Javon McKinley makes most of second chance at Notre Dame, first chance on field

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In the category of “Believe it when I see it,” senior receiver Javon McKinley held an unrivaled lead on Notre Dame’s roster heading into the season. The former consensus four-star California recruit first had his career stalled by a broken leg, then an inability to make an impact on the depth chart. Even in practice, McKinley flashed only occasionally, not inspiring any thoughts of a breakthrough.

Thus, his February arrest for two counts of battery and illegal consumption of alcohol came across as more a moment of potential roster management than something that would affect the Irish on the field. Notre Dame was then over the NCAA maximum of 85 scholarships, and not to be too callous, but McKinley had just allegedly struck a campus police officer who was trying to help him. At that point, his name had appeared in headlines twice during his collegiate career, once for a broken leg and now once for an arrest.

Yet, Irish head coach Brian Kelly quietly stuck by McKinley, who served a suspension in the spring and reached a plea agreement including pre-trial diversion in April.

“Advocacy from across campus,” Kelly said when asked why he and the University gave McKinley another chance. “He had had, really, a clean record with us. This was — I don’t want to say aberration, but it was something that had never happened before, which earned him the opportunity to get a second chance.”

If not an aberration, perhaps an anomaly. After scoring two touchdowns on two catches for 85 yards during No. 7 Notre Dame’s 66-14 victory against New Mexico on Saturday, McKinley has his first chance to contribute on the field, and he now has to prove that showing was not another anomaly.

Maybe that sounds harsh. McKinley overcame a season-costing injury and the subsequent lost time and fitness before making a mistake, one that was by all reports a first for him as far as any transgressions go, to have a breakout performance including an utterly-memorable touchdown.

But sometimes, “Believe it when I see it” really means “Believe it when I see it multiple times.” In that regard, McKinley is very much going to have his chance as long as junior receiver Michael Young is sidelined with a broken collarbone — at least a couple more weeks.

“We like his size,” Kelly said. “We like what he’s done. Look, he would have been playing a long time ago if we had the young man playing at a consistent level. He is showing that. He is practicing well. He is doing the right things both on and off the field. You guys don’t want to hear this, but all those traits are starting to show themselves, and he’s preparing himself for a big year for us.”

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 88 Javon McKinley, senior receiver

Pairing McKinley with senior Chase Claypool, his first roommate at Notre Dame, gives Irish senior quarterback Ian Book a pair of targets awfully reminiscent of Claypool and Miles Boykin a season ago, a combination that brought both speed and size such that Book usually had an open spot to throw to.

“He’s really athletic and super strong,” Book said. “When you see him running, you saw four or five guys bounce off of him. I was super happy for him, and he’s faster than people think. When you get him the ball in a drag like that and he can go all the way down the field and make four or five people miss, that’s huge, and again, he has another touchdown on a back-shoulder fade. He’s able to go there and be strong with his hands and bring down a fade ball.

“He’s someone you want on the perimeter and he’s someone we need this year.”

Perhaps Book’s last point explains McKinley’s breakthrough. When he made his first career catch at Louisville, it could be written off as just one snag, but now he has three in physical moments across two games. He has been aggressive in attacking both the ball and subsequent defenders. Kelly spent part of Sunday raving about his blocking abilities. Why now?

Because now Notre Dame has nowhere else to turn for someone 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds. Boykin is scoring touchdowns for the Baltimore Ravens. Sophomore Kevin Austin will not see the field this season. Sophomore Joe Wilkins has the wanted length, but he tilts the scales at only 194 pounds. The Irish need McKinley this year, and sometimes that pressure turns potential into reality.

“To see that growth and see him staying true to everything that we fought for, I’m so excited for him,” Claypool said. “I hope he enjoys every moment of it. There’s more to come, obviously.”

Obviously may yet be a reach, but it is far from outlandish, which could not have been said just a few weeks ago.

