Cam Smith

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MSU’s man-to-man pass D may allow Notre Dame & Wimbush to rush more; Kelly on resting Adams

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It is not quite an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, but when Notre Dame travels to Michigan State this weekend, the focus will be on what success the Irish can have running the football against a staunch Spartans defense.

Michigan State has hosted Bowling Green and Western Michigan thus far this season, holding the two to a combined 220 rushing yards on 55 attempts (when adjusting for the Spartans’ five sacks for a loss of 37 yards), an average of 4.0 yards per carry.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, has gained 1,023 yards on 127 carries, an average of 8.06 yards per rush.

Something will have to give.

“They do what they do. They’re stingy against the run,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “They’re very physical in the back end. They play tight man coverage. They mix it up very good with their pressure package.

“Led by coach [Mark] Dantonio’s philosophy, they’ve always been really good defensively.”

That “tight man coverage” thought may seem an outlier when discussing Michigan State’s penchant for stopping the run, but it is that man-to-man coverage allowing Dantonio to devote an increased number of bodies to stopping the run. It could also be the item allowing Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to break loose at times.

When those defensive backs, and perhaps even linebackers covering tight ends or running backs, turn to cover a route, they lose site of the quarterback. With a mobile passer such as Wimbush, the backs of those helmets can turn a run-pass option play into a quick run for a worthwhile gain.

“If teams are feeling as though playing man-to-man and turning their back on the quarterback is the way they want to defend us, he’s going to run a lot,” Kelly said. “I know I wouldn’t want to be in man-to-man versus option offenses. It’s the last thing that you want to do, turn your back on an option quarterback and give him all the field to run.

“Teams are starting to figure out how to defend us, too. … If we see more zone coverages, he’s going to have to be able to throw the football. We’ve got to continue to grow as an offense in both those phases.”

The aerial phase of the offense will be determined by any improved accuracy from Wimbush and the emergence of more reliable receivers, an unavoidable topic following a game where that combination managed a meager 96 passing yards.

While Kelly did not excuse the extent of that struggle, he did indicate a slow start to the season might have been expected of Wimbush. This is, after all, his first collegiate action.

“We’re three games into this, he’s only going to feel more comfortable each and every week,” Kelly said. “These conversations that we’re having right now are totally natural for a first-year starter. He’s had a clipboard and a headset, that’s it. Now he’s in the middle of it.

“You’ll continue to see progress from him from week to week.”

That progress notwithstanding, look for the Irish to rely on the run as much as possible this weekend. Along with that will come zone reads, counters, and the rest of the ground game gamut.

“We can’t appease people in terms of what looks good as much as we’re were going to be good at,” Kelly said. “If running the football is what is going to be the common denominator for wins, then that’s what we’re doing. Efficiency is the most important thing.”

To keep him fresh over a long season, Notre Dame has taken to resting junior running back Josh Adams a bit during the week. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Resting Josh Adams six days a week
Wimbush may have scored four rushing touchdowns last week, but junior running back Josh Adams absorbs more of the physical toll of the ground game than any other Notre Dame ballcarrier. To date, Adams has taken 56 attempts for 443 yards.

To keep the bell cow fresh, the Irish coaching staff has reduced some of his workload during the week.

“We’re very cognizant of how we practice him, making sure that he gets the proper work, that he’s sharp when we get to Saturday,” Kelly said. “We let our best players play.

“It’s really incumbent upon us to do a great job of preparing him, but understanding that he’s got to feel really good when we get to Saturdays.”

The return of Cam Smith
Fifth year receiver Cam Smith missed the Boston College game due to a sprained ankle suffered in practice last week. Kelly said he expects Smith to be 100 percent this week.

A recruiting conversation about the NBA
In recent conversations, Kelly has praised the football intelligence of a few players, most notably junior cornerback Shawn Crawford and freshman receiver Michael Young. That may seem a difficult quality to gauge when recruiting 17-year-olds. So, Kelly doesn’t. Instead, he focuses on their broader understanding of and interest in sports.

“I actually like to talk about other sports,” Kelly said. “If they don’t know anything about Kyrie Irving and the trade with the Celtics, I get a little nervous.”

Typically, whenever Kelly mentions a Boston professional sports team, it is meant in jest as a reminder of his fandom allegiances. In this instance, it was an accurate acknowledgement of the biggest non-football sports story of the summer. At least, the biggest in this country.

“Those that understand sports, whether it be basketball, football, whatever they follow, other sports other than football itself, they generally have an understanding of the games,” Kelly said. “There are so many carryovers with other sports.

“I get a little nervous when somebody doesn’t know anything about any other sport.”

Questions for the Week: Ankles, Claypool and Notre Dame’s history at Spartan Stadium

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As always, these are questions with answers likely to come before Saturday night’s kickoff …

Will Cam Smith be healthy enough to get back on the field?
The fifth-year receiver suffered a sprained ankle in practice last week, limiting his reps throughout the week and keeping him from playing Saturday, per Irish coach Brian Kelly. That absence may have held more of an effect than was anticipated by anyone.

