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And In That Corner … The Navy Midshipmen and everyone’s least-favorite opposing offense

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There might never be a good time to face Navy’s triple-option offense, but Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has said he prefers it coming after the idle week, removing the impetus to work on defending the unique attack as much during the rest of the season. The Irish still typically prep some in the preseason and certainly get the scout team ready in the weeks preceding, but the primary work comes during this bit of extra time. Nonetheless, Kelly would not mind more.

“We could use two more bye weeks to prepare for Navy in terms of what they present to you,” Kelly said Tuesday.

Notre Dame does not have two more weeks, and neither do Irish fans. Here to offer a refresher on the Midshipmen is Ava Wallace of The Washington Post

DF: Ava, it is not like Navy is an unknown commodity to Notre Dame fans, or any college football fans, yet this year seems to be quite the anomaly. Thanks for taking some time to perhaps explain it to us. This is, by far, the worst start to a season in Ken Niumatalolo’s 11 years there. Have you been surprised by this 2-5 beginning, or was the dip somewhat expected?

AW: A dip of this level was definitely unexpected. I think the fan base was prepared for some growing pains, as this is a relatively young team facing a pretty tough schedule, but to lose to Air Force in that fashion and to drop two games at home  which so rarely happens at Navy  has been somewhat shocking. You can see it in the stands each week; the crowds this year have looked thinner than usual. (Editor’s Note: Navy lost 35-7 at Air Force and lost its last two games, against Temple and Houston, at home.)

He may not be the starting quarterback anymore, but Malcolm Perry’s running ability keeps him a key part of Navy’s offensive attack. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)

DF: Maybe I am forgetting an instance or two, but I cannot remember the last time there was this much of a question around Navy’s quarterback. Even Kelly said he has readied for three different possibilities  Garret Lewis, Malcolm Perry and Zach Abey. They bring three very different skill sets, kind of shocking considering the offense they all run. Which do you expect to carry the load Saturday night?

AW: For the first time in a few weeks, we finally have some clarity! Niumatalolo said Tuesday after practice he’s going to continue starting Garret Lewis at quarterback and Malcolm Perry at slotback. Zach Abey will continue his quarterback/wide receiver role. Niumatalolo clearly wants his offense to find some consistency here, which is something they’ve struggled with all season. This setup also makes the most sense to me, in that Lewis is much more confident in his arm than Perry is and makes the offense that much more versatile and dangerous as a result. And hey, if they still want Perry to have the ball every snap, that’s still an option.

DF: Earlier this season you spoke of that mythological creature to me, something akin to the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot … a passing threat as Navy’s quarterback. Can Lewis be a viable change of pace in both a game and in the season? Any tilt toward passing would be quite a shift for Niumatalolo’s triple-option.

AW: Now now, “threat” might be a bit of a stretch … but Lewis certainly gives Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper more options than Perry did. I don’t think we’ll see any shift toward the passing game because at the end of the day, Lewis is still a triple-option quarterback, Navy’s been doing what Navy does for decades and Niumatalolo has preached after every game that the Midshipmen can’t panic just because of this slide. To me, upending your offensive playbook reeks of panic. But Lewis does offer a nice change of pace in his own way. Just watching him in games, he has a control and comfort leading this offense that Perry really had to work for.

DF: Looking at the stats, Navy is rushing for 310.1 yards per game, a number it fell to as recently as 2016, when it still reached the AAC title game. The figure that is lower than usual is the yards per attempt at 5.13, lowest since Niumatalolo’s second year, 2009. Not to get too simple, especially when talking about five yards per rush, but where is the shortcoming most apparent? Ball carriers? Offensive line?

