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Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Claypool injured & out; Kelly on Wimbush’s mechanics & mental makeup

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Notre Dame will be without sophomore receiver Chase Claypool in its Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl matchup with No. 17 LSU. Irish coach Brian Kelly announced Saturday that Claypool will have shoulder surgery this week to repair a joint injured in practice last week. Claypool should be fully recovered before spring practices commence.

“One of those unintended injuries in a one-on-one drill where he goes up for a ball and lands on his shoulder the wrong way,” Kelly said. “… If this happens in the middle of the season, he misses five, six, seven games. On the positive side, he misses one game and he’s back full strength going into the spring.”

For stretches of the regular season, Claypool was Notre Dame’s most-consistent receiver. He finishes 2017 with 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns, highlighted by his nine-catch, 180-yard, one-score performance against Wake Forest.

RELATED READING: Claypool’s drops perhaps a harbinger of Notre Dame success to come

Without Claypool, Kelly expects to move junior Equanimeous St. Brown into the field receiver role and utilize junior Miles Boykin more in St. Brown’s usual spot, the boundary receiver position. Sophomore Kevin Stepherson will certainly factor in more than Boykin in any two-receiver sets.

Fifth-year receiver Cam Smith is also back to full health after a hamstring issue hindered the end of his season.

On Wimbush, mechanics and mental makeup
Whoever the receiver(s), junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush will be the one looking for them. Wimbush struggled through most of 2017, but the final three games emphasized those difficulties. As the Irish finished the season 1-2, Wimbush completed 30-of-67 passes (44.78 percent) for 532 yards (177.33 yards per game) and five touchdowns with four interceptions.

Those struggles led Kelly to declare Wimbush his bowl game starter immediately after the season finale, a loss at Stanford. Kelly doubled down and then some on that sentiment Saturday.

“He struggled in the last couple of games throwing the football, but he has not struggled mentally at all,” Kelly said. “… His issues are mechanical issues. They’re not mental issues. He doesn’t have this weakness that is not allowing him to be the player that he can be.

“We need to fix some things in the offseason, mechanically, that will allow him to the throw the ball more consistently.”

Irish coach Brian Kelly insisted junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s struggles derive from mechanical issues, not any version of a mental block. “His traits, in terms of all the things a quarterback needs in terms of his makeup, he has those,” Kelly said. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Kelly credited Wimbush for trying to “fight” through these mechanical issues, but at times that may have led to overcompensating a la a golfer attempting to avoid a slice or a baseball batter trying to get ahead of a fastball.

Wimbush may be a junior, but this was his first year in the spotlight. That spotlight did not bring with it undue and mishandled pressure. Rather, it highlighted his deficiencies that are not as closely monitored when a third-string freshman or a scout team passer.

“We’re really talking about him being a first-time starter,” Kelly said. “Under that scrutiny, we’ve seen that there needs to be some corrections.

“Having said that, he found a way to get us to nine wins and put us in a position to get to 10.”

Avery & Alohi Ascending
Two reserves have caught Notre Dame’s attention in the earliest parts of bowl preparation, though one was drawing notice all season, as well. Through four practices, the Irish have knocked off the rust of a few weeks’ layoff and given the lower parts of the depth chart extended run. Freshman quarterback Avery Davis has stood out in those sessions.

“He’s efficient with the football, very strong runner,” Kelly said. “He’s an athlete that can impact each and every time he has the football in his hands. He’s difficult to defend.”

Sophomore safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman spent the season defending Wimbush, rather than Davis. Bound to the scout team when the NCAA denied his waiver for immediate eligibility, Gilman pushed the boundary as often as possible. Per Kelly, he would have started at safety for the Irish this year, no qualifiers or conditions applied.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

“He has a great combination of coverage skills at the safety position and the ability to come down and be a sure tackler,” Kelly said. “We really know what we’re going to get from him from what we’ve seen on a practice-to-practice basis.”

Syracuse at Yankee Stadium in November, the least of possible evils
Kelly initially offered the party line when asked about Notre Dame moving its mid-November matchup next year against Syracuse out east to Yankee Stadium in New York City. The remote “home” game will add theoretically-unnecessary travel and stress to an already daunting latter half of the schedule.

