Notebook: Brian Kelly is confident in Marcus Freeman's résumé against Navy

Tyler James
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — When Brian Kelly interviewed Marcus Freeman last winter for Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator position, the Irish head coach didn’t have to ask Freeman about his game plan for stopping Navy’s triple-option offense. 

“If he didn't play Navy, yes, it would have been a question,” Kelly said Monday ahead of No. 8 Notre Dame (7-1) hosting Navy (2-6) on Saturday (3:30 p.m. EDT on NBC)

“But because he played and prepared against Navy, it wasn't a question. But if I hadn't had film and watched the structure of the defense and how they performed against Navy, it would certainly be a question." 

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Freeman’s Cincinnati defense showed significant improvement in defending Navy in 2017 and 2018. The Midshipmen had their way with the Bearcats in a 42-32 victory in 2017 with 569 rushing yards. In the rematch the following season, Cincinnati blanked Navy, 42-0, and allowed only 124 rushing yards. 

Those outcomes were reflective of the seasons both teams had in 2017 and 2018. Navy averaged 351.4 rushing yards in 2017 before taking a steep drop to 276.1 rushing yards per game in 2018. Cincinnati’s defense improved from No. 94 in total defense in 2017 (428.5 yards allowed per game) to No. 11 in 2018 (303.5). 

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman during the Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Navy’s triple-option offense this season hasn’t been particularly effective. The Midshipmen have averaged 222.5 rushing yards through their first eight games. But Navy has found ways to stay competitive in seven-point losses against its two toughest opponents: No. 2 Cincinnati (8-0) and No. 23 SMU (7-1). 

“These games are never easy, because you're playing a style of football that goes contrary to what you've been teaching for the past four months,” Kelly said. “So, it's a challenge to the coaches and the players to prepare themselves, and you're preparing against great competitors.” 

Notre Dame had a reprieve from playing against Navy last year due to COVID-induced scheduling changes across college football. That means both the freshman and sophomore classes on Notre Dame’s roster will be playing against the Midshipmen for the first time Saturday. 

When asked if players needed to be reminded what it’s like to play against Navy because it hasn’t happened since 2019, Kelly joked that concern wasn’t on his list of talking points Monday. 

"I gotta add that one now? Thank you,” Kelly said. “I didn't even write that one down today. Let me add that to the list. No, they're quite aware of the challenges that Navy presented without having to add that to the list.” 

Those challenges have become tradition for Notre Dame even if the annual series skipped a season. Kelly will enter Saturday’s matchup with a 8-2 record on the field against Navy as Notre Dame’s head coach. Both the wins and losses against the Midshipmen have taught Kelly to be ready for anything. 

"There's going to be a double pass, and there's going to be something that we haven't seen before, a formation,” Kelly said. “We keep the book on them. When I say the book, I mean we have everything from 2010 when we played them first. We try to research all this stuff, and then there's always something different.” 

Will Kyle Hamilton play again this season? 

Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton (14) tries to make an interception during the Notre Dame vs. Toledo NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

For the second week in a row, Kelly said All-American safety Kyle Hamilton wouldn’t play on Saturday at his Monday press conference. The right knee injury that Hamilton suffered late in the first quarter against USC on Oct. 23 will keep him sidelined. 

Hamilton will continue to receive treatment on his knee this week, Kelly said, and will be evaluated next week to determine his availability against Virginia on Nov. 13. 

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior has not been ruled out for the remainder of the season, and Kelly believes that Hamilton will indeed play again for the Irish this year. But that will remain in question until Hamilton suits up for another game. 

Hamilton, who would likely be a top-10 pick in next year’s NFL Draft without playing another game, could opt to protect his future by sitting out the rest of the season, but he hasn’t made any public indication that he will do so. The topic hasn’t been addressed on his weekly “Inside the Garage” podcast either. 

“It's his decision and those aren't easy decisions,” Kelly said. ‘He'll lean on his family. We have an outside source that we bring in that evaluates all of our players. He has a chance to listen to all that information, but Kyle will make the right decision and what's right for him.  

“We're assuming that everything goes great with his knee, right? So, let's make that assumption. And then if that's the case, he'll have all the information in front of him. We're going to support him 100%, whatever it is.  

“That's the nature of where we are today in college football. Guys have to make those kinds of decisions, but we'll support him. He's been a great teammate." 

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Junior defensive end Isaiah Foskey admitted following Saturday’s 44-34 win over North Carolina that he hurt his shoulder a little bit, but that didn’t prevent him from returning to the game. 

The post-game medical evaluation of Foskey went well, Kelly said. 

“Some of the bumps and bruises of a high-impact game, but nothing that would limit him from any of our competitive stuff this week,” he said. 

Senior wide receiver Braden Lenzy, who entered concussion protocol after being shaken up following a three-yard catch in the first quarter against North Carolina, could return to practice as soon as Tuesday, Kelly said. Both Lenzy and the team doctors were optimistic when speaking to Kelly. 

“We're on track, moving in the right direction with him, and he's voiced his absolute want and desire to be on the field,” Kelly said. “So, we'll see how that plays out.” 

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Kelly also revealed that graduate senior kicker Jonathan Doerer has been playing through an apparent leg injury this season, which could explain why only three of his nine kickoffs against North Carolina went for touchbacks. Kelly said Doerer received a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection during the bye week. 

“He kicked in the Virginia Tech game with a pretty significant injury,” Kelly said. “Making that kick that he made for us on the sideline even more astounding in a sense. He’s coming back from a significant injury and trying to build up the strength in his leg. We’re seeing a little bit of that in some of the kickoffs.” 

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Extra points 

• New Prairie product Chase Ketterer has served as Notre Dame’s scout team quarterback in recent weeks and has been preparing Navy’s triple-option attack with a handful of other teammates since the summer. 

Ketterer, a 5-11, 203-pound sophomore, was a run-first quarterback out of the shotgun formation at New Prairie. He rushed for 2,496 yards and accounted for 43 total touchdowns in his 2019 senior season. Working as a triple-option quarterback for the scout team was a consideration for Notre Dame when it pursued him as a preferred walk-on. 

“We really liked his competitiveness and thought he was an outstanding athlete,” Kelly said, “but this was a conversation that we had when we obviously entered into this kind of agreement.” 

Notre Dame’s Chase Ketterer (27) celebrates after the Notre Dame vs. North Carolina NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

• Kelly was asked Monday if he felt vindicated by the way quarterback Jack Coan has played since sticking with him as the starting quarterback heading into the Virginia Tech game. 

“I know you’ll laugh when I say this, but I didn’t know that I needed to be vindicated,” Kelly said. “Maybe I don’t listen enough to the people that were talking about it. Jack was the guy.  

“And I don’t mean that in any other way other than I don’t — how could you be the head coach at Notre Dame if you listened to all of this stuff every day? I would jump out off my roof. It’s crazy.  

“More than anything else, we felt like Jack was our best option for us to win. We just needed to continue to work with him.” 

• All four of Notre Dame’s linebacker pledges in the 2022 class were named as semifinalists for the high school version of the Butkus Award: Joshua Burnham, Jaylon Sneed, Niuafe Tuihalamaka and Nolan Ziegler. 

Sixteen players were selected Monday as semifinalists for the award given to the nation’s top linebacker. No current Notre Dame player made the semifinalist list of 16 for the college Butkus Award. 

Three Notre Dame recruits won the Butkus Award in high school: Manti Te’o (2008), Jaylon Smith (2012) and Prince Kollie (2020). 

Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.