In his last media availability before Notre Dame heads to face Michigan State this weekend (8 p.m. ET on Saturday, Fox), Irish coach Brian Kelly did not discuss his receiver corps at all.
Of the eight topics Kelly was questioned about, five of them dealt with wideouts in some respect, perhaps spending the most time on C.J. Sanders. The junior has yet to be seen contributing on offense this season.
“It’s not that he’s really done anything from last year to this year wrong,” Kelly said. “He’s actually stronger. I think he’s a better football player. You’re going to see him on the field. … As the season progresses, he’s going to play.”
Kelly cited the blocking provided by fifth-year Arizona State transfer Cam Smith as the biggest impediment between Sanders and an immediate increase in playing time, describing Smith’s blocking as “just physically” better. With sophomore Chase Claypool also seeing time on the boundary, Sanders faces stiffer competition for playing time.
“Do you move him back into the slot?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “We’re pretty comfortable moving guys around at this point at that position because of our need to put bigger-bodied guys in the offense with the tight end at that position.”
In other words, Kelly and Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long have moved receivers such as Sanders, and even Claypool, out to the boundary because they so often remove the slot receiver from the field in favor of an additional tight end.
Speaking of Sanders, Kelly declared him “fine” in his recovery from a sprained ankle. For that matter, sophomore running back Tony Jones will be a “game-day decision” as to his availability due to a sprained ankle suffered against Boston College.
Kevin Stepherson update
There is no indication the sophomore receiver will join Notre Dame’s offense this week. Considering Stepherson did not even travel to face the Eagles, it is quite likely he watches this weekend on a television, as well. Yet, Kelly did speak positively of Stepherson’s return from something of an absence thus far this season.
“He’s had a good month,” Kelly said. “His last month has been pretty good. He’s been pretty consistent working to do the right things in the classroom and has exhibited the things that I’ve been looking for. He’s been working out with [the team] for the last week or so.”
But, to add some emphasis here again, Kelly did not imply Stepherson will play this weekend. In fact, the exact opposite.
“He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s making progress.”
On punt returns and Chris Finke
To complete this week’s second (third? fourth?!) receiver recap, Kelly defended junior receiver Chris Finke’s work as a punt returner this season. Irish opponents have punted 22 times in three games. Finke has attempted to return eight of them. He has netted a total of two yards.
“We’re pleased with him,” Kelly said. “There won’t be a change there.”
Kelly did include a caveat for praising Finke’s return game.
“We’ve been in a number of fourth down situations where we’ve asked for a fair catch and he hasn’t fair caught it,” Kelly said. “We have to be better there. He has to fair catch those balls.”
On the moments when Finke returned a punt to absolutely no avail, Kelly cited missed blocks as the culprit, not Finke’s decision to make a move with the ball.
“One of our gunners has to do better on hold-up,” he said. “We think we’ve had an opportunity for a couple of good returns. … If there’s a change, it will be with one of the gunners.”
It is a curious, frustrating time in the college football season. We think we know everything. We actually know nothing.
Notre Dame beat up on Boston College and Temple, but fell a play short against Georgia. If the Bulldogs are what they appear to be, then the Irish may be a very competitive team this year. If they aren’t, then that one-play-short speaks much louder. This weekend should do wonders in providing that context when Georgia hosts Mississippi State. On a more micro scale …
Who does Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko task with spying Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke?
The junior quarterback has already taken 15 carries for 171 yards (sacks adjusted) through two games this season. Notre Dame’s defensive success will not hinge entirely on limiting Lewerke’s ability to break from the pocket, but that will be a crucial part of it.
“He’s more than just a manager of the offense, he can throw it,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Highly accurate. He has more than just escapability. He’s fast, he can run.”
To limit that running, Elko will possibly assign a linebacker to keeping his eyes on Lewerke at most, if not all, times. There are two obvious candidates for this duty: seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill.
Which one gets the gig more often will play a part in further understanding of Elko’s preferred defensive wrinkle, the rover, manned by Tranquill. To date, Tranquill’s role has been to crash the line on any obvious running play while providing coverage of tight ends otherwise. This has fit his skill set quite well. Rather than worry about the speed of a receiver challenging a safety deep, Tranquill is facing more physical-based assignments. The one thing the captain has never needed to worry about on the football field is his physicality.
