Tony Jones

Associated Press

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Recover, relax, recruit and ready for USC (and Navy)

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With a week off before hosting USC, Notre Dame’s to-do list is filled with the obvious: Get healthy, rest up and get ready for one of the more difficult second halves of the season in the country.

The most pressing piece of that first category — health and recovery — junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush should take first-team snaps in practice Wednesday, per Irish coach Brian Kelly. Notre Dame has today (Sunday) off, as usual, and will spend Monday only in the weight and film rooms. With Tuesday an added off day thanks to the bye week, Kelly expects the number of days with such a focus on rehab to be enough for Wimbush.

To be clear, in no uncertain terms, with no ambiguity, Wimbush remains the Irish starting quarterback despite sophomore Ian Book leading the way to a 33-10 victory at North Carolina on Saturday.

“Brandon is our starter,” Kelly said. “Ian did a great job coming in while Brandon wasn’t healthy, but no.”

Senior right guard Alex Bars suffered a “low-grade ankle sprain” against the Tar Heels. That should be the only other injury Notre Dame may worry about in two weeks. Naturally, the Irish will spend plenty of time these next two weeks tending to the ankles of junior running backs Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and sophomore running back Tony Jones. None of them are 100 percent, but all could and would play if Notre Dame had a game scheduled this week, Kelly said.

“We also need to get some guys that are banged up some rest and rehab,” he said. “That’s very, very important as we get ready for this big push for the next six weeks.”

When in practice this week, the Irish defense will focus on more than USC. As has been the case in many years during Kelly’s tenure, Notre Dame will spend some of the bye week getting introduced to the triple-option scheme run by Navy, even though the Irish will not see that attack until Nov. 18.

Some of the coaching staff will hit the road Tuesday to begin recruiting for a few days, while the rest of the staff will do so Thursday after practice. The players will then have the weekend off, an undoubtedly welcomed respite considering this week is mid-terms week, making it only a physical bye in its own way.

Upon return, Kelly knows what awaits Notre Dame in the second half of the season. If looking at the Associated Press top 25 poll released today, five of the six coming Irish opponents are ranked: in chronological order — USC at No. 13, North Carolina State at No. 20, unranked Wake Forest, No. 11 Miami, No. 25 Navy and No. 23 Stanford. The Irish are ranked No. 16 in the inconsequential poll, while previous opponents Georgia (No. 4) and Michigan State (No. 21) make it seven foes on the listing.

“We’ve got to coach better and our players have to play better in the second half because we’re going to have five of our next six opponents ranked currently,” Kelly said. “Pleased with where we are at the halfway point, but this is not where we want as a destination.”

Things We Learned: Notre Dame can turn to Book, though may prefer not to

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For at least a day, No. 21 Notre Dame could survive without junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. Testing that fate long-term might be a riskier proposition.

Irish sophomore quarterback Ian Book started in Wimbush’s stead during Notre Dame’s 33-10 victory at North Carolina on Saturday. Book completed only 17-of-31 passes for 146 yards and one score, also throwing two interceptions and rushing for 47 yards on 11 carries.

Those statistics certainly qualify as underwhelming — especially the 4.7 yards per passing attempt, compared to Wimbush’s 5.9 to date — but Book did not need to put up dazzling numbers to qualify as a one-off success. He needed to avoid crippling mistakes, he needed to keep the Irish offense on-task and he needed to make a play here or there. That much, Book did.

“He’s a very confident kid,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He overthrew a couple of balls here and there. For a first start, I was really pleased with what he did today. To win on the road is hard to do. The ideal situation is to start at home in a more comfortable environment but I thought he went in and did some really good things for us.”

Even the two interceptions were tolerable. One came from Notre Dame’s own three-yard line. Without many options available, Book heaved a pass downfield for junior receiver Chris Finke. Slightly overthrown, it gifted possession to the Tar Heels at the 47-yard line. Essentially, it served as a punt without the risk of a punt block in the end zone.

