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Injury-plagued Lobos looking to find their stride

| Friday, September 13, 2019

Two weeks ago, the story of this game wrote itself.

Former Irish head coach returns to South Bend to try his hand against the Irish for the first time, a remnant of the Lou Holtz era flickering back into the limelight.

But that was two weeks ago.

Now, after suffering a “serious medical incident,” Bob Davie, the Irish defensive coordinator under Holtz and his successor from 1997-2001, won’t be making a comeback after all.

“This hasn’t gone completely according to script,” Davie said in a Tuesday press conference. “But I really don’t want this to be about me … this is all about the players. And it’s all about these coaches that are going to go play in South Bend.”

And so the Lobos will press on to Notre Dame Stadium without their humble leader. Replacing Davie in the interim will be run game coordinator and offensive line coach Saga Tuitele, who insisted he’s not replacing Davie after all.

“Our kids are mature enough to understand that though Coach Davie may not be with us, he’ll still be with us,” Tuitele said. “Nothing changes. I’ll be again a line coach and I’ll be making some calls, calling some timeouts.”

But from Davie’s perspective, Tuitele will be taking the reins.

Emma Farnan | The Observer
Irish sophomore wide receiver Tommy Tremble runs downfield with the ball during Notre Dame’s 35-17 win over Louisville on Sept. 2 in Cardinal Stadium. The Irish will face New Mexico on Saturday at home.

“I’ve got an overview of what we’re doing, X-and-O-wise completely,” Davie said. “I’ve got an overview of what our personnel is. I know what we’re looking at in different positions and quite honestly, we have a lot of competition at positions going right now. I’m involved enough that I’ll be able to sit there on Saturday and kind of tell what’s happening exactly, what we’ve called and what our checks are, but I’m not going to micromanage it. We have a really good coaching staff.”

But the Lobos are also facing a few key losses in terms of on-field personnel: Senior captain and defensive lineman Aaron Blackwell and junior starting quarterback Brandt Hughes, who’ve suffered ACL and shoulder labrum injuries, respectively.

“With Aaron it’s a big loss for us, him being the captain and being the emotional leader for us. He’s going to be missed,” Tuitele said. “Emotionally, it’s going be a tough loss for us but we’re so deep at the defensive line right now. We can move some guys in and out of different spots.”

Despite Brandt’s absence, New Mexico also has flexibility at the quarterback position with senior Sheriron Jones, redshirt sophomore Tevaka Tuioti and redshirt freshman Trae Hall all vying for the first-string spot.

“With Brandt, we don’t know the severity of his shoulder injury — heck, Brandt’s suiting up and trying to throw the ball left-handed out there,” Tuitele said. “We have three young guys that are still competing to this day. Whoever gets the starting nod will have our blessing and [offensive coordinator] Coach [Joe] Dailey’s blessing and Coach Davie’s blessing.”

Tuitele noted that his team will depend on young talent across the rest of the lines as well, expressing that he and his coaching staff have been preparing their new blood for this season for the past eight months.

“We have a saying — ‘narrow your focus’ — and that goes to everything from outside noise, to social media, to third downs, to crowds, to home games, to away games, to coaches barking at you,” Tuitele said. “We train them in January to narrow their focus. We allow them to have fun as far as we are going to play in a historic stadium and whatnot, but we have to narrow our focus. That started with Coach Davie back in January when we first got the recruits. We understand that we have a lot of newcomers. … In January, all the way through now, we want to get them to understand: Remember your training and narrow your focus on whatever you’re doing, whether it’s taking the plane, whether it’s on the field, off the field, whatever it is.”

In terms of their focus on the field this week, Tuitele noted a few places of improvement from the team’s season-opener: A 39-31 win over Sam Houston State.

Prior to his injury, Brandt struggled in the pocket, and his second-half replacement of Jones didn’t fare much better: The two combined for a 45% completion rate behind 18-40 passing. The real strength of the Lobo offense came from the ground game, which was responsible for all four of New Mexico’s touchdowns.

But still, “it’s a win,” Tuitele said.

Tuitele cited that his team needs to improve its offensive conversion abilities in general.

“On offense, we can improve third down,” he said. “We were one of 15 last week, and we better definitely improve that. We’ve got to do some things on the offensive side and we’ve got to do some things on the defense side too to clean it up.”

But come Saturday, Tuitele just has one concrete strategy in mind.

“One play at a time,” he said.

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