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Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s offense filled with questions for the Citrus Bowl

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Bowl games are similar to preseason practice finales. Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game can offer insights into the playmakers likely to define a season to come or unveil aspects of a new scheme previously unknown. If the Irish are fully engaged in the Citrus Bowl on Monday vs. No. 17 LSU (1 p.m. ET; ABC), then much can be learned from the occasion. The 2018 depth chart can gain some order at a position or two. Pending personnel losses will be seen in an evaluator manner, rather than merely with a reactionary response. Overall composure may be measured.

If, however, the afternoon in Orlando is treated like the mere exhibition it largely is, then it becomes an exercise in entertainment otherwise lacking effect.

Without Kevin Stepherson, who can Notre Dame turn to as a deep-threat playmaker?

The sophomore receiver will not be in Florida this weekend, and it is exceedingly unlikely he is in South Bend in the fall. Thus, this lesson can shed light toward the Irish future at receiver.

Exclude from these results any production from fifth-year receiver Cam Smith, finally healthy from a hamstring issue. He will not be in the mix in 2018.

Instead, any noticeable impact from current freshman Michael Young would warrant attention.

“He’s had his best practices,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Wednesday following the first Irish practice in the Florida heat. “He’s shown a confidence level, consistency level, that maybe escaped him at times during the year, which is pretty typical of some of the younger players.

“You can kind of see him settling into a more comfortable position right now, too. We’re going to have to count on him to make some plays for us.”

An emergence from Young would establish him as only the pole position holder. Signed commit and consensus four-star receiver Braden Lenzy (Tigard High School; Portland, Ore.) has the speed to immediately force his way into this conversation during the summer.

Whoever emerges from that mix, it will obviously be in a complementary role to junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. Even when Stepherson was hitting on all cylinders, the opposing defenses’ primary focus remained on St. Brown — he has shown a higher probability of taking over a game thus far in their respective careers. Against LSU, Kelly expects St. Brown to see time at multiple receiver positions, partly due to sophomore Chase Claypool also being sidelined thanks to shoulder surgery.

“For us, more than anything else, it’s going to be keeping the ball out on the perimeter, winning some of those matchups and then when we get a chance we’ll move some of those guys around,” Kelly said. “[St. Brown] is going to move all over the place. He’s going to be a guy that we’re going to have to lean on heavily.”

Relying on St. Brown on Monday with any success would be a positive notion for a 2018 sans Stepherson, presuming St. Brown returns for his senior season.

With junior Alizé Mack suspended due to a violation of team rules, Notre Dame may rely on senior tight end Nic Weishar more than usual in the Citrus Bowl on Monday. He has announced his intentions to return for a fifth year, so the bowl showcase could be a prelude to his 2018. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Without Alizé Mack, who can Notre Dame turn to as an aerial threat at tight end, if anyone?

There is little-to-no indication the junior tight end will not be with the Irish when they take the field against Michigan to open the 2018 season, but it is a possibility worthy of acknowledgement. If Mack is elsewhere then, offensive coordinator Chip Long will need to deploy someone else as the detached tight end intended to force matchup difficulties for the defense.

Current senior Nic Weishar presents as a better fit for the role attached to the line, presently manned by fifth-year senior Durham Smythe. From there, Smythe has showcased both his sure hands and his strength as a blocker this season. Even their physical profiles are similar. Notre Dame lists Smythe as 6-foot-5.5 and 257 pounds with Weishar at 6-foot-4.75 and 243 pounds.

If that is where Weishar eventually excels, then the detached focus turns to the freshman duo of Brock Wright and Cole Kmet. The former has seen action this season as a blocker but will miss the bowl game due to his own shoulder injury, while Kmet has two catches for 14 yards. Kelly indicated the latter could be in the mix this week.

“The tight ends are going to be important for us,” Kelly said. “Durham Smythe, Cole Kmet, Nic Weishar, all three tight ends will be involved.”

Junior running back Josh Adams had a stellar season. If only he had been healthy for more of it … (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

What could a healthy Josh Adams have done all season?