AW: It’s never one single thing, but the factor that comes to mind first is the play calling. Jasper was the first to say so after the Air Force game, a low point for the offense in which the Mids had 129 rushing yards and averaged 3.1 yards per rush. Especially during the first five games of the season, the offense has been more one-dimensional than in the past, and Jasper is relying a ton on Perry. Navy made it easier than usual for defenses to adapt when he had Perry run the ball every snap. Perry’s also on the smaller side  he’s listed somewhat generously at 5-foot-10 and even though he’s added weight, he is a slight kid who took a beating at quarterback. Once defenses figured out he was going to carry the ball 85 percent of the time, Navy’s offense was easy to limit.

Jasper has since remedied that and the offense has looked good for spurts in the past two games, but the slotback corps is young. They’re relying more and more on the fullbacks each game. It’s helping, now they just need to stay consistent for more than one half.

DF: Defensively, Navy is giving up 419.7 yards per game. That is more than usual, but still not an outrageous outlier. Four of the last seven seasons have included defenses giving up more than 400 yards per game. Is this year’s slight uptick a byproduct of the offense not holding onto the ball as much or just a bit worse of a defense?

AW: I think it’s mainly a product of the offense not holding onto the ball as much. Navy’s defense has had good moments and they have a few quality playmakers, but they’ve faced solid offenses so far and have received little support from their own offense.

In his 11th season at Navy, Ken Niumatalolo is in danger of missing a bowl game for only the second time. The Midshipmen went 5-7 in 2011. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

DF: Lastly, it needs to be asked, how have Niumtalolo’s recent flirtations with other jobs been received around Navy? A few years ago he considered heading to BYU. This offseason it seemed he was about to go to Arizona. Acceptable after a decade or still viewed in a negative light?

AW: The thing that matters to most to this fan base is that he’s stayed both times when he could have left for bigger programs. He’s earned himself a lot of leeway and trust because of that. At this point, given the loyalty he’s showed to this school, I think most fans understand and accept that he’s going to at least follow up with job offers when other schools come calling.

DF: And before we go, how about a prediction? Can Navy keep Saturday night within three scores?

AW: Here are the two contrasting things I’m wrestling with: Notre Dame has had an extra week to prepare for the triple-option, and Navy has fared pretty well as an underdog against these guys in the past couple of years. But ultimately, nothing about this season at Navy is going as well as the past couple of years have, so I’m going with 51-24 Notre Dame.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest

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A sign of a strong program is one that loses players to the NFL before they exhaust eligibility. In that vein, Notre Dame lost a consensus first-team All-American cornerback, its leading receiver and a long-time tease of a tight end. The last of those (Alizé Mack) was never expected back for a fifth season; replacing Miles Boykin’s production is certainly within reason; and a consensus first-team All-American should be expected to take the route junior Julian Love has.

Even with that expectation, losing Love — and to a lesser extent, Boykin — alters the natural roster cycle, the inherent design intended during recruiting. Reloading is always the hope, the next intention, but very rarely is the young backup comparable to the near professional, even by the end of the coming season.

Nonetheless, the Irish got off easy this cycle compared to four of their 2019 opponents …

GEORGIA: Junior running back Elijah Holyfield, the Bulldogs’ second-leading rusher, departs after gaining 1,018 rushing yards with seven touchdowns on 6.4 yards per carry this season. Frankly, that is the least of Georgia’s losses. Three of quarterback Jake Fromm’s four favorite targets will leave eligibility on the figurative table:

— Junior receiver Riley Ridley: 44 catches for 570 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018.
— Junior receiver Mecole Hardman: 34 catches for 532 yards and seven touchdowns.
— Junior tight end Isaac Nauta: 30 catches for 430 yards and three touchdowns.

Without running back Karan Higdon, Michigan will presumably rely on its passing game more in 2019, quarterback Shea Patterson’s second season as a Wolverine. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

MICHIGAN: The Wolverines got good news when quarterback Shea Patterson opted to return for 2019, but losing leading-rusher Karan Higdon (1,178 yards, 10 touchdowns, 5.3 average) will be an issue head coach Jim Harbaugh undoubtedly hoped to avoid. Junior tight end Zach Gentry, Patterson’s third-most prolific target with 32 catches for 514 yards and two scores, will also head to the next level.

