September 21, 2015

Rakes Report #19: Paul Johnson is not quite Inigo Montoya (The Georgia Tech Review)

1) Stopping the triple option is pretty easy in theory. Take away the middle and eliminate any fullback dives, then take away the quarterback’s alley up the slot and force him outside before stringing the whole play out to the sideline where you take out the pitchman. I don’t have to tell you, watchers of Notre Dame football, that in practice this can be incredibly difficult. Saturday was as good of a defensive performance as you can have against the option. To put it in perspective, Georgia Tech had 11 three and outs through the entirety of the 2014 season and zero in the first two games of 2015.

They had four on Saturday.

2) It wasn’t an accident. Brian Kelly recognized his difficulties (and those of his defensive coordinator) in defending option attacks, noted two opponents on the 2015 schedule that would be running that offense and was proactive in his efforts to snuffing it out. Founding the Bob Elliott Institute for Option Studies was a genius move, as was the establishment and recruitment of a group of walk-ons who specialized in running the option for the scout team year-round. That squad named themselves the SWAG Team (Students With Attitude & Game, which is just about perfect). If the Irish can go two-for-two and hold down Keenan Reynolds and Navy in a few weeks, the unit should get their own episode on Showtime.

3) Of course, schemes are important but it certainly helps to have the players to blow up whatever plan your opponent throws at you. Jaylon Smith is basically a superhero, guarding receivers thirty yards downfield on one play and slicing down a ball carrier at the line of scrimmage on the next. Sheldon Day and his defensive line cohorts wrecked the interior of the Tech front with impunity, while Joe Schmidt, Greer Martini, Elijah Shumate and Drue Tranquill cleaned things up on the edge. It was like watching a really good zone in basketball, coiling and stretching and blotting out glimmers of daylight any time the offense might have found some hope. They whole defense played as a unit on a string, only the string was threaded with adamantium and covered in spikes.

4) Kelly called this is a program win, and he’s right. You win as a program when the guy who was your third-string quarterback five months ago is handing off twenty times to a guy who came to campus as a defensive back, converted to wide receiver and finally shifted to tailback, but they’re finding success because you worked to recruit and develop a big offensive line. To space the field, you're using a three-star wide receiver who’s probably the leading Biletnikoff candidate through three weeks. You win because the best two linebackers on the field Saturday were a five-star who will play on Sundays and a converted walk-on who worked his way to a captainship. You win because when your sophomore safety who’s been making every play all game long goes down with an injury you plug in a fifth-year senior captain who’s stayed engaged and studied hard despite probably not getting as many snaps as he’d like. You win because your coaching staff believed in its players and the players reciprocated even though nearly every national pundit (except Mark May, apparently?!) was picking against you. That’s a program win.

5) There was some light talk after the game that maybe Jackets quarterback Justin Thomas just wasn’t that good and the defensive effort might have been overrated, but knock that from your mind. Thomas proved his worth down the stretch last year against Clemson, Georgia, Florida State and Mississippi State. Notre Dame made him look bad, bringing pressure without losing containment and suffocating his options in the run game. Thomas was failed in part by his new fleet of backs and receivers, who found it considerably more difficult to score against the Irish than they did against Alcorn State and Tulane. Funny how that works.

6) The offense was, again, far from perfect. There were some drops and some head-scratching penalties from Ronnie Stanley, but it was 30 points against an ACC title contender that could have easily been 40. DeShone Kizer did not shrink from the moment, and his only major mistake is easily correctable. Per both Kelly and Kizer in postgame interviews, the freshman made the wrong pre-snap read on the safety, not realizing he was going to double-team Corey Robinson. The nice thing about having a smart, coachable young quarterback is that while he’s going to make mistakes, it’s unlikely he will be repeating them. Also, if you’re wondering about Malik Zaire’s spirits or Kizer’s coachability, here’s an anecdote from Kelly’s press conference regarding the pick’s aftermath:

A great learning experience for [Kizer]. As I was coming in, Malik had this big smile on his face. He goes, Coach, they got him, didn't they?

What are you talking about?

They got him on the bracket. Remember, they got me earlier?

They see the same things. He immediately said, I got it, and moved on to the next thing. That's what I mentioned earlier. I love the way he is able to move on and process it and get back to playing the game.

