And In That Corner … Down a QB and with blocking rules hampering it, Navy’s triple-option awaits Notre Dame


Notre Dame’s 95th meeting with Navy may not be filled with as much on-field intrigue as last week’s upset of Clemson was, but the Midshipmen present such a unique foe, there is always a new wrinkle to consider in that program.

These days, that wrinkle is how Navy (3-6) will respond to yet another disappointing season, looking like it will be the third in a row in which the Midshipmen will miss a bowl game, not to mention the third in a row in which they will not win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.

What should No. 20 Notre Dame (6-3) fear from Navy? Let’s ask John Schofield of the Sing Second Sports podcast, one of the better-named podcasts in college football.

DF: John, before we delve into this weekend, let’s give my readers a rundown on Sing Second Sports. How long has it been diving deep into Navy football? It is an undercovered team, from a media perspective.

JS: The Sing Second Sports Podcast has been in “deep dive” since the height of the pandemic. Actually, we hatched the idea in January 2020 with a plan to kick off the podcast in March with a focus on the Navy basketball team’s run in the Patriot League schedule and upcoming March Madness. As we all know, that March Madness never happened, but by May, we picked up the pieces, learned Zoom and got the pod off the ground.

And in this answer is the thrust of our mission. We talk football. And football is the center of gravity for USNA sports for many people. But we believe the physical mission of the Academy is our foundation. We cover all the sports — 35 D1 sports in all — and the alumni and the staff and, well, everything. The BYU game in August 2020 in front of no fans was the first football game this pod officially covered, but we had been delivering stories about all the sports at Navy since May 2020.

Through two weeks of this season, I knew what to think of Navy. It was bad, the struggles of the last couple years carrying into 2022. Then the Midshipmen had an earlier idle week than most teams, and they came out swinging afterward, beating East Carolina and Tulsa, playing Air Force and SMU close. Taking this chronologically, what changed during the off week?

It is tough to say what changed and how the team came out more competitive. For us, we have noticed this trendline the last few years. Pandemic or not, this is a slower team out of the gate in the last five years. Everyone knows the demands on a Navy football player are many, but there seemed to be no magic elixir out of the idle week other than rest and more reps. For us, as fans and podcasters, the schizophrenia of the team regardless of idle weeks is a bit head-scratching. Maybe they got Tulsa on a really bad day. Maybe SMU overlooked them. Personally, we don’t think Air Force is very good. But the only constant for Navy has been the defense. The offense showed up for Tulsa. Beyond that, the D has carried them all year.

All told, Navy won three of six games following the idle week, perhaps a humble start but that stretch still featured nearly as many wins as all of last season (4). The last of this year’s wins, at least to date, was nearly lost, though, and it came at quite a cost. Junior quarterback Tai Lavatai, a two-year starter, was knocked out for the season. In his stead came junior Xavier Arline, correct? While Lavatai was no Keenan Reynolds or Malcolm Perry, losing him still seems to have condemned the Midshipmen offense. How much is the dropoff from Lavatai to Arline? What can Arline do that should worry Notre Dame?

Since his plebe year, this pod has been 100 percent “Ride or Die with Tai.” He has a presence and “dog” about him that was obvious early on. He has an ok arm by Navy QB standards, but the comparisons to Keenan and Malcolm stop when it comes to running the triple-option. His command of the offense and his teammates was there, yes.

Speed to the corners, reads on the option, well-timed pitches — those were generally missing. Granted, Tai has not had the benefit of good slot backs and elite full backs like Keenan and Malcolm enjoyed, but he lacked the speed and results Keenan and Malcolm brought.

The NCAA rule crackdown on cut blocking has hurt Navy in this regard in recent seasons. In fact, the art of the cut block has often been discussed in and around Notre Dame games and other high-profile opponents because of the prevalence of injuries and frustration with Navy’s cut block methods.