This should be the junior running back’s last game with the Irish, and it certainly will be his last behind an offensive line this superior to its typical competition. The month off has allowed Adams to finally return to 100 percent health. Whether it was just his ankles or other issues in addition, it cannot be denied Adams lost much of his explosiveness by season’s end.

“He looks really good,” Kelly said. “He’s got his speed back, he looks healthy. He’s running very effectively. I expect him to play really well in this game. I think the time off for him really helped him.”

Adams will need that speed, that health and that efficiency to manage a good day against the Tigers. They rank No. 21 in overall rushing defense and No. 39 in yards per carry at 3.80. For context, Michigan State allowed 3.38 yards per carry this season (No. 13) and Georgia gave up 3.47 yards per attempt (No. 20).

If Adams runs through LSU, it will elicit wonderings of “What could have been” if only his ankles had not been landed on so many times in October. It will also bode well for the next back to run behind what will still be a strong offensive line in 2018, most likely sophomore Tony Jones.

With that in mind, monitoring the distribution of opportunities between Jones and junior Dexter Williams will also shed light on what could come down the road for the two when healthy.

When removing ready-made excuses, how do the Irish fare against a top-20 team?

Kelly cited the crowd’s impact for the disastrous start at Miami in November. Anyone in attendance understood his point. The second half stumble two weeks later at Stanford was a sign of mental and physical fatigue at the end of a stretch of six weeks featuring four ranked opponents, an underrated Wake Forest and the always-wearisome Navy. Logically, at least, the argument made sense.

Camping World Stadium will hardly be abuzz come Monday, and Notre Dame will have had more than five weeks off since its most-recent game, not to mention time away from schoolwork.

“Like anything else, we needed some time,” Kelly said. “Our football team needed to get their step back, some energy back to them. Obviously this is a long break, but I thought we prepared well.”

With those outside factors removed, LSU will offer an excellent gauge of how the Irish genuinely stack up against a top-20 opponent. That is, if Notre Dame focuses on the bowl game. Amid trips to Universal Studios, a spending spree at Best Buy and assuredly plenty of seafood, the game itself may not be at the top of the list of priorities all week. Such is the difficult nature of bowl games in the first place.

Notre Dame suspends WR Kevin Stepherson and RB C.J. Holmes

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Already without sophomore receiver Chase Claypool, Notre Dame will not have sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson or freshman running back C.J. Holmes in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced Wednesday afternoon.

WNDU reported this suspension stems from a shoplifting incident Friday night in which both Stepherson and Holmes were arrested. Charges are pending.

This is Stepherson’s second suspension of the 2017 season, though the first one that cost him the season’s first four games was never officially confirmed. He was also involved in an arrest of five Notre Dame players for marijuana possession the week before the 2016 season.

It took Stepherson another couple games to find his on-field groove, finally breaking loose against USC for three catches for 58 yards and a score, adding two rushes for 24 yards. He finished the season with 19 catches for 359 yards and five touchdowns with five rush attempts gaining 76 yards. Accumulating those stats in essentially half a season kept Stepherson on a similar pace — actually, a better one — as his breakout freshman campaign.

Holmes enrolled early last winter, but then suffered a shoulder injury in spring practice. At first, it seemed that might keep him out the entire season, but as ankle injuries depleted the Notre Dame running back corps, he saw some action to provide possible depth. Holmes finished with eight carries for 32 yards, all coming in the Oct. 7 victory at North Carolina.

Claypool will miss the bowl game against No. 17 LSU due to shoulder surgery. He finished the season with 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns.

Kelly previously said junior Equanimeous St. Brown would move into Claypool’s position as the field receiver and junior Miles Boykin could see more time at the boundary position, St. Brown’s usual duty. That should still be the case even without Stepherson.

Irish fifth-year receiver Cam Smith has recovered from hamstring issues that plagued him in the season’s second half. He could be a quick fix to Stepherson’s absence.

Things To Learn: What did Miami teach Notre Dame?