Kelly then acknowledged it may not be ideal, but made it clear the other options he was presented were distinctly less preferable.

Kelly said this was the only game in the home schedule with the ready ability to be moved, but knowing the Orange’s fast-paced, spread offense, he wanted to be sure the game was played outdoors. Also knowing there would be a trip out to USC just the following weekend, Kelly advocated for avoiding a late game. Indeed, the Syracuse tilt is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. ET.

“We wanted to try to make all these pieces work,” he said. “This seemed to be a good way to come about managing all those things.”

The one option clearly not on the table was not moving a home game at all.

Monday’s Leftovers: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl, facing LSU, & the early signing period

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The second half of Notre Dame’s schedule finished the season with a 51-22 overall record and featured four ranked opponents, not to mention an under-the-radar Wake Forest team and Navy’s triple-option attack. For six consecutive weeks, the Irish had another distinct challenge awaiting them every Saturday.

Thus, the month-plus off between last week’s loss at Stanford and the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 against No. 17 LSU is a welcome reprieve for No. 14 Notre Dame.

“We probably got a little tired at the end with the six weeks in a row of really tough, quality competition,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “It was a long year for our football team, starting back in January.”

Kelly then clarified he was not referring to a physical exhaustion. The diminished November should not be tied to a new strength and conditioning regimen. Rather, Notre Dame tired in a less tangible manner.

“There were no questions about where we were physically as a football team,” Kelly said. “Emotionally and mentally, we had a long year.

“I remember addressing the team the Monday of the Stanford week with so much on the line — a 10th win and a New Year’s Six [bowl game] — and it looked like they were in biology class. They were staring at me like, really? There was no juice, there was no excitement. They were tired mentally.”

As he has for much of the year, Kelly put the onus on himself. While recruiting over the last week, he said he spent much of the travel downtime pondering how to lighten that load and pace better in 2018.

Some of the weariness was indeed physical. Kelly acknowledged junior running back Josh Adams will “benefit greatly” from the layoff before facing an opposing defense again.

The Irish will fit in 15 practices preparing for the bowl game, beginning this weekend before sending the team home for three full days at Christmas. Notre Dame will then reconvene in Orlando, Fla, on Dec. 26. Allowing the team time at home for the holiday is arguably the greatest perk of landing in the New Year’s Day game rather than the Camping World Bowl on Dec. 28.

“It’s great that we can get some work in here, then get a break for our players during Christmas so they can spend Christmas home with the family and then meet back up at the bowl site,” Kelly said. “Playing on New Year’s Day is really good for our football team.”

Some things in this world never change, such as LSU having high-end talent. Luckily [for Notre Dame] some things do, and Leonard Fournette (No. 7) is no longer the Tigers’ leading rusher. Instead, start learning the name Derrius Guice. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
— Of course, facing the No. 17 team in the country is a stiff yet welcome challenge. While this is hardly the same version of LSU that the Irish faced in the 2014 Music City Bowl (a 31-28 Notre Dame victory), Kelly sees one key aspect of the Tigers program that has not changed.

“There’s a lot of similarities in terms of the body types that they bring to the table, but the schemes are a little bit different,” Kelly said, then noting offensive coordinator Matt Canada and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, both widely-respected in the coaching ranks. “What Dave does on defense is different, and then certainly what Matt does, he has kind of opened up the offense a little bit.

“More schematically, they are a little bit different, but the kind of athlete LSU is attracting, still great players on both sides of the ball.”

Senior captain and linebacker Drue Tranquill echoed Kelly’s comments regarding mental fatigue, citing last season’s 4-8 debacle as having a tangible effect in its own way.

“Any way you dice it up, it was a long season,” Tranquill said. “Having not gone to a bowl the season before, you start your preparation for the next season earlier, and we got after it in winter conditioning and spring ball and fall camp and into this season.”

To hear Tranquill describe “knowing the stakes of each game” in the second half of the season, one might wonder if a loss in mid-October may have allowed Notre Dame to play looser in November. Obviously, that is nothing but ponderings unless there really are infinite universes with each and every possible permutation of existence occurring within one of them.