The other pick came when Book overthrew fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe. That mistake cost the Irish a red zone opportunity, but it may have been the result of Book’s inexperience more than anything else. To the untrained eye, it looked as if Book expected Smythe to run the route a yard deeper, but Smythe gauged the coverage slightly differently.

Neither turnover qualified as “crippling.”

Wimbush should be back against USC in two weeks. (More on that, and other injuries, in a bit.) Presuming that is the case, Book served the spot starter role well. More than that, though, he showed the potential to carry the load down the line.

His arm is not as strong as Wimbush’s, few are, but it was more than able to get passes into tight windows. Some of that can be attributed to accuracy, a rare sight around the Irish offense with Wimbush at the helm.

Notre Dame frequently got sophomore quarterback and first-time starter Ian Book out of the pocket Saturday to simplify the reads in front of him as well as to play to Book’s strengths as a mobile passer. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Book lacks Wimbush’s big-play running ability, but he was mobile enough to throw on the move. That skill, in fact, played a part in Notre Dame’s 25 first-half passes. From the outset, Kelly wanted to play to Book’s strengths.

“We wanted to mostly take advantage of some of the play-action opportunities to complement our run game,” Kelly said. “It was going to be a run-centered game for us. Getting some high-percentage throws, on the move, where he didn’t have to sit in the pocket and do progression reads across the field.”

The first touchdown pass of sophomore quarterback Ian Book’s career was also the first touchdown at Notre Dame for fifth-year senior and Arizona State graduate transfer Cam Smith. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Those play calls served to simplify Book’s reads and to tilt the field toward his favor. Without Wimbush’s speed, Book’s rollouts-turned-scrambles were never going to gain 30-plus yards, but he frequently took advantage of open space available. Most notably, he ran for nine yards on a second-and-10 from the North Carolina 20-yard-line at the end of the first quarter. Two plays later, Book found fifth-year receiver Cam Smith for the first score of the day. That scramble kept the drive moving forward, preventing a worrisome third-and-long.

Book worked through his progressions well. He knew where his safety valves were. With more time, those skills would only grow, and he would better understand what Smythe sees in a defense.

Book did not play so well Notre Dame hopes he gets that playing time in the near future, but he did play well enough the Irish won’t need to panic should that situation arise.

Wimbush should be back after the bye week. As should everybody else.
Kelly claimed he debated playing Wimbush up until Saturday. The starter looked good Friday, very much wanting to play, but on game day, Kelly did not see the requisite “bounce” in Wimbush’s step as he recovers from a grade one right foot strain.

“Today he just didn’t have it in him,” Kelly said. “He just didn’t feel great. He didn’t have any bounce. Yesterday he looked good in our walk-through preparation and he had a lot of energy. It went back-and-forth.”

In other words, Wimbush should be good-to-go with a bye week’s rest ahead of him. The same goes for junior running back Dexter Williams. He did not even dress for the contest, following the same timeline as sophomore running back Tony Jones did a week ago coming back from an ankle sprain Kelly has compared to Williams’ now.

Junior running back Josh Adams had another short day, partly due to dehydration. Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown also saw limited action thanks to cramping. Anyone worried about senior linebacker Nyles Morgan need not do so: The captain suffered a stinger in the third quarter and was back to full health by game’s end. None of those should linger past, well, past Sunday, frankly.

Senior right tackle Alex Bars suffered an ankle sprain, but Kelly made it clear it was not a high ankle sprain. Traditionally speaking, that is considered a good thing.

But if Bars is out, Hunter Bivin will not be the answer.
When Bars first went to the sideline, fifth-year offensive lineman Hunter Bivin stepped in at right guard, as would be expected. Then Bivin committed two penalties within three plays to knock Notre Dame out of an ideal first-and-goal from the four-yard line. His day ended.

The Irish shifted sophomore Tommy Kraemer from his timeshare at right tackle, allowing freshman Robert Hainsey to take over those duties full-time.

This personnel development is worth remembering for two reasons: Obviously, if the ankle plagues Bars down the line, this will be the alignment deployed. Beyond that, it speaks to Hainsey’s rapid development. If he could not be counted on at right tackle, Kraemer would need to remain there. Bivin would then be the best option available at right guard, no matter how inconsistent he may be.