 

And In That Corner … No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs await No. 7 Notre Dame

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Is it Saturday yet? No? Another 60 hours to wait? I suppose there is nothing to do but to keep overthinking every aspect of No. 7 Notre Dame’s trip to No. 3 Georgia. To help the cause, let’s bother Anthony Dasher, Managing Editor of UGASports.com.

DF: Before getting into what may be the biggest regular-season game for Notre Dame since at least 2005, and arguably 1993, let me ask, how long have you been covering Georgia? Been with UGASports.com the whole time?

AD: I have covered Georgia since 1996, first with the Athens Banner-Herald and now with UGASports.com since 2007.

You were on the call Sunday when Irish head coach Brian Kelly was asked to compare these Bulldogs to the team he faced in 2017. (You might have actually been the one to ask the question; I didn’t note that in my transcript.) I’ll quote his answer below for the readers, but I am curious, how would you answer the same question?

Kelly: “Structurally, it’s very similar defensively. Offensively, it has a lot of the similar tenets: great running game; big, physical offensive line. There’s a lot of similarities structurally. Big players at the running back position.

“Probably a little bit bigger physically on defense. They weren’t quite the same size (in 2017). They were extremely athletic a few years ago and they still are, but they’re bigger up front this year. An outstanding football team in all areas.”

The biggest difference to me is that Jake Fromm is a junior. At Notre Dame, he was a freshman making his first career start.

Jake Fromm’s first career start came in Notre Dame Stadium two years ago, at the time expected to be a solid backup but largely an unknown commodity. In the time sense, he has established himself as one of the top-five quarterbacks in the country and conceivably a Heisman hopeful. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Schematically, there won’t be a ton of difference, but physically, this is a bigger team along with being just as athletic as the 2017 squad. Georgia averages 6-5 and 330 pounds across the offensive line, led by left tackle Andrew Thomas who is projected as a top-10 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. The backfield is deep, led by D’Andre Swift, but also includes senior Brian Herrien, along with a pair of former five-stars as backups in sophomores Zamir White and James Cook.

Defensively, sophomore nose tackle Jordan Davis (6-5, 330) is a player Georgia didn’t have in its trip to South Bend.

Editor’s addition: Swift: 290 yards on 31 carries this season, a 9.4 yards per rush average.
White: 141 yards on 19 carries, a 7.4 yards per rush average.
Freshman Kenny McIntosh: 128 yards on 13 carries, a 9.8 yards per rush average.
Herrien: 121 yards on 21 carries, a 5.8 yards per rush average.
Cook: 103 yards on eight carries, a 12.9 yards per rush average.

Bigger offensive and defensive lines will worry Notre Dame fans. Let’s focus even more closely than that. The Irish have a first-year starter at center in sophomore Jarrett Patterson. Georgia senior defensive tackle Julian Rochester has yet to play after offseason ACL surgery. Will he be the one attacking Patterson or someone else? The rest of Notre Dame’s line has proven, albeit inconsistently, it can hold up to a front like the Bulldogs in the past, but Patterson is an unknown in that regard. How will Kirby Smart hope to exploit that?

Rochester has been cleared to practice since camp but has yet to get in a game, which has been a bit of a mystery. Truthfully though, he hasn’t been that huge of a loss.

Georgia does not have what you would call a dominant defensive lineman, but they do have some pretty good depth and rotates it defensive linemen frequently. I mentioned Jordan Davis, who does a great job absorbing double-teams, but there’s also senior tackle Tyler Clark, junior tackle Devonte Wyatt, along with ends David Marshall and Malik Herring. Freshman Travon Walker has had his moments, as well.

As far as Georgia trying to exploit Patterson, I’m not sure they will try to do anything special. They’ll just try to execute the same defensive game plan no matter who’s lining up where.

D’Andre Swift gets the headlines as Georgia’s lead back, and rightfully so, but he is only the leader of a rushing attack with many threats, thus keeping all legs fresh. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

On the other side of the ball, the Irish weakness is again up the middle, both at defensive tackle and at linebacker. Georgia running back D’Andre Swift is considered a home-run hitter, though he is far from the only option in that rushing stable. Will the Bulldogs pound Notre Dame on the inside or continue to rely upon edge-to-edge speed to break loose?

