Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson hasn’t set foot inside Notre Dame Stadium since he put an end to Notre Dame’s NCAA record winning streak in 2007. But since then, the Irish have seen plenty of Johnson’s offense.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo has obviously continued running Johnson’s offensive attack, deploying quarterback Keenan Reynolds, perhaps Navy’s best option quarterback ever. And while Johnson and Niumatalolo both found ways to beat the Irish, winning three times in a stretch of four years, the balance has swung back to Notre Dame, with Kelly having beat Navy four-straight years.
That’s not to say each win has been easy. As the Irish grow more and more familiar with the attack, Navy counters with something different.
“Navy last year brought out some stuff that they did in 2009 with bunch packages that outflanked our defense,” Kelly said, citing a formation the Midshipmen hadn’t run in five years. “So, yeah, we’re not taking anything for granted. We’re looking at as much film as we can and being prepared for all those eventual situations.”
That’s led Notre Dame’s staff to watch and consume a ton of Georgia Tech. Kelly said the Irish staff has gone back as far as 2012, digging into as much of Johnson’s Yellow Jacket scheme as possible, knowing that he hasn’t likely seen much in the Ramblin Wreck’s two victories over Alcorn State and Tulane.
“We’re going back as far as we can to make sure some of those things don’t happen,” Kelly said.
Those things are still going to happen. Johnson is far too good of a coach and far too prolific in his game planning, especially in a game he’s likely thought about for as long as its been scheduled.
But while we’ve spent plenty of time wondering if Bob Elliott’s offseason info-gathering campaign helped this summer, we’ve also probably overlooked something equally as important: Notre Dame’s defensive players have a ton of experience playing against this system.
Certainly, nobody is going to mix up Navy’s personnel with Georgia Tech’s offensive talent. But the lines separating the two playbooks certainly blur.
So while Justin Thomas and a physically imposing offensive line will present a new challenge, it’s not one that Sheldon Day hasn’t seen before. This is his fourth time playing against the option. Linebacker Jaylon Smith will be seeing it for a third time. Joe Schmidt calling plays from the middle for the second-straight year.
On the back end, every starter in the secondary has played Navy’s triple-option, and their responsibilities are clear. So if Max Redfield is marginalized by his thumb injury, Matthias Farley will be given an opportunity to make plays, especially after a strong finish to the Navy game last season.
We’ve certainly been tough on Brian VanGorder’s scheme after a disappointing week. But Bob Diaco took a very large step forward after one shot at the option. Expect VanGorder to have a few solutions ready after not seeing the triple-option for the better part of a decade while he was off in the NFL.
Notre Dame’s athletic personnel is probably as well equipped as you could ask to face off with Tech’s skill players, safeties like Drue Tranquill and Elijah Shumate ready to patrol the edges. Meanwhile linebackers like Jarrett Grace, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini look to help stack the box, capable of playing on the inside while James Onwualu gets more chances to make plays on the edge, building on a productive afternoon last season.
No, it’s not going to be easy. And while some tricks and wrinkles will surely catch the Irish off guard, there’s confidence that the past experience will come in handy.
“I think having that experience and having seen it before helps, but obviously, it’s a bear every time,” senior captain Matthias Farley said. “It’s never easy. Technically you have to be sound, and your eyes have to be perfect every play. So there’s a lot of mental stuff that goes into it, but there’s definitely a comfortability factor having gone through it before.”