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Little good can ever be drawn from a 41-8 embarrassment on national television. If Notre Dame wants to have any reason to look back on what happened at Miami two weeks ago and not lament every second of the disappointment, it will need to use that experience to its advantage this weekend at another top-25 opponent.

By no means will Stanford’s “Farm” echo the Hurricanes’ Hard Rock Stadium. That atmosphere truly defined raucous. An impartial observer had no choice but to deem it outright impressive. Nonetheless, Cardinal fans will feed off the slightest early Irish mistake, just as Miami’s crowd did.

“It’s exactly what we did at Miami that you can’t do, turn the football over,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “We fed that atmosphere at Miami. … You’ve got to take care of the football. You can’t give anybody on the road that energy that gives them that extra momentum at home.”

This may seem simple. In fact, it is simple. Yet, it remains critically important on the road. When dealing with 18- to 21-year-olds, momentum can shift to steamrolling shockingly quickly. (That is, in fact, part of the allure to college football.)

The issues in south Florida went beyond turnovers. More precisely, they went beyond south Florida. Afterward, Kelly looked back on the week’s practices with some skepticism. The Irish have acknowledged their readiness was not up to the necessary standard.

“I didn’t prepare to the best of my ability Miami week, and obviously it showed,” junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush said Tuesday. “Being militant in the way we go about this week and everything that we do, so having intention to the way we practice, to the way we watch film, to the way I eat, things like that, it’ll all go into the game.”

If Notre Dame learned from the mistakes of the past, that loss can at least serve a purpose, a greater future good. If not, it was simply the moment a promising season was lost.

When healthy, Stanford junior Bryce Love may be the best running back in the country. If he puts an ankle injury far enough out of his mind to face Notre Dame, he will be the toughest challenge the Irish defensive line has faced this season. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

How will the Irish defensive line handle itself against the best offensive line it has faced this season?

By every possible metric, Notre Dame’s defensive line has exceeded expectations this year. Admittedly, little was expected.

If it plays a part in limiting Stanford’s exceptional rushing attack — averaging 215.7 yards per game and 6.41 per carry, good for No. 26 and No. 4 in the country, respectively — then it will have proven itself to be a strength heading into 2018.

Using rushing stats as the barometer with an exception for Navy’s triple-option approach, the best offensive lines the Irish have faced this season were Georgia and Miami (FL).

The Bulldogs average 267.4 rushing yards per game (No. 10 in the country) and 5.80 yards per carry (No. 9). Against the Irish, they gained 185 yards on 43 carries, a 4.30 average.

The Hurricanes average 176.7 yards per game (No. 55) and 5.32 per rush (No. 19). Notre Dame gave up 237 rushing yards on 42 attempts, a 5.64 average. (As always when discussing national rankings, none of these rushing figures are sacks adjusted.)

The Irish defensive front does not need to stop the Cardinal backs outright, only slow them. Stanford’s passing attack is decently efficient but far from genuinely dangerous. Since slipping past Oregon State in late October, a game without both Love and sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello, the Cardinal have averaged 167 yards through the air per game, completing 57.53 percent of attempts with 6.86 yards gained per attempt. That efficiency stems from defenses fearing the run, not from an overwhelmingly consistent or threatening passing attack. Thus, Notre Dame will focus on keeping the ground game in check.

He’s not Bryce Love — hardly anyone is — but junior Cameron Scarlett has held his own when called upon this season. (Getty Images)

Stanford junior Bryce Love will, at best, be hobbled with a bum ankle. At worst, he will not even take the field, leaving Cameron Scarlett to carry the load.

“[Scarlett] seems to be a physical back, downhill runner, a good one-cut guy,” Irish senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said Tuesday. “Can make you miss, and physical. I think he embodies what Stanford tries to be about, and that’s tough, pro-style football, and that’s being efficient, keeping the ball away from their opponent, and playing tough.”

Scarlett has seen significant time this season with Love battling the ankle injury for much of the year. Scarlett has taken 73 carries for 362 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 4.96 yards per rush.

