Friday, September 7, 2012

Irish In Form As Season Kicks Into Gear

Sure, it's Navy. Notre Dame should stomp a team like Navy every time they play them. But let's not confuse things - this isn't Florida State playing Savannah State, or Arizona State playing Northern Arizona. Navy had beaten Notre Dame a few times recently, and it is a program that has gone to four bowl games in the last five years. That's why it's encouraging to see such a dominating effort from the Irish. A win like that should set the tone for the rest of the season.

Golson look comfortable from the start
Even more than that, this is a new Irish team. To be sure, Brian Kelly has been the coach of this team for three years now, but the majority of the team is just now starting to represent what he has been trying to do. Nowhere is this more evident than the evolution of Kelly's offense, and the anointing of Everett Golson as his starting QB. Golson looked comfortable from the start against Navy, regardless of the fact that the offense seemed to focus on the powerful Notre Dame running attack. There were a couple instances where Golson found a man deep, whether it was to Davaris Daniels on the sidelines or Troy Niklas on a rollout later in the game. The thing is, though, Golson wasn't asked to do a whole lot but manage the dominating rushing game, so the real test starts this Saturday against Purdue. The real question is whether Kelly will open up the offense against a program that runs more of a traditional scheme. Either way, I think it's encouraging to see Golson start the season in a respectable manner - it will be fun to watch his progression over the course of the season. The kid has all the tools, so if he can develop to be a legitimate weapon for the offense, that combined with the dominating rushing game will make Notre Dame a difficult opponent to game plan for.

Ah, the running game. ND running backs, even without suspended starter Cierre Wood, shredded Navy the entire game. Clearly, that is where the most concentrated group of talent is on the team. We saw Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III gash the Navy defense repeatedly. It felt like nearly every play Theo was hitting the hole with tremendous burst and surprising power, gashing for at least 5 yards before contact. And GAIII, well, he's the home run threat this program has needed for years. When Wood gets back, and transfer Amir Carlisle is healthy, the offense is going to be versatile and dangerous.

Part of this stems from the cross training at both slot and RB that Kelly has put his running backs through, but part of it stems from a new Notre Dame under Kelly, where he has recruited the right players and/or put them in the right place to succeed. A ton of credit has to go to the offensive line as well. Anchored by seniors Nick Martin and Braxston Cave, the unit is arguably the strength of the entire team. They dominated an undersized Navy defense, but they ND should be able to control the line of scrimmage on the offensive end all season. Not only will this clear up time and space for the running attack to take over, but it should ease the development and transition for Golson, who starts his career behind an incredible offensive line and should have a ton of time to make his progressions and reads. On top of all that, more time for Golson should help prevent poor decisions that lead to turnovers. I haven't been this excited for a Notre Dame offense in years.

Speaking of controlling the line of scrimmage, the defensive line, and the defensive unit in general, looks to be in top form as the season starts. The only concern is, of course, the secondary, the very same unit that was gashed last year. First, though, the positives. I loved watching the defensive line disrupt the Navy option attack all day. NT Louis Nix, who ND fans know and love for his skill, personality, and the fact that he committed to ND after Charlie Weis was fired but before Brian Kelly was even hired, is starting to make a name for himself on the national scene. He's not the only one, with DE Stephon Tuitt showing why he was so highly recruited out of Georgia two years ago. The 6'6, 303 pound athletic freak had an unbelievable fumble return for a touchdown, which was forced by fellow sophomore and fellow highly recruited stud OLB Ishaq Williams. Watch the freakish athleticism from Tuitt:

That's a 300 pound man outrunning Navy's running backs and wide receivers. Now, this is an incredible play by a defense that has quietly improved tremendously, but to me, the most important thing is that these two players represent the "big skill" mentality Brian Kelly has had in recruiting. Tuitt is a player that would usually play for Georgia, Florida, LSU, or any other SEC team. The same with Ishaq. But for once, the priority for a ND coach has been to control both lines of scrimmage. You see it with the emphasis on defensive line recruiting from Kelly early in his tenure, and you see it now with the class of 2013, where Kelly has the commitments of 5 mammoth offensive linemen. It's crazy to think about - is this really a Notre Dame program that is recruiting like a major college football program? It's exciting to see where it will go.

Russell (6) has impressed Kelly early
The only downside? The secondary. Both starting corners, Bennett Jackson and true freshman KeiVarae Russell, looked weak against Navy's wide receivers. But was this more a reflection of the style of offense Navy was running, and thus ND did not have their corners playing in their normal scheme, or is this how the season will go? It's incredible to see Russell start from day 1 at corner, considering he came in this season as a high school athlete, never having played corner before. But he impressed Kelly so much with his natural ability and improvement in camp that he named him the starter. All of that notwithstanding, Saturday's game will be a true test for this secondary. Zeke Motta, one of the starting safeties, looked slow against Navy. While his counterpart and fellow senior, Jamoris Slaughter, seems safe, Kelly will not hesitate to rotate in new athletes at the position to ensure competency. Freshman Nicky Baratti, and Sophomore Matthias Farley, are both pushing for spots. Time will tell if Kelly goes with his guys in this area as well.

All told, the win against Navy is most important because it shows us the new direction of the ND program under Kelly. Gone is the era under Weis where games against Navy are a struggle. Kelly has the program pointed in the right direction. Now, ND has a tough schedule this season and surely the program still faces an uphill battle to perennial success. But beginning with this Saturday against Purdue, hopefully we see that the future is closer than we all think.