Brian Kelly said Sunday that 27 players participated on defense for the Irish against Nevada with an unofficial 28 on offense.
Just two games into the season, Notre Dame’s depth is being tested again. The hits keep coming in the secondary where the loss of Max Redfield and Shaun Crawford (torn left Achilles vs. Nevada) as well as the delayed return of junior cornerback Nick Watkins has left the Irish scrambling to form a depth chart that isn’t loaded with freshmen.
The loss of Crawford cannot be overestimated. He would have been on any pre-season list of players Notre Dame could not afford to lose in 2016.
Let’s take a look at how Notre Dame’s youth excelled in the 39-10 victory over the Wolf Pack.
• Devin Studstill: Making his first career start, Studstill was active in the ground game, finishing with three solo tackles after his relief appearance against Texas netted four stops.
What Studstill is flashing is nothing new. He showed great around-the-football ability in high school. In the spring, we saw his ability to converge on the football with acceleration and then get into the lower body of ball carriers/receivers. When Nick Coleman whiffed on a 44-yard pass against Nevada, Studstill was there to make the tackle. This is an instinctive young football player.
• Kevin Stepherson: It was just a little more than a week ago that the public was wondering if/when the early-entry freshman wideout would participate following his involvement in the “Fulton County Five” incident.
He looked a bit overwhelmed and off the mark running routes against the Longhorns. But he caught the first three passes of his career against Nevada, including a rifle-shot from DeShone Kizer midway through the second quarter from four yards out to give the Irish an 18-point lead and Stepherson’s first career touchdown.
Stepherson also excelled with Malik Zaire at quarterback. In addition to a nine-yard shovel pass, he caught a 22-yarder from Zaire on the senior signalcaller’s first snap, which was a crisp, tight, beautifully-ran route.
• Chase Claypool: The rookie wide receiver missed a huge opportunity with a drop on a pass from Malik Zaire, but he continues to show up in other ways, most notably on special teams.
Claypool has become a force on the kick coverage units. His length and athleticism allowed him to make a couple of stops against Nevada while influencing at least two returns in the Texas game. It also was Claypool who forced the block in the back on the kickoff after Notre Dame’s opening field goal vs. the Wolf Pack. He quickly has become a player the opposition has to account for on the coverage units. He added a nine-yard jet sweep against the Wolf Pack and has been a lead blocker at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds.
• Te’von Coney: Part of the reason there was a desire to get Greer Martini into the starting lineup against Texas was because of the unknown with Coney. He obviously couldn’t get on the field ahead of Jaylon Smith last year, and then a significant shoulder injury in the Fiesta Bowl knocked him out of spring drills.
While Martini struggled getting off blocks against the Longhorns, Coney was quick and decisive in his first career start at Will linebacker. He tied three Irish defenders for a co-team-leading five stops against Nevada. Brian Kelly called him Notre Dame’s hardest hitter at the Will in camp. It showed against the Wolf Pack.
• Dexter Williams: The sophomore running back rushed for a career-high 59 yards on eight carries and scored his second career touchdown on a one-yarder against Nevada on the heels of a 23-yard run.
Williams is a combination of coveted skills. He’s built low to the ground. He runs the football with bent knees/a good pad level, and he has an asset that cannot be taught – acceleration.
Built along the lines of Tarean Folston, who also plays with a low pad level, Williams has that sudden burst that Folston lost with his torn ACL in ’15. After Williams bounced off left guard Quenton Nelson, he shot toward the pylon at the goal line.
It’s time to see what Williams can do in a high-leverage situation, which arrives this weekend against Michigan State.
• Chris Finke: Finke was much like Claypool in that he kept showing up against Nevada. He caught a couple of passes (one was a shovel forward) for 19 yards and was targeted a couple more times.
He showed vision on the 12-yard pitch forward. He drew a pass interference against Nevada safety Dameon Baber. He looked natural and comfortable finding his path on a 15-yard punt return. It was a solid home debut for the former walk-on.
• Pete Mokwuah: The 6-foot-2¾, 317-pound junior nose tackle (red-shirt sophomore jumped off the screen with his quickness off the snap against Nevada. He didn’t record a tackle, but he showed a propensity to time the snap and crease a gap. That size and quickness caused a holding call against Nevada.
