Equanimeous St. Brown

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Questions for the Week: Ankles, Stepherson and NBC Sports Network at 5 p.m. ET

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

Will either, or even both, Josh Adams and Tony Jones be healthy enough to play?
Even if they are, will they?
This past weekend, ankle “stiffness” caught junior running back Josh Adams’ attention during halftime. An immediate X-ray showed nothing of greater concern, but Notre Dame still took the precaution of limiting Adams in the second half of the 38-18 victory at Michigan State.

Sophomore running back Tony Jones sprained his ankle against Boston College on Sept. 16 and did not dress against the Spartans.

The Irish would obviously always prefer to have a full stable of running backs. No Division One FBS opponent warrants a weekend so casual the second-string can comfortably start the game. That said, even if Adams and Jones are healthy enough to compete Saturday, Notre Dame may opt to give them an additional week’s rest, lest those ankle instabilities linger longer than necessary.

Junior Dexter Williams and sophomore Deon McIntosh should be able to bear the load against the RedHawks, especially with the Irish offensive line in front of them.

All this is to say: If Adams and/or Jones do not play this weekend, it is most likely a precautionary measure as much as anything else, but it would still be a notable step forward to see them at least dressed in pads for the occasion.

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson has yet to see the field this season after a freshman debut of 25 catches, 462 yards and five touchdowns. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Is this the week of Kevin Stepherson’s return?
A recap: The week before his freshman season, Stepherson was one of five Notre Dame players arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession.

A week later Stepherson did not catch a pass against Texas, but he did see action. In last year’s second week, Stepherson caught three passes for 35 yards and a touchdown, launching into a freshman season in which he caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns. The first two marks were third among Irish pass-catchers (behind then-sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown and senior Torii Hunter, Jr.). Only St. Brown scored more touchdowns.

Stepherson has not seen the field this season.

Now that you’re caught up, one must wonder, could that final sentence change this week?

Who is handling kickoffs, Justin Yoon or Jonathan Doerer?
Freshman Jonathan Doerer was recruited by the Irish with the immediate intention of turning over kickoff duties to the newcomer, allowing junior Justin Yoon to focus entirely on placekicking duties. When Doerer fatigued a bit toward the end of preseason practice, Yoon retained the kickoff job for the first two weeks of the season.

On his second career kickoff, Doerer knocked it out of bounds, giving Boston College a boost in field position. His next attempt reached the Eagles 17-yard line, then returned for eight yards. Yoon handled the next five kickoffs.

This past weekend, Yoon sent the opening kickoff out of bounds, granting Michigan State a start at the 35-yard line.

Whoever handles kickoffs, gifting 10-15 yards of field possession by booting the ball out of bounds is rather inexcusable. Even if trying to kick to the corner of the end zone to avoid a particular return threat, that job needs to be executed.

Now in his fourth year at Miami (OH), former Notre Dame assistant Chuck Martin (left) has the RedHawks at 2-2 and ready to contend in the MAC. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Will Chuck Martin say only good things about Notre Dame?
Spoiler: Yes.

The Miami head coach, and former Irish assistant and longtime close friend of Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, has already started with the lauding of his former employer. Some samples from Monday morning alone:

“I’m almost 50 years old and I have not rooted against Notre Dame a day in my life.”

“[Kelly] is the best off-field coach in the world.”

More will assuredly come.

Why in the world is Notre Dame playing at 5 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network?
First of all, yes, 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN will be repeated throughout the week as an incessant reminder. Consider this explanation a minion’s attempt at understanding the time and television slot, not a word from anyone corporate.

The President’s Cup is held domestically only once every four years. When it is, its broadcast value increases dramatically due to obvious time zone alignments. This is one of those years. Thus, NBC is not likely to move the golf property from its flagship station. That explains the NBCSN decision.

Why at 5 p.m. ET rather than the usual time, or even a primetime airing? First, to the latter question, Notre Dame will continue to limit the primetime games to no more than two home contests a year. Moving Miami (OH) into one of those slots would remove Georgia or USC from the high-profile position. That would make no sense whatsoever.