I’d imagine Georgia will try to hit Notre Dame with its full gamut of plays. The Bulldogs will try to make plays between the tackles, but also one of the big changes being implemented by first-year offensive coordinator James Coley is to find more ways to get players the ball in space. That means more plays on the edge — quick passes, speed sweeps and maybe even the occasional toss sweep, a longtime Georgia staple, although it’s a play we’ve yet to see this season.

As far as depth, yes, Georgia has that. Swift is the bellcow, but Herrien is a tough inside runner, as is White, who has looked impressive despite an ACL surgery on each knee. There’s also Cook, who Georgia will use on the aforementioned speed sweeps.

Georgia is going to score. Combining Fromm with this litany of play-makers guarantees that. The best Irish hope may be to keep pace and count on a turnover or two shifting momentum. With a veteran quarterback of its own, Notre Dame has reason to believe it can reach the end zone a number of times. How is the Bulldog secondary this year? It is never as heralded as the defensive front, but that may be unfair.

Georgia graduated first-round pick Deandre Baker, but from an athletic standpoint, the secondary might actually be better than it was last season. However, there are concerns. I would say starting cornerback Tyson Campbell is questionable after injuring his foot against Arkansas State, so if he can’t go, his spot will be manned by one of two first-year players, junior college transfer D.J. Daniel or freshman Tyrique Stevenson.

At safety, J.R. Reed and Richard LeCounte are both three-year starters. LeCounte sometimes gets himself in trouble by trying to tackle too high, but Reed warranted preseason All-SEC recognition. Both are considered to be excellent in coverage.

The expectations are steep around Smart and Georgia. Recruiting as they have the last few years, a breakthrough becomes an imperative in the near-term. With those big-picture goals and SEC concerns to worry about, how does this game rate for the team? For the fans? Is it as hyped in Athens as we have made it out to be nationally?

This is the most-hyped non-conference game that I can recall. Even if both teams were not ranked in the top 10 I would still feel that way. Notre Dame is one of the few programs nationally that commands respect by name alone and Georgia fans are fired up for the opportunity to see the Irish play in Sanford Stadium. The atmosphere is expected to be nuts as Georgia officials are predicting just as many fans outside the stadium as in.

As you might expect, it’s also a HUGE recruiting weekend. I can’t even begin to tell you the number of top national prospects set to be here.

In regards to the game itself, it’s also huge. Georgia, obviously, has designs on getting back to the College Football Playoffs. A victory over Notre Dame would be a big spark for the team which has next week off before resuming conference play in two weeks at Tennessee.

The team or the fans, especially the latter, could conceivably look past it. After all, the Bulldogs are favored by two touchdowns. What do you expect to see Saturday night?

It’s been talked about a lot, but the storyline to me is simple: Can Notre Dame slow down a Georgia rushing attack that is averaging 286 yards per game? If the Irish can have success on first down, put the Bulldogs in second- and third-and-long situations, it’s obviously going to help their chances. But, if Georgia is gobbling up six, seven, eight yards per clip, it’s going to make it tough on Notre Dame. Not only would it keep Ian Book and company on the sideline, but it will open up the play-action for Fromm to take some deep shots. It can be a pick-your-poison type of situation, but if I were coaching Notre Dame (or any team that plays Georgia) I’d sell out to stop the run, simply because if that run game gets going, the Bulldogs are very difficult to stop.

And before I let you go, I must selfishly ask: I know to get to campus many, many hours early to avoid traffic. Where should I thus target for Saturday’s lunch?

As far as places to go, if you get here early, definitely take a walk downtown, a very eclectic scene with plenty of good pubs where you can grab a bite.

The Place (yes, that’s it name) has some real “Southern cooking” if that’s your thing, with the Last Resort Grill, The National and DePalma’s also very good.

 

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Proving moments arrive for USC, Michigan

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The week of Notre Dame’s biggest game of the year may be an odd one to specifically keep an eye on its opponents, but three of the toughest remaining Irish opponents have notable challenges this weekend, as well, and two of them do not conflict with the primetime slot at Georgia.