His stamina likely is limited and his lateral coverage of space is barely beyond his body width. But there’s a football player in that big body and he’ll be called upon in 2017 when Jarron Jones is gone or if Jones/Daniel Cage has a physical setback in ’16.
Three young skill-position players are emerging for the Irish on offense in a big way: sophomore running back Josh Adams, sophomore receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomore slot receiver C.J. Sanders.
The highlight of Adams’ game against Nevada was his 43-yard run, which put him over the 100-yard for the fifth time in his career. After getting an initial block from pulling guard Colin McGovern, he avoided four “situations” created by six Nevada defenders, all of which he eluded before finding daylight to his right along the Notre Dame sideline.
Sanders shook free for Notre Dame’s first score on a seven-yard “play extension” by Kizer. The 4th-and-2 conversion pass to Sanders against talented strong safety Dameon Baber to start the second half showed his versatility to muscle up. His 25-yard reception, created virtually on his own, converted a 3rd-and-3 and led to a Tarean Folston touchdown and a 25-0 Notre Dame lead.
In open space, Sanders truly is a threat to score every time he touches the football. His ability to impact the kick return game as well as the punt return game, which frequently yields little with today’s rules, is a bonus.
St. Brown has shown in two games that he a) knows how to find open space versus zone coverages and b) is capable of weaving his way through traffic a la Sanders.
Three sophomores on a steady upward arc.
For all the bashing that’s been directed at coordinator Brian VanGorder, credit where credit is due for the effort/performance against Nevada.
The Irish allowed 300 yards total offense, but the number was at 214 when the Wolf Pack began their lone touchdown drive with 5:33 remaining.
Out of a base defense, the Irish limited the Nevada ground game to just 99 yards on 30 carries. The Wolf Pack averaged 211 yards rushing per game in ’15 and had 174 in their season-opener victory over Cal Poly with four starters returning along the offensive line.
James Butler was limited to 50 yards and 2.9 yards per carry on his 17 attempts. His long rushing attempt was 10 yards, which he gained twice. That means 15 of his rushing attempts netted 30 yards. Unofficially, seven of his 17 carries were stuffs (two yards or less).
It was an important step for the defense on a couple of fronts. It established Brian Kelly’s control to get VanGorder to run predominately base defense on early downs. VanGorder had the Irish in some exotics on third down, which is the time to do it. Otherwise, when it came to playing fundamentally sound football – a freakish concept the previous 22 games – the Irish were ready and tackled well.
“If the game was to be scripted, first and second down, we’d like to be base. Third down, we’d like to get into nickel,” Kelly said Sunday. “The ability to play nickel obviously allows us to keep people off-balance.”
One example of what VanGorder did on a 3rd-and-9: The Irish came out with three down linemen and a smattering of five linebackers/defensive backs with man coverage up top and two deep.
Isaac Rochell, actually one of the smattering of five standing up in the box, shifted to a right end position, and then twisted pre-snap as the other four scattered defenders in the box snapped into man coverage.
The defense allowed just one touchdown in three red-zone appearances and that one came with 3:19 remaining. The Irish still rank 90th in defensive red-zone touchdown percentage (70.0, 7 TDs in 10 entries) after six-of-seven failures against Texas.
COLEMAN FIGHTS BACK
The Texas game obviously was a rocky one for sophomore cornerback Nick Coleman. But when you add up the plusses and minuses from the Nevada game, Coleman acquitted himself pretty well.
For a large portion of the game, he was anonymous, which is a great sign for a cornerback. He missed a huge opportunity for a pick against 6-foot-4 Wyatt Demps. It was freshman safety Jalen Elliott who didn’t make the exchange as the receivers crisscrossed, and Andrew Celis gained 68 yards on the play.
But Crawford had good positioning defending a jump ball along the sideline to Demps while showing much more confidence in his footwork and technique. This was a game of progress for Coleman.
AROUND THE GRIDIRON
• Best game in a Notre Dame uniform by junior nose tackle Daniel Cage. Cage is becoming a physical presence. He blew up an early triple-option run by safety Asauni Rufus. He nearly got a fumble caused on Tyler Stewart at goal line, but the pass was ruled incomplete. Cage initiated the key fourth down stop in the first quarter by winning at the point of attack and giving Nyles Morgan a clear shot at James Butler for a key red-zone stop.
