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Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s offense filled with questions for the Citrus Bowl


Bowl games are similar to preseason practice finales. Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game can offer insights into the playmakers likely to define a season to come or unveil aspects of a new scheme previously unknown. If the Irish are fully engaged in the Citrus Bowl on Monday vs. No. 17 LSU (1 p.m. ET; ABC), then much can be learned from the occasion. The 2018 depth chart can gain some order at a position or two. Pending personnel losses will be seen in an evaluator manner, rather than merely with a reactionary response. Overall composure may be measured.

If, however, the afternoon in Orlando is treated like the mere exhibition it largely is, then it becomes an exercise in entertainment otherwise lacking effect.

Without Kevin Stepherson, who can Notre Dame turn to as a deep-threat playmaker?

The sophomore receiver will not be in Florida this weekend, and it is exceedingly unlikely he is in South Bend in the fall. Thus, this lesson can shed light toward the Irish future at receiver.

Exclude from these results any production from fifth-year receiver Cam Smith, finally healthy from a hamstring issue. He will not be in the mix in 2018.

Instead, any noticeable impact from current freshman Michael Young would warrant attention.

“He’s had his best practices,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Wednesday following the first Irish practice in the Florida heat. “He’s shown a confidence level, consistency level, that maybe escaped him at times during the year, which is pretty typical of some of the younger players.

“You can kind of see him settling into a more comfortable position right now, too. We’re going to have to count on him to make some plays for us.”

An emergence from Young would establish him as only the pole position holder. Signed commit and consensus four-star receiver Braden Lenzy (Tigard High School; Portland, Ore.) has the speed to immediately force his way into this conversation during the summer.

Whoever emerges from that mix, it will obviously be in a complementary role to junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. Even when Stepherson was hitting on all cylinders, the opposing defenses’ primary focus remained on St. Brown — he has shown a higher probability of taking over a game thus far in their respective careers. Against LSU, Kelly expects St. Brown to see time at multiple receiver positions, partly due to sophomore Chase Claypool also being sidelined thanks to shoulder surgery.

“For us, more than anything else, it’s going to be keeping the ball out on the perimeter, winning some of those matchups and then when we get a chance we’ll move some of those guys around,” Kelly said. “[St. Brown] is going to move all over the place. He’s going to be a guy that we’re going to have to lean on heavily.”

Relying on St. Brown on Monday with any success would be a positive notion for a 2018 sans Stepherson, presuming St. Brown returns for his senior season.

With junior Alizé Mack suspended due to a violation of team rules, Notre Dame may rely on senior tight end Nic Weishar more than usual in the Citrus Bowl on Monday. He has announced his intentions to return for a fifth year, so the bowl showcase could be a prelude to his 2018. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Without Alizé Mack, who can Notre Dame turn to as an aerial threat at tight end, if anyone?

There is little-to-no indication the junior tight end will not be with the Irish when they take the field against Michigan to open the 2018 season, but it is a possibility worthy of acknowledgement. If Mack is elsewhere then, offensive coordinator Chip Long will need to deploy someone else as the detached tight end intended to force matchup difficulties for the defense.

Current senior Nic Weishar presents as a better fit for the role attached to the line, presently manned by fifth-year senior Durham Smythe. From there, Smythe has showcased both his sure hands and his strength as a blocker this season. Even their physical profiles are similar. Notre Dame lists Smythe as 6-foot-5.5 and 257 pounds with Weishar at 6-foot-4.75 and 243 pounds.

If that is where Weishar eventually excels, then the detached focus turns to the freshman duo of Brock Wright and Cole Kmet. The former has seen action this season as a blocker but will miss the bowl game due to his own shoulder injury, while Kmet has two catches for 14 yards. Kelly indicated the latter could be in the mix this week.

“The tight ends are going to be important for us,” Kelly said. “Durham Smythe, Cole Kmet, Nic Weishar, all three tight ends will be involved.”

Junior running back Josh Adams had a stellar season. If only he had been healthy for more of it … (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

What could a healthy Josh Adams have done all season?

This should be the junior running back’s last game with the Irish, and it certainly will be his last behind an offensive line this superior to its typical competition. The month off has allowed Adams to finally return to 100 percent health. Whether it was just his ankles or other issues in addition, it cannot be denied Adams lost much of his explosiveness by season’s end.

“He looks really good,” Kelly said. “He’s got his speed back, he looks healthy. He’s running very effectively. I expect him to play really well in this game. I think the time off for him really helped him.”

Adams will need that speed, that health and that efficiency to manage a good day against the Tigers. They rank No. 21 in overall rushing defense and No. 39 in yards per carry at 3.80. For context, Michigan State allowed 3.38 yards per carry this season (No. 13) and Georgia gave up 3.47 yards per attempt (No. 20).