In the long-run, an argument can be made Kraemer’s best future is at guard. Hainsey’s emergence makes that more of a possibility, one that just might bring the beginnings of a consideration of a smile to Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s face.

Hey, look, that’s Alizé Mack chipping away.

Junior tight end Alizé Mack moved the chains on four of his six catches during Notre Dame’s 33-10 win at North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The junior tight end was targeted 10 times, catching six of them for 38 yards. Just more than three dozen yards and no scores may sound like another underwhelming stat line. That would be too simple of a reading, and an incorrect one.

Four of Mack’s catches yielded first downs, including a fourth-and-one conversion and a third-and-two conversion. This is the consistent production expected of a tight end presenting the target Mack does.

Entering the weekend, he had caught six passes of fewer than 15 yards. Those receptions hold merit, much merit. At North Carolina, Mack matched that total.

Chunks of 32 or 33 yards may be preferable, but they cannot be counted on. Gains of seven, six and even three yards are the plays that keep drives moving down the field.

All good things must end.

CHAPEL HILL, NC – OCTOBER 07: Nick Polino #58 of the North Carolina Tar Heels dives for a fumble forced by Te’von Coney #4 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the game at Kenan Stadium on October 7, 2017 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Two stats had become the preferred methods of illustrating just how different these Irish are from last year’s version. Notre Dame had scored on all 22 trips to the red zone this season, and the Irish had scored touchdowns after 10 of 11 forced turnovers, the one exception coming less than a minute before halftime.

Both storylines became cluttered this weekend. A trip to the red zone resulted in one of Book’s aforementioned interceptions. That stat line now stands at scores on 24 of 25 trips with 21 touchdowns. It remains hardly something to scoff at.

Of the three Tar Heels turnovers, only one resulted in any Notre Dame points, and that was just a field goal. Nonetheless, the Irish have now outscored their opponents off turnovers by a whopping margin of 73-10.

C.J. Holmes joins the running back fray.

Junior running back Deon McIntosh played a key part in Notre Dame maintaining possession for 12:16 of the fourth quarter. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

If sophomore running back Deon McIntosh continues to turn mop-up duty into a starring role — taking 12 carries for 124 yards and two touchdowns against the Tar Heels — then freshman C.J. Holmes will be stuck as the fifth running back on Notre Dame’s depth chart. However, a week ago that designation would have been nominal only. Now, it is a sincere description.

Holmes took eight carries for 32 yards in his first collegiate action, also participating on at least three of the Irish kicking units.

With Adams, Williams and Jones all tending to battered ankles already, Holmes may be needed yet this year, fifth running back or not.

Notre Dame QB Wimbush to be a game-time decision

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Brandon Wimbush may or may not start for Notre Dame this weekend, but he will make the trip to North Carolina and — worst-case scenario — be available in a backup role, per Irish coach Brian Kelly.

Wimbush suffered a grade one right foot strain at some point in Notre Dame’s 52-17 victory over Miami (OH) this past weekend. After spending most of Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s practices on the sidelines, the junior quarterback took some snaps Thursday.

“He’s in a good place,” Kelly said afterward. “We got two more days. He’ll get some more rehab. He’s where we [had hoped] he would be. We expect more progress to be made in the next couple of days.”

Wimbush did upper body work Tuesday along with some stretching and throwing, but nothing more than that. Kelly said Wednesday consisted of some work with the running backs and more throwing. It was not until Thursday that Wimbush became more active, taking some repetitions with the first-team offense.

Kelly described Wimbush as still “day-to-day” and whether or not he will start will be decided Saturday before the Irish take on the Tar Heels at 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC). If not Wimbush, Kelly would turn to sophomore Ian Book. If Book were then to be hurt, Wimbush has already shown himself healthy enough to be able to step in for such a role.

“If [Wimbush] doesn’t start, he’s going to be able to do something, absolutely.”

