Irish season in review: Notre Dame 50, Navy 10

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Irish season in review: Notre Dame 50, Navy 10

Four months ago, the focus was on Notre Dame not because of any championship aspirations, but because of a slew of suspensions and controversial comments made by a radio announcer.

The focus swiftly changed over the next few months, but on Sept. 1, Notre Dame had plenty of distractions involving those who wouldn't play a role in the team's season opener against Navy in Dublin, Ireland. Tommy Rees and Cierre Wood were suspended for the game, taking out the team's starting quarterback and leading rusher from the 2011 season. Radio broadcaster Allen Pinkett was pulled off the trip after saying the team needed more criminals, sparking plenty of debates that had nothing to do with the on-field product at Notre Dame:

Piling on that, Notre Dame had to deal with a secondary most feared would be the team's weak link. Lo Wood's ruptured Achilles' tendon meant KeiVarae Russell, who hadn't played a down of cornerback in his life, would start for the Irish. And Everett Golson was set trot out on the pitch at Aviva Stadium as Notre Dame's starting quarterback with nobody really knowing how he'd fare in that role.

"It can all be decided and look perfect in practice, and when the lights go on -- we all know from being around this game that, when the lights go on, kids react differently," offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said before the season. "Some kids play better than they ever play, and some kids play worse."

All this added up to a ton of excess baggage following the Irish across the Atlantic Ocean. But in 60 minutes in Dublin, Notre Dame dispatched Navy with ease, blowing by the Midshipmen 50-10.

"We put 50 points on the board, so that's a pretty good start," coach Brian Kelly aptly summed up.

A year after opening the season with torrent of turnovers in a loss to South Florida, Notre Dame forced four turnovers and only committed one, a sign of things to come in the regular season. Stephon Tuitt's 77-yard touchdown on a fumble recovery punctuated a suffocating defensive effort, while Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III scored a pair of touchdowns apiece, easily making up for the production lost without Wood in the lineup.

Golson wasn't flashy, but he was efficient running a limited playbook, completing 12 of 18 passes for 144 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

Ultimately, Notre Dame's win over Navy wasn't a barometer for the rest of the season. Fifty points was Notre Dame's season high, and Atkinson was eventually phased out of the team's playbook as the season wore on. But Riddick emerged as a legitimate threat out of the backfield after his previous foray into receiving, and he would hold on to that No. 1 running back role throughout the season.

What Notre Dame's season opener did do was set the tone for a team which greatly improved its turnover ratio from 2011. A year after coughing up the ball 10 times in its first two games, Notre Dame largely held on to the football while forcing plenty of turnovers from its opponents.

And overall, the easy 50-10 win was the first inclination that this wasn't the same Notre Dame team that went 8-5 in the previous two years.

Stay with CSNChicago.com every weekday through the end of January for game-by-game reviews of Notre Dame's run to the BCS Championship.

Notre Dame officially hires Clark Lea as linebackers coach

Notre Dame officially hires Clark Lea as linebackers coach

Mike Elko's first coaching staff as Notre Dame defensive coordinator is beginning to take shape, with the Irish announcing Thursday the hiring of Clark Lea as linebackers coach. 

Lea spent 2016 as Wake Forest's linebackers coach -- under Elko -- and previously held positions on coaching staffs at Bowling Green, Syracuse and UCLA. 

"Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” coach Brian Kelly said. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system -- having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”

In 2016, Lea coached Demon Deacons linebacker Marquel Lee, who was the only FBS player with 100 or more tackles, 20 or more tackles for a loss and 7 1/2 or more sacks last fall. Nationally, Lee ranked 62nd in tackles (105), 10th in tackles for a loss (20) and 53rd in sacks (7 1/2).

Lea also worked with former All-American linebacker Akeem Ayers at UCLA. 

The Nashville native and Vanderbilt alum (he earned both Bachelors and Masters degrees in political science) was also nominated by FootballScoop for its linebackers coach of the year award in 2012 while working with Elko at Bowling Green. 

