Notre Dame shoots for its third consecutive victory, as it travels to Air Force (5 p.m. EDT, CBS College Sports) today. Here are some of the story lines:
Jaylon is growing
Fighting Irish freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith was thrown into the fire from day one as a starter this season, and his progress has been steadily rising. In Notre Dame’s recent 14-10 victory over USC, the former Bishop Luers High School standout recorded four tackles, including one for a loss, and also picked off Trojan quarterback Cody Kessler for his first career interception.
“Jaylon’s continuing to play with a lot more consistency,” Kelly said. “Zone coverage, he continues to learn. He’s had a mistake here or there in terms of zone fits. That’s why we put a little bit more man (defense) with him. He’s still learning there.”
Despite the occasional growing pains, Kelly likes the pace of development that Smith has shown thus far.
“We love the curve that he’s on,” Kelly said. “I think every day is a learning experience for him. Every game that he plays, he picks up the nuances. The big picture stuff he’s grasping very well.”
In today’s game with the Falcons, Smith is going to get his most extensive look at the option offense, perhaps ever. Defending the complex scheme isn’t easy for veteran players, let alone a guy playing in just his eighth college game.
In past games against option opponents, Kelly has replaced his outside linebacker with a more agile defensive back, but Kelly said Smith should be able to handle the workload.
“We’re putting a couple of packages together for (Jaylon),” Kelly explained. “Air Force is an option team, but they do have some other principles. So Jaylon will be on the field quite a bit for us.”
Goal line (non) adjustments
A number of college offenses often shift personnel or formations once they advance near the goal line, such as bringing their quarterback under center, as opposed to out of the shotgun formation. However, the Irish (5-2) have often shied away from that and kept the same formation throughout their offensive drives.
Kelly explained that philosophy often is based more so with the defense in mind than the offense.
“Keeping goal line defenses off the field is one of the reasons (for) trying to keep your (offensive) personnel on the field,” Kelly said in regards to not changing players or formations. “It lessens the chance of putting another defensive lineman on the field.”
Kelly said that altering a drive, which has been successful all the way down the field, as the drive culminates, can stifle any positive momentum.
“I think mostly that you want to run your plays when you get down there,” Kelly explained, “because you feel like you want to. You don’t want to get into that scoring zone and then have a new batch of plays when you get there. You kind of want to run what you run.”
Tuitt is coming on
Irish junior defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt didn’t play up to fans’ expectations earlier this season. The All-American candidate had just four tackles through Notre Dame initial three games, which Kelly attributed to him recovering from off-season surgery and needing to play himself back into shape.
He’s showing his ability now.
Over the past four games, Tuitt has 18 tackles, including 5 ½ tackles for a loss over that dominating stretch.
“He’s continued to work hard in the weight room,” Kelly said. “He’s continued to monitor his nutrition. He’s doing things from post-surgery on, and I think it’s just a collection of those things.
“He’s played himself into the kind of condition and shape necessary for him to exert his physical prowess on the football field. (And) He’s playing a high volume of plays for a longer period of time.”