Either way, Lavatai is gone and Xavier Arline steps into the breach. Xavier is quicker and seemingly favored by the coaches in the running of the triple-option, but he is diminutive and seemingly has no arm and spent the spring scoring goals for lacrosse.

Look for the same thing you saw against Cincinnati: Arline and Massai Maynor will play in a sort of platoon. While this presents a great opportunity for those two young men, it goes without saying that losing Tai definitely HURT more than anything else. Arline can hurt Notre Dame by making smart plays, facilitating time-consuming drives and not turning the ball over. That is the hurt he brings. But he won’t kill the Irish as a playmaker.

You mention the blocking rule changes. How were those received at Navy? What can be done to better adjust moving forward?

The rule change made almost no news. There wasn’t a lot of coverage of it. But yeah, of course it hurts. It is a foundational element of the offensive scheme. The Mids could get away with having offensive tackles who weren’t 350 pounds because they could use speed and the cut to neutralize the larger defensive front. Going forward, I think the offense has to evolve. Away from the option? No. But more of a focus needs to be paid on effective O-line in recruiting and coaching to overcome this.

Editor’s Note: Schofield recommended a recent column from the Capital Gazette — New cut blocking rules have hurt Navy’s ability to execute the triple-option

From afar, my looks at Navy have suggested the greatest Irish worry might be Navy’s rush defense, but given how Notre Dame has been running of late, that seems hard to believe. The Midshipmen give up just 3.18 yards per rush and 88 yards per game. I know it is more than teams enjoying passing so much, given some advanced numbers, but that may be a significant piece of it. How strongly do you think Navy may stand up against the Irish ground game, most notably Bus-sized Audric Estimé?

As previously noted, Navy’s defense is the key and the prime mover of any success we’ll have the rest of the season. They aren’t big. They aren’t fast. But defensive coordinator Brian Newberry has schemed them to success. An occasional blowout has befallen the Mids in recent years, yes, but the defense is generally the best asset. Estimé is big, but the Mids have faced down the likes of Jerome Bettis with similar lack of size, speed and 5-star recruit. The bend-but-don’t-break style of the defense has a tough job Saturday. If the offense can’t string together first downs and give them some respite, the sheer science of it all says the Irish O-line and running backs start running wild. More than the running game, how do the Mids stop tight end Michael Mayer? That will be the question.

I do not mean to be cursory when it comes to the Midshipmen on the field, but this team has been competitive only inconsistently and with Notre Dame seeming to once again find its identity, I struggle to see on-field aspects remaining compelling for too long on Saturday. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but we’ll get to that. Before asking you for a prediction, let me ask the 30,000-foot question: How is Ken Niumatalolo’s job security at this point? He has been an institution, but he has also gone 10-21 across the last three seasons.

Niuamatalolo’s job security is often discussed amongst the alumni (who can be demanding and hard to please) and pundits in these parts, but many of us believe he has done enough for this program — and the young men who are being coached and mentored to be Naval officers as well as athletes — to dictate when he leaves. To many others, that assertion is laughable. He is the highest paid coach at Navy and you mentioned the recent record.

The standard can slide a little bit, particularly given how the pandemic really crushed Navy. There aren’t “Covid years” and grad transfers and other opportunities like that for Navy. So, Niumatalolo gets a pass there. But another losing season this year and another year without the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy are not good resume bullets. And if it’s another year getting blown out by Notre Dame and a loss to Army, whispers for Kenny’s ouster WILL get louder.

For us, it’s tough. This is a business. Niumatalolo knows that. And famous coaches have been shown the door by schools where statues honor them because of the business aspect. What Kenny has done to help shape these men to be difference-makers in the Navy and Marine Corps cannot be calculated. Unfortunately wins and losses can be calculated.

Now let’s jump to your prediction. Notre Dame remains a 15-point favorite. How do you see Saturday afternoon unfolding?

Prediction? Pain….

