Behind the Irish: Notre Dame captains set the bar

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Notre Dame’s season hasn’t gone according to plan. But the effort and leadership that captains Mike McGlinchey, Torii Hunter Jr., James Onwualu and Isaac Rochell have put in isn’t to be dismissed.

This week’s Behind the Irish looks at the buy-in of Notre Dame’s four captains, each bringing something different to a young team that leaned heavily on its seniors.

Talking Irish: Shamrock Series (and more!)

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After a few very busy weeks, CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz returns for some chatter. Enjoy. 

 

KA: Last we chatted the Cubs hadn’t won a World Series, America didn’t have a new president-elect, and Brian Kelly hadn’t lost to Navy. So… Do you feel like things in South Bend are any worse now than they were a couple weeks ago?

JJ: Not really, honestly. The Navy game played out like a lot of this year’s games have played out: A special teams mistake (that shouldn’t have been called, but still), a questionable coaching decision, some poor execution here and there and voila, a narrow loss.

To paraphrase the late, great Dennis Green, the Irish are who we thought they were.

KA: I think you’ve hit on it. The loss to Navy wasn’t bad in my mind. It was what it was—a good football team playing a perfect game and beating a more talented (but bad) football team that made a crucial mistake. It was just that the team was Navy, and that, historically, means something very bad.

JJ: The biggest issue here is that Notre Dame played good football against Navy and lost by 1. In previous years, playing good football against Navy meant a 40-point win or something along those lines.

KA: That’s a good point. I don’t know if I call it good football. They forced half-a-punt and kicked 2 FGs in red zone opportunities.

JJ: Maybe not good football, but it certainly wasn’t *bad* football, of which we’ve seen a lot this year. And part of that is the strength of Navy’s program — Ken Niumatalolo is a top-10 coach in this country — but still.

KA: I think you can honestly make the argument — on the football side — that this is the worst rivalry Notre Dame has. Zero upside to it. You win, you should. You lose, you’re mocked.

JJ: From that standpoint, yeah. I love it from a historical standpoint, but I also double-majored in history at Mizzou, so.

KA: I’ll ask you a question I asked John Walters on our podcast. Staying with the election theme — What do you do to make Notre Dame football great again — if you’re Jack Swarbrick?

JJ: First and foremost, better offensive line play and a healthy stable of running backs.
And a renewed commitment to running the football.

No. 2, stop with the mind-numbing special teams mistakes.

No. 3, a COLLEGE-level defense that has a clear identity that’s easy for young players to pick up and cycle through the system.

Those are mine. Yours?

KA: So those feel like things BK needs to do. Is that the same thing as Swarbrick?

JJ: Ah, I see what you’re saying. I only ask because I think those are the principles that we should all agree with, but at the same time, i think you have to make some changes to the staff and program at a macro level to do that.

JJ: If I’m Swarbrick, you can’t be shy about another million-dollar coordinator.
But you better make sure your coach gets the right one.

KA: Completely agree.

JJ: And I think you have to push back if Kelly really is serious about not needing significant changes from this season.

KA: I think the loss to Navy essentially killed the Greg Hudson / in-house DC solution.

JJ: Which is probably a net benefit they don’t even consider that.

KA: I’m at the point where ANY big-picture topic that BK talks about at this point, it’s merely just doing the least amount of damage possible and just trying to get to the offseason.

JJ: Which is entirely fair.

KA: Here’s one for you: Over/Under on number of snaps played by Jarron Jones against Army?

JJ: Hmmmmm. It can’t be 12! Kelly said, without coming out and directly saying it, that Jones had a bad week of practice leading up to Navy. But with Daniel Cage still out with that concussion, Notre Dame really needs him in there for more than a couple of series to have a shot at stopping Army’s offense with any consistency.

So I’ll say 20.5. Which is still low, but probably one or two more series than he had against Navy.

KA: Notre Dame actually did okay against the fullback against Navy, all things considered. And I do expect the safety play to be much, much better after learning on the fly.

Does Army scare you as much as Navy?

JJ: Not at all. Statistically they’re a better matchup for ND, which given last week’s one-point loss, *should* result in a win on Saturday. But we’ve seen this before, with games that should be wins turning into losses, so who knows.

KA: I’m in agreement on that point. I think the lack of explosive plays from Army leads you to believe that they’re less dynamic running the offense, but then again, their defense has been no joke.