Nonetheless, Kelly will prepare anticipating Love’s speed.

“To me, it’s his ability to break that first tackle [that sets Love apart] and then ultimately he’s got incredible speed,” Kelly said. “… He’s got elite speed and he breaks tackles, and that is a lethal mix.”

In a perfect world, both Love and Notre Dame junior running back Josh Adams would be 100 percent, with fully-supportive ankles free from all swelling. The two could try to one-up each other possession after possession without ever taking the field at the same time.

Alas, this is far from a perfect world. Speaking of which …

Is Equanimeous St. Brown healthy?

If not for the national holiday of gluttony Thursday, this may already be known. Instead, the junior receiver’s status in the concussion protocol may not be known until close to Saturday’s kickoff (8:14 p.m. ET; ABC).

If St. Brown is cleared to go, then the norm continues with an increasing emphasis on sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. If St. Brown is not available, look for more of junior receiver Miles Boykin.

“Boykin will go in and do a great job,” Kelly said. “We’ll just plug-and-play him. What you’ll see is his ability — in the game against Navy, he filled in very nicely, caught a couple passes, did a nice job blocking on the perimeter.

“You just take [St. Brown] out and you put Miles Boykin in there, and we keep rolling.”

And what about Dexter Williams and Cam Smith?

Kelly described Williams (ankle; quad contusion) as “about as 100 percent as we’ve had him.” If that is the case, the junior running back will have a featured role in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s game plan.

Fifth-year receiver Cam Smith (hamstring) might be not much of a concern most weeks, but St. Brown’s questionable status could create a chance for Smith to return to the offense as a contributing piece.

Things To Learn: On Notre Dame injuries, crowd noise and close games

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No. 3 Notre Dame will have its star pair of juniors in the backfield Saturday night at No. 7 Miami, and both are apparently healthy. Irish coach Brian Kelly expressed little concern for quarterback Brandon Wimbush or running back Josh Adams on Thursday.

Wimbush showed “no ill effects” from the massive hit his left hand took just before halftime in last week’s 48-37 victory over Wake Forest. Kelly said the swelling is down and Wimbush may wear a padded glove on his non-throwing hand to protect it.

That is all well and good, but if Wimbush’s hand is at all a hindrance, ball security could become an issue, especially going against a Hurricanes defense that has forced 12 fumbles in eight games, recovering seven of them. Obviously, limiting Wimbush to the pocket to avoid such concerns would neuter the Notre Dame rushing attack of its most problem-causing threat.

Wimbush’s option to run at any point forces the greatest defensive adjustments and plays a key role in Adams’ success. The latter being healthy and well-rested plays a key role, as well. After last weekend, that is now something to keep an eye on.

“I definitely learned from last week, which is a great thing about football,” the Heisman-hopeful said Wednesday. “You’re constantly learning and have to do better, so taking care of my body a little bit more and feeling good.”

Kelly said junior running back Dexter Williams is not 100 percent recovered from the quad contusion which hampered him last week on what would usually have been a breakaway touchdown, adding, “He can still definitely help us.”

Junior tight end Alizé Mack has been cleared from a concussion. Fifth-year receiver Cam Smith, however, will be out as he continues to work through a hamstring strain that necessitated a platelet-replacement procedure Wednesday.

Lastly, senior cornerback Nick Watkins will be “managing” knee tendonitis. If sophomore Troy Pride sees an abundance of playing time, presume that to be the reason.

Miami is flying high, as are its fans. Will Notre Dame struggle in a genuine road atmosphere?

Some may scoff at this as a possible factor Saturday night (8 p.m. ET, ABC), but with a first-year starter and a few other young starters in the mix, particularly both options at right tackle, the Hurricanes fans will have their opportunity to make an impact.

Yet another interception from Irish sophomore cornerback Julian Love could do wonders for mitigating Miami’s home crowd Saturday night. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

“There will be some nerves and they’ll have to settle into the game,” Kelly said. “They’ve been really good at, once they get into the game, they’ve settled in nicely.