Louisville (2-1): The Cardinals were without starting quarterback Jawon Pass (lower-body injury), but still had little trouble with Western Kentucky in a 38-21 victory. With Malik Cunningham at the helm, they leaned more on their running game, gaining 210 yards on 51 rushing attempts, compared to only 16 throws.

Pass has not yet been cleared for this weekend, though that could change by Saturday, as Louisville visits Florida State (3:30 ET; ESPN) as 6.5-point underdogs, as of early Wednesday a.m. A combined point total over/under of 61 suggests a 34-27 conclusion. This may go against trends thus far this season, but some stake should be put into past recruiting work, and with that in mind, the Seminoles should stymie Scott Satterfield’s first chance at an ACC win.

New Mexico (1-1): The Lobos will have quarterback Tevaka Tuioti back behind center as their starter the week after a 66-14 loss at No. 7 Notre Dame, but head coach Bob Davie will not yet return to full-time coaching against in-state rival New Mexico State (4:30 ET). Tuioti and New Mexico are 4.5-point favorites in a game with a 68-point over/under. A 36-32 finale does feel a bit high-scoring.

Georgia (3-0): The No. 3 Bulldogs hardly broke a sweat in beating Arkansas State, 55-0. Gaining 268 rushing yards on 33 carries certainly gave Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea some film to watch.

Georgia remains a two-touchdown favorite against Notre Dame (8 ET; CBS) with an over/under of 56 implying a traditional football score of 35-21.

Virginia needed quarterback Bryce Perkins to get creative on a two-point conversion to feel at all comfortable in the closing minutes of a 31-24 victory against Florida State. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)

Virginia (3-0): The No. 21 Cavaliers could not quite decide if they wanted to beat Florida State or not late Saturday. A missed PAT forced Virginia to sweat a late fourth-quarter touchdown drive to take a lead before then committing four separate 15-yard penalties on the Seminoles’ subsequent drive, only stopping Florida State as time expired inside the five-yard-line.

For the second week in a row, Cavaliers quarterback Bryce Perkins threw two interceptions, though he also went 30-of-40 for 295 passing yards and a touchdown. He will try to break that turnover-prone habit against Old Dominion (7 ET; ESPN2). Favored by 30 points, Virginia should have little trouble, even if the Monarchs score more than the nine points expected by an over/under of 47.5.

Bowling Green (1-2): The Falcons were outgained by 163 yards in a 35-7 loss to Louisiana Tech. Perhaps even more worrisome for the season, Bowling Green averaged only 2.5 yards per rush.

The struggles will likely keep coming, as the Falcons are now 10.5-point underdogs at Kent State (3:30 ET) this week with an over/under of 59. That sets up a 35-24 final score, though that latter figure feels a bit high given last week’s rushing failures.

USC (2-1): Just after the Trojans gained some momentum with that blowout of Stanford, they lost it all in overtime at BYU, falling 30-27 when freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis threw an interception on a terrible read. On a 3rd-and-6, within field goal range, Slovis tried to force a pass into tight coverage on a slant pattern. At least two Cougars defenders were already closing in on the targeted receiver when Slovis released the ball, thereby assuring the first down would not be gained, at the very least. The pick was Slovis’ third of the day. Suffice it to say, his honeymoon period ended after just a week, and with it so did the cooling on head coach Clay Helton’s seat.

If USC falls this weekend against Utah (Friday, 9 ET; FS1) as expected as 3.5-point underdogs — note: yes, the Trojans are underdogs at home against a Pac-12 South Division foe — then it should be safe to presume Helton’s fate will be genuinely hanging by a string. For that reason alone, it will be worth tuning in late Friday evening; a close 27-24 contest would be only added drama.