The decision of whether to start Wimbush or not will not be made with a view past the Tar Heels, even with a bye week coming before USC visits.

“We’re all in on this game,” Kelly said. “It’s not like we played our rival last week, so we’re not emotionally drained, and we’re off next week. It’s all in this week. … This is a game we need to win. It’s all in.”

Senior Montgomery VanGorder remains the third option at quarterback.

On Book
Kelly devotes about 40 percent of practice to the backup quarterback even when everyone is healthy, so Book has received plenty of opportunities to showcase his talents, most notably his understanding of the offense.

“He’s very accurate with the football,” Kelly said. “He’s got a good grasp of the offense, and he elevates the play of the guys around him. … Every time he’s gotten to scrimmage with his unit, he’s been effective in moving the ball.”

Book completed 3-of-5 passes against the RedHawks for 51 yards. This would be his first career start.

On RB health and the possibility of C.J. Holmes
Overall, Notre Dame’s running backs are about as healthy as they have been in a few weeks. Sophomore Tony Jones and junior Dexter Williams continue to play through sprained ankles, with Jones a bit further ahead of Williams in terms of health at the moment, Kelly said.

Freshman C.J. Holmes may see his first collegiate action in an effort to offer those ankles — including junior Josh Adams’ two “cranky” ankles — a bit of a reprieve. Holmes underwent shoulder surgery during spring practice, though fully healthy now. At the very least, Holmes will contribute on special teams.

“We brought him up with us with the intent that we think he can contribute,” Kelly said. “… We wouldn’t bring him up with us if we didn’t feel he was ready to play physically and if he didn’t have the skill set necessary to win with him. We’ll see how the game plays out, but he’s with us to contribute this year and to help us win.”

On North Carolina’s injuries
Considering much of Kelly’s press conference Thursday was spent discussing injuries, it may raise an eyebrow to hear him offer sympathy toward the Tar Heels as their injured list grows. The difference between the two is simple: Kelly is considering whether to play players through sprained ankles and strained feet. North Carolina does not have that option. Its injured are out for the year.

RELATED READING: And In That Corner … and the injured Tar Heels of North Carolina

“The team we’re playing, God bless them,” Kelly said. “I’ve been in their shoes. They’ve lost a ton of starters.

“We’re healthy. We’ve got an ankle here, a bump here, and a bruise here. But we’re a healthy football team. [Kelly then knocked on the wooden podium he stood behind.] I’m happy where we’re at. We’ve been in a lot worse straits than we are right now.”

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Irish take to self-scouting weekly; (lack of) injury update

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Much was made during the preseason about Notre Dame’s three new coordinators — four if including a new director of strength and conditioning — and Irish coach Brian Kelly’s overall revamping of the program. Rightfully so. A smaller change came into effect during the season, and it may be having an equally-effective impact.

In years past, Notre Dame self-scouted during the free time provided by the midseason bye week. The Irish coaching staff now goes through the exercise each week. The five- or six-week period leading up to the evaluation in the past allowed for some tendencies to carry over for half a season, perhaps an imbalance in left/right aligned formations or a second-and-long propensity to throw across the middle. (Those are just hypotheticals to illustrate the point, to be clear.)

Offensive analyst Jeff Quinn leads the effort. Obviously, between scouting other teams, working through practices and studying film with players, there is only so much time to go around for coaching staff, hence the luxury of having Quinn around. (And that is not to even mention the time spent recruiting.) In his third year at Notre Dame, Quinn previously spent 21 years at Kelly’s side from Grand Valley State to Central Michigan to Cincinnati before taking over as the head coach at Buffalo when Kelly headed to South Bend in 2010.

“[Quinn] does an incredible job of really diving deep into all of our formations and plays, right and left tendencies,” Kelly said Sunday. “It’s just been a thorough report that’s allowed us to really be very intentional in terms of play calls and setting things up. It’s helped us quite a bit this year.”

As a result, the Irish vary their offensive looks more than may have been seen in Septembers past.

