Pregame Twelve Pack: Navy Edition

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Bring on another Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as we head into the Navy game in the new Meadowlands.


1. Want a key to victory? Irish need to win the turnover battle.

Even though the Irish have won the yardage and first down battle in the last three games against Navy, they’ve been absolutely dominated in the turnover margin, losing 9-2 over the span.

In the 2007 triple-overtime Irish loss, the turnovers were tied 1-1, in the 27-21 escape victory in Baltimore in 2008, the Irish turned the ball over five times to Navy’s one, and in the 23-21 loss last season, the Midshipmen were flawless in the turnover department, while ND turned the ball over three times (twice in the red zone) and also missed two field goals.

Navy enters Saturday’s game ranked No. 7 in the country with a +1.2 margin on turnovers, while the Irish rank 57th in the country, so holding onto the football will be critical for the Irish.

2. Add to the critical column: Cut down the offensive three and outs.

The fine folks over at Her Loyal Sons crunched the numbers and found that on just under 22 percent of drives, the Irish go three-and-out. Obviously, that’s way too high of a number, and — well, I’ll let Domer.mq explain the rest:

We already knew that ND’s 82nd national ranking in 3rd down conversions, at just 37.89% was bad. It seems even worse if you consider that the 22 3-and-out drives by ND this season account for about 58% of the drives in which ND punted, meaning there’s quite-a-bit better than a coin-flip’s chance that if ND is punting, they’ve made absolutely no headway in one of the most important aspects of any football game: field possession. Further, at the going rate, almost 1/4th of all of ND’s 3rd down attempts will occur in the first attempt at gaining a new first down and will result in the team punting.

The number gets even uglier when you consider that only ND’s on about the same pace with 3-and-out drives as it is with TD scoring drives. Couple those 3-and-out drives with turnover drives, and the Irish offense’s TD scoring rate is overwhelmed by a “negative result” rate of about 37% over 23%. Even if you pair FGs with the TDs, the “positive result” rate only reaches 34%. More “objectively bad” drives have occurred with ND’s offense to this point in the season than have “objectively good” drives.

Just one more thing to think about: No Navy opponent this year has had more than 12 possessions in a game. Further, Navy’s opponents are only averaging about 10 possessions a game. Notre Dame’s offense averages 14 possessions per game thus far. When an opponent, like Navy, manages to eliminate 3-4 of your possessions simply by virtue of the style of football they play, you truly can’t afford to throw away 22% of the remaining possessions by going three-and-out. Some quick, cocktail napkin math extrapolates that, if all of these rates remain unchanged for the Navy/Notre Dame game this weekend, Notre Dame will only score about 17 points.

If Notre Dame is getting the ball only 10 times on Saturday, they’ll have to do better than punting after three plays on two of their possessions. The good news, as HLS points out, the Irish are trending positive, doing a better job of staying on the field.

3. Offensive efficiency is the key to Kelly’s game plan.

Navy limits teams possessions with their ball-control option attack. Head coach Brian Kelly has made it clear that the Irish are going to have to play a cleaner game of football than they’ve played in the past few weeks.

“We have to be efficient, we have to catch the ball,” Kelly said. “We have to throw it accurately, and we’ve got to run the ball.”

The key to that efficiency will be Dayne Crist, who has played good football in his first season starting at quarterback, but fallen into mini-slumps during each of his seven starts this year.

“The quarterback has to put the ball on guys. He’s got to be on his game,” Kelly said. “If he’s on his game, you know, we’ll be fine. But if he’s not efficient in throwing the football, obviously, we’ll have to struggle at times.

4. Ricky Dobbs will walk away from the Naval Academy as one of its best ever.

While his preseason Heisman campaign probably ended after a season opening loss, Ricky Dobbs is still one of the best players ever to wear the Navy uniform. Dobbs is just three rushing touchdowns shy of tying Chris McCoy‘s school record. (McCoy sits at 1oth in NCAA history for touchdowns by a quarterback.)

Dobbs’ incredible 2009 season included a NCAA single-season record for TD runs by a quarterback with 27, a feat made all the more impressive when you consider that Dobbs played the final six games of the season with a broken kneecap.

Dobbs ran for 102 yards on 31 carries last year against the Irish, and also broke the Irish’s back with a 52-yard touchdown pass on play-action.

5. If Navy wins Saturday, the Midshipmen will make history.

Three wins in four years would help make Navy’s senior class one of the most successful against Notre Dame in school history. A win this weekend by Navy would join the 2010 class with the Class of 1937 and Class of 1964 as the only classes to beat Notre Dame three times.

That 1964 class was captained by Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach.