Michigan (2-0): The No. 11 Wolverines took the week off, which senior quarterback Shea Patterson said allowed him to get fully healthy (oblique). He will need to be at No. 13 Wisconsin (12 ET; FOX), which has yet to give up a point this season. It hardly matters who the opponents were, South Florida and Central Michigan, to hold two FBS-level foes scoreless is impressive.

Basic math predicts Michigan will score 20, but lose 24-20, thanks to a spread of 3.5 points and an over/under of 43.5. Remembering that the Wolverines managed only 14 points in regulation against Army, despite having the ball for 28:25, it becomes hard to envision this Big Ten tilt reaching the over.

Virginia Tech (2-1): The Hokies had less trouble with FCS-level Furman than a 24-17 score suggests, outgaining the Paladins 350-231. Either way, Virginia Tech will have a full week to review that film.

Duke (2-1): Blue Devils fifth-year quarterback Quentin Harris’ strong start to the season continued with four touchdowns on 24-of-27 passing for 237 yards, adding another 107 yards on 11 rushes, in a 41-18 victory at Middle Tennessee State. Duke will simply hope a week off will not slow Harris’ current roll.

Navy (2-0): Midshipmen quarterback Malcolm Perry scored all six total touchdowns — four rushing and two passing — in a 42-10 rout of East Carolina. Not much else need be said when a triple-option team cruises past an opponent, especially when it precedes an idle week.

While Eagles junior running back A.J. Dillon, left, ran for 151 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries Friday night in Boston College’s humbling loss to Kansas, junior quarterback Anthony Brown did not fare nearly as well, completing only half his passes for 195 yards. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Boston College (2-1): The Eagles suffered arguably the worst loss of the year in college football, no matter how early in the season it is. They lost at home, 48-24, to Kansas. After jumping out to a 17-7 lead in the first quarter, Boston College simply fell apart. There is no other explanation. The Jayhawks outgained the Eagles by 120 yards, somehow finding way after way after way to gash Steve Addazio’s defense.

If Boston College could not beat Kansas, it becomes hard to assume it will beat Rutgers (12 ET; BTN), another of the worst programs in a Power Five conference. Nonetheless, the Eagles are favored by a touchdown with a 57.5-point over/under, hinting at a 32-25 result.

Stanford (1-2): Speaking of getting gashed, that is the appropriate verb for what happened to the Cardinal’s defense at Central Florida in falling 45-27. The Golden Knights used three first-quarter touchdowns longer than 27 yards, plus a one-yard scoring run, to quickly go up 28-7 and led 38-7 at halftime. Despite the blowout, Brandon Wimbush did not play, Central Florida preferring to get more experience for freshman Dillon Gabriel.

Stanford will face another high-octane offense this weekend. No. 16 Oregon (7 ET; ESPN) should not have much trouble repeating the key parts of the Golden Knights’ performance in a game with a predicted edge of 10.5 points and a 35-24 closing scoreboard.

 

Shaun Crawford’s return sparks ‘party’ on Notre Dame sideline

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When Shaun Crawford says he fully-realized he had intercepted a New Mexico pass on Saturday only when he got to Notre Dame’s sideline, it makes sense for a few reasons. The response from the sideline was so joyous, it was clear his impact was every bit as real as he hoped it was. Secondly, it had been that long since Crawford picked off a pass, taking a moment to grasp what had just happened was only natural.

“It was like a party, honestly,” the fifth-year Irish cornerback said after the 66-14 victory. “That’s when it finally hit me, when I got to the sideline and saw everybody coming to me, whether it be offensive guys, coaches, members on the staff, defensive guys.”

Someone with Crawford’s undeniable talents would usually get his hands on a pass a couple times a season — and yes, his natural talent and football IQ is that beyond reproach. Instead, Crawford waited two days short of two years since snagging two interceptions at Boston College in 2017. Since then, his body fatigued to such an extent the latter half of 2017 saw him make no chaotic plays, and it then betrayed him further with a torn ACL days before last year’s opener.

