After a long offseason of cyclical conversations, staff turnover and repeated mea culpas, Notre Dame is only 48 hours from kicking off against Temple and putting all of that into the past. Whether happy with the retention of Irish coach Brian Kelly or not, perhaps now is the time to finally accept the reality he will be Notre Dame’s coach in the 2017 season opener. Go ahead and wager heavily he will be the coach against Stanford in November, as well.
With that issue settled, what should be gleaned from this weekend? Obviously, the final score bears the most merit, but there will be some other factors offering indications of the season ahead.
Speaking of staff turnover, how will offensive coordinator Chip Long fit in calling plays?
First of all, remaining skeptical Kelly will yield all play calling duties to Long is understandable. That has long been Kelly’s territory. He has insisted it will now be Long’s domain, and there is little reason to not take that at face value. The opportunity to dictate the Notre Dame offense is part of what brought Long to South Bend.
But for the cynics and skeptics, believing may require seeing. In this instance, such is fair. If granting that presumption, though, then the question is, just how distinct will Long’s influence be?
The Irish offense boasts more tight ends than it can get on the field at one time. Well, perhaps not literally. The five-man position group could theoretically join five offensive linemen and junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to create the most jumbo of jumbo packages. For now, let’s stick to more realistic possibilities.
How often will Long trot out two tight ends — likely graduate student Durham Smythe attached next to a tackle and junior Alizé Mack aligned not far from the line — instead of three receivers? It will also be curious to see who is the third tight end involved. In a system frequently featuring two tight ends, the third option becomes a routine contributor. Will that be senior Nic Weishar or one of the freshmen, Brock Wright or Cole Kmet?
Six months ago, one would have presumed either Wright or Kmet would preserve a year of eligibility this season. To an extent, that would still make sense. Even if both the freshmen have moved past Weishar on the depth chart, barring injury Notre Dame is unlikely to need four tight ends this season. Staggering that eligibility could be helpful down the line. Given the praise heaped on both Wright and Kmet, however, it seems less likely either will spend the entire season on the sideline.
Keeping an eye on the freshmen’s usage Saturday could shed light on that down-the-road thinking.
Continuing with Long and the offensive scheme … What will its pace be?
In the early days of up-tempo offenses, it was counterintuitive to think one could have quick pace but still rely on the running game. The Air Raid offense didn’t function that way, nor did certain renditions of Chip Kelly’s Oregon.
Nowadays, an up-tempo offense is as much about manipulating the defense as it is about snapping the ball rapidly. The latter does play into the former, but snapping the ball with 20-plus seconds remaining on the play clock is not inherently necessary to manipulate the defense. Simply getting to the line of scrimmage quickly can accomplish that.
Seeing how the Irish offense embraces the tempo mentality should further illustrate Long’s amount of control over the scheme.
How will sophomore running back Tony Jones fare against real competition?
There is absolutely no reason to think Jones will do anything but excel. He earned the hype with his practice performances, including in April’s Blue-Gold Game, but all of that goes out the window Saturday.
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Long prefers to use multiple running backs. Jones or junior Dexter Williams will be the first option to spell junior Josh Adams. All three should get at least half a dozen carries, if not even double digits for each. Adams is a proven commodity. Williams is a dynamic speedster. What will Jones show when it finally counts?
Brandon Wimbush hasn’t been hit in nearly two seasons. He hasn’t taken more than a handful of snaps in live action since December of 2014. How will he hold up to his first few hits?
Like Jones, there is no reason to think Wimbush will shy away from his first competitive collegiate action. It should be noted, however, this will be the first time he has played in a close game since winning a New Jersey state title Dec. 4, 2014.
“You’re kind of on top of the world right there, your senior year high school team and you’re playing with some of the best all around,” Wimbush said. “Then you come into college, and you’re back to the bottom of the totem pole. It’s a slow rise back to the top, and hopefully toward the end of this year I’ll be back at the same position.”
While that is an ambitious hope for year’s end, it is not bold to await Wimbush jumping up from the turf excited after his first time getting hit and hit hard. He has worn a red jersey for the last 22 months, after all.
Will that hit come from a scramble or a blown protection? More precisely, how will the right tackle hold up in pass protection?
Notre Dame starts four established seniors along its offensive line. The exception is at right tackle, where sophomore Tommy Kraemer will get the start. Kraemer has shown much capability in the run game, but in both the Blue-Gold Game and in the “New-Gold” Game, he struggled a bit stemming pass rushes.
If he cannot hold up against Temple’s unproven defensive ends, Kraemer would be in for a long day down the line against defensive fronts like Georgia’s, North Carolina State’s and Miami’s. Hoping for a freshman (Robert Hainsey) to step in for him seems like a high-risk failsafe. By definition, failsafes are meant to be low-risk.
How will Wimbush react when he invariably makes a mistake?
It’s a football game. Things happen. In this instance, let’s look past a missed read or botched audible. Let’s look for an interception or near-interception, perhaps a fumble recovered by either team. Yes, this is intentionally keeping an eye out for a Wimbush turnover.
As a first-time starter, nerves would be understandable. A mistake could compound those nerves, but every description of Wimbush insists he is too cool of a character to let such trivialities bother him.
“He does a good job of putting something aside and moving on,” Kelly said Tuesday. “He doesn’t dwell on a mistake and let it affect the next play …
“I’d be more concerned if this was a young man that let mistakes in camp eat at him. He’s made some mistakes in camp, but he can put them behind him and move to the next play, because he’s going to have that in the first couple of weeks. I’m okay with that.”
Forgetting about a mistake in practice is one thing. Moving past one in a competitive, meaningful game with 80,000 people watching is another.
How early, if at all, will sophomore quarterback Ian Book get into the game?
Obviously Notre Dame wants to beat Temple comfortably. As it pertains to Book, a sizable lead would serve a function, as well. At some point this season Wimbush could roll an ankle or lose his helmet and need to come to the sideline for just a few minutes. In that instance, Kelly, Long and the Irish would prefer Book have completed some passes in front of a full Notre Dame Stadium. Will the Irish put together enough of a lead to let Book take snaps throughout the fourth quarter Saturday?
How will the video board usage be executed?
At weekly trivia, I did not know I knew the Beatle on the far right of the “Abbey Road” cover was John Lennon. I thought I knew it. When the host revealed that as the correct answer, it could be said I learned I knew the answer.
On some level, the world already knows how Notre Dame will utilize the newly-installed video board. Akin to Long with the play calling, believing may necessitate seeing. On its own philosophical level, that is a version of learning.
When newly-inducted College Football Hall of Famer Bob Crable (Irish linebacker, 1978-81) is honored Saturday, the video board will undoubtedly show a few clips.
If reading into this profile of the man in charge of the video board, Mike Bonner, it can be presumed both a pre- and a post-game show will be broadcast. Apparently, former Notre Dame offensive lineman Ryan Harris will serve as an analyst in a post-game show. Harris retired in March after an 11-year NFL career, overlapping with Bonner’s tenure running the Denver Broncos’ video board during a Super Bowl-winning season in 2015.