6. A tip for the Irish defense — Tackle Vince Murray.

Only playing in two varsity games during his first two seasons at Navy, Vince Murray seemed to hit his stride last October. The 215-pound fullback from Union, Kentucky had consecutive games of over 100 yards against Southern Methodist, Wake Forest and Temple before walking into Notre Dame Stadium and setting the world on fire.

Murray absolutely killed the Irish running the ball straight up the gut, and he averaged 11.3 yards per carry against Notre Dame for 158, far and away the best game he’d ever had in a Navy uniform.

Nose tackle Ian Williams and middle linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Manti Te’o will be tasked with making sure Murray doesn’t run wild through the heart of the Irish defense again, though a knee injury may stop Williams Murray before he ever gets the chance to step on the field.

7. Stopping the Midshipmen on 4th down is critical for the Irish defense.

Head coach Ken Niumatalolo is known for his aggressive style, and that’s personified in his penchant for going for it on 4th down. Last year, Navy went for it on 4th down the fifth most times in college football, finishing 4th in the country with 19 4th down conversions and a rate just shy of 68 percent. Navy is converting on two-thirds of their attempts this year, attempting nine 4th downs through six games.

Navy converted both their 4th down attempts last year against the Irish, both on their opening drive on short runs by Dobbs, the final attempt for a one-yard touchdown run. The Irish were 0 for 2, with an incomplete pass at the Navy three-yard line costing the Irish points, and a fourth-quarter attempt going for a safety. A net swing of about nine pretty important points.

8. Bob Diaco versus the Option: A quick look.

It’s hard to complain about the job Bob Diaco has done with the Irish defense, and there’ll be no coach more in the line of fire than Diaco this weekend, who is tasked with stopping an option attack that absolutely ate up the Irish for 404 total yards and 6.1 yards per carry last season.

Earlier in the week, Brian Kelly mentioned that Diaco had experience against the triple-option attack that Navy ran, so I went back and looked for the games. Here’s Diaco’s work against Navy’s triple-option attack:

  • 2003: Navy 39, Eastern Michigan 7. As an outside linebackers coach, Diaco and defensive line coach Mike Elston‘s over-matched Eagle defense held Paul Johnson‘s Navy attack to only 11 first-half points, before the floodgates opened up.
  • 2005: Central Michigan 14, Army 10. Though not running the same attack as Navy, a Diaco coordinated Chippewa defense held Army to 239 yards and only 66 through the air in a tight battle.
  • 2008: Virginia 24, No. 18 Georgia Tech 17. Coaching linebackers under 3-4 guru Al Groh, the Cavalier defense did such a good job against Paul Johnson’s spread option that when Groh was eventually fired as head coach, he was brought on to coordinate Johnson’s Georgia Tech defense.

Looking at the great work the Cavaliers did against a Georgia Tech team that had taken the ACC by storm, Diaco should have a pretty firm grasp on what Navy’s trying to do.

9. Beware of the Red Army.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Al Lesar did a nice job profiling three Notre Dame back-up quarterbacks, Matt Mulvey, Nate Montana, and Brian Castello, a trio of (mostly) benchwarmers that walk the sideline wearing red hats and have the incredibly important job of signaling in the plays.

Lesar recounts offensive coordinator Charley Molnar talking about their importance.

“Let’s just say this, when a mistake occurs, which it does very, very infrequently, from the signalers to the players out on the field, they’ll be the first to hear about it,” said Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar. “There’s a lot of pressure on them.

“They have to be really perfect in their job because your offense has no chance if they’re not. If a signaler would make a mistake, nobody would have confidence in the signals. We can’t play football that way. (The players) have to have great confidence that the signal’s correct.”

“When they get the play call, they have to signal it almost simultaneously. Usually coach Kelly will communicate it. That’s pressure for anybody, believe me.”

Castello joked that the red hats aren’t for quarterback Dayne Crist to easily see them, but for a larger meaning.

“The true meaning of the red hats, as quarterbacks, we call ourselves ‘The Red Army.’ It came about as we all wear red jerseys as we’re all very valuable and breakable; we don’t see a lot of contact during practice. It’s kinda like a fraternity started by Evan Sharpley.

“I think we’re the most feared group on the team; and also (most) respected.”

Between the Red Army and Team Reckless, there are quiet a few funny guys on this football team.

10. David Ruffer’s expertise can be attributed to another former Notre Dame special teamer.

There’s not much left to be written about David Ruffer, the walk-on kicker that’s turned himself into an Irish folk hero. The former walk-on that’d never played in a football game is now a record-setting field goal kicker and potential All-American candidate.

How about this factoid:

Ruffer’s career as a kicker started under the tutelage of another Notre Dame special teams ace, former Irish punter Joey Hildbold, one of the top punters in Irish history. Hildbold was the special teams coach at William & Mary when Ruffer decided that he’d attempt to play football for the first time.