As for earlier in the afternoon, NASCAR XFINITY drops a green flag at Dover International Speedway (Delaware) at 2:30 p.m. ET. Moving the Irish back 90 minutes is a far simpler solution than adjusting a long-scheduled race with 95,000 in attendance.

Will USC’s national title dreams take a bit hit Friday night?
The Trojans travel to Washington State for a 10:30 p.m. ET kickoff. The Cougars are four-point underdogs. Given USC’s struggles at home against Texas earlier in the year, it is not unreasonable to think this matchup could prove to be too much for Sam Darnold & Co.

Just how good is Wake Forest?
The Demon Deacons host Florida State at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. Wake Forest is undefeated and exceeding expectations. The Seminoles are winless and desperate.

If the Demon Deacons can find a win (currently 7.5-point underdogs), they will both turn the ACC upside and establish themselves as 2017’s darling upstart.

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Kelly on Wimbush’s accuracy, receivers’ hands & needed secondary improvements

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Notre Dame’s greatest successes this season have come when relying on its running game. It would stand to reason the Irish would turn to their ground attack to set the tone from the outset of a pivotal matchup against a physical opponent. Instead, Notre Dame opened with the pass in its 38-18 victory over Michigan State on Saturday. The first five plays from scrimmage were passing attempts from junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, completing four of them for 62 yards.

This was all very intentional, especially a week after Wimbush struggled with accuracy.

“Getting the quarterback off with some quick throws, some easy throws to get into a rhythm was important,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “I wanted to make sure [offensive coordinator Chip Long] got some openers for [Wimbush] in his first nine plays that were high percentage completions for him to get into a rhythm, which he did.

“… It was orchestrated or planned or constructed that way, whatever word you want to use.”

Wimbush finished 14-of-20 for 173 yards and one touchdown, a marked improvement from his 11-of-24 for 96 yards at Boston College.

“It’s not uncommon when you go through the volume you do in preseason camp and all the throwing that sometimes the ball drops a little bit,” Kelly said. “… [Wimbush] is throwing the ball perfectly.

“We wanted to get him some completions, no question, and we set him up that way.”

A few of Wimbush’s completions were aided by excellent catches by his targets. Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe, junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, junior running back Dexter Williams and sophomore receiver Chase Claypool all made difficult catches. Following the 49-20 victory over the Eagles last week, Kelly had been critical of both Wimbush’s accuracy and the lack of playmaking from the receiver corps.

“I knew that we needed to step up our play in supporting [Wimbush],” Kelly said. “He had to throw it better. We had to catch it better.”

With that in mind, Kelly and the coaching staff made it a point in this week’s practices to remind the receivers a pass needs two participants. The onus was not on only Wimbush to improve.

“There wasn’t a time where if a ball was not caught there was not a comment about how important it is for us to focus on the football and catch that football,” Kelly said.

“… We’ve got some guys that are gaining some confidence out there. I think you’ll see a better rapport as the season goes on here between Brandon and the receivers and confidence grow in that regard.”

Josh Adams & ankle ‘stiffness’
Notre Dame was already without sophomore running back Tony Jones due to a sprained ankle suffered a week ago. In the second half Saturday, junior running back Josh Adams took some time off, as well. Kelly said Adams felt “some stiffness” in his ankle at halftime, which led to a precautionary X-ray. The X-ray did not reveal any issues, but the Irish were content to rely on Williams unless it was “absolutely necessary” to reinsert Adams. With a three-possession Notre Dame lead, that situation never arose.

Adams handled a total of two rushes in the second half, one for a loss of a yard and the second for a three-yard gain. He finished with nine carries for 56 yards.

Room to improve
Michigan State attempted 53 passes, 12 more than the most the Irish had seen yet this year. This was in part due to Notre Dame’s quick and sizable lead, and it was in part the Spartans’ game plan, expecting the Irish to be ready for a known running focus.

Despite limiting the Spartans to only 6.51 yards per pass attempt, the influx of opportunities to defend the pass showed Kelly and his staff improvements waiting to be made in the secondary.

