Irish defense prepares for difficult option test

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With a little over 48 hours until Notre Dame and Navy play, the final pieces of installation around going in before the chess match between two coaching staffs take place. For the Irish, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder gets his first chance at stopping the triple-option in over a decade.

Since his days at Georgia, the closest VanGorder has gotten to taking down an option offense was when he dismantled one in his single season as the head coach of Georgia Southern in 2006. So as the Irish staff prepares for Ken Niumatalolo and Ivin Jasper, a few small pieces of the game plan have started to reveal themselves.

Yesterday, defensive tackle Jarron Jones let slip that Isaac Rochell will slide inside to play alongside Jones while Sheldon Day will man one of the defensive end spots. It’s a move similar to the ones utilized the past few seasons, where Stephon Tuitt played on the interior instead of on the edge of the defense.

But while you’ll see different fronts and calls aimed at slowing down the option, Jones said it’ll be based out of Notre Dame’s core scheme.

“It doesn’t take away our aggressiveness, it just alters it,” Jones told Rachel Terlep of the Elkhart Truth. “We’re going to run some different stuff, different fronts … Just some alternatives, but it’s still the same scheme.”

If there’s a major question mark involved in the Irish defense, it isn’t the reshuffling of Jones, Rochell or Day, but rather how the other young defenders will matchup on Saturday night.

A defensive end spot manned by Andrew Trumbetti, Romeo Okwara and Grant Blankenship will need to be ready to take on an option attack that’ll feel like warp speed compared to the scout team they saw this week. And on a week where being 1/11th of the defense is absolutely critical, getting aggressive but positionally correct play out of a trio still learning on the job will be critical.

Those fundamentals are hardly limited to defensive end. While Bob Diaco’s defense found ways to play smart but conservative on the back end, that’s hardly been a hallmark of this year’s secondary. And with cornerbacks Cody Riggs and Cole Luke likely asked to play some man coverage, the Midshipmen might only throw the ball a half-dozen times, but each attempt has the chance of being a big play.

We saw cornerback Devin Butler fall victim to a trick play against North Carolina, giving up big yardage over the top on a reverse pass, something the Irish likely prepared for during the week. Last year, Navy hit a big completion early in the fourth quarter that pulled the Midshipmen ahead on a Reynolds 34-yard touchdown throw.

Safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate have never played together in a game like this, where communication and assignments are the first key to stopping an offense that does its best to neutralize the Irish’s athletic advantage. Expect Matthias Farley to play big minutes as well, utilizing his physicality in the slot as a tackler crashing down on the line of scrimmage. Freshman Drue Tranquill will likely have a big role in the game plan, a strategic weapon that’s been a big part of the blitz scheme implemented so far.

After playing two below-average games by his standards over the past few weeks, Jaylon Smith has the opportunity to fill the stat sheet. Converted wide receiver James Onwualu will likely be in for a large learning curve, buoyed with the healthy return of Ben Councell. And Joe Schmidt will have a large duty, forced to find a way to slow down a fullback dive that’s averaging nearly eight yards a carry.

A year after learning on the fly, Smith will still be doing the same, now lined up in a different position. But it’s clear he understands the challenge — especially early — that he and his teammates face.

“It doesn’t matter how well you prepare for it, it isn’t going to be as efficient as Navy is going to run it,” Smith said Wednesday. “You’ve got to get adjusted to it. The first quarter is going to be fast.”