On the flip side, Harbaugh could have hoped linebacker Devin Bush (team-leading 80 tackles with 9.5 for loss including five sacks), defensive end Rashan Gary (44 tackles with seven for loss including 3.5 sacks) or linebacker David Long (17 tackles with one interception) might return, but no such luck for Michigan.

Duke junior quarterback Daniel Jones will head to the NFL after his third season as a starter, immediately lowering the Blue Devils’ 2019 expectations. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

DUKE: Junior linebacker Joe Giles-Harris paced the Blue Devils with 81 tackles, including seven for loss with one sack, doing so in only nine games. But losing Giles-Harris is hardly the concern for Duke. The decision to turn pro from quarterback Daniel Jones is.

In his third year as a starter, the junior fought through a broken collarbone to still play in 11 games in 2018, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 2,674 yards and 22 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He added 319 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Jones’ decision may come as a surprise, but it is one that should work out well for both him and Notre Dame. Some mock drafts project him as a top-10 pick. In a draft light on quarterbacks — partly because Oregon’s Justin Herbert returned for another season, yet already somewhat counteracted by the Monday draft entry from Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray — Jones could end up being the third or fourth passer picked.

BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles will say farewell to junior cornerback Hemp Cheevers after he notched seven interceptions this season, returning one for a touchdown, to go along with 39 tackles.

STANFORD: This will seem like the Cardinal lost a lot to the NFL draft, but it could have been worse: As the departures mounted, so did speculation junior quarterback K.J. Costello might follow them. He opted not to.

Stanford will be without running back Bryce Love after his prodigious two seasons as the starter. Consider that a loss akin to the Irish Love, the inevitable price of enjoying the success in the first place.

Junior receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside will capitalize on his breakout season of 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns, depriving Costello of his favorite jump-ball threat.

Junior tight end Kaden Smith will also head to the next level, in large part thanks to his 47 catches for 635 yards and two touchdowns this past season.

Louisville, New Mexico, Virginia, Bowling Green, USC, Virginia Tech and Navy all did not lose anyone early or pseudo-early to the NFL draft.

Autry Denson leaves Notre Dame to take over at Charleston Southern

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Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher will no longer coach its current running backs. After four seasons at his alma mater, Autry Denson has been named the head coach at Charleston Southern, an FCS-level program, per a release Monday afternoon.

The second-longest tenured coach on Brian Kelly’s staff (behind only defensive line coach Mike Elston; tied with cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght), Denson had produced quality Irish backs, peaking with Josh Adams’ 1,430 rushing yards in 2017, leading an offense that averaged 269.5 rushing yards per game.

“I am so excited for Autry as he embarks on the next step of his coaching career as the new head coach at Charleston Southern,” Kelly said in a statement. “He has done a tremendous job for us during his time at Notre Dame.

“He not only developed our running backs to produce at a high level on the field, but he was also instrumental in their growth as young men.”

Only Adams and C.J. Prosise broke 1,000 rushing yards in a season under Denson, though Dexter Williams gained 995 in only nine games this past season. A third-round pick in 2016, Prosise has spent his entire career with the Seattle Seahawks, while Adams rushed for 511 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Williams should join them in the NFL in April’s draft.

All of them paled in comparison to Denson’s college days, a career that saw him gain 4,318 rushing yards, 43 touchdowns and three seasons of more than 1,000 rushing yards. A 1998 All-American, Denson then spent five years in the NFL.

Denson began his coaching career at the FCS level at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., a couple hundred miles up the coast from his hometown outside of Miami.

“I was drawn to Charleston Southern by the vision of this great Christian university of integrating faith in learning, leading and serving,” Denson said. “As a result, I knew this could be a place where I could build and lead a program to honor Christ by operating with character, integrity, transparency, accountability and community.”

Charleston Southern went 5-6 in 2018 under Mark Tucker, who went 11-11 in two seasons before resigning last month.