“We have some pretty good balance in what we’re trying to do offensively,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s 52-17 victory over Miami (OH) on Saturday. “… Moving the tight end a lot, moving it, changing strengths. Moving the back opposite of where the tight end is, doing a lot of things that now move your front.

“We’re in a different place, so it’s been effective for us.”

Defensively, looking ahead is aided by director of scouting Bill Rees, father of quarterbacks coach Thomas Rees, looking into opponents’ personnel groupings, etc.

On bringing in Ian Book
The Irish held a 31-point lead at halftime Saturday, yet junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush still handled all the snaps in the third quarter. Rather than bring in sophomore Ian Book and get him an earlier chance to complete his first career pass, Notre Dame wanted to see one or two additional complete drives from Wimbush.

“We wanted to clean up a couple of things,” Kelly said Saturday. “We really went to throwing the football for Brandon. We wanted to get through some passing game things that we hadn’t gotten to in the last couple of weeks.”

That effort was not very successful. Wimbush went 1-of-3 for a loss of five yards in those two third-quarter drives, though one of the incompletions very well could have been a touchdown in the hands of Irish senior tight end Nic Weishar. Wimbush also rushed for 22 yards.

The first drive resulted in a punt after a three-and-out while the second concluded with a field goal attempt clanging off the left upright.

“We wanted to run some of the plays that we practiced throughout the week,” Wimbush said. “Some of it was new stuff, some of it carried over from Michigan State. They kind of ran a similar defense.

“To be able to go out there and throw the ball against any defense is good practice.”

A diving catch by junior receiver Chris Finke highlighted sophomore quarterback Ian Book’s fourth-quarter performance Saturday during Notre Dame’s 52-17 victory over Miami (OH). (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

When Book took over in the fourth quarter, he completed 3-of-5 passes for 51 yards, highlighted by a 48-yard completion to junior receiver Chris Finke. Book also rushed for 37 yards on three carries. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson had the honor of catching Book’s first career completion, though the play lost three yards. It was Stepherson’s first reception of the season.

On continued health
Kelly said he expects all of Notre Dame’s running backs to be available and essentially fully healthy at North Carolina next weekend. Junior Josh Adams could have returned against the RedHawks, despite “mildly” spraining an ankle. Sophomore Tony Jones did not enter the concussion protocol after a second quarter helmet-to-helmet hit, per Kelly, after an eye scan cleared him to return to competition. Junior Dexter Williams spent the weekend on the sidelines nursing his own sprained ankle, but Kelly said he should be cleared by Tuesday’s practice.

Sophomore safety Devin Studstill did not play against Miami, but Kelly described it as a precautionary measure to be sure the Irish would have a full array of safeties ready for the Tar Heels’ up-tempo offense. Kelly said Studstill was at about 80 percent this week.

Adams moves up Notre Dame record books while awaiting national attention

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Rarely do touchbacks make anything in football more dramatic, but if Notre Dame’s 52-17 victory over Miami (OH) on Saturday had opened with one, then Irish junior running back Josh Adams’ 73-yard run on the evening’s second play would have been even more notable.

Instead, the opening score left Adams one yard short of moving into a tie for ninth place of Notre Dame’s career rushing leaders. The two additional yards a touchback would have granted that touchdown would have moved Adams past George Gipp.

Yes, that George Gipp.

Adams gained those yards, and five more, on the second Irish drive. His 159 yards by the end of the night moved him up to eighth on that career rushing list with 2,426 yards. If an aggravated ankle had not cut short Adams’ chances in the first quarter, he would have almost certainly passed Cierre Wood (2009-12) for seventh place, needing only 21 more yards for that mark. Frankly, he was likely to gain many more than 21 additional yards.

“He would have had 350 if he had played the second half,” RedHawks coach and former Notre Dame assistant Chuck Martin said afterward. “He’s really good. He’s been really good here.

“He tends to break off big runs if you give him [space]. He’s big and strong, but he runs through those — you can’t really make him miss — he runs through arm tackles. … He could have set some records today.”