With that job description in mind, Morgan may seem the more obvious choice to have an eye on Lewerke, but that may limit Morgan’s naturally tendencies of always finding his way to the ballcarrier. Such is the dilemma presented by a dual-threat quarterback.
Notre Dame’s ability to contain Lewerke will portend how Wake Forest and, to a much lesser extent, North Carolina may fare against the Irish defense. Deacons quarterback John Wolford has rushed for 226 yards on 29 carries (sacks adjusted, as usual) this season, though 108 of those yards came against Boston College, a defense very clearly vulnerable to quarterback rushes. Tar Heels quarterback Chazz Surratt has already notched three rushing touchdowns this season, though that is not the same inherent quandary of a truly mobile quarterback.
Part of the Irish defense’s discipline this weekend will come down to the young defensive line. Can those linemen mind their assignments?
“If you fall asleep in zone option, [Lewerke is] going to pull it and is capable of running out,” Kelly said.
In other words, if sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes crashes too hard on a running back headed up the middle, Notre Dame could quickly be exposed to Lewerke racing up the sideline. It seems appropriate here to mention the two freshmen defensive tackles Kelly praised Tuesday, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.
“We trust that they’re going to execute the techniques that we’ve asked them to,” Kelly said. “They’re not jumping out of their fits. There might be times where physically or technically there might be some mistakes, but they’re extremely coachable. … If we ask them to do something, they’re going to do it.”
If those two continue to successfully complement senior Jonathan Bonner and junior Jerry Tillery in the middle, that should offer Hayes the peace of mind to not over pursue a running back dive and instead man the outside lane. If he does not feel the need to make a play because he knows Hinish is capable of holding his own, that should help limit Lewerke’s chances, as well.
How will the Irish offensive line fare against a good, but not great, defensive front seven?
This plays into the introductory concept. Notre Dame’s offensive line protected junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush well against both Temple and Boston College, allowing a total of two sacks. As it pertains to the rushing attack, the offensive line opened hole after wide hole in those two contests. (more…)
Michigan State has yet to be tested this season. Certainly, the Spartans have not seen a test the likes of Notre Dame, no matter what one’s view of the Irish may be. To get a better idea of who Notre Dame will face Saturday night, let’s turn to Chris Solari of the Detroit Free Press.
Chris, I appreciate you taking the time to educate us here at “Inside the Irish.” First off, how long have you been covering the Spartans for the Free Press?
I have been with the Detroit Free Press since last August, but I spent the previous 10 years following Michigan State for the Lansing State Journal and have been covering the Spartans off and on since 1994 when I was attending MSU.
It is somewhat remarkable how closely Notre Dame and Michigan State have paralleled each other over the last 13 months. Two miserable seasons followed by interminable offseasons, and now hopes of strong returns to success, though yet somewhat unfounded. At least, that is the mood around the Irish. Is it something similar up in East Lansing?
MSU’s situation goes beyond the 3-9 season last year, along with having four players dismissed for their involvements in two separate sexual assault cases and nine others having left the program. The optimism from the 2-0 start is very much tempered based on beating two Mid-American Conference opponents, but fans are warming to the improved efforts on offense and defense. However, coaches and fans alike know this is a young team with a lot of questions remaining to be answered.
I don’t know that the Spartans have realistic College Football Playoff hopes this year, but playing spoiler in the Big Ten certainly seems a possibility, especially with games at Michigan and Ohio State and home against Penn State. (Lucky to dodge the Boilermakers offensive powerhouse this year.) Where does facing Notre Dame fall in a macro view up there?
The next three games against ND, Iowa and Michigan will go a long way to determining both the Spartans’ identity and the course of their season. The game with the Irish really is the start of that trilogy after playing two up-tempo teams. It’s the first traditional, line-em-up, smashmouth game — in primetime on national television, no less — for a team with 19 true and redshirt freshmen playing.
