Mission accomplished – behind the scenesLast season, both Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco noted a disconnect between what the first-team Irish defense would see on the field vs. true triple-option offenses by comparison to the efforts of the demo (scout) teams during the previous week of practice.
It was to be expected, of course, as Navy and Army in 2010, and Air Force this season, have each enjoyed years of practice in the offense while the Irish demo squads had just bits and pieces of preparation.
Apparently the week of preparation leading up to Saturday's blowout of Navy offered a better look to prepare Diaco's defensive crew.
"The first thing that I would point out is our graduate assistants, Mike Painter and John Carpenter," Kelly said of the team's defensive effort that limited Navy to 3.9 yards per carry. "Both those guys did a great job of preparing our defense for what they needed to see in putting together Navy's offense with our players. They did a great job of preparing our young guys, in particular those that had never seen option before. So it was as realistic as it was in the game. They just did a tremendous job."
Notre Dame's front four featured a true sophomore in Prince Shembo, a redshirt-freshman in Louis Nix, and three true freshmen: Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch, and Chase Hounshell. Only seniors Darius Fleming and Sean Cwynar could be considered "old hands" defending the triple-option attack.
"That's why we all felt, collectively, really confident going in, because we saw how well those guys were schooled during the week," Kelly continued. "I think the most important thing, if you really look at the young guys that were out there, they weren't on the ground. They knew how to play off blocks. We cut (block) during the week. So I would give a lot of the credit not only to our coaches and players, but also to our graduate assistants, and our guys that ‘demo-ed' Navy did an incredible job."
Kelly was also pleased to see his second unit play better vs. Navy's offense late in the contest after many of the same players were torched by Air Force in similar situation earlier this month.
"We said in the fourth quarter, look, these guys are going to have to defend option next year when guys graduate, so let's get them back in the game as quickly as we can, and they played much better the next time around when they saw option," Kelly offered. "Obviously any time you're able to get these young guys an opportunity to play this year, it's only going to help you down the road."
Notre Dame's second unit yielded one defensive score on the three drives; the touchdown the result of a short field situation following a Tommy Rees interception. The backups recorded two tackles for loss and three stops after gains of just 1-2 yards on the remaining pair of drives, forcing a punt after a 5-play, 20-yard drive early in the fourth quarter.
Front ForwardKelly's freshmen defenders (and redshirt-freshmen Louis Nix and Kendall Moore) combined for 16 tackles, three QB hurries, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, and a half-sack in Saturday's convincing victory. But a second quarter injury to one of those freshmen, 6'4" 265-pound defensive lineman Chase Hounshell, could have put a damper on the proceedings – not to mention the unit's already tested depth going forward.
Turns out Hounshell came out no worse for the wear.
"(Hounshell) has a very slight shoulder capsule injury that will not affect his practice status for the week; he'll be back on the field on Tuesday," Kelly said, adding, "And nothing will keep anybody out of playing time from the game, so we were very fortunate to get out of the game without any injuries."
It was just the second contest over the last month in which the Irish didn't lose a rotation member; starter Ethan Johnson injured his ankle vs. Purdue and has yet to return; Kapron Lewis-Moore is out for the season after a knee injury (and subsequent successful surgery) following the USC contest.
Key to the team's rush defense in November is the return of Johnson, but also the versatility of massive freshman defensive lineman, Stephon Tuitt.
"He can play both the 4-technique and play inside," said Kelly of Tuitt's alignment through 2011. "I think we're going to get that sorted out here in the next 48 hours as to who's going to play where, because obviously (Aaron) Lynch and Tuitt are going to have to play and play a lot. "I think where we are right now with Nix and Cwynar at the nose, we feel really good about it there, and now it's the young guys are going to have to step up at the 4-technique (the defensive end's usual role)."
Tuitt has posted 14 tackles over his last two games and 19 since sitting out the Purdue game due to a Kelly-imposed suspension. Conversely, his bookend Lynch has been quiet since single-handedly destroying Michigan State's offense in Week Three.
"I think he's done well," Kelly said of Lynch, adding the caveat, "I mean, different games for him, it's the option teams clearly that (against which he doesn't factor) – he's an edge player for us.
"He's a good player; he's a guy that's only going to get better. But he's a different player than Stephon Tuitt is. Stephon is a guy that obviously can play inside, is physically strong at the point of attack. As you know, Lynch is a great pass rusher, and he's going to be a great player for us. It's just the different teams that we've played have obviously put him in a situation where he hasn't gotten as much playing time, but moving forward, with traditional offenses, he's going to be a big part of what we do."