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”

Chip Long will have 'full responsibility' to call plays as Notre Dame's offensive coordinator

Chip Long will have 'full responsibility' to call plays as Notre Dame's offensive coordinator

Notre Dame on Monday officially announced the hiring of Chip Long as its next offensive coordinator, with coach Brian Kelly clearing any speculation about who will be calling plays in 2017.

"Chip will be given the full responsibility to call plays in 2017,” Kelly said. “His offense at Memphis displayed a unique blend of physicality, athleticism, versatility and explosiveness. Chip’s play-calling created mismatches all over the field and did it in a number of different ways. He likes to use players who can fill numerous roles in an array of formations, whether that be two and three tight ends or multiple running backs.

“Chip has experience coaching at almost every position on the offensive side of the ball. He’s worked for and learned from some of the most respected offensive minds in college football -- Bobby Petrino, Mike Norvell and Jeff Brohm -- to name a few.”

The 33-year-old Long spent the 2016 season as Memphis’ offensive coordinator, and despite the losses of coach Justin Fuente and quarterback Paxton Lynch, the Tigers’ offense remained productive. Memphis ranked 16th in scoring offense (38.8 points per game) and 34th in yards per play (6.25), and by S&P+ had the 37th-best offensive at the FBS level. 

"It’s an honor and privilege to have the opportunity to serve as the offensive coordinator at the University of Notre Dame,” Long said. “The challenge to lead at a university with such high standards is incredibly motivating. I’m very grateful to Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for extending this opportunity.

“It’s Notre Dame: the values, the culture, and the leadership. My wife, Kari, and I are excited to move to South Bend and to join the Notre Dame family.”

How Long adapts to coaching at a higher level than the American Athletic Conference — which, to be fair, is the best Group of Five conference — remains to be seen, though it's likely both he and Notre Dame will run the ball more than they did in 2016. Memphis ran the ball only 47.2 percent of the time on standard downs (first and 10, second and seven or fewer, third/fourth and four or fewer), which ranked 119th out of 128 FBS programs. Notre Dame’s lack of commitment to the run (55.7 percent standard down run rate, 86th) frequently put too much pressure on quarterback DeShone Kizer; with a first-time starter in Brandon Wimbush lined up for 2017, Notre Dame will have to rely on the run far more than it did in 2016. 

There was plenty of speculation Kelly would take over playcalling duties this fall, especially given the departures of associate head coach Mike Denbrock to Cincinnati and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford to Western Kentucky. Denbrock called plays the last two seasons. 

Other brief Notre Dame notes:

-- Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel reported Monday morning that Notre Dame will hire Wake Forest linebackers coach Clark Lea for the same position under newly-hired defensive coordinator Mike Elko, who worked with Lea in 2016. Prior to becoming Wake Forest's linebackers coach last year, the 35-year-old Lea spent three seasons as Syracuse's linebackers coach. Lea will take over the role filled by Mike Elston from 2015 to 2016, though Elston (who's also Notre Dame's recruiting coordinator) is expected to remain on staff in some capacity. 

-- Former Notre Dame linebacker Bob Crable, who played for the Irish from 1978-1981, was among the 13 former players and coaches elected to the College Football Hall of Fame's class of 2017 on Monday. He's the 46th former Notre Dame player or coach to be elected to the College Football Hall of Fame and first since Thom Gatewood in 2015. Former Irish kick returner/receiver Raghib Ismail and offensive lineman Aaron Taylor were both on the 2017 ballot but were not elected. 

-- While Notre Dame unveiled a new part of its 2017 identidy in Long, it lost the verbal pledge of a blue-chip recruit. According to Irish Illustrated, four-star athlete Paulson Adebo (Mansfield, Texas) backed off his verbal commitment to Notre Dame on Monday, a move which dropped the Irish out of Scout's top 10 class rankings. With the NCAA-mandated recruiting dead period being lifted on Wednesday, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 12th on Scout. Coaches not only will have to work to add to it in the coming weeks, but will have to push to keep what was a strong class together as the aftershocks of last fall's 4-8 season continue.