Analysis: Answering the rhetorical what-ifs of a 7-0 Notre Dame Football team

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Brian Kelly gets to celebrate his 57th birthday this week with the football equivalent of a root canal.

The three extra days of practice and meetings during last week’s bye should help the Notre Dame head football coach and his third-ranked Irish (7-0) deal with Navy’s triple-option offense, replete with those pesky cut blocks, on Saturday night.

Having former Navy defensive back Alohi Gilman (12 tackles for the Mids versus the Irish in the 2016 game) in ND’s starting lineup won’t hurt either. Kickoff for what is technically a home game for Navy (2-5) is 8 p.m. EDT at San Diego County Credit Union Stadium in San Diego.

CBS-TV has the telecast, with former Irish All-America offensive lineman Aaron Taylor providing the analysis.

It’s the start of four games away from Notre Dame Stadium in a five-week stretch for the Irish, with more than 10,000 miles of round-trip travel (almost 3,000 miles farther than a round trip to Dublin Ireland). and there’s likely to be four night games among those five games, of which three have been confirmed as such.

The latest is the Nov. 3 road trip to Northwestern. The game will be either a 7:15 EDT start on ESPN or 7:30 start on ABC, to be determined after this weekend’s games.

The big what-if in that potential scheduling stress is the Syracuse game on Nov. 17, originally slated for Notre Dame Stadium. What if the Notre Dame powers-that-be had just decided to skip the Shamrock Series for a second year in a row instead of moving that game to Yankee Stadium?

You have to wonder about the cumulative effect it may have on a team and a program that’s 4-9 in its last 13 November games away from Notre Dame Stadium since the 2012 run to the BCS National Championship game.

A 7-0 start to 2018 doesn’t lend itself to many other serious what-ifs. Here’s a few rhetorical ones to chew on:

What if Mike Elko had remained Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator?

It’s hard to imagine a different bottom line for the Irish, except where the Notre Dame athletic department’s finances are concerned.

Elko got a reported three-year contract worth $1.8 million per year — with incentives that could drive it over $2 million — to go one-and-done at ND and head to Texas A&M. Reportedly, the Aggies were ready to go higher to top any offer from the Irish.

What Notre Dame got in Lea, it appears, is a rising star in the coaching business.

So much of the media focus heading into the 2018 season was trying to decode the differences between Elko and successor Clark Lea, but it’s their similarities that have both thriving in their new jobs in 2018.

With Lea, a decidedly different personality, the likeness that matters most is schematic continuity and the approach behind it.

“He’s a really close friend,” Lea said of Elko last spring. “There’s a reason we worked together for as long as we did and as many different places as we did.

“The thing I think he did really well is that it was never OK to him to not have an answer. If you’re looking at something and you see the dilemma that a player’s in and you’re not addressing it, then you’re not coaching the players to their highest level.

“That’s something that I always loved about him. We never just did what we did. It was always, ‘Is what we’re doing putting our players in a position to be successful?’ ”

The Irish under Lea have taken the next step defensively, improving significantly in rush defense (51st to 30th), pass-efficiency defense (46th to 11th), total defense (46th to 29th), scoring defense (31st to 21st), sacks (83rd to 54th), and tackles for loss (58th to 47th).

The Irish play teams ranked 80th, 88th, 98th, 19th and 104th in total offense in succession over the balance of the regular season.

One notable regression for ND under Lea is third-down defense (37th to 82nd), a stat that can improve as the Irish develop answers at the nickel position.

As for Elko, the Aggies also have improved in most categories, dramatically so in rush defense (70th to 4th), total defense (79th to 22nd), scoring defense (87th to 29th), third-down defense (31st to 2nd) and red zone defense (122nd to 5th).

Texas A&M, which already has faced the top two teams on the AP poll — Alabama and Clemson — has gone backwards in sacks, tackles for loss and turnovers gained and is still susceptible in pass-efficiency defense (105th this season).

But all in all, Notre Dame is better off for having Elko in 2017, and the aftermath appears to be win-win for both schools.

What if Josh Adams had come back to school?

Running back Josh Adams and wide receiver Equanimeous Brown opted last January to become the 15th and 16th true juniors ever to leave Notre Dame early for the NFL Draft. In April, Adams became the third of those 16 to go undrafted. St. Brown went in the lowest round (sixth) among those 13 who did get drafted.

Especially given the injuries to Tony Jones Jr. and Jafar Armstrong, there’s no question Adams could have helped a rushing attack that currently ranks 59th nationally — 52 spots lower than it finished last season.

Admittedly, that drop has more to do with losing All-America offensive linemen Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey to the draft, and Alex Bars last month to torn knee ligaments.

And that — the O-line — is where most of the improvement is going to have to come if the Irish are going to be a truly balanced offense, as Kelly and coordinator Chip Long have strived to build.

They’ll need it most if they make the College Football Playoff. You can’t survive there as a one-dimensional team.

Adams’ last five games of his Irish career (261 yards on 74 carries, 3.5 average, 0 TDs) skews a mostly impactful three seasons in which he finished as the No. 5 rusher on ND’s career list. The challenge this season would have been finding the right balance between Dexter Williams and Adams.

The biggest reason Adams didn’t go on day 3 (rounds 4-7) of the draft last spring was medical. An already tenuous health history took another jolt when a hairline fracture in Adams’ right foot showed up during medical checks at the NFL Scouting Combine last winter.

Adams eventually signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, but the injury lingered through rookie camp, OTAs and mini-camp before he finally could make his case for a roster spot.

He initially was assigned to the practice squad when squads cut down to the final 53, then was promoted to the Eagles’ active roster in mid-September. Adams has 42 yards on 11 carries so far.

He also recently was awarded a $500,000 insurance claim for the lost income his foot injury appeared to have cost him with regard to his draft status.

As far as other players who left the ND roster for one reason or another with remaining eligibility this offseason, certainly first-rounder Nelson returning for a fifth year would have been the most significant.

But with the season-ending injury to cornerback Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins sticking around for a fifth year instead of a grad transfer to Houston would have made a big difference to an already stellar pass-efficiency defense (11th nationally).

Imagine Julian Love being able to slide to the nickel position when the Irish went to five defensive backs, with Troy Pride Jr. and Watkins on the outside. It also would have theoretically deepened the safety position, with Nick Coleman and Houston Griffith being able to rotate in there instead of having to make a less natural switch to nickel.

What if Notre Dame is more talented and deeper in 2019?

First, the Irish would need ascending players with remaining eligibility, such as cornerback Julian Love and defensive end Khalid Kareem, to come back instead of wade into the draft pool. They’ll also need to develop some answers at linebacker, and there is some promising raw material there.

The schedule, though, may be too unforgiving.

Nine of next year’s 12 opponents currently have winning records — Louisville (2-5), New Mexico (3-4) and Navy (2-5) the exceptions. and eight of the nine have two or fewer losses.

The 2019 road games are at Louisville, Georgia (6-1), Michigan (7-1), Duke (5-2) and Stanford (5-2), with a dreaded Shamrock Series game still a possibility.

A lot can change in a year with regard to the relative strengths of the opponents. Here’s hoping nothing changes in the next year when it comes to moving a seventh home game to a neutral site Shamrock Series venue.

Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams (2) and Josh Adams (33) dance during warmups before the Notre Dame at Miami NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. 
Former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko has moved on successfully to Texas A&M, and the Irish have moved on successfully without him.

Who: No. 3 Notre Dame (7-0) vs. Navy (2-5)

When: Saturday at 8 p.m. (EDT)

Where: SDCCU Stadium; San Diego

TV: CBS

Radio: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 23 1/2