Notre Dame senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill will have a decision to make regarding returning for a fifth year or heading to the NFL Draft. (Getty Images)

— Kelly declined to name which players requested feedback from the NFL regarding their draft status, but Tranquill said he was among the group. The feedback usually comes in shortly before the bowl game.

“What I can get better on, what they perceive as my strengths or weaknesses,” Tranquill said he hopes to learn. “… I don’t know that [it] necessarily will [affect his decision]. Obviously it’s feedback and you’ll take all the feedback you can get.”

To anyone skeptical of Tranquill’s chances in the Draft, there may be a point, but it should be remembered this is a player who has suffered two major knee injuries in his career. If he has a chance at an NFL career, he should not put it off for a year, especially not when he will already have an engineering degree in hand.

— A change to bowl preparations this year, the Irish coaching staff has to focus on recruiting even more in December than ever before thanks to the first early signing period, held Dec. 20-22. Notre Dame’s coaches have always spent the week immediate after the season making in-home visits. That may be more of an emphasis over the next three weeks, as well. That should, theoretically, allow for a more proactive January.

“It’s busier now,” Kelly said. “What it will do is it will allow us to focus on [current high school juniors] a little bit more in January than we’ve had in the past.

“We expect, if our players are committed, they’ll sign in December. If they’re not committed, they won’t … which frees up that time I’m normally on the road in January chasing these guys down for a February signing to really focus on [next year’s class], then the remaining spots that we have left.”

— Kelly indicated if one of the 18 current Irish commits were to not sign in December, he would see it as a sign the player needs more wooing.

Long-time commitment and consensus four-star running back Markese Stepp (Cathedral High School; Indianapolis) came to that decision even earlier, announcing he was reopening his recruitment over the weekend.

Notre Dame still has consensus three-star running back Jahmir Smith (Lee County H.S.; Sanford, N.C.) in the class, not to mention a well-stocked depth chart already on campus.

— This is perhaps a thought to be explored further following the season, taking into consideration where teams land in the final AP or Coaches’ polls, but with LSU becoming the seventh currently-ranked opponent on Notre Dame’s schedule, it seems safe to presume it has been some time since the slate featured so many, including three currently in the top 10.

Things To Learn: What did Miami teach Notre Dame?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nonetheless, Kelly will prepare anticipating Love’s speed.

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

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

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

Is Equanimeous St. Brown healthy?

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

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

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

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

And what about Dexter Williams and Cam Smith?

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

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

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Defensive counter to Navy’s option helps Irish put Miami in past

Associated Press
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Getting a team to heed the details necessary to counteract Navy’s triple-option attack is challenging enough. Getting Notre Dame to do it on the heels of its letdown at Miami a week ago made it even more difficult.

“The bigger shift this week was mentally get [the team] away from the Miami game to the Navy game,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “That was a bigger challenge this week [than preparing for the option], quite frankly.”

Finding that focus allowed Notre Dame to handle the Midshipmen 24-17 on Saturday, despite hardly possessing the ball, including only 6:24 of meaningful time in the second half. It may have been a victory by only seven points, but it was a return to the level of execution the Irish displayed all season long before heading to south Florida.

“If there’s one game we’d like to have back, and I take the responsibility for the preparation of our team, for Miami,” Kelly said. “Wake Forest proved to be a pretty good opponent. We were up 41-16 in that game and maybe lost a little bit of concentration.

“Other than the Miami game, which was our one hiccup this year, I’m pretty pleased with our football team.”

To slow the triple-option, Kelly and defensive coordinator Mike Elko relied on a variety of looks from their defensive front, forcing Navy to make the adjustments the Midshipmen usually impose upon their opponents. In doing so, Notre Dame narrowed Navy’s offense from the triple-option to largely leaning on a quarterback sweep. Junior Zach Abey finished with 87 yards on 29 carries, not the efficiency the Midshipmen need for success.

“Our plan was really good about changing things up with our fronts and who had pitch, who had QB, and that made it difficult for them,” Kelly said. “… It really just became how the fullback was loading on our cornerback.”

