Cam Smith

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.

Notre Dame’s injury returns will aid needed punt return coverage

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Notre Dame’s punt return coverage has been good enough this season. No opponent has returned a punt (or a kick) for a touchdown. Few have been broken for advantageous field position. On 15 returns, Irish opponents have averaged nine yards per chance.

Yet, it is a primary concern for No. 9 Notre Dame heading into Saturday’s matchup with No. 14 North Carolina State. (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC.) Wolfpack junior running back Nyheim Hines has returned seven punts for 137 yards this season, including a 92-yard touchdown in NC State’s most recent game two weeks ago at Pittsburgh.

“We can’t outkick our coverage,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “55 yard punts are not good for us. We can’t stretch out our coverage units where we give big spaces and field for a guy like this. We need 4.5, 4.4 [seconds of] hang time. I’ll take 38-to-42 [yards] and give us great coverage opportunities. The punting is really going to be key in this game with a dangerous return man.”

In addition to a level of natural shiftiness, Hines’ threat derives from his elite speed. In the spring, he moonlights with the Wolfpack track team, qualifying for the NCAA Regionals in both the 100-meter dash and the 4-by-100-meter relay despite spending only part of his year on the oval. Hines also made the ACC first-team in the 100-meter in 2017 thanks to a wind-aided 10.34 seconds. Without the wind at his back, he ran 10.42 seconds in the first round of prelims at the NCAA East Regional, his personal record.

To date, the longest punt return allowed by Notre Dame was a 28-yarder to Georgia’s Mecole Hardman. He also notched the longest kick return allowed, at 38 yards, tied last week by USC’s Velus Jones.

“We’ve just been okay [on kickoffs],” Kelly said. “We have to be better there, we’ve worked hard on that. Directionally, [NC State is] a team that we’ve got to look to put the ball in tough positions where we can obviously get down there.”

Hines has returned 16 kicks for an average of 23.4 yards with a season-long of 50 yards.

The Irish coverage units will receive a boost — two, actually — this weekend compared to the rout over the Trojans. Junior running back Dexter Williams and senior linebacker Greer Martini rejoined the special teams units during practice this week, recovering from a sprained ankle and a torn meniscus, respectively. As much as Kelly may often project returns from injury with a later-realized optimism, Williams and Martini engaging with the special teams units is as strong an indicator as any that both are at or near enough to 100 percent.

On Williams, Kelly said, “He should be able to impact the game.” Regarding Martini, Kelly kept it simple, “He’ll be playing.”

Fifth-year receiver and Arizona State transfer Cam Smith will most likely not be due to a hamstring strain.

“I’d say he’s doubtful,” Kelly said. “He’s better, but he doesn’t have the burst right now.”

Notre Dame will need all hands to keep the Wolfpack in check on both sides of the ball. Kelly may have offered the week’s most succinct-but-effective summarization of the challenge about to be presented.

“Rightly so, they get a lot of credit for what they’ve done defensively in [senior defensive end Nick] Chubb and [senior defensive tackle B.J.] Hill and a veteran defense that’s really good,” he said. “It’s a physical defense. It creates a lot of problems. Their defensive coordinator does a great job with their scheme and causing a lot of problems.

“The efficiency offensively, they are not getting a lot of possessions per game … and yet they average [3.26] points per possession. That’s extremely efficient in what they do. The efficiency of their offense—obviously everybody knows that they don’t throw picks—but very rarely in college football can you sustain long drives without making mistakes. They sustain them and they score. It’s pretty impressive.

“… They’re one of the top teams in the country. They can play with anybody.”

For context, the Irish offense averages 3.01 points per possession.

Questions for the Week (Some, Notre Dame already answered)

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The rough draft of this weekly segment is usually written Sunday, either in the late morning or early afternoon. When saying “rough draft,” what should really be said is, “hardly legible scribbles on a legal pad consisting of names followed by nouns with no verbs anywhere to be seen.”

Some examples: “Cam Smith? Another ND TD?” or “Stepherson up the depth chart?” or “Dexter? Ankles, man.”

Then those haphazard pieces typically become more coherent thoughts either very early Monday morning (2 a.m.) or early Monday morning (9 a.m.). This week, however, Irish coach Brian Kelly answered most of the intended questions before they could even be asked in this space. There no longer seemed a rush. Thus, this delay. But now, as something of a mid-week update, let’s rehash.