***

KA: I’ll leave you with this: As we approach the second Shamrock Series in San Antonio, against an opponent like Army, where do you stand on this peculiarity of ND’s schedule? Is it worth taking this gig on the road? Or does it necessitate a good opponent and an interesting venue?

JJ: It’ll be good to hit the reset button on it in 2017. I think the opponents need to get better for it, more like ASU in 2013. Otherwise, it stops being a showcase game. I mean this year, ticket prices on the secondary market are looooooow. Like Tampa Bay Rays in the midst of a losing season low.

I’m interested to see locations and opponents for it starting back up in 2018. Maybe it goes international?

KA: Ireland (not a Shamrock Series game) was an incredible experience. And ND traveled to Dublin about 25x better than any of the schools to follow.

JJ: The American owners of AS Roma want Notre Dame and BC to play at their new stadium with the pope flipping the coin, so…  (**That was a few years ago they said that…)

KA: Rome would be awesome. Sign me up for that assignment. But little things like Toronto or Mexico City don’t sound terrible, either.

JJ: Yep yep yep. Or Vancouver. That would be great. Just so we could all go to Vancouver.

KA: I am driving the Vancouver bandwagon. No better city to visit and lots of fun to be had. Just find me the Under Armour tie-in to Notre Dame and Canada and funky helmets.

I’ll start you with the predictions. I told Sal Interdonato that the Irish would win 31-20.

JJ: Notre Dame 33, Army 24 Pretty close!

KA: Great minds. Look forward to us being equally right or wrong. Last tip before you travel. Just remember — There’s no basement in the Alamo.

***

With the election all anybody can talk about, John Walters and I dipped our toes in the water, before asking if Brian Kelly could make Notre Dame football great again?  (Warning: It’s not all football.) 

 

Monken, Kelly meet on different terms

BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 13: Head coach Jeff Monken of the Army Black Knights stands with his players and sings the teams fight song following their 17-10 loss to the Navy Midshipmen at M&T Bank Stadium on December 13, 2014 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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When Army battles Notre Dame on Saturday, Black Knights head coach Jeff Monken will be looking across the field at a head coach he knew a long time ago. And it can’t help but trigger a trip down Memory Lane.

Because before Monken climbed the ranks at Navy and Georgia Southern, before he was given a chance to take over the program in West Point, he was a young coach trying to find a job.

The Times Herald-Record’s Sal Interdanto has a great story on the beginning of Monken’s career as a college coach. And it features a young graduate assistant being driven by his mother three hours for a job interview with young head coach Brian Kelly at Grand Valley State.

From Interdanto:

Monken hopped in a car, driven by his mother, Nancy, for the three-hour ride east of their Joilet, Ill. home.

“I was so thankful for that opportunity,” Monken said on Tuesday as his Army team preps for Kelly’s Notre Dame squad. “I had never been up there, He’s a terrific football coach and a great guy. I didn’t get the job and that’s OK. I wasn’t ready at the time. I’m sure he found a very qualified coach.”

While Monken didn’t get the job, his ties to Kelly still go back. He played college football at Millikin, the same program that produced former Irish offensive coordinator and Miami-Ohio head coach Chuck Martin. His cousin Todd Monken, who coached Southern Miss for three seasons, worked with Kelly at Grand Valley, before leaving for Notre Dame and a graduate assistant job.

So as we dive into subplots that were sure to come out this week, Monken’s job interview—and likely runner-up finish—is a fun product of the backroads of coaching in small-college football.

And in that corner… The Army Black Knights

DURHAM, NC - OCTOBER 08: Ahmad Bradshaw #17 of the Army Black Knights runs with the ball against the Duke Blue Devils at Wallace Wade Stadium on October 8, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame heads to San Antonio, needing a win this weekend for any chance to make it to Brian Kelly’s seventh-straight postseason. And in the Black Knights, the Irish have a foe that’s fitting—a double-digit underdog, but one who presents some of the same challenges that made Navy so difficult.

Jeff Monken’s third Army team has shown considerable improvements. They’ve won big games, beating Wake Forest and Temple while hanging tight with Duke. But coming off a tough loss to Air Force that ends their chance at winning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, The Black Knights come to the Shamrock Series hoping to spring an upset, the latest opponents to add to Notre Dame’s nightmare season.

In a crazy week, Sal Interdanto of the Times Herald-Record steps in and saves us. After doing three or four of the same Q&As, Sal pumped these answers out in the midnight hours, and corrected a few of my mistakes as well.