7) Would anyone be opposed to putting C.J. Prosise in a glass box emblazoned with “Break In Case of Emergency” against UMass? He has been so so good but I think this team should embrace any chance they find to get him a reprieve, especially with Clemson and Southern Cal looming. The more likely scenario is Prosise plays the first couple series until things look comfortable and then rests, but I’d be fine leaning on the freshmen and slot receivers to move the ball unless things got dicey and he was absolutely needed. When you’ve got the guy who has the longest run in Notre Dame Stadium history (!), you’ve got to keep him healthy.

8) If Prosise and his back-ups can keep it up, we’re in pretty great shape on offense. You have a line that can open some holes and a deep threat in Will Fuller that will require an extra safety to stay deep (and, well, if you don’t put that extra guy back there…good luck). With the safety back to impede Fuller and the linebackers up to slow the run, the middle of the field opens up for the other wideouts (Torii Hunter Jr. is showing some nice flashes) and tight ends (Alize Jones is going to be really good, and that was a tough fumble call that could have easily been an incompletion), giving the frosh quarterback a whole lot of options with which to work. Any chances at being elite will depend on the development of Kizer, but really good is certainly in play and that might be enough.

9) This is the portion of the Monday edition where we discuss the players lost for the season due to injury. Tranquill was having a hell of a day before his fluke injury, but there are a few positive notes. The first is that he didn’t injure the same leg as last year. The second is that the injury occurred early enough in the season that he is eligible for a medical redshirt. The third is that considering how well his rehab went for last year’s injury, I have no doubt he’ll be back at 100% and starting in Austin next September. He got a deserved game ball Saturday, but despite these rosy notes, there’s no escaping the fact that our safety depth is at a critical level. The one nice thing is if things get too desperate, we could probably just put Jaylon back there and not have any drop off.

(If you were wondering about Max Redfield’s lack of participation Saturday, Kelly said it was a combination of the safety's injured hand not being fully healed and Shumate's success against the option. Not sure the Irish will be able to survive Deshaun Watson and Cody Kessler without big games from Redfield, so let’s hope he both gets healthy and improves on his play from the first two games of the season.)

10) I am not concerned about Tech’s touchdowns in the final minute, as scary as that final onside kick was and as fun as it would have been to see the college football world reacting to “Notre Dame 30 Georgia Tech 7” all night long. Look at it this way: If the Irish go on to have a great season, will you even remember those final two garbage time touchdowns? And conversely, if things fall apart, will you point to that as the moment it happened? If anything, it goes in the pile with “November 2014” on the list of motivational prods for the team any time they start to feel too good about themselves. (And I hope there are plenty of opportunities for that between now and mid-January.)

11) On Friday we talked briefly about Paul Johnson’s vendetta against Brian VanGorder, but what I didn’t realize was that Kelly was looking forward to his chance to put a beating on the Georgia Tech coach. From the South Bend Tribune, discussing the recruitment of Stephon Tuitt, who was deciding between the Irish and Jackets:

Kelly was able to schedule a home visit with Bartlett’s blessing, and Tuitt changed his mind back to ND.

“I said (to Tuitt), ‘You need to get on the phone and you need to call coach Johnson right now and let him know that,” Kelly recalled this summer. “Well, he got on the phone and called coach Johnson, and Johnson didn’t know that I was there. I was with (then-assistant) Chuck Martin.

“And (Johnson) goes, ‘You’re going to Notre Dame? (To play for) That guy from Grand Valley State?’

“And we could hear him on the phone. And so he’s tearing us apart. We finally had to interrupt and say, ‘You better let him know that we’re here, ‘cause we’re getting quite angry.’ ”

So to Johnson, Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati just pale in comparison to the glamour of Georgia Southern and Navy. Checks out.

12) For the third time in the last four years, Notre Dame begins the season 3-0. That happened twice between and 1994 and 2011. Pretty good. Saturday looms as a potential trap game, but considering UMass is currently ranked 145th by Sagarin, I’m not sure how much danger the Irish will be in. We’ll look into it this week, but for now, enjoy this. Winning is hard and winning is fun.

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Shoutout to Rakes Report contributor ND MSPaint (whose Prosise is atop the page), who saw his latest work of art picked up by Will Fuller and utilized in his Twitter profile. That’s pretty freaking cool:

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