Notre Dame aims to remove indecisiveness from its play

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — From a football coach’s perspective, the only thing worse than a bad decision is no decision at all.

Hesitation, or a complete lack of action, can be a killer.

While evaluating the problems his team has had through five losses this season, one constant Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly found was an indecisiveness.

After the bye week, heading into last week’s narrow escape from Miami, Kelly and his staff put a special emphasis on coaxing Irish players to believe in the decisions they were making and stick with them.

Other than a few special teams “oops,” progress was made. Those steps in the right direction will have to be more pronounced Saturday when the Irish defense deals with a difficult challenge in Navy’s triple-option offense.

“Our whole football team had been battling at times being indecisive in certain areas, whether we were indecisive at the quarterback position; whether we were indecisive as a play-caller; whether we were indecisive at the cornerback position. Indecisiveness kind of put us where we are today,” Kelly said. “So the word that we were using was let's be decisive in everything that we do. Well, there's still some indecisiveness that is lingering. It's slowly leaving, and the opposite of that is being decisive and confident in what we're doing.

“We have to be more confident. We've got really good players that care a lot, that have a lot of pride in what they do every single day, and I just have to reinforce with those guys to be more decisive.

“They're coming (out) on the other end of that, being indecisive. They're getting closer to being decisive.”

Poster boy

While the Irish offense had its moments against Miami, the poster-boy of the problem was kick/punt returner C.J. Sanders. His fumble into the end zone — on a punt he seemed to have decided not to field, then suddenly changed his mind — resulted in a critical Hurricane touchdown.

It’s one of the issues that Kelly called “head-scratchers.”

“Indecisiveness comes in different forms,” Kelly said. “C.J. (should be) trusting his talents. He's a talented football player. He needs to trust his talents. So as it relates to him, it goes right to that. When you trust your talents, you won't be indecisive. You'll go up and get that football, and you won't suffer the consequences, and our team won't suffer the consequences.

“In other instances, being indecisive has something to do with not trusting your technique and you wanting to do things that are not taught.

“Also, it's sometimes not trusting your teammates. Maybe you haven't built a strong enough rapport with a teammate to trust maybe making that throw.

“It comes in different forms, that indecisiveness.”

There has been an emphasis to build on the positives of last week and try to eradicate indecision once and for all.

“We talk about that openly as really a piece that still needs to grow within our football team,” Kelly said. “Some of that is just inexperienced players that have to trust in those three areas, and we just have to continue to work on those and be pretty transparent in talking about those things on a day-to-day basis. And then pointing them out when those opportunities arise in practice, and then spending time. Maybe it's (quarterback) DeShone (Kizer) and (receiver) K.J. (Stepherson) spending more time on a particular route to build that confidence that he can go and throw that route without any indecisiveness.”

No hesitation

If there was ever a time when hesitation or inactivity will confound even the best-laid plans, it’s this week for the Irish defense against the Midshipmen. With Will Worth — an afterthought at quarterback when the season began, who has become one of the program’s more dynamic athletes — orchestrating the option attack, it’s a matter of discipline and decisions for the defense. There’s no time to think: See the play and react to it.

Those split-second evaluations and actions can come with great results — or consequences.

What makes it even more difficult for the Irish is that they have so many youngsters on their defensive depth chart. They have 17 freshmen or sophomores of the 30 players listed.

That’s pretty young.

But, it’s a case of convincing everyone — rookie or veteran — to go with the gut. Roll the dice and hope for the best.

“As a young player, early on, you question a lot of things,” said freshman corner Julian Love. “That’s just part of your development.

“We’re trying to focus on playing on instinct and believing in ourselves and believing in the scheme completely.”

The building process has accelerated over the last few weeks when several youngsters have been inserted into prominent roles since the departure of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

“We’ve been gradually doing that over the season,” Love said. “We really need to do that for (the Navy) game. We need to believe in the system and execute.

“It has everything to do with confidence. You gain confidence over each game.”

Vets agree

Notre Dame middle linebacker Nyles Morgan just chuckled about the significance of a defense that doesn’t take time to doubt. There’s no room, especially against Navy’s triple-option offense, to hesitate.

“Once you make your decision, stick with it and go,” Morgan said. “Once you’re indecisive, you’re holding yourself up and keeping yourself from making a play you could have made.

“The best thing I can say is read, react and go play football. It’s very critical (against the Navy offense). If you see an open lane, you have to go hit it. If you don’t, you might get cut (-blocked).”

“(Quick decisions) are probably the most important things (against the Navy offense),” said senior defensive end Isaac Rochell. “Decisiveness really just means: Do your job. It’s the most important factor in this game.

“Defensively, being decisive is always important. I don’t think it’s something we’re necessarily struggling in. It always has to be a point of emphasis.”

“(Being decisive) means guys believing in their confidence; having confidence that they’re going to accomplish their mission; that they’re going to do their job,” said junior safety Drue Tranquill. “For a long time, it’s been a lot of guys out there thinking – ‘Maybe I messed up; maybe I didn’t do this.’ Guys have to play fast and they have to play free. That’s the biggest message there.”

There’s something to be said about playing loose and free. No conscience. Make the play and move on.

No Notre Dame player will be able to look over his shoulder or second-guess. No time for that.

Observe. Evaluate. Act.

And hope for best.

Notre Dame’s Nyles Morgan (5) celebrates making a tackle during the Miami at Notre Dame NCAA college football game Saturday Oct. 29, 2016, inside Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA