At this exact point last season, following week 7, I wrote in this colum Notre Dame should sell on Brian Kelly. It’s true, there is proof. Amongst many other things I wrote that day, I jotted down the following:
He lost Everett Golson. Now he’s lost Zaire. And ultimately he will lose his job. And I think he knows it. A former Notre Dame linebacker from the Holtz era texted me while Kelly was needlessly calling timeout to end the game that read “It’s like he called timeout to hold onto something that has completely slipped away.” I think this is right.
What a difference a year makes. Turns out that was not right. He didn’t lose his job. And one year later his team turned in it’s most impressive home victory in over two decades. I give a lot of credit to a lot of people in this column week after week, usually omitting the role of the head coach. That’s saved for big picture conversations, not a week to week undertaking of the program. But, credit where it is due, Kelly has turned his program around. They block better, they tackle better, they execute better. They are better in every sense of the word. They play the way you want your team to play. I’m willing to give Kelly the bulk of the credit for this. He assessed his weaknesses, he set out to change them, he made the hires, and the changes were executed. Whatever we wanted Notre Dame to be in our minds eye, from a style of play standpoint, I can’t imagine it would look much different than this.
Of course, the job is not done, the goal is to be elite and they aren’t there yet. But no one goes from awful to great. Have to be good first. And Notre Dame is damn good. Can they keep it up? Can they take it to the next level? I’m ready to find out.
Tony Jones Jr.
Now we see what all the pre-season fuss was about. In what was his first healthy game all season, Jones Jr. looked like the bruising runner advertised prior to the season, with more explosiveness than anticipated. He took a toss sweep to the edge and darted upfield, bowling over two defenders, on 2nd and 10 for a gain of 16. The defense didn’t so much tackle him as they did trip him up while failing to escape his wrath. Look at the safety #7 turn away at the end. He’s over it.
Later, he took a straight hand off up the middle and barreled upfield for a gain of nine, again inviting the contact for an extra three yards. Aside from the good news of having another quality back, Jones Jr. brings in new options for the offense, specifically in two back sets. The coaches like Jones Jr. more in the passing game, both as a receiver and blocker, to Dexter Williams, so he gets the call in those sets. The expectation was we’d see a lot more of the two back look than we have, but an injured Jones Jr. shelved that in large part in the first half of the season.
With everyone healthy, it adds a largely unseen dimension to the offense that allows Notre Dame to run or throw effectively. For example, if a defense sees a lineup on 2nd and 10 of Adams, Jones Jr., Stepherson, St. Brown, and Smythe, what are you preparing for? Notre Dame can just as easily run for power as they can run wide or throw deep. It is, as they say, a pickle.
It might be out of line to call Coney Notre Dame’s best linebacker, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he’s playing the best ball right now. He leads them in tackles, is third in tackles for loss, and is second in run stuffs. Some lamented the loss of Martini against USC, but Coney stepped in and provided stellar play. Not only did he strip Darnold on the first defensive snap, but he led the team in stops with 11 and recorded two tackles for loss.
After a so-so beginning of the year, this linebacker group is really starting to find itself, with four players (Tranquill included) playing at a high level. As the schedule gets tougher this group will be asked to be even better. Coney and co. appear to be up to the challenge.
Mustipher, Bars, Hainsey, and Kraemer
Otherwise known as the offensive line not named Nelson or McGlinchey. Let’s be clear that Notre Dame’s two best linemen are playing lights out right now. But, Notre Dame isn’t rushing for 377 yards with those two guys plus three other guys playing just ok. Check out the mashing Notre Dame puts on the right side on the Josh Adams three yard touchdown run. Mustipher and Bars destroy the defensive tackle, with Bars ready to come off and pick up the back side backer, who is never part of the play. Hainsey and Smythe combo the end, with Hainsey eventually picking up Cam Smith and Smythe burying the end. It’s just beautiful.
For the opposition, they really need the right side to be a weakness, because this running game with a two way go doesn’t let teams overload to the side of McGlinchey and Nelson. And if teams have to play it straight, well, you know…
Add another name to the list of defensive linemen breaking out of their shell and becoming key players on defense. It’s getting to the point where it’s becoming difficult to not overreact to what we’re seeing on defense and what it could become. This isn’t a one game thing for the true sophomore Kareem, we’ve seen him emerge for a few games in a row now. He’s up to three sacks and four tackles for loss, which isn’t bad for Notre Dame’s, what, 4th defensive end? 5th?
If you’re looking for reasons why this defense will stay strong when others fell apart, just look at the depth. Notre Dame plays multiple players along the line every single week. This depth isn’t theoretical. These guys play and they play well. Kareem doesn’t seem to be the fastest or most explosive guy, but he’s got some nice moves on his way to the quarterback so what he lacks in physical ability, he makes up for with technique. I know Notre Dame has a lot to accomplish this season, but oooh boy what this defense could be in 2018.
They are unranked. I just wanted to mention it. That is all.