“But there will be moments early on that they have to settle into it.”

The Irish avoided this particular challenge at Michigan State by getting out to a two-possession lead — partly thanks to the momentum-sealing interception returned for a touchdown by sophomore cornerback Julian Love — within the first five minutes of the game. Otherwise, that could have established a data point for this particular query. It also helped that the Spartans were not yet respected as a 2017 contender as they are now, having risen to No. 12 in the College Football Playoff selection committee rankings. That crowd had not yet bought in on its season.

Miami’s has, deservedly so.

On the flipside of the ball, was last week’s defensive performance really just due to distractions and malaise? Or did Notre Dame have something more concerning afoot?

The Hurricanes average 31.5 points and 461 yards per game. It is safe to expect them to find offensive success at some point Saturday night. Two recent Irish foes present similar profiles.

USC averages 35.2 points and 492.4 yards per game.
Wake Forest averages 31.9 points and 445 yards per game.

The former fell short of those averages at Notre Dame, scoring only 14 points and gaining 336 yards. The latter exceeded those averages at Notre Dame to the tune of 38 points and 587 yards. It is hard to believe only two weeks separated those performances.

Kelly continues to point to something of a defensive indifference allowing for the Demon Deacons to run wild in the game’s final third, and he continues to insist it is no longer an issue.

“They practiced the way that they had practiced leading up to last week,” he said. “Every week they had created a new line of scrimmage. Last week they did not create a new line of scrimmage in practice.”

Apparently defensive coordinator Mike Elko made it very clear what led to Saturday’s issues. Kelly said Elko found six plays from practice Wake Forest ran successfully in the game. In each of them, the lack of execution was foreseen in a lack of execution at practice.

Wake Forest hardly struggled against the Irish defense in last week’s second half. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

“It was easy to go back to how we prepared,” Kelly said. “He was great at showing our players that it’s in their preparation and they’ve prepared very well defensively this week.”

Perhaps, the lackluster performance a week ago will actually serve to aid the Irish this weekend.

“Whenever you have a bad performance, you always come back with a chip on your shoulder,” senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said. “A lot of the guys after the game were ready to put the patch back on and go right back out there because we felt we let one go.”

To feel like you let one get away and still get a win is quite the treat on its own. To take that feeling and then channel it into a better showing a week later on the road against a top-10 opponent would make every point Wake Forest scored a worthwhile allowance to Notre Dame.

Can the Irish win a close game?

Let’s just present a series of facts.

— Notre Dame has not had to turn to Wimbush to lead a game-winning, last-minute drive in two months. That is not a bad thing. No coach in the world will begrudge blowing out each and every opponent.
— When Wimbush did get his chance against Georgia in the season’s second week, his first attempt sputtered and his second was cut short by an unblocked defensive end. He has never had a genuine chance to show the poise, command of the playbook and quick-thinking needed to win a collegiate game in its last minute.
— The last time the Irish prevailed in a one-possession game was also Miami’s last defeat, Oct. 29, 2016. Notre Dame won 30-27.
— Since then, the Irish have gone 0-3 in one-possession games.
— Before that victory, one has to trace back to Nov. 21, 2015, for such a win, 19-16 vs. Boston College at Fenway Park. Since then, Notre Dame has gone 1-7 in one-possession games.
— The last time the Irish beat a ranked foe in a tight game was Oct. 31, 2015, a 24-20 victory at No. 21 Temple, undefeated at 7-0 heading into that game including a win over Penn State.
— Miami has won four games by one-possession this season. Considering the Hurricanes remain undefeated, they have indeed not lost such a contest.

Miami and senior quarterback Malik Rosier have shown the ability to win tight football games. Notre Dame and Wimbush have not, though in no small part because they have simply not needed to.

‘Focus, refocus’ approach applies to both Notre Dame’s defense and Kelly’s 100th game as Irish coach

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On the verge of his 100th game at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly’s description of his eighth season mirrors his plan to avoid another disappointing defensive showing as was displayed in the 48-37 Irish victory over Wake Forest on Saturday.