It’s a young but talented collective, and MSU has shown surprising depth despite the aforementioned attrition. This week’s game will show just how deep the rotation will be going into those first two Big Ten games. All that said, after last season’s swoon, the young Spartans know they cannot be looking two or three opponents ahead.
Junior quarterback Brian Lewerke saw some work last year, but has become the offensive leader only this season. Through two games, he has rushed for 150 yards and thrown for 411. Has his dual-weapon effectiveness been a result of Michigan State’s MAC-filled schedule so far, or is that kind of playmaking something Irish fans should expect to see this weekend?
Lewerke showed his legs last year at Maryland with 79 rushing yards and against Michigan with a 24-yard run, so it’s a significant part of his arsenal. He runs the read-option better than his predecessors, but MSU needs more from his arm to maintain its successful start. Brian Kelly knows this and, like I expect the Spartans to do with Brandon Wimbush, will attempt to make Lewerke show he can hit throws downfield and make wise decisions when he takes shots deep. He hasn’t shown great accuracy on long passes yet early in his career, but he has a strong arm (as Wimbush does) and is not afraid to take chances and be a “gunslinger” QB.
Maybe I am being presumptuous, but I would have expected junior running back LJ Scott to be the engine behind the Spartans offense. Averaging 5.4 yards per carry and gaining 994 yards in a dismal team campaign catches my attention like that. As Lewerke emerges, is there any chance Scott continues to be the secondary piece or is his assertion something of an inevitability?
Take out Scott’s 44-yard run on fourth-and-1 against Western Michigan, and he’s averaging 2.5 yards on 32 other carries this season. He had two fumbles in the opener against Bowling Green, and he’s coming off multiple shoulder surgeries in the offseason that were meant to correct a “numbness” he said he would feel when he gets hit that goes all the way back to high school. Of the three running backs, all of whom have been featured at times the past three seasons, Scott provides the most versatility in running styles and ability to catch passes (including a touchdown catch on a wheel route against the Broncos). The staff remained committed to giving him the ball after his fumbling issue in the opener, but Gerald Holmes also showed last year at Notre Dame he can be the bell cow if Michigan State wants him to shoulder the load of carries. Nonetheless, there’s no question the Spartans expect and want Scott to be their feature back.
In Michigan State’s nine losses last year, the defense allowed more than 32 points per game. That would be disappointing for any team, but even more so for a Mark Dantonio-led unit. Before looking at this year, what went wrong defensively a season ago?
First, start at the MSU-ND game a year ago. That’s when Riley Bullough first got injured and missed the first three of a seven-game skid. Then Jon Reschke, who shined against the Irish, got hurt against Wisconsin and missed the rest of the year before leaving the program in the offseason. Malik McDowell was on and off the field all season with one minor injury after another. Demetrious Cox battled leg issues, and then Vayante Copeland was lost for the season. Losing those veterans last year forced MSU to play a number of untested players, many of whom were not quite ready early in the year but improved with experience (showed against Ohio State). Beyond that, MSU managed just 11 sacks all last season with those injury issues and inexperience. The Spartans also struggled to get off the field on third downs and wore down in the second half. They were outscored 220-136 after intermission, including 120-59 in fourth quarters and overtime. That was the first time in Dantonio’s first 10 seasons MSU was outscored after halftime and just the second time the Spartans got outscored in the fourth quarter and overtime in his tenure.
How much of that has changed this year?
The depth through two games has been surprising, even with most of the offseason attrition coming on defense. MSU has rotated six defensive ends and four defensive tackles, and its flipped pairings at both safety and cornerback regularly. That has kept the front seven fresh and quick to stop the run and get more pressure in the backfield. The Spartans’ third-down package has changed to more of a three-man front, with redshirt freshman Brandon Randle and senior Demetrius Cooper the pass-rushing ends. They are first in the country in allowing just an 11 percent third down conversion rate.
A year ago, the Spartans limited Notre Dame to 68 rushing yards (sacks adjusted). These days, as made quite clear last weekend at Boston College, the Irish could not be much more reliant on the run. Presuming Michigan State can’t limit Notre Dame to sub-70 again, will it be able to still force Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to win via the pass?