If Adams runs through LSU, it will elicit wonderings of “What could have been” if only his ankles had not been landed on so many times in October. It will also bode well for the next back to run behind what will still be a strong offensive line in 2018, most likely sophomore Tony Jones.

With that in mind, monitoring the distribution of opportunities between Jones and junior Dexter Williams will also shed light on what could come down the road for the two when healthy.

When removing ready-made excuses, how do the Irish fare against a top-20 team?

Kelly cited the crowd’s impact for the disastrous start at Miami in November. Anyone in attendance understood his point. The second half stumble two weeks later at Stanford was a sign of mental and physical fatigue at the end of a stretch of six weeks featuring four ranked opponents, an underrated Wake Forest and the always-wearisome Navy. Logically, at least, the argument made sense.

Camping World Stadium will hardly be abuzz come Monday, and Notre Dame will have had more than five weeks off since its most-recent game, not to mention time away from schoolwork.

“Like anything else, we needed some time,” Kelly said. “Our football team needed to get their step back, some energy back to them. Obviously this is a long break, but I thought we prepared well.”

With those outside factors removed, LSU will offer an excellent gauge of how the Irish genuinely stack up against a top-20 opponent. That is, if Notre Dame focuses on the bowl game. Amid trips to Universal Studios, a spending spree at Best Buy and assuredly plenty of seafood, the game itself may not be at the top of the list of priorities all week. Such is the difficult nature of bowl games in the first place.

Notre Dame adds a third OL commit in Luke Jones


Notre Dame filled one of the few remaining needs in the class of 2018 with a commitment from consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy; Little Rock, Ark.) on Wednesday. Jones had been committed to his homestate Arkansas but neglected to sign with the Razorbacks during the early signing period last week, a telltale sign he was likely to flip his commitment.

Jones joins 21 other commits in the Irish class, though those all signed with Notre Dame last week. He will need to wait until Feb. 7 to do so. Two offensive linemen are already among those 21, consensus three-stars John Dirksen (Marion Local; Maria Stein, Ohio) and Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.). With the summer of 2017 transfers of center Parker Boudreaux and guard Tristen Hoge, adding at least three linemen in this class became a priority for the Irish and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“I loved meeting the players and the recruits and taking a harder look at the campus in general,” Jones told Irish Illustrated. “[Current sophomore right tackle] Tommy Kraemer was my host and he’s a really cool guy. I liked him a lot and he gave me honest and real answers to all my questions.”

With Jones in the fold, Notre Dame will focus largely on defensive backs for the final spots in the class, though four-star/ five-star offensive tackle Nick Petit-Frere (Berkeley Prep; Tampa, Fla.) would still be a welcome addition by every measure.

The linemen in this class will have immediate chances to establish themselves as backups, if not more. Presuming senior left guard Quenton Nelson does the sensible thing and heads to the NFL with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining, but both senior center Sam Mustipher and senior right guard Alex Bars remain for their fifth years, the Irish will have only nine offensive linemen plus these commits. So much as one injury or transfer would elevate multiple of these incoming freshmen to the second unit in practice.

RELATED READING: With four spots remaining, what recruits is Notre Dame still chasing?

Where Notre Dame was & is: Coaching

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Notre Dame welcomed five new assistants, a graduate assistant intended as an assistant coach and a new strength staff following 2016’s dismal 4-8 finish. The revamping of Irish coach Brian Kelly’s staff was part of the “blueprint for what we needed to do to be successful” that Kelly discussed with Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick last December.

The focus heading into the season was on the two new Irish coordinators. Well, three when counting special teams coordinator Brian Polian, though his influence was expected to be felt in bigger picture areas as much as on coverage units.

In looking for an offensive coordinator, Kelly sought a play-caller with a comfort using tight ends extensively, knowing Notre Dame had an abundance of talent awaiting at that position. He turned to Memphis’ Chip Long.

“Chip is going to bring some things in that I want, that we’ve already brought in that we did not have,” Kelly said when introducing the new staff. “You’re going to see some things that we didn’t have as part of our offense that you’ve never seen from this offense before, because it did not exist.”

At defensive coordinator, the Irish needed someone who would restore a penchant for forcing turnovers after managing only 14 a year ago. Landing Mike Elko from Wake Forest was considered something of a bonanza, as he was one of the most highly-sought coordinators in the country.

“I was looking for something that would take the football away, somebody that has had great success in doing so, as well as a continued successor at coordinator,” Kelly said.

Along with Long came receivers coach Del Alexander, a bit of a package deal. Similarly, linebackers coach Clark Lea accompanied Elko. In both instances, the position coach provided more institutional knowledge of the incoming schemes and a known commodity for the coordinator to lean on.