If Adams can stay healthy, the days for those records will come. (More on those pursuits in a few paragraphs.) This was the second week in a row his night was ended prematurely by an ankle concern, though Adams said this week was not the same ankle as last week. Irish coach Brian Kelly also said Adams could have returned to the game, but Notre Dame instead opted to exercise caution considering the sizable lead it already had at the time. When Adams injured his ankle, the Irish led 21-7 and junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush connected with sophomore receiver Chase Claypool for another touchdown a play later.

Despite those nagging injuries, Adams has rushed with nearly unparalleled efficiency this season. Including this weekend, he has taken 73 carries for 658 yards, a 9.0 yards per rush average. When compared to some of the nation’s most prolific and/or best running backs, Adams certainly holds his own. He now has the fourth-most rushing yardage this season in the country, behind Stanford’s Bryce Love, San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny and North Texas’ Jeffery Wilson.

Including Saturday, Love has rushed for 1,088 yards on 98 carries, an 11.1 yards per rush average. Penny has rushed for 823 yards on 116 carries, a 7.1 yards per rush average. Wilson comes in just ahead of Adams with 666 yards on 93 carries, a 7.2 yards per rush average.

Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is the widespread Heisman Trophy favorite at this point. Including Saturday, he has rushed for 564 yards on 86 carries, a 6.6 yards per rush average.

The point here is, Adams has played three Power Five programs and two Group of Five conference title contenders. (Well, at least Temple was supposed to be one.) His stats nonetheless stand up against anyone else’s in the country. Kelly outright compared Adams to Barkley.

“I used Barkley’s name, that guy is a jump-cut special player at full speed,” Kelly said. “Josh is going to run over you and break it.

“[Offensive coordinator Chip Long] and the play calling, the way we’ve constructed this offense, it’s a great fit.”

Projecting Adams’ national standing is an entirely subjective exercise. Projecting his landing spot in the Notre Dame record books is not. That is simply statistics and math.

Adams has averaged 131.6 yards per game this season, even with troubled ankles. If he were to maintain that rate over the seven remaining regular season games plus a presumed bowl game, he would finish 2017 as the No. 3 career rusher in Irish history, passing Vagas Ferguson (1976-79) by five yards.

Such a pace would equate to 1,711 yards this season, shattering Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 set in 1979.

Those do not seem to be unrealistic imaginings.

Projecting even further, if Adams were to maintain health and return for a senior season, presuming one bowl game in both 2017 and 2018, he would need to average 90.1 yards per game to surpass his position coach and school career leader Autry Denson’s mark of 4,318 yards, set between 1995 and 1998.

To give some idea of how quickly those numbers can change, per a conversation with Notre Dame reporter Mike Monaco during Saturday’s pregame, Adams needed to average 93 yards per game to break Denson’s record before the 159 yards gained against Miami. (This scribe pauses to check Monaco’s math. It checks out to the tune of 93.3 yards per game.)

Whether or not he sets those marks, Adams’ influence extends beyond these outrageous statistics.

“He’s been doing this for two-and-a-half years now,” Wimbush said. “To have a seasoned vet, even though he’s only a junior, it makes things a lot easier. Coach Kelly is right in saying that [Adams is comparable to the Barkleys of the nation]. Josh is just going to have some more things to prove the rest of the season.”

More running back health

Injuries have slowed Josh Adams’ successes this season far more than opposing defenses have. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Kelly said, flat out, Adams could have returned Saturday. The fact that he was available for media interviews following the game indicates he was rather healthy, all things considered.

Sophomore running back Tony Jones took a hit to the helmet in the second quarter and did not return, but Kelly said Jones was not ruled out of the game. Instead, thanks to the scoreboard cushion, the Irish staff simply opted for caution. With junior Dexter Williams ruled out of the game in a Saturday decision due to a sprained ankle, Notre Dame turned to sophomore Deon McIntosh.

McIntosh finished with 47 yards on 12 carries, leading the Irish in rushing attempts for the second week in a row.

Kelly said Williams should be 100 percent by the time Notre Dame heads to North Carolina.