Young Notre Dame defense tested against Navy
Brian Hartnett | Sunday, November 2, 2014
After the No. 10 Irish defeated Navy, 49-39, at FedEx Field on Saturday night to move to 7-1 on the season, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly referred to a quartet of sophomores — cornerback Cole Luke, safety Max Redfield and linebackers James Onwualu and Jaylon Smith — as his team’s “veterans” on defense.
Just to clarify, Luke and Onwualu have each made eight career starts, though four of Onwualu’s starts came while he was a receiver. Redfield has made nine career starts and Smith, while he’s been a mainstay in the starting rotation from his first days on campus, is still a teenager.
The four players hardly fit the textbook definition of veteran players, yet they’ve built upon their experience to help lead a Notre Dame defense that’s been made younger due to players leaving early, suspensions and injuries.
The latest test to the defense came Saturday night, when senior linebacker Joe Schmidt left the game with an ankle injury in the third quarter.
Smith said he realized his responsibility as soon as Schmidt was helped off the field.
“First of all, he goes down, I understand that a young guy is going to come in, and my job is to help lead this team, this defense and rally together and essentially play for Joe,” Smith said. “Those young guys, they did a great job; they weren’t scared in the moment.”
Graduate student defensive lineman Justin Utupo, who has had 43 appearances and could actually be called a veteran, said he realized the need to keep poised through the injuries.
“When a guy like Joe Schmidt gets hurt, he’s our leader out there … if [the freshmen] see our seniors with composure, we’re helping them with what they have to do, then it’s just as if Joe was in the game,” he said.
Freshman linebacker Nyles Morgan came into replace Schmidt and recorded four tackles, including one for a two-yard loss. Given Schmidt’s role in helping align the defense, Kelly said he kept the defensive calls simple once Morgan entered the game.
“We went with one call the rest of the game,” Kelly said. “That was it, one call. Most of the adjustments were being made on the back end by the safeties. … Nyles just needed to line up.”
Redfield said he was impressed with Morgan’s efforts in his first extended appearance.
“He’s a very athletic linebacker, flies around,” Redfield said of Morgan. “… He definitely shows us promise; he’s obviously a real athletic player, and just getting him to do his job every time and dial in is going to be the main battle for him.”
Although Morgan stepped in at a crucial juncture, he was hardly the only Irish freshman to play significant roles Saturday. Linebacker Greer Martini and safety Drue Tranquill both made their first career starts against the Midshipmen.
Martini led the Irish with nine tackles, while Tranquill made five tackles.
In a statement that perhaps best summarized the current state of the Irish defense, Kelly joked that Martini got the starting nod out of absolute necessity.
“Greer is a very smart kid, and his attention, and he’s the only guy we have,” Kelly said. “We don’t have anybody else.”
Morgan, Martini and Tranquill weren’t the only newcomers to the Irish first-team Saturday night. Utupo recorded his first career start, as Kelly said he brought a skillset that would be more beneficial against the option-based Navy offense.
“We felt like Utupo gave us a little bit more ability to get off some blocks,” Kelly said. “[The defensive linemen] are some big, physical kids who control the line of scrimmage, but maybe not get off the blocks the way you need to against an option offense.”
Utupo rewarded his coach’s faith with a fourth-quarter interception.
“I was hoping for a lot more [tackles-for-loss] and sacks, but it was a gift getting that interception,” he said.
Since Notre Dame allowed 454 total yards, 336 of them on the ground, there was plenty of blame to go around on defense, and Kelly said the freshmen’s confusion compounded the problems already inherent in facing Navy’s triple-option attack.
“They’re running around, and they came off from the sideline, and we were asking them about what they saw, and they were talking about their biology homework, so it was difficult,” he said of the group.
But Kelly added that he was happy with the experienced gained by both his “veterans” and newcomers alike.
“We’re going to be a better football team because of what transpired out there tonight,” he said. “We played a lot of young guys who got a chance to compete and find out what it’s really like to have eye discipline, and to be a sure tackler and to know your assignments and do all the little things necessary to be a better football player.”