Sorry, couldn’t resist the “Rocky III” joke, but I think Saturday will be painful for the Mids. It’s possible they benefit from an Irish letdown after the amazing Clemson performance. It’s also possible that Marcus Freeman sees this game as a stepping stone being in contention for a major Bowl. And I’m sure every Irish coach, player and fan sees the opportunity here with Navy, Boston College  and USC left on the schedule. Destroying Navy and BC and hoping USC is a top-3 team and undefeated at the time of the ND game presents an amazing opportunity for this season to end up a lot different than many thought after losing to Ohio State and Marshall to kick off the year. 

The Mids ALWAYS get up for the Irish. And the game is just up the road in Baltimore. And the Mids looked lively and competitive against a really good Cincy team last week. If Navy avoids turnovers and missed field goals (which have REALLY hurt of late) and strings together long drives, they’ll be in it. They HAVE TO keep Notre Dame to under 21 points because the Navy offense isn’t scoring more than that. Still, the Irish defense is good, and the run game is ELITE GOOD right now. I think Navy tries to take the air out of the game and chew clock. ND will be up to the task and not hungover from Clemson. A close first half gets out of hand in the second half on a gorgeous day in Baltimore. ND wins 38-13.   

And how much are you looking forward to a jaunt to Dublin in August?

Can’t wait. I studied abroad in college in Galway. Going back to the home country and watching two great teams will be a great way to start football season.

Georgia OL prospect the first commit for new Notre Dame OL coach Joe Rudolph


New Notre Dame offensive line coach Joe Rudolph pulled in his first recruit by continuing to chase a prospect he initially wanted at his last job. Three-star offensive lineman Anthonie Knapp (Roswell High School; Ga.) committed to the Irish on Wednesday afternoon, picking Notre Dame over Rudolph’s former employer, Virginia Tech, as well as Georgia Tech and North Carolina.

In total, more than half the ACC offered Knapp a scholarship. The Irish offer came only this past weekend with Knapp in South Bend catching up with Rudolph, who was the first Power Five coach to offer a scholarship to Knapp back at Virginia Tech.

“The hospitality and the heritage it kept made the school stand out,” Knapp said to Inside ND Sports in a text message.

At 6-foot-5 and less than 270 pounds, Knapp will need to put on weight at the next level, though that can be said of most high school juniors. He played left tackle last season, but unless the weight piles on quickly and consistently, Knapp will most likely play guard at the next level.

His footwork already looks more fundamentally sound than most high schoolers display, all the more impressive because Knapp could simply rely on overpowering his opponents as most offensive line prospects understandably tend to do. Knapp is content to use his length and footwork to let a pass rusher charge upfield, well past the quarterback.

Strength and mass will come with age and entering a collegiate conditioning program, and Knapp needs both of those, but length is uncoachable and footwork fundamentals hold up early careers as often as lack of strength does.

He is the second offensive lineman in the class, joining four-star offensive guard Peter Jones, also a preps tackle that is expected to move inside in college.

Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s biggest offensive progressions this spring will be smallest to spot from afar

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When Marcus Freeman was first hired as Notre Dame’s head coach in December of 2021, it was widely expected he would retain three-fifths of his offensive coaching staff. Instead, promotions elsewhere awaited two of those coaches, leaving only Tommy Rees as a constant.

Then Rees and one-year returnee Harry Hiestand departed this offseason, meaning Freeman’s entire offensive coaching staff turned over — and the offensive line coach twice — within 15 months of that supposedly being a piece of stability he could lean on as a young first-time head coach. Yet, one thing has not changed about Freeman’s relationship with the offensive coaches: He is trying to stay out of their way.

“Most of the [newcomers] are on the offensive side of the ball, so really I just try to stay out of the way and let those guys meet,” Freeman said last week at the start of the Irish spring practices. “Give them time to be together. They’ve been together a lot and met a lot and really, you have to meet to get everybody on the same page. A lot of that is cohesion, that ability to view these guys as teammates.

