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Syracuse vs. Notre Dame: Kelly asks UConn’s Diaco for Etta-Tawo advice

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We also have some tips: Don’t defend him. Thanks!

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Notre Dame Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly chatted with media on Tuesday about Saturday’s game with the Syracuse Orange. Obviously it’s been a busy week for the Irish and Kelly, in particular, as he moves on without defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. The bond between Brians simply wasn’t strong enough to keep BVG around. That or, his defense was horrible. You decide.

One of the main topics of conversation for Kelly with regard to the defense, however, was how to stop SU’s Amba Etta-Tawo. The nation’s leading receiver has victimized all four of the Orange’s opponents this year, and none more than UConn last week (12 catches, 270 yards, two TDs). Lucky for Notre Dame, their former defensive coordinator is none other than Bob Diaco, the Huskies’ current head coach. So Kelly was able to ask for some first-hand knowledge on how to put a stop to the impressive Syracuse wideout.

One factor, of many, from last week:

That’s a nice way of saying that All-AAC cornerback Jamar Summers is bad and should feel bad for getting laid to waste by Etta-Tawo all afternoon. But I can understand why you’d avoid sharing those exact words.

Kelly had plenty more to say:

“First of all, he’s targeted with the football. You know the ball is coming his way vertically and they do a great job with their read routes so if you try to play 10 yards over the top of him, he’ll pull it up and catch it, and he’s a big, physical kid. He’ll have a run after the catch.”

This is spot-on, as we’ve seen Amba run a variety of different routes depending on the situation and coverage. Summers gave him the deep ball a lot, so he took it. The bunch formation Syracuse was running also created quick isolation on the outside and a one-on-one matchup between the 5-foot-9 DB and the 6-foot-2 receiver.

“If you’re going to play off, he’s pulling it up. If you play up, he’s going vertical. And they do a really good job of utilizing him in that fashion and he’s got skill. He can run over the top of and you he’s also got a great catching radius. He’s tall and athletic and he can — last week they had their best corner. I know I talked to Bob, they had their best corner on him, but he’s 5-9. The kid was in great position he just went up over him two or three times and took the ball from him.”

Again, height’s definitely an issue, but Summers also made some terrible reads on covering Etta-Tawo downfield and on the ball in the air. Even with a struggling Notre Dame defense, the raw talent on the roster should be good enough to at least do a better job on him than what we saw from UConn on Saturday.

“If you try to play press and man-to-man he’s got great length and catching radius that he can take the ball right off the top of your helmet. You gotta know where he is at all times, and you have to factor into your game plan a very gifted and talented player. So he’s a challenge. There is no question about it, and we know about him.”

That’s all well and good, but how do you plan around a guy who’s going to catch the ball no matter what you do? Plus, if you take the obvious route of double-teaming him, that leaves players like Steve Ismael open... something Ish seems well aware of.

Also, anyone else feel weird reading this about a Syracuse skill position player? I’ve got some real scars from the previous regime, it appears.

“They flat out throw it to him under all circumstances. They keep throwin’ it to him and throwin’ it to him and throwing it to him. So he’s targeted all the time. The ball is going to go to him and they’re going to move him around and get him the football. It’s good coaching. It’s smart. He’s a really, really good player. Because they play so fast, it’s difficult to run multiple coverages to him.”

This last bit’s the key, in my mind. There is no special circumstance to when you throw to Amba, and chances are you don’t have the personnel to really disrupt what he’s going to do (if said personnel should even exist). You can tell in the play-calling breakdowns that Eric Dungey is looking for Etta-Tawo more often than not, especially early to establish a rhythm. The speed at which Syracuse plays also prevents any special coverages being tossed out there, since the defense risks overlooking other details by making things too complicated.

We saw plenty of those bunch formations and ISO with Amba in earlier games, but the Orange really seemed to master it against UConn. Notre Dame has better players and more speed on the outside to stop some of that. But given the changes across the defense for the Irish and demoralizing start to the year, it’s tough to tell how well they’ll be able to stop Etta-Tawo.

Hopefully, not too well at all. It would be nice to introduce the rest of the country to the leading receiver in the FBS.