• It’s clear the opposition – Texas included – starts with the premise that Malik Zaire will run, and then works from there. It’s a sound strategy.
Loved what Kelly said in his interview with NBC Friday. He didn’t ask Zaire to be happy about his No. 2 status; he asked him to be ready if called upon because his teammates were counting on him.
• Jay Hayes with a huge hit on quarterback Ty Gangi in the fourth quarter. If the Irish could get 10-to-12 productive snaps out of him against Michigan State, it would be significant. Notre Dame needs the physicality he brings to a defensive line that lacks some pop.
• The adaptation of Mike McGlinchey from right to left tackle is not as insignificant as it might have seemed. He’s had difficulty with some speed rushers and his footwork as a pass blocker still looks like a right tackle’s.
• As it relates to offensive line mesh, we as media/fans always underestimate the time it takes to gain chemistry as a unit. As pointed out by Harry Hiestand to the NBC crew, this remains an inexperienced unit.
If you count all their starts -- McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson, Sam Mustipher, Colin McGovern and Alex Bars – they’ve now combined for 37. Yet 14 of McGlinchey’s starts came at right tackle. If you add up starts at their current positions, it’s a grand total of 21.
• James Onwualu’s knowledge of the opposing offense and ability to get down the line and make stops has been huge for the Irish. He’s quick and he anticipates well. He’ll give away size off the edge to some teams, Michigan State included, but he is the brain center of Notre Dame’s defensive front. With three tackles for loss (and several play-altering penetrations), he’s on pace for 18 tackles for loss during the regular season.
• The two-tight end alignment in which Durham Smythe and Nic Weishar are stagger-stacked to one side will be something we’ll likely see even more against Michigan State. They’ll need to be more effective/consistent than they were against Nevada.
• Love what the linebacker corps has shown through two games. Nyles Morgan is in the process of developing into a true presence at Mike linebacker. Although I disagreed with Te’von Coney over Greer Martini in the pre-season, Coney played a more impactful, physical game against Nevada than Martini did against Texas. (Keep the disparity of opponents in mind with that two-game assessment. Martini remains an important part of this defense.)
Coney looks like he can form a physical one-two punch on the inside with Morgan. Martini has been effective in the past in a situational role.
• Credit to Andrew Trumbetti’s hustle on overruled fumble return by Drue Tranquill. This was a much better and much-needed performance for Tranquill both in terms of coverage, physicality and being in better position to make stops.
• For second week in a row, Isaac Rochell shows improved pass rush ability by splitting offensive linemen. He now trusts his ability to crease those gaps.
• Cole Luke has become a physical player and a leader with an edge. The Irish need him to play at a very high level with the loss of Shaun Crawford. He was robbed of his seventh career pick by a late hit from freshman Khalid Kareem.
• Did you see the army of blockers on C.J. Sanders’ 24-yard punt? Initial blocks were made by Martini, Miles Boykin, Asmar Bilal, Nicco Fertitta and Ashton White. That’s what sprung Sanders, who then followed downfield interference from freshman Julian Love and a smart no-block by Josh Barajas. It would not be a stretch to say that’s one of the five best-blocked punt returns since Scott Booker took over as special teams coordinator in 2012.
• Right before Jarron Jones’ interception, he drew a holding call on center Nathan Goltry. As the game progressed, Jones got better and better. He’s right where he needs to be going into the Michigan State game.
• NBC never corrected it, but of course, it was freshman Khalid Kareem, not Jay Hayes, who had the late hit on Tyler Stewart that negated a Cole Luke interception.
• Jerry Tillery has gotten pretty good penetration the first two games, but he continues to struggle making plays behind the line of scrimmage, a la the last play of the Texas game when Tyrone Swoopes scored the game-winner. Unofficially, he has six tackles and zero stops for loss in two games.
• Nice job by Corey Holmes on his first career catch in Notre Dame’s final scoring drive of the first half, which covered 88 yards on 13 plays while overcoming back-to-back penalties. Holmes came back to the football and showed enough elusiveness in short space to gain 15 yards on 3rd-and-14. It was one of three third-conversions by the offense in the drive.