Will senior linebacker Greer Martini actually be able to play only two weeks after arthroscopic surgery to repair a slight tear in his meniscus?
Yes. Kelly has a reputation for projecting quicker recoveries than reality allows, and, instinctively, that seemed the case when he said Sunday that Martini was cleared to practice this week. Yet, Martini apparently did Tuesday.

“I’m full go,” Martini said Wednesday. “I had practices all yesterday, didn’t take any reps off, and I’m feeling really good.”

Martini’s return does not have the dire feel to it like it did before the rout of USC. Junior Te’von Coney could not have acquitted himself better in Martini’s absence. Nonetheless, the return of the senior captain allows Notre Dame to trot out three talented linebackers — those two along with senior Nyles Morgan — to fill two spots, meaning fresh legs should not be a rare commodity.

“Whether it’s Te’von or I or Nyles starting, we all kind of have had enough reps that we feel like we’re all starters,” Martini said.

What about junior running back Dexter Williams and his sprained ankle?
After saying the Irish coaches made a conscious decision not to play Williams until he is 100 percent recovered from an ankle injury, Kelly either created some wiggle room in that regard Wednesday or returned to those optimistic recovery pronouncements mentioned earlier.

“Dexter looked good,” Kelly said on an ACC conference call, referring to Tuesday’s practice. “I think to say he’s 100 percent, I wouldn’t. I would say he could impact the game for us. He’s ready to play on Saturday.”

With or without Williams, Notre Dame will have a difficult time running against North Carolina State. The Wolfpack gives up a mere 3.04 yards per carry, No. 14 in the country. For context, Georgia ranks No. 7 in allowing 2.82 yards per rush and Michigan State comes in at No. 8 at 2.89 yards.

North Carolina State’s rush defense is so stout, opponents have tried to avoid challenging it. In getting to a 6-1 record, the Wolfpack have truly blown out only one opponent — a 49-16 win over FCS-level Furman. Opponents have not had to lean entirely on the passing game in fruitless attempts to come from behind, yet they have rushed only 210 times against NC State, an even 30 carries per game. The Irish, meanwhile, average 45 rushes each week.

Will sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson move up the depth chart now that he is fully-integrated back into Notre Dame’s offense?

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson caught three passes for 58 yards and a touchdown during Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Saturday. He also took two rushes for 24 yards. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Officially, no. Stepherson did not crack the two-deep released this week, but that two-deep hardly changes midseason. Let’s expect Stepherson to be one of the top three Irish receivers moving forward, along with junior Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomore Chase Claypool.

“What I liked the most was [Stepherson’s] energy and his assignments, getting all of his assignments correct,” Kelly said Sunday. “There was just an overall focus in a terms of getting lined up, having the right energy, really being locked into the game. A maturity that he continues to work on playing here at Notre Dame.”

Whatever the reason Stepherson spent the first four weeks of the year on the sideline, he certainly sounds ready to play now. Oh, and he’s pretty good at the football thing, too.

“It’s pretty easy to point out his athletic skills,” Kelly said. “We’ve never questioned those.

“… You’re going to see more and more of him on the field.”

With more of Stepherson on the field, that will inevitably mean less of fifth-year receiver and Arizona State-transfer Cam Smith, who missed the game against the Trojans due to a hamstring strain.

Notre Dame is now 9-1 under Kelly after a bye week. What about the week after that?
The Irish are 6-3 in such a situation, with two of the losses coming after a second bye week in one season and the third coming last season against Navy.

This may seem a narrow grouping to single out, but it is intended to show whether the bye week’s rest and focus carry over to a second game. For the most part, it appears a typical bye week’s does.

How many hurricane references will this week hold?
Too many. Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren got the first chance to reflect on his victory over Notre Dame a year ago, played in a literal hurricane.

Kelly offered a similar view of that contest.

“We didn’t even look at the film,” he said Tuesday. “It wasn’t even part of our breakdown because it really didn’t give us anything. It was a poorly-designed game plan by me. There was nothing that we really wanted to go back and look at.”