11. Andrew Hendrix is drawing plenty of praise on the scout team.

While he’s playing a position that won’t let him fight his way onto the field, freshman quarterback Andrew Hendrix received quite a bit of praise this week, reminding Irish fans why they were so excited to bring in the rocket-armed quarterback in the first place.

“He’s impressive,” Kelly said of the quarterback that’s playing Ricky Dobbs this week. “The ball comes out of his hand like probably one other guy that I have coached. I mean it comes out that quick and that fast. He has escape-ability and maneuverability. He has all the pieces. It’s now just going to be about getting into the offense and seeing how he picks things up from a spread quarterback standpoint. The tools are pretty impressive. When the defensive coaches rave about somebody, and they don’t do that very often, you know you have somebody who has a chance to be really good.”

I’ve mentioned it a few times this season, but it’s doubtful that all three freshman quarterback remain on this roster until the end of their senior season. Here’s hoping Kelly does a better job convincing guys that they’ve got a chance at winning the quarterback job than Charlie Weis did, who ran both Zach Frazer and Demetrius Jones out of town after it was clear that Jimmy Clausen was being given the starting quarterback job his freshman season.

12. A four game winning streak would be incredibly rare for this team.

If the Irish win Saturday against the Midshipmen, it’ll be a four-game winning streak for Brian Kelly’s bunch. How rare of an achievement is that for this team? Well, consider that not a single senior on this roster has won four straight games.

The only members of the roster that have a four-game winning streak under their belt are Barry Gallup, Chris Stewart, and Darrin Walls, all fifth-year players that were a part of the 2006 team.

It’s been a tough four-year stretch…

Spring won’t answer all of Notre Dame’s questions

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With spring practice mere weeks away, it is tempting to think Notre Dame’s 2019 will be well in focus by mid-April, if not by the end of March. Some positions may find clarity in that timespan, but other wonderings will hardly be put to rest, if at all. Admittedly, that will not stop discussions of those questions in the interim, including in these parts before spring practice even commences.

Before diving into spring practice previews, let’s acknowledge the things not to be learned before the summer …

Phil Jurkovec’s development will be neither rapid nor dismal this spring. The sample size of drill-heavy moments should not be weighed too heavily when discussing the rising sophomore quarterback’s progress. Barring injury to rising senior Ian Book, Jurkovec will not enter the summer as the Irish starter. Barring injury to Jurkovec, he will not fall lower than second on the depth chart, either.

What may be most crucial to Jurkovec’s short-term success will be the time he spends in the summer studying film of himself throughout the spring. Those lessons could lead to leaps and bounds before August, not necessarily in the meantime.

Notre Dame will not firmly determine a No. 2 cornerback anytime before August, at least not until fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford gets a chance to practice healthy following a torn ACL last August. Rising senior Troy Pride will be the unquestioned heir to Julian Love’s role as the best coverage corner while rising sophomore TaRiq Bracy challenges rising senior Donte Vaughn (pictured at top) to be Pride’s counterpart.

One of those two may emerge, but Crawford will still get a chance in the preseason. If nothing else, his ability to prove healthy and capable enough to handle nickel back duties could ease the pressure on finding someone to fit there, thus perhaps altering the equation throughout the entire secondary.

Running backs coach Lance Taylor’s impact will not be perceptible, possibly not for quite awhile. Taylor’s work will be seen in positional recruiting — which could conceivably take a cycle or two to actually yield the desired results — and in the usage of the running backs in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s September game plans.

Just last preseason, Avery Davis looked the part of a dangerous utility knife. His work in the red zone in preseason practices foreshadowed coming headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. Instead, the quarterback-turned-running back managed just 27 touches for 100 yards and no scores. By November, opposing defensive coordinators’ scouting reports barely mentioned Davis.

If Davis or a rising sophomore (C’Bo Flemister more likely than Jahmir Smith) or even the upperclassmen atop the depth chart impress in the passing game this spring, hold the exhilaration until they do so against a Power-Five foe in September, and preferably not one coming off a season viewed as nothing but a defensive calamity. (No offense, Louisville.)

The Irish will have punter and kicker questions into September. Despite the early enrollment of punter Jay Bramblett and a full offseason devoted to rising junior kicker Jonathan Doerer, replacing multi-year starting specialists is not an undertaking to be taken lightly. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian will spend more time with the legs than they have in recent years.

Winters in South Bend reduce how much spring work kickers and punters get. The new indoor facility will not be ready for use until mid-to-late summer, meaning every day the Irish have to spend indoors this spring is a day the kickers are unlikely to get more than a few swings in.

Doerer might have an excellent Blue-Gold Game (on April 13), knocking in multiple 40-yard field goals. Bramblett could boom a couple punts with no signs of nerves. Until they show such in pressure situations, their real worth will remain unknown.