Certainly, Notre Dame’s receivers totaling three catches for 11 yards is not solely a reflection of Smith not being on the field. It is a sign of bigger issues, but that does not mean Smith would not have aided the cause. With his institutional knowledge of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme from their days together at Arizona State, Smith has been consistent. His seven catches for 54 yards come from running clean, disciplined routes.

Getting him back onto the field could alleviate a slight bit of junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s accuracy issues. By no means would this eradicate the concern entirely, but even a small step in the right direction would be a welcome trend for the Irish at this point.

If Smith remains sidelined, did Chase Claypool do enough to maintain his spot as a starter?
Kelly answered this question Sunday, but it had already been worked into this concept’s draft and emphasizing it seems a valid decision.

Claypool will continue to see time, though more so at the boundary receiver position than the slot spot he worked at throughout spring and preseason practices. Of those three catches for 11 yards the receivers managed against Boston College, Claypool accounted for two receptions and eight yards.

“He was assignment correct,” Kelly said. “We saw him really grow in the areas that we wanted him to grow in.”

Along with Claypool, there was also some Michael Young innuendo last week. Will the depth chart now reflect that?
When Kelly discussed coming changes at receiver before the trip out east, he mentioned Claypool by name. He also seemed to imply another unexpected option could emerge.

“Guys are going to get banged up and we’re going to call on what I think will be outstanding depth at our wide receiver position,” Kelly said Thursday. “But we really do have to start to feature some guys that might not have all the experience but have a higher ceiling.”

At that point, Kelly knew Smith was injured, though perhaps he was still questionable to play. Kelly also presumably knew senior Freddy Canteen would need season-ending shoulder surgery this week. Those two bits could explain the first half of that paragraph.

The second half suggests Claypool would have company in the inexperienced with a “higher ceiling” category. With sophomore Javon McKinley intended to preserve a year of eligibility this season, freshman Michael Young is the most-likely candidate.

That presumption could be quickly confirmed in the Notre Dame depth chart this week.

How badly is Tony Jones’ ankle sprained?
Exactly a week ago, this piece wondered, “Through two games, are the Irish really still this healthy?” Through three games, the answer has become no.

Sophomore running back Tony Jones sprained his ankle against Boston College, only x-rays confirmed no further damage. As a running back, that injury can obviously be more than a nuisance and waiting for Jones to return to full health before playing him makes sense. If that takes longer than a week, it should lead to a bit more playing time for junior Dexter Williams. (more…)

Kelly on Notre Dame’s WRs and TEs, namely on Claypool and Kmet

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Let’s not call it a guarantee. Let’s call it, intentional foreshadowing.

Irish coach Brian Kelly made it clear he expects to see some new contributors at receiver this weekend when Notre Dame visits Boston College. (Again, kickoff has been moved to 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.)

“From a coaching standpoint, the first move is to settle into where these guys can best help us,” Kelly said Thursday. “Then I think everything flows from there. That’s the best I can give you on that. I think after this weekend, that question will clear itself up a little bit better.”

Through two games, the Irish have struggled to find a second target behind junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. For that matter, they have also yet to break St. Brown loose as desired, finding him for only six catches and 96 yards thus far.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame looks for St. Brown to step up AND a No. 2 option, not OR

Fifth-year senior and Arizona State transfer Cam Smith leads the Irish with seven receptions and his 54 yards is second to St. Brown’s total among the receivers. (Junior running back Josh Adams has more yards, 60, on six receptions and junior tight end Alizé Mack does, as well, with 58 on four catches.)

“We can’t take reps away from [St. Brown], and Cam’s played a lot on the outside,” Kelly said, setting up the difficult decision he and offensive coordinator Chip Long must make about where to insert the next option.

With those two out wide, the natural move is to find a piece at slot, most likely junior Chris Finke, who, coincidentally, is expected to get his first start this week. If simply looking for the next most-dangerous playmaker, that may be sophomore Chase Claypool, the only other name mentioned specifically by Kelly.

“We have to settle on where are we going to play certain guys?” he said. “We’re kind of in a flux. Where does Claypool fit? Here’s a young receiver that just needs some seasoning, some time. Is he an inside guy? An outside guy?

“… Quite frankly, we’ve made a decision and I don’t want to tell you what it’s going to be because I think that would compromise us a little bit.”

The only further clue Kelly offered indicated Claypool may be joined by freshman Michael Young. Whether that is the case or not, Kelly insisted it will be apparent after the tilt versus the Eagles.

“After this weekend, everybody is going to have a clear view as to the guys that need to be out on the field more and what our direction is going to be,” he said. “We still need the depth. We still need the guys we have. Guys are going to get banged up and we’re going to call on what I think will be outstanding depth at our wide receiver position.

“We really do have to start to feature some guys that might not have all that experience but have a higher ceiling.”

Finke has caught three passes for 36 yards this season, Claypool has one 16-yard reception and Young only a four-yarder.

Junior tight end Alizé Mack has yet to be the vertical threat Notre Dame expected he would be entering the season. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

A similar decision at tight end
Notre Dame has a similar quandary at tight end. A number of possible talents compete for limited playing time, and with Mack seeming to struggle to date, should one of the younger threats get a bigger chance?