Dantonio admitted that allowing a quarterback to run for 200-plus yards is a recipe for failure, so expect the Spartans to spy him throughout Saturday night. Linebacker Chris Frey called him a “capture” quarterback as opposed to one who the defense believes it can go for sacks, which means they likely will put more eyes in the box on Wimbush and force him to show more accuracy in the passing game. There could be chances for Wimbush as well. True freshman Josiah Scott has made an immediate impact at cornerback, though the Spartans’ young secondary has benefitted from opposing quarterbacks missing throws and receivers dropping passes when they’ve been burned in coverage. As Kelly showed in the 2013 game, Notre Dame believes it can move the chains by throwing the ball up against Michigan State when it plays press man coverage and simply hoping the Spartans get too handsy and are called for pass interference penalties.
What else am I missing? Who or what should Notre Dame fans be looking for this weekend?
It’s expected to be a hot night in mid-Michigan, which could affect the players and cause cramping. Honorary captain Kirk Gibson’s Ring of Honor ceremony for being elected to the College Football Hall of Fame will amp up the crowd. So, too, will the first game under the new permanent lights at Spartan Stadium — night games in East Lansing create a different intensity Notre Dame teams have survived (2006) and failed (2010) in front of. It’s also worth noting Michigan State has won 11 of the last 18 meetings in the series, and this could be the last time these two teams play again until 2026. Everyone up here is cognizant of those facts, especially Dantonio, who knows it might be his last game coaching against a Notre Dame team he followed as a kid growing up in Ohio.
It strikes me you keep as close an eye as I do on spreads and such. Certainly, those are only for evaluation purposes and no other endeavors. This game opened with Notre Dame favored by 4 or 4.5 points, depending where you looked. It has already fluctuated toward 3 and 3.5 before seeming to settle at 4. How do you see Saturday night playing out?
I expect this to be a close game like most of the Michigan State-Notre Dame games have been during the Dantonio-Kelly era. It very well could come down to which team executes best on special teams. Justin Yoon is experienced, while Spartans kicker Matt Coghlin has yet to attempt a field goal.
While we’re at it, can I get you to commit to a score prediction?
Notre Dame 27, Michigan State 24.
The stat continues to be referenced in this space because it is somewhat hard to believe: Irish receivers accounted for three catches and 11 yards in Notre Dame’s 49-20 victory over Boston College last weekend. As a whole, the passing game accounted for 96 of the 611 total Irish yards.
“Clearly we have to work on our weaknesses, right?” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “So wherever we feel like our weaknesses are within the offense, we have to get better at those weaknesses each and every week.”
The weakness would seem to be the aerial attack as a whole with an emphasis on threats created by the supposed downfield playmakers. The latter half of this particular topic will be discussed into the ground. There are a few reasons for that.
1: The Irish rushing attack has been so dynamic there is little, if anything, to reasonably assail in that aspect of the game.
2: The Notre Dame defense has exceeded any realistic preseason expectations such that, though not perfect, it is a welcome surprise for Irish fans and, presumably, Irish coaches alike.
3: Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s accuracy issues do not leave much for the imagination or any debate. They are what they are and will remain just that until improved.
“The question that probably hit it the most was recognition, being comfortable with the route, where the receiver is, and just trusting it,” Kelly said of his quarterback’s misfires. “Once [Wimbush] gets to that level and trusts it — he trusts that corner route, that six route, he loves to throw that route, you can see that he loved throwing it — once he gets to that level with his passing game, he’ll throw it with the same kind of accuracy.”
It seems distinctly possible doubting Notre Dame’s receivers may remain the critic’s tactic all season long. Whether that is the case or not, let’s hit pause and offer a quick plot synopsis. With 11 scholarship receivers on the roster, this may take a few minutes. In no particular order other than the easiest transitions in writing:
Junior Equanimeous St. Brown
St. Brown has been the one consistent Irish receiver, even if that does not necessarily show up on the stat sheet. It certainly did not against the Eagles, when he recorded one, three-yard reception. Whenever Kelly refers to only one receiver doing anything of positive connotation, he is referencing St. Brown. For example:
“Accuracy is a product of being comfortable within an offense, an offense that has changed a little bit from what [Wimbush] was used to running,” Kelly said. “It also has to do with really only having one receiver that has established himself in the program for a period of time. He’s working with some new receivers.”
Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long may continue to experiment with different options and new combinations. St. Brown will remain a constant.
To some degree, his breakout sophomore campaign doomed how his junior year would be viewed. That does not excuse seven catches for 99 yards and one score through three games, but it does help explain some of the lens through which that stat line is viewed. As was written in St. Brown’s 99-to-2 entry before the season:
“Suffice it to say, St. Brown exceeded any and all expectations in 2016, beginning with his tumbling touchdown against Texas. In a way, those successes make it likely St. Brown falls short of expectations in 2017. If he does appear to take a step back, whether that is shown in statistics or not, it could be partly due to the added depth.”
Fifth-year Arizona State transfer Cameron Smith
In retrospect, the offseason arrival of the graduate transfer could have been seen as an indication Long was not yet satisfied with the receivers already on hand. Instead, the newcomer was presumed to be a luxury from Long’s past. The two spent three years together at Arizona State before Long moved to Memphis for the 2016 season.
“Smith already knows Long’s offensive tendencies,” this space wrote in the summer. “Slipping into a familiar offensive approach should not take much time at all. Long may be most grateful for Smith’s on-field presence as the Irish learn to embrace an up-tempo offense. Smith is already used to it.”
Some of Smith’s success may indeed derive from his institutional knowledge rather than from a lack of performers otherwise. He missed the Boston College contest due to a sprained ankle, racking up seven catches for 54 yards in the two games preceding it. Kelly expects him to return this weekend.
“The one thing about Cam is he’s extremely physical, a great blocker,” Kelly said. “He can catch the football.
“We’ve got to catch it better at all positions, though, not just one position. But he’s definitely a guy that adds to our receiving depth.”
Sophomore Chase Claypool
If St. Brown and Smith are the closest the Irish come to sure things, Claypool may have used the victory over the Eagles to position himself as the next best bet. He made two of those three catches and gained eight of those 11 yards. Those numbers are not much, but it cannot be denied they led the Irish receivers.
Throughout the spring and most of the preseason, Claypool was seen as a possible starter at the slot position, even though his 6-foot-4, 228-pound frame is far from typical for the inside spot.
“Sending Claypool’s frame on quick routes across the middle should provide junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush an especially-dynamic safety valve of sorts,” the respective 99-to-2 entry posited.
Against Boston College, though, Claypool saw more action on the boundary, opposite St. Brown. The next day Kelly indicated that is likely to continue, though the depth chart Notre Dame released Tuesday does not hold to that. In this instance, deferring to the actual statement makes more sense than abiding by a superfluous depth chart.
Here, Claypool’s two targets through the first two games of the season show his inconsistencies. On one play, a clean route to an open spot on the field yields a 16-yard gain. On the other, he drops a screen pass, always an added danger due to the greater-than-usual possibility the incompletion becomes a fumble.
Junior Miles Boykin
With Claypool emerging at the boundary position, it seems Boykin may be on the way out. That theory is underscored when realizing Wimbush has yet to target Boykin. Sophomore Ian Book did twice in the closing minutes Saturday, both falling incomplete.
Continuing to use 99-to-2 entries to give an idea where one fool thought each player stood during the summer, a look at Boykin’s reminds his drop back down the depth chart was always a consideration.
“Boykins’ rise to the top of the depth chart this spring was always a possibility, if not necessarily a likely one following the 2016 season. … Boykin’s pedigree kept this result in play despite his minimal role. The question now is, will he maintain this consistency and thus create more opportunities for himself?”
It appears that answer may be no.
Junior Chris Finke
Finke was the odd-man out when the theoretical springtime starting trio was St. Brown-Claypool-Boykin. It took him seven quarters to get a target this season, but he quickly made the most of it and the soon-to-follow opportunities. In just the fourth quarter against Georgia, Finke caught three of four targets for 36 yards.
