the 11-yard touchdown pass from Marchi to senior receiver Brodrick Yancy in the fourth quarter, a screen pass that conceivably should not have advanced much past the line of scrimmage.
Irish sophomore cornerback Julian Love hesitated, allowing the blocking receiver to engage without a challenge. At that point, neither Studstill nor junior rover Asmar Bilal were able to take the proper angles to prevent Yancy from scoring.
Frankly, Notre Dame was lucky to have that opportunity to stop the Owls. On the play immediately prior, Temple sophomore tight end Kenny Yeboah beat Irish sophomore safety Jalen Elliott in the end zone but could not handle Marchi’s pass.
It was week one. Those mistakes will happen.
It was also a long offseason, one that apparently instilled a better understanding of assignments, better conditioning and a straightforward defensive approach. These were all preached for eight months, but now there is finally tangible evidence of them.
‘The best-prepared team’ Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly has had in a long time
The week started with questions about the eligibility of certain Notre Dame players heading into Saturday’s season opener against Temple, and it ended with the same. With or without those individuals, though, Irish coach Brian Kelly feels a comfort level with this current team he has not enjoyed in a while.
For one thing, Notre Dame seems to be healthy entering the season. If nothing else, preseason practice did not contribute any injuries beyond junior tight end Alizé Mack needing to rest his hamstring for a few days and sophomore cornerback Donte Vaughn spraining his neck during a fluke mishap in a tackling drill. (Senior defensive tackle Daniel Cage remains out for this year, and possibly for his career, due to the lingering effects of concussions and junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor has not yet fully recovered from a Lisfranc fracture suffered in spring practice.)
“I hate to even talk about it, but the preparation has been as good as I’ve had as a head coach in all facets,” Kelly said Thursday. “That’s why I’m excited and really looking forward to watching this group play.”
Kelly then described the Irish as “the best-prepared team that I’ve had in a long time.”
Some of that preparation comes from the redesigned strength and conditioning program Notre Dame implemented this offseason. Those changes were not simply alterations to the weightlifting schedule. Rather, they included more-specific lifts, GPS tracking during practice and mental performance training.
Kelly also credited a change in practice focuses.
“Splitting the technical with the tactical. In other words, there’s a time to work on technique and there’s a time to work on game planning,” he said. “We’ve done a really good job of parceling those out so our players know when we’re working on game plan and when we’re working on technique.”
Now then, eligibility …
Notre Dame has appealed the NCAA’s denial of immediate eligibility for sophomore safety Alohi Gilman following his transfer from Navy. Kelly did not have an exact timeline for the appeal.
“They gave us a sense of how they put the committee together,” he said. “It doesn’t appear to be something that would take a long time.”
It does not appear sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson will likely see action Saturday either, though he will at least be in uniform on the sideline. When asked specifically if Stepherson is suspended, Kelly did not explicitly answer.
“I’ve spent a lot of time talking about our players relative to what my expectation are,” he said. “They have to meet expectations, and everybody is under the same guidelines. He’s working at it and he’s getting better.”
Freshman kicker Jonathan Doerer will also not be in the mix this weekend, but he should be by the end of September. Previously, the Irish coaching staff had planned on Doerer handling kickoff duties, allowing junior Justin Yoon to focus on placekicks.
“[Doerer] hit the wall a little bit. He’s just tired right now,” Kelly said. “He will eventually take that duty over. He’s got a big leg, but he’s a little tired. So we’re going to hold off the grand opening of Jonathan until maybe a week or two from today.”
At some point or another, Kelly will not be surprised to see every freshman playing notable minutes grow wearier than his teammates. With seven other freshmen in the two-deep roster, they would seem the most likely candidates for that fatigue.
“We can’t rely on a freshman to have such a substantial role that we’re not prepared that there’s going to be a time when we have to help them out,” Kelly said. “It’s foolish to think their volume is going to be able to sustain a heavy workload. We’re prepared for that.”
Offensive linemen Robert Hainsey and Josh Lugg, defensive linemen Myron Tagovaiola-Amosa and Kurt Hinish, safety Isaiah Robertson, and receivers Michael Young and Jafar Armstrong are all listed as top backups.
Kelly indicated freshman Jordan Genmark Heath will see special teams action, if not also some time at safety, while classmate Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will plan to preserve a year of eligibility while he learns the rover position.
Kelly’s advice to Wimbush
Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has not seen action in a competitive game since his high school finale. Some rust, some jitters, some poor decisions may be made, and all would be logical and expected. Kelly certainly expects them.
“You’re not going to be perfect,” he said. “You’re going to make some mistakes. But move on from them.
“He’s going to learn from them, but understand that perfection is not what we’re after. We’re out for excellence, and with that comes some mistakes.”
Shamrocks on practice helmets only
In some of the University-distributed practice highlights, certain players have been spotted sporting shamrock stickers on their helmets. Kelly made it clear those are intended only for the practice helmets.
If those decorated helmets are ever to be seen in Notre Dame Stadium, it would possibly be in another “New & Blue” Game during next year’s preseason practice. Kelly found such value in the public scrimmage in the Stadium nearly two weeks ago, he would encourage the Irish to make it a habit. If nothing else, it will always serve to acclimatize the freshmen to some of the game day experience.