“… I’ve been in there a bit, and then we have our staff meetings to make sure everybody understands our culture, understands our expectations. It’s not where it’s a finished product, but it’s definitely progressing to where we want to see it.”

A year ago, the cohesion Freeman was most worried about on the offensive side of the ball was between Rees and a pair of inexperienced quarterbacks. Now, it’s the collaboration between an offensive coordinator, a quarterbacks coach and an offensive line coach who had never worked together before a month or two ago. Freeman, of course, knew offensive coordinator Gerad Parker for more than a decade, quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli for seven years and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph since Freeman’s playing days at Ohio State beginning in 2004.

That has been a common theme in Freeman’s hires, tying to former Notre Dame special teams coach Brian Mason, current cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and defensive line coach Al Washington.

“There’s nothing more important than experience with somebody,” Freeman said. “I don’t have to wonder what this person is like when I’m not around. … When I can find a quality coach that I know can be the best at his profession, but also I have personal experience with them — I’m not saying we’re friends, but we’ve worked together. Coach Rudolph was at Ohio State when I was a player, but I knew what type of person he was.”

That is the commonality between those three new offensive hires, though a few pieces of similar backgrounds can be found between Parker and Guidugli. At 42 and 40, respectively, they both grew up in the Ohio River Valley and played college football along the same Kentucky-Ohio Interstate corridor. Parker then went straight into coaching while Guidugli knocked around the Canadian Football League and various iterations of short-lived secondary leagues in the United States until he went into coaching in 2010.

At the least, though, their formative years should have shared enough to lay a foundation now, the foundation upon which Freeman is counting on them to build an offense. That progression may be as important as any other made on the offensive side of the ball this spring.

After just one practice, Freeman saw value in a quarterbacks coach who can somewhat ignore the rest of the offense. Rees’s focus was assuredly on the quarterbacks, but Sam Hartman, Tyler Buchner & Co. are quite literally all Guidugli needs to concern himself with each day.

“When you take some of that responsibility off their plate, and it’s just coach the quarterbacks and see if they made the right decision because there’s so much that falls on [the quarterback’s] plate that isn’t really his fault,” Freeman said. “I know he gets the praise and he gets the criticism, but my biggest thing, did you make the right decision? That’s so important at the quarterback position.”

Parker thinks there may be more to the gig than the right decision. Wake Forest graduate transfer Sam Hartman should have little trouble with any intangibles of acclimating to a new campus and a new roster, even if he did not have to run many huddles with the Demon Deacons, but there will be one tangible shift to his quarterback play that Hartman might need to work on.

“Just in its simplest form, just taking snaps under center,” Parker said this weekend. “As simple as that. Just being able to secure a football under center.”

Parker wants to emphasize that because even as Notre Dame presumably opens up its offense a bit more with a deeper receivers room chasing passes from a stronger-armed quarterback, the Irish offense will still hinge on its veteran offensive line and trio of proven running backs.

Finding that balance can come in August. For now, finding that snap will be Hartman’s focus while Parker, Guidugli, Rudolph and a litany of offensive analysts strive to learn the same shorthand.

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Thomas’ leadership, freshmen arrivals already improve Notre Dame’s receivers room

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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As much criticism as Drew Pyne and Tommy Rees received for Notre Dame’s ground-bound offense last season, much of that approach was due to a reality beyond their control. The former Irish quarterback and offensive coordinator could not run the routes or catch the passes.

Notre Dame had few who could run the routes and among them, it seemed even fewer who could catch Pyne’s passes. Thus, the Irish threw for fewer than 200 yards in six games, not even reaching triple digits in the 35-14 upset of Clemson to start November. They threw 21 or fewer passes four times; raise that to 26 pass attempts and three more games qualify.

