You can’t solve the triple option. That’s Brian Kelly’s conclusion. And Notre Dame’s head coach should know.
After enlisting trusted assistant Bob Elliott to go on a deep dive, after playing Navy, Georgia Tech, and Army over his six-plus seasons, and as the Irish embark on their annual battle with the Midshipmen, Brian Kelly reached the conclusion that there’s no stopping the triple option, only the hope of containing it.
“You can’t have all the answers,” Kelly said Tuesday.
That doesn’t mean the Irish staff hasn’t tried. Elliott went hat in hand around college football, breaking bread with staffs that had success slowing down Ken Niumatalolo and Paul Johnson’s offense. He came back with some answers that certainly helped—the Irish won both their matchups against triple option opponents, key objectives to the 2015 season as Georgia Tech was coming off of an Orange Bowl win and Navy was expecting—and had—one of the school’s best teams.
So Kelly changed his approach after the offseason, restructuring his team’s practice schedule last season, incorporating option work each week with his “swag team.” That gave his defense a look at the option every week by a unit run by walk-on Rob Regan, a standout high school option quarterback recruited for this single purpose.
So with Notre Dame’s defense settled in after their midseason ejection of Brian VanGorder, the Irish now face their first changeup. After rebooting their scheme, simplifying their structure and juggling their depth chart, the young Irish defense now goes to work against a Navy offense that’s rebuilt at nearly every position, but hasn’t seemed to miss a beat.
So that means work. An extra grind. Because there’s no Sheldon Day to win up front. No Jaylon Smith to erase mistakes. No Joe Schmidt to coordinate the attack or Elijah Shumate to play every snap.
“There’s late nights, and they are watching extra film. There is extra preparation for a team like this. This is a difficult week in preparation,” Kelly explained. “But having said that, we have a system that is now in place that I think will help them as we teach it to them.”
That system will be put to the test. Especially with so many pieces of personnel seeing Navy for the first time. The young secondary will be tested every snap. Nyles Morgan will get his first look since he replaced Joe Schmidt when the team’s then MVP went down with a season-ending injury. Even veteran Jarron Jones, coming off his best game in an Irish uniform, will be seeing things for the first time in two season—a 2014 game where Jones struggled mightily in the trenches.
But many of the changes this defense incorporated will be carried forward to Saturday. And after a very shallow rotation last season, Kelly expects to keep bodies moving in and out—preparing his troops for two straight weeks of option offense with Army on deck in the Shamrock Series.
“From our standpoint, we’re just playing a lot of players,” Kelly said, when comparing this year’s approach to last season. “I think we were at a point there where we weren’t in a deep rotation of players. We were grinding out some of the front line guys, and they were getting all the reps.
“We’re going to go deep with a lot of players. I think that that will probably be the biggest thing that we do is play a lot of players up front.”
With Greer Martini in the concussion protocol and questionable to be back on Saturday, the Irish might be short one of their key option specialists. But Drue Traquill is playing excellent football and Kelly mentioned unsung defenders like Nicco Fertitta as having a big responsibility this weekend.
But after getting away from VanGorder’s philosophy of looking for a perfect counter to every scheme, Kelly sounds like a coach comfortable with the fact that sometimes—especially if the option is being executed properly—there is no answer, other than to win your battle and make a play.
“More than anything else, when it comes to defending Navy, they strike on such a broad front,” Kelly said. “In other words, you can’t take away a particular play. I think there was some thought, take away the fullback. Well, they don’t care if you take away the fullback. That’s okay. They’ll run, toss, sweep 47 times.
“So I think it was more about there’s not a specific thing that you take away as much as, at times, you’re going to have to fight through a block-on-block situation to make a play. It never becomes a math equation, where in a lot of the football that’s played, you can get an extra hat to a particular run play and outnumber them, you can’t do it against this offense. So don’t try.”