Notre Dame football: Aaron Taylor sizes up clash with Air Force

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - At age 40, Aaron Taylor looks like he could still be plugged into Notre Dame’s offensive line and do some damage. His knees, which truncated a promising pro career, are maybe the only things that say otherwise.

Saturday, though, the former Irish consensus All-America offensive lineman and first-round NFL draft choice reconnects with the team he played for from 1990-93 as the game analyst for CBS Sports Network’s telecast for Notre Dame (5-2) vs. Air Force (1-6) at Falcon Stadium.

Here are some of Taylor’s thoughts on the game, the challenges of playing winning football at Air Force and Notre Dame’s big picture:

Q: What will it be like to call a game involving your alma mater, and do you have to do anything different in the way you approach it?

Taylor: Not at all. I liken it back to when (former ND teammate) Bryant Young was playing for the 49ers and I was with Green Bay. It’s fun. You enjoy it, because it’s a unique experience. But at the end of the day, you’ve got a job to do and you’re a professional, and you’ve got to do it.

That’s the way I’ve approached this game. The prep’s a little easier, just because I’m familiar with the personnel. Everybody’s been telling me I have to be careful not to say “we” — those sorts of things.

That may happen, I don’t know. I don’t anticipate it happening, but Notre Dame is as important to me as anything I’ve ever done in my life, and was the second-best decision I ever made aside from marrying my wife. So for me to identify with that certainly would be natural, but I don’t anticipate it affecting my analysis by any stretch of the imagination.

Q: Being so familiar with Air Force, having covered so many Mountain West Conference games, what is the biggest challenge for the Falcons to be competitive on an annual basis?

Taylor: What coach (Troy) Calhoun is expected to do with the cadets is miraculous, and the fact that they’ve been able to do so well as long as they have is really the story. The fact that they’re having the type of year that they’re having (1-6) now is probably what the norm should be.

I know that he’s taking a lot of heat, but the reality is these guys are cadets first, football players second. Football is like a recreational activity for them, that’s a release, that’s a lot less pressure-filled than what they’re asked to do on a day-to-day basis.

The freshmen are up at 5 a.m. and go to bed at 11 every single night, doing things that are quite a bit more important than football, frankly. They all go to boot camp before they get to (football) training camp as freshmen. And they lose, on average. 15 pounds, the linemen.

In their sophomore year, they go to survival training, which is what you think it would be with an actual opportunity to be able to practice what they’ve learned. So they’re eating bark and tree grubs and all the other things that I think you can fashion and that are edible and won’t kill you. So they lose 20 pounds on average there.

So when you look at their offensive and defensive lines, they’ve got a sophomore left tackle that’s 260 pounds (ND freshman defensive end Isaac Rochell’s older brother, Matt), which is probably generous, a senior right guard who’s 255 pounds. Jerry Henry, their right tackle, is 255 pounds — the point being those guys are grossly undersized and have a real problem gaining weight and keeping weight on because of what they’re asked to do.

As a result, Troy Calhoun has said, ever since he took the job, “For us to be good, we have to be a junior- and senior-laden team.” It’s still football. You’ve got to win in the trenches, but they’re bringing a gas-powered mower to a truck-pulling contest.

Q: There are a lot of people who think of Air Force as pure triple option. Is that indeed the case?

Taylor: It’s multiple, but ironically, they’re going back to more triple option — they’re reverting back to their original means, because they’re forced to because of where they’re at with their quarterback situation (the Falcons lost QBs 1 and 2 indefinitely earlier this season).

So philosophically they want to be a very multiple offense, where they run pistol, where they run shotgun with three backs, where they run power football, where their most-run single individual play is power, running what LSU and Nebraska or Wisconsin would.

Where they get creative, because they’ve had to, is with motions, trades, formations. They really stress the defense by throwing a lot of window dressing at it. But when you strip down their offense and diagram and chart what they do, it’s not nearly as complicated as they make it look. And that’s the challenge of facing Air Force. You have to have tremendous eye discipline, and then execute.

They make it really hard for you to do that, based on the nature of what they do.

Q: As someone who regularly covers Mountain West games, how good is that conference?

Taylor: I’d say historically they’ve more than held their own on a national landscape. I think something that makes them particularly special this year are the quarterbacks in the conference.

When you look at (Fresno State’s) Derek Carr, when you look at the (Brett) Smith kid at Wyoming, Chuckie Keeton (Utah State) before he went down, Joe Southwick (Boise State) was having a tremendous year (before suffering an injury), there are some good quarterbacks in this league — David Fales (San Jose State), who’s probably a next-level guy. You get a lot of quarterbacks and skill-position-type players in this league.

Where it’s been tough for them to compete on a national level has been offensive and defensive linemen. And that’s true for any non-AQ type conference. It’s the sole reason why, the SEC for example, has done so well, because they’re laden with offensive and defensive linemen. The best guys in the country come from that Southeastern region.

But Mountain West football is very good football, very well-coached. These guys have to be good coaches, because they don’t have the rosters necessarily to compete toe to toe in matchups, so guys are fundamentally sound. You see some unique things offensively that they run — Utah State and their offensive scheme, Air Force obviously.