That cornerback was often sophomore Troy Pride, usually a reserve. In order to better utilize sophomore cornerback Julian Love’s physicality, Kelly moved Love to safety and inserted Pride into the starting lineup. Along with a crucial fourth-quarter interception halting a Navy drive deep in Irish territory, Pride made six tackles.

“Troy Pride had to play physical for us,” Kelly said. “Here’s a guy who was a wide cornerback [back-] pedaling most of his time here. Now he had to go mix it up. He played real well, real physical.”

Though he finished with 14 tackles, Love will remain at cornerback this season, but Kelly acknowledged he very well could be Notre Dame’s best safety.

“If we could clone him, I’d like to do that. … Could he be our best safety? Yes. He’s definitely our best corner. The problem is we can only play him at one of those two positions.”

On receiver injuries
Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown is in the concussion protocol after landing on his head/neck in the first quarter. Sophomore Chase Claypool could have returned to the game Saturday despite a banged up shoulder, but the Irish had found a rotation Kelly felt comfortable with at that point, leaning on sophomore Kevin Stepherson and junior Miles Boykin.

Claypool finished with two catches for 28 yards. Stepherson had five receptions for two scores and 103 yards. Boykin added 33 yards from two snags.

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Atmosphere, crowd & turnovers doomed Irish from outset

Associated Press
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Notre Dame simply was not ready for Miami on Saturday. By the time the first quarter ended and the Hurricanes were posed to build on a 14-0 lead, that was quite apparent. With hindsight, Irish coach Brian Kelly can see the reasons for the 41-8 loss were already at hand before his team even took the field.

“In retrospect, it was a big game, there was a lot to the atmosphere,” Kelly said Sunday. “Our guys really wanted to win. They wanted to win really, really bad.

“I have to do a better job of keeping them in a moment and keeping them from being distracted by all of that’s going on around them.”

Kelly detected a bit more pregame energy in the Notre Dame locker room due to the stakes and the surroundings. Though the Irish routinely play in front of bigger crowds and have twice faced top-15 teams in recent weeks, there was a different feel in Hard Rock Stadium.

“I’ve never given [big games and atmosphere] too much thought, because we play in a big game atmosphere at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “But this one was a little bit different. A number of these kids hadn’t played in a game of this magnitude, since maybe the [2015] Clemson game, and I don’t know if there were many defensive players on the field for that.

“We’ll have to take a good close look at that of making sure we prepare our guys. I have to do a better job of making sure they are in the moment.”

Tracing back to that No. 6 Notre Dame at No. 11 Clemson game, only now-junior, then-freshman defensive tackle Jerry Tillery recorded a defensive tackle that day, making four. Six other current Irish defenders saw the field, including now-senior, then-sophomore defensive back Nick Coleman making a special teams tackle.

Those jitters showed immediately after each of Notre Dame’s first two turnovers Saturday. Once the Hard Rock crowd was, well, rocking, Miami had little trouble finding the end zone, including covering 32 yards in two plays to go up 14-0.

Those turnovers were a worst-case possibility realized.
Kelly insisted Saturday night he saw none of the Hurricanes onslaught coming. If he anticipated it at all, he expected it to be predicated on turnovers.

“If I saw the turnover chain passed around the bench like Gatorade, that was probably going to be my biggest concern,” he said. “Unfortunately that came to fruition.”

He described junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s first interception as “a bit of a high throw … that should be executed.” The second was thrown behind intended target sophomore receiver Chase Claypool.

“That’s just being more accurate and being on time with the throw.”

Sophomore quarterback Ian Book’s miscue came on misreading the coverage, identifying what was a man defense as a zone.

“We have to coach him better in that situation.”

The fourth turnover, a strip-sack fumble in the fourth quarter, could have been avoided only if Wimbush had felt the pressure and stepped up in the pocket.

“We have to demand that in practice there’s that attention to detail,” Kelly said. “Because the process really escaped us in some of those turnovers and that really was a major problem for us Saturday night.”

On injuries
Junior running back Josh Adams suffered a neck sprain Saturday night, but Kelly was not worried about any lasting effects with Navy arriving at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.