Of Notre Dame’s 192 completed passes in the regular season, 35 percent of them landed in the hands of tight end Michael Mayer. Another 22 percent found running backs. Six Irish receivers combined to catch 94 passes for 1,306 yards total last year. Seven receivers across the country caught 94 or more passes on their own in 2022, and three topped that yardage tally.

There simply were not ample options among the receivers for Rees to draw up plays with Pyne targeting them, particularly not after Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins were injured in the preseason, Deion Colzie was hampered in the preseason and Tobias Merriweather’s season would be cut short by a concussion.

The Irish moving running back Chris Tyree to at least a part-time role at receiver this spring will help solve that dearth but not nearly as much as the arrivals of Virginia Tech transfer Kaleb Smith and a trio of early-enrolled freshmen will. With them, Notre Dame has nine receivers on hand this spring, though who exactly leads them is a vague wonder.

Smith has the most collegiate experience with 74 career catches, and his size should place him into the starting lineup, but he is just as new in South Bend as early enrollees Rico Flores, Jaden Greathouse and Braylon James all are. Of the three rising juniors on the roster, each had a moment or two of note last season, but Jayden Thomas’s may have been the most consistent, finishing with 25 catches for 362 yards and three touchdowns.

“That’s the challenge I’ve had for that entire room,” Freeman said of finding a leader in the position group. “Guys that have been here. … I hope Jayden Thomas continues to excel on the field and then in his leadership roles.

“What he’s done in the weight room, I think he’s matured and said, okay, I can play at a higher level when I take care of my body or I’m at a weight I feel really comfortable at.”

Those were mostly generic platitudes, but Thomas’s 2022 stats alone are impressive enough to garner a leading role when dug into a bit. Of his 25 catches, 18 of them gained a first down. Of those 18, eight of them came on third down and another two were on second-and-long. If Notre Dame needed a chunk gain and Mayer was covered, Thomas was the most likely outlet.

That should give him pole position to be the boundary starter heading into 2023, with Colzie and/or Merriweather pressing him forward. Smith’s experience and size should pencil him in as the field starter, leaving the slot the question on the first unit for the next 14 spring practices.

Tyree could emerge there, but he is more likely to be a utility knife type of option, concealing any offensive alignment until the snap. Instead, rising junior Lorenzo Styles may get a chance at the slot. He has the tools if he has the focus.

Styles dropped six passes last season, more than anyone else on the roster and a bothersome number regardless of his final stats, but one that stands out in particular when realizing he caught only 30 passes for 340 yards and a score.

“It became I think mental last year,” Freeman said Wednesday. “Lorenzo Styles is a talented, talented football player, really talented. With him last year, it almost became a mental struggle, even just the basics of catching the ball.”

Last year, those mental struggles were enough to somewhat undo Notre Dame’s offense, because the Irish had no choice but to play Styles through his missteps. Now, whether it be injury or some headspace frustrations that Chuck Knoblauch could relate to, the Irish have some depth at receiver if needed. As the season progresses, that depth will become only stronger with the freshmen rounding into form.

“The young wideouts caught a couple balls, and it’s going to be good to see the progression of all those freshmen,” Freeman said. “They’re all going to be in different places on the road. That’s what I spend a lot of time talking to our team about, we’re all freshmen, you can’t compare your journey to this guy’s journey.”

Wherever those journeys are, they are welcome additions to Notre Dame’s offense. As much as newly-promoted offensive coordinator Gerad Parker will relish the luxury that is veteran quarterback Sam Hartman, simply having options on the perimeter for Hartman to look for should be an Irish improvement.

Sam Hartman’s practice debut features Notre Dame veteran Chris Tyree move to receiver, at least for now

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Marcus Freeman’s second spring as Notre Dame’s head coach has begun. As he pointed out Wednesday, it is quarterback transfer Sam Hartman’s sixth spring practice. Both are still looking around a bit for their proper cues, though Hartman’s hesitance now should be short-lived.

