Notebook: Double vision for Notre Dame's defense?
SOUTH BEND — The vision Brian Kelly is selling to recruits of how Notre Dame’s defense will evolve bears very little resemblance to the one he’ll put on the field Saturday in San Antonio, Texas, against Army.
Injuries, another triple-option offense to prep for and a bulging mystery regarding nose guard Jarron Jones’ role this weekend all distort and detract from the momentum building for the next scheme.
But the seventh-year Irish head football coach did spill some of the details of the projected long-term approach Tuesday during his weekly press conference.
“Quite frankly, we're going to be in both (3-4 and 4-3 fronts), because I'm not going anywhere,” he said. “So it's going to be a three-down, four-down defense, and they're going to have to be somebody that can do both.”
They are the eight defensive recruits already committed in the 2017 class, the four defenders in the 2018 group, and the prospects Kelly and his staff are still chasing to close out the current recruiting cycle.
The nuances and even some of the basic tenets of the next scheme — how attacking vs. read/react, how much man vs. zone — will and should likely have to wait until Kelly makes perhaps the most momentous hire of his head coaching career, deposed defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s permanent replacement.
Interim Greg Hudson, who was elevated from his analyst position on Sept. 25, remains in the running.
“Obviously, if there is an elite player at a particular position, I don't think it matters what defense you play.” Kelly said.
It will matter Saturday, though, as Notre Dame (3-6) plays its eighth Shamrock Series game — an offsite home game concept introduced by former Irish athletic director Kevin White. The venue (Alamodome) and the opponent (Army) are both cycling through for the second time, though this is their first pairing together.
Against the Black Knights (5-4), certainly the production of the defense must change from its last encounter with triple-option, and perhaps the approach ND takes in defending Army’s version of the triple-option may, too.
Navy (6-2) was able to both score at will and play keep-away from the Irish offense in last Saturday’s 28-27 upset by the Mids in Jacksonville, Fla. Coach Ken Niumatalolo’s offense converted eight of its 13 third-down opportunities. And of the five it didn’t, the Mids converted four times on fourth down.
The Irish offense got its hands on the ball just six times, including only twice in the second half. Notre Dame came into that game averaging 13.8 offenesive possessions in its first eight games, with a high of 17 in a 50-33 win over Syracuse and a previously low 11 vs. Stanford, a 17-10 loss.
In 2010, Kelly’s first season at ND and the last time the Irish played Navy and Army in the same season, he took radically different approaches to facing the triple-option and with dramatically different results.
On Oct. 23, Navy pounded the Irish with its fullback in a 35-17 Mids rout. Four weeks later, ND took down Army 27-3 in one of the most dominating defensive performances of the Kelly Era.
The wild card was Lou Holtz. The former Irish head coach had a speaking engagement in South Bend on Nov. 9, 2010 — 11 days before ND was to face Army at Yankee Stadium. Kelly requested and Holtz obliged to spend some face-to-face time with Kelly during his trip.
“The first words out of his mouth were, ‘Get a house in Florida, because there’s not much sun in South Bend,’ ” Kelly recalled after the 2010 season concluded of the earlier confab. “And while that may be really good advice, that’s not exactly what I was expecting.”
Holtz eventually did get to the expected agenda, which included helping Kelly reconfigure the defense for Army. Two notable differences were moving from a base 3-4 to a 4-3 for that game and dropping cornerback Robert Blanton into an outside linebacker role to boost speed on the edge.
“You don't defend the triple-option," Holtz said during 2010. "You attack it. You attack the fullback. You attack the quarterback. You attack the running back. You take away the pass. You take away the 'wish' (in wishbone).”
Jones saga continues
The lack of playing time for grad senior nose guard Jarron Jones in last Saturday’s loss to Navy gets more cryptic and confusing by the day.
Jones had a history of success against the option and was the reigning Bronko Nagurski national defensive player of the week coming into the game.
Irish Illustrated pointed out that he played just 12 of a possible 64 defensive snaps against the Mids, but those 12 snaps constituted the only two drives the Irish stopped the Navy offense — a turnover on downs (though he wasn't on the field on fourth down) and a punt (that was later wiped out by a 12-men-on-the-field penalty). He did not record a tackle, however.
Kelly said Sunday the triple-option offense and Jones’ skill set weren’t a good match, which is defied by Jones’ history playing against the scheme. All of which stirred speculation that Jones perhaps was concerned about Navy’s practice of cut-blocking and elected to limit his time against it.
So more of the same against Army?
“We'll find out,” Kelly said. “We'll find out. I think he wants to play a lot this week, and we've got Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and see what happens.
“Was that just coincidence that your two best series were with Jarron Jones in the game?” came the follow-up.
“Well, I think you know that one guy does not stop the option,” Kelly said. “Preparation is important. Preparation is important. That's all I'll say.”
“Did he at any point express reluctance to be a full-time participant in the Navy game?” came the next question.
“I think all of our guys get equal opportunity to prepare during the week, and then we're going to play the guys that prepare to play the option,” Kelly said. “And so each and every week we've got a number of guys that — you've seen the amount of guys we're playing on defense.
“They all get reps and they all get a chance to get in there. And it'll come down to preparation. And if they prepare the way that they need to prepare, they'll all get a chance to play.”
Freshman cornerback Julian Love and junior safety Drue Tranquill, both of whom left Saturday’s game with concussion symptoms, progressed enough through the concussion protocol the past couple of days that they were both slated to go through the non-contact portions of Tuesday’s practice.
If all goes well, they both are expected to practice without restrictions on Wednesday.
Tranquill had four tackles against Navy, Love a career-high eight with a tackle for loss.
“I don't know if I've seen a true freshman play the triple option as well as he did,” Kelly offered. “He was really good before he got dinged. He was running to the football, playing off cut blocks, playing physical, playing smart — very, very good.”
Junior nose guard Daniel Cage, meanwhile, may miss his second straight game after leaving the Miami (Fla.) game on Oct. 29 with concussion symptoms.
“He's made some progress,'' Kelly said, “but anytime that somebody's in their second week and has not fully gone through the stages as we see them, we'd like to get a second opinion and make sure that everything is good.”
Kelly said Cage has an appointment to see specialist Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher this week.
• Notre Dame has won 14 successive games against Army in a series it leads 38-8-4. The last Black Knight victory against the Irish was a 14-2 decision in 1958.
• Saturday will mark the 32nd game of the 51 in the series played at a neutral site.
• Perhaps Army’s national ranking of No. 6 in total defense could provide some encouragement for the Irish. The Black Knights finished last season 47th and were 90th following the 2014 season. Notre Dame is 50th in the 128-team FBS in total defense.
WHO: Notre Dame (3-6) vs. Army (5-4)
KICKOFF: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EST
WHERE: The Alamodome; San Antonio, Texas
RADIO: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)
LINE: Notre Dame by 12 1/2