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Results create belief & an injury update

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At some point, a coach’s encouragement isn’t enough. A mantra to have faith in the proceedings — or, as some would say, to trust the process — loses its effectiveness. Eventually, the benefits of hard work need to be seen in a tangible way. When Notre Dame beat USC 49-14 on Saturday, the result provided that proof.

“It was a really good win because it strengthens their belief in how we’re preparing,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “That’s really the only focus that we have, is this team right now. What’s important now is this football team and what they believe.”

With faith turning into belief thanks to the acing of the most-recent litmus test, Notre Dame can acknowledge its rise up the rankings, now up to No. 9 in the still-inconsequential AP top-25 and No. 10 in the equally-meaningless USA Today Coaches Poll. That national acknowledgement is a direct result from an offseason spent working and diligence through 2017’s first seven games.

“All we’ve talked about is being aware of the situation,” Kelly said. “What we’ll be aware of is that for so many months there was plenty of negative criticism out there about us and where we were.

“You’ve got to go out and earn the respect. Now that you’ve got it, you’ve got to stay with what has gotten us here.”

If curious, the Trojans fell to No. 21 in both polls. That drop allowed North Carolina State to move up one slot in each, to No. 14 in the AP and No. 15 in the coaches. Notre Dame hosts the Wolfpack and its six-game winning streak Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

An injury update
Three names land on this list at this point, and it should be recognized this has been an absurdly-healthy season for the Irish. Fifth-year receiver Cam Smith strained his hamstring Wednesday, keeping him out of the victory over USC, but Kelly expects him back to face North Carolina State.

Senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini has been cleared for practice Tuesday after undergoing a surgery to repair a slight meniscus tear Oct. 13. Kelly said he “expects” Martini back against the Wolfpack, though that could fall into the category of Kelly routinely being overly-optimistic about injury timetables.

The Irish coaches and training staff “made a conscious decision” not to play junior running back Dexter Williams until he was 100 percent recovered from an ankle sprain. That was not the case this weekend, but it may be by Saturday.

“We’ve got a lot of big football games, we’re going to need Dexter,” Kelly said. “So expect to see him play a big role in what we do down the stretch here.”

The more backs, the better
Getting running backs healthy served the Notre Dame offense well against USC. For the first time in a long while, sophomore Tony Jones was 100 percent as it pertained to his own ankle sprain. With him full-go, Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long could deploy two back sets with Jones alongside junior Josh Adams. He may be the youngest of the core rushing trio, but Jones also may be the most well-rounded. At 5-foot-11 and 225 pounds, he can block just about any pass-rusher and has the technique to do so, yet he also has the soft hands to count as a dangerous receiving option. Putting him in the backfield with one of the nation’s leading rushers creates a litany of concerns for an opposing defense.

“Tony provides us another dimension,” Kelly said. “… We just think with two guys that are closing in on 220 pounds in that split set, it’s a pretty imposing backfield and gives us another wrinkle within our offense.

“… That formation can be broken out and Tony can be a slot receiver in it. We feel really good about his ability to impact the passing game, as well. So expect to see more of it.”

Kelly on Coney’s performance
With Martini out, junior linebacker Te’von Coney went from a primary but part-time player to a defensive key with a full-time workload. He responded with 11 tackles, leading Notre Dame, including a sack and another tackle for loss while also forcing and recovering a fumble. A few of those tackles even came on special teams, further increasing Coney’s snap count.

“He was outstanding,” Kelly said. “… He played the whole game. Obviously, [he] came off the field when we went dime and nickel, but played that position by himself as well as contributed heavily to special teams. It was his best performance at Notre Dame.”

A convenient weekend to impress
The win over USC always resonates with the Irish fans, and the players recognize the value in beating a brand name of that stature. Partly due to the national status of the contest, the game is always a big recruiting weekend for Notre Dame, as well. This year was no exception.

Thus, a 49-14 erasing of a premiere rival, also a rival on the recruiting trail, can aid multiple purposes.

“You feel a whole lot better talking about a victory in this fashion, especially when you’ve got a number of kids from the West Coast,” Kelly said.

He spent part of Saturday morning meeting with recruits and their families and will spend much of Sunday afternoon doing the same.

“It’s a long weekend, but obviously one that is very profitable in that sense, because we’ve got great kids on campus and it was a great, great Saturday.”