“We have to play with a little bit more of a sense of urgency in terms of down-and-distance, recognizing game situations,” Kelly said. “There is some improvement there for us.

“We have to do a better job with understanding passing off routes, underneath coverage, inside-out on slant routes in terms of down-and-distance.”

In other words, the Notre Dame secondary has yet to genuinely need to know where the first-down line is on a given down. On a second-and-seven, the concern is as much about a 15-yard route as it is a six-yard route. On a third-and-seven, the defensive back needs to be prepared for the seven-yard route more than anything else, expecting the pass to come in that area, while still protecting against the big play.

Exposure to those situations helps build that awareness. Saturday night provided some of that exposure, and now the Irish will set to developing those instincts.

“[It] gave us a real good snapshot of the things we have to focus in on and work to improve this week.”

On Miami of Ohio
If Notre Dame does not make those improvements, Redhawks senior quarterback Gus Ragland is the type of passer who can reap the rewards. Before the season, Kelly often described the first four Irish opponents as physical foes, ground-oriented. Now through those four, the focus will shift somewhat toward defending the pass. Ragland will be the first test.

To date, he has completed 52.1 percent of his passes this season for 881 yards and eight touchdowns compared to two interceptions. Ragland has averaged 7.53 yards per passing attempt.

In a 31-14 win over Central Michigan this weekend, Ragland threw for 217 yards and two touchdowns on only 11-of-19 passing.

The Redhawks are led by former Notre Dame assistant and longtime Kelly confidante Chuck Martin.

“We have a lot of respect for Chuck,” Kelly said. “Obviously I know him quite well. He’ll have his team ready.”

Friday at 4: Four things to learn — Notre Dame at Boston College

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The knee-jerk reaction to Notre Dame’s loss last weekend was to lampoon the offensive line performance. The harsh judgment made sense considering the game’s sealing play came courtesy of a block so missed it would be both efficient and accurate to call it non-existent.

Even fifth-year left tackle and Irish captain Mike McGlinchey focused on that block. After all, he was the one who missed the block and it was his last snap, remaining his last snap until Notre Dame takes the field at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.

“You sit there all weekend and just watch that one play over and over and over again, and you kind of drive yourself insane,” McGlinchey said Tuesday. “But it’s one play. I guess I’ve got to work on the timing of my misses because it was a pretty brutal one.”

The greater concern this week in conversations with Irish coach Brian Kelly has been his receivers. Kelly knows what he has in his offensive line — a veteran group recently bested by one of the nation’s best defensive front sevens. For that matter, a veteran group now looking to redeem itself.

Kelly does not know what he has in his receivers.

What will Chris Finke make of his opportunity as a starter? Will someone else emerge as a viable aerial threat?
Finke saw four targets in the fourth quarter of the Georgia defeat. He caught three of them for 36 yards. Prior to that, the junior receiver had not been targeted so much as once.

That chance would likely have come eventually, but it arrived last weekend due, at least in part, to senior receiver Freddy Canteen suffering a shoulder injury. The injury combined with Finke’s performance earned the former walk-on a starting chance tomorrow.

Finke will not be able to sustain a three catches for 36 yards per quarter rate. (But can you imagine a 12-catch, 144-yard performance? That would silence any remaining Finke doubters.) He should, theoretically, be able to make an obvious impact in a full day’s work. Notre Dame needs him to.

RELATED READING: Offensive line notes, Irish ‘begging’ for No. 2 WR
Questions for the Week: A No. 2 WR, a RT decision & more
Kelly on Notre Dame’s sideline ‘fight,’ Chip Long’s play calling and shuffling WRs
Notre Dame looks for St. Brown to step up AND a No. 2 option, not OR
Kelly on Notre Dame’s WRs and TEs, namely on Claypool and Kmet

Notice how many of this week’s topics concerned the search for a receiver to complement junior Equanimeous St. Brown. (Also notice how few dealt with the offensive line.) This is Finke’s chance to showcase himself as that feature. If he doesn’t do so successfully, Kelly will have no choice but to trot out the next candidate, likely sophomore Chase Claypool.