“They’ve all graded out very well in terms of blocking and catching the football,” Kelly said. “We want to be a little more consistent, certainly with a couple drops here and there.”

Namely, freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet both appear to be nowhere near considering preserving a year of eligibility. Can one of their roles be increased?

“You’re going to continue to see at least three and then a specialist with Brock [as a fullback],” Kelly said. “Cole is the kind of guy who has great athletic ability but we don’t want to duplicate that because then we’re pulling away from someone that has similar traits.”

A possible kickoff change
Before the season, Notre Dame expected freshman Jonathan Doerer to handle kickoff duties, allowing junior Justin Yoon to focus on placekicking. Just before the season opener, Kelly announced Yoon would handle both for the immediate future to allow Doerer to regain some freshness, having hit something of a freshman wall. That immediate future may be coming to a close soon.

“I’m going to sit down with [special teams coordinator Brian Polian] when we get into Boston and we’ll make that decision,” Kelly said. “Here’s what I can tell you, [Doerer] had a really good week.”

Questions for the Week: A No. 2 WR, a RT decision & more

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A loss brings questions, even — perhaps especially — a one-point loss to a top-15 opponent. Most of those questions, though, will be answered on the field. Some, however, might be resolved before then.

Will a second receiver emerge behind Irish junior Equanimeous St. Brown?
More exactly, will junior Chris Finke move up the depth chart? Even that query, though, leaves room to evade the point, considering Finke is already listed as an “or” option along with senior Freddy Canteen in the slot. That two-letter loophole means Finke has been considered a starter, or co-starter, all season.

Finke finished Saturday with three catches for 36 yards while Canteen did not pull in any. Only one Notre Dame receiver had more receptions than the former walk-on, graduate student Cam Smith with four gaining 44 yards.

“Cam has made a couple of plays,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “We know what Cam can do, but we need other guys to step up and show some consistency.”

Finke could be that other guy. Removing a two-letter qualifier from the depth chart this week would indicate his role is going to expand, arguably deservedly so. At that point, perhaps opposing defenses will stop focusing so much coverage on St. Brown, part of the cause of interception such as the one pictured above.

Along with this conversation, sophomore Kevin Stepherson warrants mention. It may be doubtful he returns to the fold this week, but if/whenever he does, he will immediately be part of the search for St. Brown’s complement.

Will a decision be declared at right tackle?
The Notre Dame coaching staff, mainly Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, would likely prefer to see sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey rotate snaps for another week or two before settling on one or the other to lead the way the rest of the season. By no means did getting beat by Georgia’s talented defensive line reveal either Kraemer or Hainsey as the clear-cut better right tackle.

Nonetheless, it would not be too shocking to see one of the two named the right tackle moving forward. With some criticism already directed toward the offensive line — some of it justly and some of it reactionary — this could be a ripe moment to make that decision. Consider it something of a parallel to a Friday afternoon news dump.

On a pure-football level, giving the nod to Hainsey could fit in line with developing better pass protection, something Kelly discussed after reviewing Saturday’s film.

“What we have to do better is we have to sustain box and be more consistent in pass protection,” he said. “What we learned is we’ve got to obviously go back and be better coaching the fundamentals and we have to be better at our techniques.” (more…)

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Offensive line notes; Irish ‘begging’ for No. 2 WR

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Mike McGlinchey may have put Notre Dame’s loss Saturday night entirely on his own shoulders for a missed block on the final Irish snap, but Brian Kelly disagrees with that sentiment.

The Notre Dame coach felt no need to specifically console his fifth-year left tackle after the 20-19 defeat to Georgia, largely because that late-game mistake was just one of many in a game of 60 minutes.

“I’ve never felt like there’s one play that determines a game,” Kelly said Sunday. “There were a number of things that — if we could have made a run on the third down on the series before, if we don’t have a late hit, if we make a play on that third down flip with [sophomore defensive end] Daelin Hayes, a better call here or there offensively. … I’ve never felt there’s one singular play.”

Bulldogs senior defensive end Davin Bellamy’s fumble-causing sack ended any Irish hopes of a comeback. How Bellamy did that is far from complicated: He simply beat McGlinchey with a pass rush.

“Their guy was better on that play,” Kelly said. “That’s why, when we get in that moment, our guys have to believe that their training has put them in a position to obviously make that block and be there for him.”

Kelly struggled to assess the Notre Dame offensive line as a whole, presumably not wanting to oversimplify an undoubtedly complex evaluation. He did acknowledge the pass protection difficulties, giving up three sacks of junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

“What we have to do better is we have to sustain box and be more consistent in pass protection,” Kelly said before adding another piece to that element of the game. “… When we run our offense, a lot of the decisions post-snap are based on what the quarterback is seeing.

“Whether he’s giving it out, pulling it, checking it to the other side, sometimes those decisions ae left up to the post-snap reads. Brandon is learning those things. Going against Georgia, that’s a pretty good defense to learn a lot [from].”

In a departure from a week ago and all of last season, junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown was not the Irish quarterback’s primary target. Certainly, Wimbush would have preferred to connect with his most dangerous receiver more often than twice for 16 yards, but the Bulldogs made preventing such a priority. (more…)