His ability to create a window within traffic is one not displayed by any of the other Irish receivers yet this year. Where that went against the Eagles may be one of the more perplexing wonderings so far this September. Then again, the running game’s success rendered the point quite moot.
Junior C.J. Sanders
The other most-likely option at the slot, Sanders is actually listed as a boundary possibility on the aforementioned depth chart, behind Smith, on the same level as freshman Michael Young. If remembering Kelly’s comments about Claypool, it seems more accurate to depict Sanders as the third in line there, at best.
Given he has yet to be targeted this season — and, frankly, memory fails to recall him taking an offensive snap, but add to that a few grains of salt — that at best is awfully necessary.
Sanders has continued to return kicks, coming oh-so-close to breaking a couple for big moments. His greatest skill remains finding a lane and accelerating. There is a reason Finke returns punts — he is shiftier than Sanders, more dangerous in close quarters. Simply enough, that skill translates better to offensive snaps.
That discrepancy began to show itself in 2016’s second half. Sanders totaled 24 catches for 293 yards and two touchdowns. On the surface, that is a modest stat line for a sophomore, certainly one opening the door for conversations about potential. Looking deeper, though, Sanders made only seven catches for 39 yards in the season’s final seven games.
“One of Notre Dame’s pass-catchers is going to be left on the outside looking in at opportunities within a high-scoring offense,” Sanders’ 99-to-2 entry read. “Sanders seems a likely candidate. … As much as Long’s tendencies may suggest Sanders’ role in the passing game may be minimal, the last half of his 2016 did not do the junior any favors, either.”
Freshman Michael Young
Young’s ascension to a prominent role remains theoretical, but the time may be coming quickly.
“He presents himself in a manner that he could be a guy that does a little bit more than just a guy that is downfield,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We think he can be a screen guy, maybe a jet sweep guy. He’s got a little bit of all those tools.
“It’s too early really to tell other than the fact that we really like his work ethic, his attitude, his football intelligence is really high. It’s put him in a good position early in his career. I see him more as a multi-dimensional player than maybe a perimeter player.”
Kelly did not make those comments with Sanders in mind, but they may speak as much to why the junior has yet to contribute on offense this year while the freshman is readying to do so. Young may have the ability to shed a tackle on a screen, while Sanders would need the alley to be waiting for him.
Young’s only catch this season, in fact, came on exactly such a play.
Freshman Jafar Armstrong
Young’s classmate has yet to see the field this year. It may be too soon to chalk that up to a guaranteed year of preserving eligibility, but it would be unexpected to see him play at this point.
Sophomore Kevin Stepherson
Much time has been spent fretting about Stepherson’s future. The most definitive statement to date has been the absence of his name on Notre Dame’s travel roster on the trip to Boston College. It would logically seem unlikely that changes on this weekend’s jaunt.
Senior Freddy Canteen
Canteen will miss the rest of the season due to a torn labrum.
Sophomore Javon McKinley
Kelly said Sunday he hopes to preserve a year of McKinley’s eligibility this season.
Of the 11 rostered receivers, seven have a viable chance at making an impact for the Irish this season. They would benefit from Wimbush improving upon his accuracy, but that quickly becomes a chicken and egg debate.
The odds are this hole in the Irish offense will last past this weekend. Notre Dame will focus on winning more than on developing its passing game.
“We’re going to do what we’re good at,” Kelly said. “That’s what you’ll see from this offense moving forward.”
Then again, it is also distinctly possible this speculation dies on the vine Saturday night. That is not meant as an optimistic conclusion’s tease. It is meant as an acknowledgement of the realities of college football, of 18- to 22-year-olds and of three-week sample sizes.
A nod where a nod is due, this piece was knocking around the mind, only to be kicked into existence by a request from ndpourtjrs: Douglas, if your agenda permits would you mind running a recap on our receiver crops with some profile info? This situation may prove to be a pivotal point for the season. Thank you!
It was the yet-to-be-earned gratitude that sealed the deal. You’re welcome, ndpourtjrs.