“It’s focus, refocus at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “I’m honored to have gotten the opportunity to coach 100 games. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would ever get a chance to coach one game at Notre Dame, so to think of 100, I can’t even wrap my arms around that.”

That “focus, refocus” approach played a role in Kelly rebooting the Irish this year, now standing at 8-1 less than a year removed from a dismal 4-8 season. Similarly, Miami finished a bland 9-4 last year but now has its eyes on the College Football Playoff with an 8-0 record to date. Were the changes between the two programs the same? Not specifically, but a few broad themes may apply to both.

“Fans could be more patient, I’m sure that’s not the answer you wanted,” Kelly said before offering a more sincere thought tying to player development and college football’s 85 scholarships restriction.

Such development begins during the week. Apparently that was the lacking piece for Notre Dame before hosting the Demon Deacons. Wake Forest set season highs for points against and yards allowed by the Irish.

“They didn’t find the key to unlock the secrets of the Elko defense,” Kelly said, referencing defensive coordinator Mike Elko. “There’s nothing like that.

“This is really about playing with the right intensity and the right mental approach to the game. We just didn’t prepare in the manner that we had prepared in the other weeks, and we’ll do that and we’ll need to do that moving forward.”

Kelly listed off a variety of distractions that played a part in the subpar preparation, including senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill having three engineering projects demanding late nights, immaturity not recognizing possible pitfalls, and perhaps too much comfort with a 41-16 lead on the scoreboard. He did not fault the No. 3 ranking in the initial College Football Playoff selection committee poll, but perhaps that was an underlying piece of the vague reference to immaturity.

Wake Forest not only scored 37 points against Notre Dame, but the Demon Deacons also gained 587 total yards.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

“The external distractions, we’ve got those covered pretty good for our guys,” Kelly said. “It’s the internal distractions where they start thinking about, oh, maybe I don’t have to play quite as hard this week, maybe I don’t have to get all the nutrition and sleep I need this week.

“… The enemy is the distractions. The enemy isn’t the College Football Playoffs.”

Such a performance resulting in a victory serves as something of a win-win for Kelly and his staff. The “refocus” part of the equation would be more difficult if Notre Dame had lost or if there was little to point toward necessitating its need.

“We use [it as] great learning and teaching opportunities for our guys,” Kelly said.

Speaking of the Playoff poll …
The committee will release an updated version tonight (Tuesday) at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN. The exact rankings may not play into Kelly’s view of weekly preparations, but the fact that they matter at all is a valid piece of November readiness. Such could certainly be said for the Hurricanes, as well.

“I know our guys are excited about this championship drive that they are on now,” Kelly said. “This part of the season, obviously in November, all of the teams that are in contention are focused on one game at a time, and it’s single elimination for most teams.”

It will be single elimination Saturday at 8 p.m. ET (ABC). After tonight, it could be a top-five matchup, though certainly top-10. If offering a prediction, this space would posit the Irish will remain No. 3 while Miami jumps four spots to No. 6. In many respects, that latter landing will not matter. If the Hurricanes win this weekend, they will find themselves in excellent playoff positioning pending an ACC title game victory.

Editor’s Note: The weekly “Notre Dame’s Opponents” piece moved to Wednesday this week to incorporate a CFP focus, but it should be noted Miami (OH) lost 45-28 a week ago at Ohio and will host Akron tonight (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) as 6.5-point favorites with a combined point total over/under of 51, hinting at a 29-22 final.

Injury updates
Kelly had largely good news regarding Irish injuries. He has “no concerns” about the readiness or physical stature of junior running back Josh Adams (“not himself”) or junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush (left hand).

Junior tight end Alizé Mack (concussion) will return to practice today, ready to go for the weekend, and junior running back Dexter Williams (quad contusion, lingering sprained ankle) showed some signs of his trademark explosiveness in the weight room Monday.

Fifth-year receiver Cam Smith remains questionable after further imaging of his hamstring. He will test it in practice to see if he can reach full go.