It feels like the Air Force loss took quite a bit from Army’s sails. Coming off an impressive win against Wake Forest, and after a really nice start to the season, can you give us an update on where the Irish find this Black Knights team?

The Black Knights have proved to be a very resilient team this season and I wouldn’t expect a hangover from the Air Force game. Army had to overcome the passing of Brandon Jackson, its best cornerback, to a car accident on Sept. 11. The Black Knights rebounded with its biggest win of the season at Wake Forest after a 17-point home loss to North Texas.


One thing that’s just striking is Army’s defensive success. Alex Aukerman and Andrew King are putting up really nice numbers with King grading out incredibly impressive against the run, too. What does defensive coordinator Jay Bateman do that’s so effective?

Bateman has mixed up defensive packages to fit his talent. Army will occasionally play with a lone defensive lineman, five linebackers and five defensive backs. He’s moved Aukerman around as an outside linebacker, defensive end and over the center. Army also has some depth at defensive line where it can rotate fresh players, something it hasn’t done much of in the past.


Offensively, Army seems to be struggling lately, especially against their stiffer competition. For Irish fans who just saw Will Worth and Navy’s triple-option pitch what might as well have been a perfect game, what does Ahmad Bradshaw bring that makes this unit scary and what might be different?

When Army’s offense is rolling, Bradshaw is making all the right reads in the triple-option. Bradshaw is not a game-breaking threat. He has just three rushes of 20 yards or more this season. Bradshaw is a strong runner, who breaks tackles and moves the chains.

 

Jeff Monken is making strides. The defense is obviously vastly improved. Wins against teams like Temple, and Wake Forest are huge steps forward. But Army is 0-5 against fellow service academies. Is that the next step for Monken—beating Air Force and Navy? Two-thirds of the way through year three, does it feel like he’s on the right track?

Most Army fans would probably take a win over Navy in December breaking a 14-game losing streak to the Midshipmen over playing in a bowl game. The service-academy games carry that much weight. Army has improved its talent and toughness under Monken. The 31-12 loss to Air Force last week proves Army still has ground to make up amongst service academies.

 

The urgency for Notre Dame is obvious. You could say the same for Army. Is the formula different for a Black Knights win?

Army’s best chance for a win is to control the clock with its offense. Time-consuming touchdown drives are a staple in the triple option. When Notre Dame’s offense is on the field, Army needs to find a way to pressure DeShone Kizer. If Kizer has all day to throw, it could be a long day for the Black Knights.

Love, Tranquill on pace to play against Army

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Notre Dame lost defenders Julian Love and Drue Tranquill to head injuries against Navy. The freshman cornerback and junior safety will both return to practice, per Brian Kelly, though neither will be full contact yet.

“Tranquill and Julian Love, they will go to practice today,” Kelly said during his Tuesday press conference. “They will practice in a non-contact fashion. If everything goes well, they’ll be clear for contact tomorrow.”

Before being pulled from the game for precautionary reasons, Love was playing excellent football at cornerback. He was active in run support, and finished behind just Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan in tackles with eight, including one TFL. Kelly praised the way Love played, the freshman from Chicago a quick study against a difficult assignment.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen a true freshman play the triple option as well as he did,” Kelly said of Love. “He was really good before he got dinged. He was running to the football, playing off cut blocks, playing physical, playing smart, very, very good. In terms of assignments, in terms of physicality, in terms of tackling it was really good.”

While PFF had Tranquill leading the Irish with four missed tackles, he’s been a key contributor against the option (when healthy). And against an Army attack that’ll likely pressure the edges more than Navy, the junior will be asked to play a key role in slowing down Army quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw.

One position where things don’t look quite as optimistic is defensive tackle. Junior Daniel Cage is set to meet with a concussion specialist after leaving the Miami game with a concussion.

“He’s made some progress, but anytime that somebody’s in their second week and has not fully gone through the stages as we see them, we’d like to get a second opinion and make sure that everything is good,” Kelly said.

That leaves the Irish needing more from the position, with Jarron Jones being the likely answer there. Jones played just 12 snaps against Navy, a decision that looked preventative more so than strategic, when you consider the fact that the Irish defense forced a stop in both series that the fifth-year senior played. When pressed for details on Jones’s absence on Tuesday, Kelly sounded like that might change in a must-win scenario like this Saturday.

“I think he wants to play a lot this week,” Kelly said, steering away from specifics when pressed. “We’ve got Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and we’ll see what happens.”