“He’s like a freshman, it’s new,” Freeman said. “I was joking with him, this is his sixth spring ball, but you’re at a new place, a new system, still figuring out where to go, what a drill is called, so you can see him at times just trying to say, ‘Okay, where are we going, what’s the drill, what are we doing, how many plays?’

“But he’s got some natural ability when he throws the ball and when he plays the game of football. You’ll see the leadership traits that he possesses grow because I know he has them. He’s a leader the first time you meet him. You can tell that he really commands respect.”

Freeman mentioned a “quarterback competition” between Hartman and rising junior Tyler Buchner only once, something that will reoccur throughout the next month, though more in name than in reality. Whoever takes the lead at quarterback, and it will be Hartman, will have a new target to get comfortable with in rising senior Chris Tyree.

Tyree spent the first spring practice working at receiver after lining up at running back the vast majority of the last three years. Freeman would not commit to that being a full-time shift for Tyree, but given the Irish depth at running back — led by rising juniors Audric Estimé and Logan Diggs, with rising sophomore Gi’Bran Payne the next in line for the spring while classmate Jadarian Price continues to “progress” from a torn Achilles last summer — Tyree working at receiver for the long-term should make some sense.

“He’s a guy that has multiple skill sets, and we know Chris Tyree is a guy we have to have on the football field,” Freeman said. “The ability to put him at wideout, we know what he can do as a running back, to really be a guy that can do multiple different things.”

Tyree took 100 rushes for 444 yards and three touchdowns and caught 24 passes for 138 yards and two more scores last year. The ball-carrying was a step forward compared to his previous seasons, but he caught 24 passes for 258 yards in 2021. In three games in 2022, Tyree gained more than 20 yards through the air. He was one of the more reliable pass-catchers on Notre Dame’s roster last season, finishing tied for fourth in receptions, one behind Jayden Thomas’s 25 catches and just six behind Lorenzo Styles, the leading returning receiver.

“You’re seeing more of that in college football and in the NFL,” Freeman said. “Guys that can play multiple different skill positions on offense, so do you treat him as a running back, do you treat him as a wideout? That’s what we have to do, and gain confidence in the quarterbacks in him as a wide receiver.”

Tyree’s shift was the most notable on the field on the first day of spring practices, but a handful of absences also stood out.

Junior linebacker Will Schweitzer, junior safety Justin Walters and junior quarterback Ron Powlus III have taken medical retirements, while junior cornerback Philip Riley, junior offensive lineman Caleb Johnson and junior kicker Josh Bryan are all no longer with the program, presumably each pursuing a transfer following this semester.

With those departures, Notre Dame’s roster now has 87 players on scholarship, two more than the NCAA maximum allowed when the season starts.

In hiring Marty Biagi from Mississippi, Freeman strayed from his usual habit of hiring coaches he has previous experience with. He did, however, have some mutual connections to reach out to about Biagi.

“I remember when we were playing Purdue when I was defensive coordinator (at Notre Dame in 2021), I was sitting in a special teams meeting, and they did some unique things on special teams.

“I still know some people back in West Lafayette from my time there, and he does, too. Somehow his name got brought up, so I was interested in interviewing him last year before I hired [former Irish special teams coordinator Brian Mason]. I didn’t know [Biagi] personally, but I had talked to him before, I knew enough about him. It’s important because you need to know when you’re not around, you can trust those guys that you’re working with.”

Defensive backs Cam Hart and Thomas Harper will both be held out of contact for at least the near future as they recover from winter shoulder surgeries, while early-enrolled defensive lineman Devan Houstan Will Likely miss all springtime work due to his own recent shoulder surgery.

Tight ends Eli Raridon and Kevin Bauman will not take part this spring due to ACL injuries in the fall.

Freeman expressed some optimism about Price’s timeline, but even that was measured.

“I don’t know if he will be full go, but he has done a lot of running and I see him progressing to more and more actual football practice.”

Given Price is still less than a calendar year from a ruptured Achilles, it is most likely he is limited well into the summer.