On the defensive side of the ball (San Diego State head coach) Rocky Long with that 3-3-5, and blitzing and being aggressive and stunting as much as they do. So you’ve got a lot of creative, fun, well-disciplined football with some sprinkling in of guys who can be next-level players.

Q: Air Force’s campus at Colorado Springs is at 6,035 feet above sea level. How real is the adjustment to playing at a high altitude. Is it more psychological for visiting teams?

Taylor: It’s real and it’s physiological. The bottom line is that there is less oxygen in Colorado Springs than there is in South Bend, Ind., by a lot. And to deny that or ignore that is foolish.

Talking with the ND coaches this week, I know they’re very well aware of that. They acknowledge it. I think (defensive coordinator) Bob Diaco had a great point that if you don’t do that, when guys get fatigued and they start making mistakes, they start to press, because they panic, because they’re in a situation where people are trying to downplay the effect of it.

Whereas if you plan for it and expect it, it’s not such a shock and you can adjust to it better. We (when Taylor played for ND against Air Force) would use oxygen on the sidelines. There’s a little bit more rotation that goes on.

What this Notre Dame team has done on the defensive side of the ball, where the oxygen situation is probably more problematic, the rotation is kind of built into what Diaco and those guys do on that side of the ball anyway. But it’s absolutely 100 percent real, the lack of oxygen at that altitude. And if you come in and just expect that you’re going to perform normally and recover the way you do in a normal game, you’d be sadly mistaken.

But I would expect Notre Dame to be tremendously mentally prepared for that as they possibly can.

I think it was notable that Notre Dame approaches it by acknowledging it. I think a lot of coaches take the approach, “Suck it up. Don’t let the elements affect you.” You don’t want the players going in there and using it as an excuse not to perform. But to act like it doesn’t exist would be doing your team a disservice. Diaco is all over that, and I thought it was unique, because you don’t hear it from a lot of coaches.

Q: As you look at Notre Dame, what’s the area where the Irish are closest to your era and what’s the area where they’re furthest away?

Taylor: I think our era was defined by physical football in the trenches on both sides of the ball. We were athletic and had speed on the outside edge. And we had young guys who would play early. We also had very good quarterbacks who could throw the ball and keep things honest.

Most of those things are true for this team as well. The one area that doesn’t have that yet that’s starting to emerge, hopefully, is the offensive side of the ball. Teams have been pressing them and loading the box on defense.

This is a week maybe where you can get some confidence back, maybe stretch some things out and get the ball into the hands of your playmakers in space in an area where they can be more productive, and I think that would probably include on the ground.

Q: If there’s one player in this game for Notre Dame who can be the X factor, who do you think it will be?

Taylor: I don’t know if there’s a single player, really. To beat Air Force, you’ve got to play fundamentally sound football. I think the reality is that Notre Dame is going to have to play well at all positions on both sides of the football.

This isn’t a matter of, “Hey we’ve got a matchup, we need to take advantage of it.” I think Louis Nix (who did not make the trip) and Stephon Tuitt sort of get nullified in a game like this, where you’re attacking the edges rather than trying to run up the middle.

Air Force will try to run some power, so they’ll have their opportunities there, but safeties are going to have to play well, outside linebackers are going to have to play well and cornerbacks are going to have to play well.

Those guys are going to have to stay on their feet, get off of blocks, tackle well in the alleys and come up and take good angles, and again play with tremendous eye discipline.

Being in the right place is a start, and then finishing the play is going to be of paramount importance.

Offensively for Notre Dame, the quarterback position is going to be of the utmost importance, whether that’s (Tommy) Rees or (Andrew) Hendrix — and I think we’ll probably see a mixture of both. If Hendrix plays, I would expect he’d be running a little bit more zone read and get him outside the pocket and let him use his legs a little bit more. And he’s got to perform when he gets in there.

With Rees, he’s going to have to be able to throw the ball well enough to get the box counts they want. If that happens, they can let (running backs) Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle and George Atkinson get it done.

Q: Do you see Notre Dame as a team that can be better in November? Do you see upside with this team, the kind that could push them into the Top 25 and maybe be competitive with Stanford in the final game?

Taylor: Absolutely. And I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve seen so far, and what that’s been really has been the emergence of the defense again. I mean, that was the strength of this team in 2012. The offense played well enough to not turn the football over last year, and they were more effective because they had a guy (QB Everett Golson) who could run it, and Brian Kelly and (offensive coordinator) Chuck Martin, that’s their preferred method of attacking a defense.

What I saw last week was playmakers starting to emerge on that side of the football. And when you have your best guys playing their best football, you’re going to win a lot more games than you’re not.

In the two games they lost, they didn’t play well at particular positions, and those guys are going to need to continue to get better. And I think they’ve got a real strong shot to do it.

You’ve got to be able to protect the football. You can’t make bad mistakes, but I was very encouraged by what I saw at the end of the Arizona State game and what I saw throughout the USC game on the defensive side of the ball.

For Notre Dame’s defense to step up the way that they did and only allow 10 points with that (USC) offense that we’ve seen put up a ton of points the week before was very, very impressive. And that’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to find a way to win.

Former Notre Dame offensive lineman Aaron Taylor will be an analyst during CBS Sports Network's telecast of the Irish vs. Air Force game. SBT file photo