It made sense to give Canteen a few weeks. Presuming he showed something in preseason practice, even if that something was simply consistent contributions, giving Canteen some time to show that in competition was rational. He had not done so by the time he injured his shoulder, a particular concern for Canteen after he lost more than a season to a shoulder injury when he was at Michigan.

It will make less sense to give multiple-week auditions to the next possibilities. If they had not shown what is needed in practice and the adrenaline of a game does not elicit such, then on to the next. This week is Finke’s moment. What will he make of it?

For that matter, is this the week junior tight end Alizé Mack finally shakes off the rust and shows the physical gifts which had so many encouraged by his return? Entering the season, the concern with Mack was his nagging hamstring injury. Now, the worry is his questionable-to-date hands. His athleticism alone makes him a must-play, but if he cannot be relied on in key red-zone or third-down situations, Notre Dame may need to turn to senior Nic Weishar even more. (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.”

Kelly on Notre Dame’s sideline ‘fight’, Chip Long’s play calling and shuffling WRs

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Perhaps it was during Saturday’s one-possession loss when Irish coach Brian Kelly most saw the differences between the 2017 Notre Dame team and its immediate predecessor, even though the close defeat was awfully reminiscent of a year ago. If that was the case, it took some distance from the moment for Kelly to realize, or at least properly voice, that insight.

“I just loved our sideline,” Kelly said Tuesday while discussing the fourth quarter against Georgia. “Being able to walk up and down the sideline and sense their fight, how they felt about the game. Just a different feeling for me, and one where at the time it’s hard to articulate those thoughts and feelings right after a game.”

Immediately after the 20-19 defeat, Kelly was asked a similar question about the close loss evoking memories from 2016’s dismal 4-8 finish. At the time, Kelly offered only a curt response.

He acknowledged the dynamics of that situation during his weekly press conference previewing the upcoming opponent.

“I probably could have handled it a little bit better, but in the heat of the moment, my thoughts were on the game itself,” Kelly said. “I stay in the present. In the present, I really like the way our team is put together.

“I don’t think much about last year. I think about how our team played on Saturday. So my vision and my eyes are on how that team showed grit and toughness, didn’t back off. We needed to make another play, no question. But our defense gave us three shots with 8:30 and less to go in the game to win it. We needed to make a play.”

That play could have come from slightly different play calling, but Kelly insisted he was pleased with the game called by offensive coordinator Chip Long.

Just like a better block from fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey, better self-discipline by sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara or better play diagnosing from junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush all could have made the difference, a play call or two different from Long might have changed the outcome, as well. Then again, just like McGlinchey’s blocks for most of the evening, Okwara’s overall pass pressure and Wimbush’s touchdown run, Long’s play calls were part of what had Notre Dame so close in the first place.

“We had plenty of opportunities to score enough points to win the game through play calling,” Kelly said. “We would have liked a couple plays back here and there. We could have called a couple of better plays here and there, maybe executed better here and there.

“We look at it as an ‘all’ thing. In other words, we needed to coach a little bit better, make a couple more plays. We walk away as a group, meaning players and coaches alike, that maybe one more good play call, maybe one more good play, and we can win the game.”

Speaking of Okwara’s personal foul, Kelly put the onus on Okwara for giving the referee the opportunity to make the close call.

“We just felt like it’s too close to put an official in that position,” he said. “… It’s just a learning experience for Julian. He felt terrible. We told him, one play does not make this game.”

Finke starts; Canteen injured
The or designation between junior receiver Chris Finke and senior Freddy Canteen has been removed, raising Finke to clear-cut starter status. That is at least in part due to a shoulder injury suffered by Canteen. The Michigan transfer lost more than a season of playing time at his former school due to a shoulder injury, so exceeding caution very well may be exercised in this instance. Kelly described Canteen as “doubtful” this week, hence sophomore Chase Claypool slots in as Finke’s backup with junior Miles Boykin taking Claypool’s position on the two-deep behind junior Equanimeous St. Brown.

(more…)