Such are the perils of talkin’ ‘bout practice, to quote an 11-time NBA All-Star as All-Star Weekend begins.

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting success continues into 2020

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Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2019 included a defensive line emphasis featuring 5 four-star prospects. That trend has already continued into the next recruiting cycle with the Wednesday commitment from rivals.com four-star defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (J.K. Mullen High School; Denver).

The No. 17 defensive tackle in the country, per rivals.com, Keanaaina joins Düsseldorf defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger among the five commits in the Irish class of 2020. Keanaaina holds offers from all the Power Five conferences, including the majority of the Pac 12, led by Oregon and USC, and the majority of the Big 10, led by Michigan and Ohio State.

His anticipatory play is aided by solid tackling form and a wide body. That frame, in particular, should lend itself to further development in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.

By signing two defensive tackles in the class of 2019, the Irish depth chart reached minimum levels at the position. All six tackles currently on that depth chart should return in 2020, making it less of an absolute necessity to sign a pair this cycle, though that remains more likely than not.

Notre Dame officially announces Lance Taylor as RB coach

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Notre Dame finally confirmed the hire of Lance Taylor as running backs coach Tuesday. Taylor’s addition to the Irish coaching staff was first widely reported last month.

Replacing Autry Denson — who took over as head coach at Charleston Southern — Taylor spent the last two seasons coaching receivers with the Carolina Panthers and was the running backs coach at Stanford from 2014 to 2016.

“I was primarily looking for two things,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “The candidate had to have the right skill set. He needs to be a great teacher and communicator. He also needs to fit Notre Dame, culturally, and Lance, most certainly, possesses all of those qualities. He recruited at an extremely high level during his time at Stanford, and he worked with the very best in the NFL. His ability to bring both of those experiences together makes him a perfect fit for our staff.”

The time at Stanford, in particular, sets up Taylor for success at Notre Dame, having successfully recruited players to an academic institution and then developed them to on-field success. Namely, Taylor recruited Bryce Love and worked with both him and Christian McCaffrey.

RELATED READING: Lance Taylor checks all the boxes Notre Dame needs in new running backs coach

“I’ve been blessed to work at some incredible places in my career, but Notre Dame is truly special,” Taylor said. “I’m honored and humbled to represent this incredible University as its running backs coach. I’d like to thank both Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for this opportunity. I’m excited to get on campus, meet our players and get to work.”

Taylor will have his work cut out for him this spring as the Irish need to replace Dexter Williams. Rising junior Jafar Armstrong is the presumed starter, granted health, with rising senior Tony Jones his primary backup. After those two, Taylor has nothing but raw and unproven talent awaiting him in rising sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister and early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams, not to mention rising junior quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis.

No other coaching staff turnover should be expected at this point in the offseason.

Leading candidates to be Notre Dame captains

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Notre Dame has not begun spring practice yet, unlike Labor Day opponent Louisville. (Yes, really, the Cardinals held their first practice under new head coach Scott Satterfield on Monday.) At some point near the beginning of spring practice, though, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will likely name a few 2019 team captains.

Notre Dame narrowed the candidates for the parlor game of guessing those captains by announcing the eight “SWAT” leaders earlier this month, a subset identified as the motivating and organizing forces of offseason activities. Those eight …

— Senior quarterback Ian Book
— Senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg
— Senior safety Jalen Elliott
— Fifth-year receiver Chris Finke
— Senior safety Alohi Gilman (pictured at top)
— Junior right tackle Robert Hainsey
— Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem
— Senior defensive end Julian Okwara

Half of the eight could have eligibility in 2020 — Book, Eichenberg, Gilman and Hainsey — but the better indicators of captainship do not inherently tie to that. For example, it is expected Gilman will head to the NFL following the 2019 season if he plays well enough to warrant that pondering at all. His transfer following the 2017 season was entirely due to professional aspirations. That, along with his competitive attitude very clearly demonstrated during last season’s unbeaten run, makes Gilman a frontrunner in this speculation.

Book, meanwhile, is unlikely to be one of the captains simply because the starting quarterback already serves in that role to some de facto extent. The coaching staff generally prefers to elevate a few others while not taking away from the inherent nature of the quarterback position.

On the other hand, the Irish have had at least one captain on the offensive line each of the last seven seasons. Either Eichenberg or Hainsey seems positioned to continue that, the former with an additional year in the program but the latter with one more season of playing time under his belt.

Presuming one of those offensive linemen joins Gilman, it remains likely Notre Dame names at least one more captain. His rise from walk-on to offensive contributor and multiple-year starter makes Finke uniquely relatable to the entire roster.

Guessing here is, of course, inconsequential, but with spring practice about three weeks away on the horizon, pondering now helps pass that time.