Those two conflicting concepts have become the staples of Crawford’s time at Notre Dame. In the first eight games of his career, he picked off three passes, broke up five more, forced two fumbles, recovered one (the one forced at the goal line and recovered in the end zone at Michigan State in 2017, literally preventing a touchdown), logged 1.5 sacks and returned a blocked PAT for two points to send the 2016 opener at Texas into overtime. He hasn’t so much found himself around the ball as he has signed a long-term lease as the ball’s neighbor. At least, when healthy.

The 2018 torn ACL came on the opposite knee of the one that robbed him of 2015, when he would have been a freshman starter. Between the two, Crawford tore his Achilles in 2016’s second game. Now acknowledging the fatigue at the end of 2017, it can be argued injuries have cost Crawford nearly 3.5 seasons of his career.

It was reasonable to worry the second torn ACL and the overall wear on his psyche may have sapped Crawford of some of his natural talent, shiftiness and instincts. He disproved those concerns at Louisville, and then Saturday’s interception put an exclamation point on it.

“He was in and around the football again quite a bit today, as he usually is,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday. “He finds the football, and just to think back on the lows that he’s had to go through and to see him today come up with a big play, yeah, it’s kind of nice.”

His contributions went beyond the turnover, adding two tackles and another pass breakup. His return at near- to full-strength gives Notre Dame options in its secondary. Without him, the nickel back role would have been a headache for Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea, and the successful dime package would be missing one of the pieces that essentially allows it to contend with any contingency.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s Dime: ‘One’s gotta give’

Crawford never stopped preparing as if this day would come again, and he never stopped deferring praise, either. Even surrounded by media after the home opener, he tried to minimize his role in his own success.

“I have to credit the coaches for that call on third down. … It’s all in preparation, really. Throughout the week, we’ve gone over that play many times, playing cover two, playing the carry technique. Things like that, it just happens throughout the week in practice.

“So when it happened, I turned my head at the perfect time, caught the ball, and wanted to go celebrate with my teammates, wanted to get to the sideline just because without them, I wouldn’t be here. They’ve helped me through all the adversity that I’ve been through, so I just wanted to celebrate with them.”

 

Notre Dame’s Dime: ‘One’s gotta give’

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To hear Daelin Hayes explain it, Notre Dame’s best defensive package is a rather simple formula. What the No. 7 Irish (2-0) may lack in trusted interior linebackers and experienced defensive tackles, they boast even more of an abundance of threatening pass-rushers and talented cover men.

“We got dominant pass-rushers and dominant cover guys on the back,” the senior defensive end said after Notre Dame’s 66-14 victory against New Mexico on Saturday. “One’s gotta give.”

Indeed, when the Irish resort to their dime package, the opposing offense typically yields to one of those worries. The Lobos, as the latest example, threw three interceptions against Notre Dame’s passing-specific look.

On the first of those, the Irish front took an approach seen often in dime situations last year, with junior defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa now filling the role formerly handled by first-round draft pick Jerry Tillery as a big body still agile enough to slip into the backfield. That prevents the opposing offensive line from diverting a blocker elsewhere. With senior Khalid Kareem moved inward to the other tackle spot, from his usual role on the end, and Hayes and senior Julian Okwara flanking them, Notre Dame can almost always conjure up pressure by rushing only four.

That defensive line look worked wonders last year, but now it has the added perk of a deep and varied secondary behind it. While both starting Irish safeties are captains and one cornerback entered the season with All-America hopes, the star of the dime package is freshman safety Kyle Hamilton. The Notre Dame coaching staff recognized that early in the preseason, focusing the heralded recruit on this niche role before exposing him to the entire playbook. Using Hamilton effectively in a dozen high-leverage moments each week would be an efficient means of getting his feet wet.

Hamilton has proven that logic sound. That is in part due to the result of scoring a touchdown on his first snap at Notre Dame Stadium, but it is also in part due to the versatility he brings the look. With him on hand, senior safety Jalen Elliott can slide into more of a coverage role and/or senior safety Alohi Gilman can feint a blitz. Neither wrinkle leaves the secondary exposed.