Program-record 10 early enrollees mark the beginning of Notre Dame’s 2019

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With the early enrollment of 10 freshmen, Notre Dame’s 2019 has begun. Usually this sparks a debate among outsiders pitting the advantages of early enrollment against the high school experiences lost. Not only is that an argument held by those far from both the program and high school, but it is also one missing the team-wide edge gained.

With 10 additional scholarship bodies this spring, the Irish will have 77 on hand, as of now. A total of 16 of those will be offensive linemen, including four mid-year arrivals. Whereas there are some springs in which Notre Dame struggles to field a second unit on its offensive line, this March and April will feature three complete units with a body to spare.

There will be just as many defensive lines, with three early enrollees bringing the total up to 14 scholarship players knocking around this spring, though the health of rising sophomore Ja’Mion Franklin (quad) may drop that a notch.

Either way, the Irish will have more depth on hand this spring than usual. The 10 freshmen spurning a semester of high school will still have their chance at added weight room time, meaningful spring repetitions and theoretical development, but those rewards can end up as much hypothetical as realized. It is nearly impossible to predict if running back Kyren Williams (pictured above) will be tangibly more developed in September because he got to South Bend in January. Linebacker Jack Kiser is unlikely to play much as a freshman in either scenario; punter Jay Bramblett is certainly going to no matter what. However, the opportunity to have thorough practices with up-front depth should only enhance the effects of this spring.

None of this will ever become exactly normal, even if Notre Dame has increased its early enrollee numbers from beginning in 2006 to seven last season and now these 10. Of this grouping, some are the first to make this exact leap in their high school’s history. Many private schools do not make such possible. For that matter, this influx speaks to this group in particular, not an overall trend.

It is, nonetheless, a group receiving many of the same praises Irish head coach Brian Kelly has offered in years past and will undoubtedly offer as long as he remains in this post.

“These guys are serious about what they are doing,” Kelly said in December’s early signing period. “They are signing up for getting a degree and winning a national championship. These are not silly guys. These are guys that are really focused on coming here to win a national championship.”

Of course, that is always Kelly’s stated goal. The national championship game may be 364 days from now, but that process has already begun anew.

The 10 early enrollees:
Offensive tackles Quinn Carroll and Andrew Kristofic
Offensive guard John Olmstead
Center Zeke Correll
Running back Kyren Williams
Defensive tackles Jacob Lacey and Hunter Spears
Defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah
Linebacker Jack Kiser
Punter Jay Bramblett

Claypool’s return welcome news for Notre Dame

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Notre Dame will need to replace only one receiver next season. Chase Claypool announced he will return for his senior season Thursday evening. This may have been long presumed, but less qualified players have entered the NFL draft with eligibility remaining in years past.

With the departure of Miles Boykin, Claypool will become the leading Irish target, the prime candidate to replace Boykin’s 59 catches for 872 yards and eight touchdowns. A year ago, asking Claypool to put up numbers like that would have been a leap beyond reason, but after a 2018 season in which he accounted for 50 catches, 639 yards and four touchdowns, Claypool becoming an offense’s best playmaker is fathomable beyond just pinning those hopes on the Canadian native’s athleticism.

Claypool’s career began as a special teams star, making 11 tackles in 2016, while catching only five passes for 81 yards. An inconsistent sophomore season followed, managing 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns. Those may sound like solid numbers, but they include only five catches in the season’s final four games and only one game with more than four catches all season.

Claypool had at least four catches in seven games this season, all started by junior quarterback Ian Book. With Book throwing, Claypool averaged 4.67 catches and 58.56 yards per game, highlighted by eight for 130 at Northwestern.

Claypool and current senior Chris Finke will presumably both start again, while one of a number of rising sophomores could step in either for Boykin on the boundary or for Claypool on the field side with Claypool possibly taking over boundary duties.

With five catches for 90 yards in his freshman campaign and a skill set similar to Boykin’s, Kevin Austin may be the front-runner for that starting role.