“He’s done a really nice job for us, especially in passing situations,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “He’s a presence for us on the back end of the defense. He’s tall, rangy. He has really good instincts, see things, reacts really quick. He’s around the football, he just has a nose for the ball.”

That nose for the ball was the beneficiary of Hayes not rushing in the first quarter Saturday.

“Teams are very scared of our pass rush,” Hayes said. “So a lot of times, they don’t give us a lot of drop-back opportunities. They get the ball out quick. … I knew the ball was coming out quick. I got my hand up and the young bull brought it down and scored.”

Hayes tipped the pass, Hamilton corralled it, and yes, the young bull scored.

Irish freshman safety Kyle Hamilton wasted no time in making an impression at Notre Dame Stadium, intercepting a tipped pass and returning it for a touchdown on his first snap Saturday. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

And Kelly agrees with Hayes’ assessment, saying Monday that opposing quarterbacks are getting rid of the ball within two seconds because of Notre Dame’s pass-rushers. More pertinently, evidence agrees as well.

The effects of worrying about Hayes, Okwara, Kareem & Co. are clear: Throwing the ball before a receiver has run far enough into a route can be especially costly on a 3rd-and-long.

Consider the second interception Saturday. Somehow, for some inexplicable reason, Okwara came off the line unblocked. Lobos quarterback Sheriron Jones had little-to-no choice but to throw the ball before was prudent. Jones’ target had not even turned his head yet when Elliott stepped into the pass. Elliott made the play and was in the right position, but Jones probably would not have short-circuited the play if not for Okwara’s pressure.

The same can be said for fifth-year senior Shaun Crawford’s interception. Gilman threatened a blitz before dropping into coverage; both Irish ends then quickly closed in on Jones, one possibly making contact with him before he released the pass. As a result, it was underthrown, right where Crawford could slide in.

“If we get them to 3rd-and-long, the odds are in our favor,” Crawford said. “So every time we come out there, our main focus is to stop the run. If we can stop the run on first and second down or eliminate yards after the catch on first and second down, then we’re looking at manageable third downs.

“As long as we continue to just do our jobs on first and second, third down will be no problem.”

Sure enough, New Mexico started 2-of-3 on third downs on Saturday, The initial failure? Hamilton’s interception courtesy of Hayes’ tip on a 3rd-and-8. The two conversions? A 3rd-and-2 and a 3rd-and-5.

The Lobos then failed on 13 of their 15 third downs. The two that converted sought just two yards and one yard. Only one other attempt qualified as 3rd-and-short, a goal-to-go situation from the three-yard-line. The other dozen New Mexico needed an average of 8.25 yards. They were, as Crawford said, no problem.

In the opener at Louisville, the Irish dime defense had a similarly slow start, gifting the Cardinals two third-down conversions with offside penalties on Okwara and Kareem turning 3rd-and-longs into manageable situations. Senior end Ade Ogundeji did the same toward the end of the game. But remove those three over-eager moments, and Notre Dame held Louisville to 2-of-11 on 3rd-and-more than 2, including a fumble recovery.

With Hamilton, Elliott, Gilman, Crawford and cornerbacks senior Troy Pride and sophomore TaRiq Bracy, the six defensive backs can cover just about any route combination. One of the first three can handle any tight end duties, and Elliott or Crawford ably defends the quickest receivers. Sophomore linebacker Jack Lamb serves as the only linebacker, quick enough to cover a running back in the flat and apt enough in coverage to handle a downfield route from that same back. All the while, the defensive line puts pressure on the quarterback.

“It’s a very special group we have on the back end this year,” Crawford said. “We’re all capable of playing many different positions. With our versatility, we’re able to throw different looks at a team and just move people around. When the offense doesn’t know what’s coming, when we have 3rd-and-long, we’re able to hide coverages, show different coverages, things like that pre-snap.

“With the versatility we have, we’re going to be able to make a lot of plays this year.”

They already have, and they will look to continue doing so Saturday at No. 3 Georgia (8 ET; CBS). Even against a veteran quarterback like Jake Fromm, 3rd-and-long situations should shift decidedly in Irish favor.