In Polian, Kelly brought aboard a special teams coordinator but also someone with head coaching experience and thus an understanding of the bigger picture, both as it pertains to recruiting and overall concerns.

“The conversations are a little bit different sometimes,” Kelly said. “Just in recruiting, sometimes we talk about things that maybe haven’t necessarily crossed the desk of an assistant coach. Maybe fit over position skill, far-reaching effects more so than maybe immediate.”

Former Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees joined the staff as a graduate assistant, serving as the quarterbacks coach but awaiting the NCAA’s implementation of 10-person staffs before taking to off-campus recruiting.

More than the tight ends, Long relied on the running backs, though the tight ends served as able blockers with frequency.

Elko indeed forced turnovers with 20 to date, split evenly between interceptions and fumbles recovered. That task was even more difficult than realized given the dearth of playmakers at safety, a fact Kelly acknowledged directly in an interview Tuesday evening with Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.

The new staff’s overall strength may be best seen in its recruiting efforts. Notre Dame closed the class of 2017 cycle strongly, securing seven commitments after that 4-8 disappointment concluded, including three on National Signing Day itself. The strong finish saved a class from breaking apart as it appeared to be on the verge of doing.

With a full cycle to work, the staff has already secured 21 signed commitments in the class of 2018 and addressed the majority of the roster’s deficiencies within it. Polian’s work as recruiting director deserves much of that credit.

In regards to coaches, this boils down to the Irish win-loss figures. A 9-3 season is a distinct improvement upon 4-8, but it is still a far cry from 12-0.

Elko’s work developing the Irish defense made him a buzzing name on the couching carousel again this offseason. Apparently that won’t matter.

“It’s been a challenge, but we’ll all be together,” Kelly told Sampson. “At first glance, yeah, I think you’re always on guard [about losing a coach], especially the defensive coordinator position. Mike came in, did a really good job. His name was out there, but he’s gonna be here at Notre Dame.”

Whether Texas A&M actually touched base with Elko or not is a moot point — he’ll be at Notre Dame for at least another season. That eliminates the biggest possible question. The remaining wonderings are simple and build upon each other.

Will Kelly learn from 9-3 as he did from 4-8 just a year ago?

Will Kelly learn from the debacle handling Miami’s atmosphere as he did the embarrassment managing the literal hurricane at North Carolina State just a year ago?

Will Kelly — and Long and Rees — be able to foster a working relationship with a young quarterback as Kelly once did with Rees?

If those responses return “Yes,” “Yes,” and “Yes,” then the 2018 season may have no ceiling. But each “No” will essentially serve as a loss from the outset.

The closing run of four away games in the last five weeks with three alternating trips to coasts will be just as taxing as 2017’s finish of six weeks featuring four ranked teams. Virginia Tech has one of the rowdiest home environments in the country and will quite possibly be more intimidating then Hard Rock Stadium was this year. Overcoming these obstacles, as well as visits from Michigan, Stanford and Florida State, will require stellar play from current junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

The masses will want to ask, How many games lost would get Kelly fired? There is never a distinct number for that. Circumstances can sway the final results drastically. Rather, another year of improvement and growth — specifically as it pertains to rectifying 2017’s mistakes at Miami and Stanford — will show the program continues on the desired path.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs
Where Notre Dame was & is: Offensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Quarterbacks

Where Notre Dame was & is: Quarterbacks

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For a year when there was never any controversy of who should start at quarterback for Notre Dame, it ends with a lot of questions about that exact role.

After both DeShone Kizer (to the NFL) and Malik Zaire (graduate transfer to Florida) departed in the offseason, each long expected, there was no doubt current junior Brandon Wimbush would lead the Irish offense, even if hee couldn’t claim any genuine experience before the 2017 season, having only seen some mop-up duty during his freshman campaign.

Rather, Wimbush’s touted physical attributes set him apart from sophomore Ian Book and freshman Avery Davis. Both Book and Davis present as serviceable quarterbacks who could lead to strong seasons, but Wimbush’s canon of an arm and dynamic running ability made him the electric possibility for something more.

At least, that was the thinking entering the year.

Unless Wimbush or Book were to suffer a season-altering injury, Davis looked to be headed to preserving a year of eligibility, and as long as Wimbush did not turn over the ball three times a game and rarely find the end zone, his grip on the starting gig seemed secure.

Wimbush was indeed electric, and he found moments to showcase his arm strength. In the season opener, he connected with senior tight end Nic Weishar between two defenders with a laser through only a tight window. Furthermore, Wimbush’s legs were a constant threat.

Yet, he was maddeningly inaccurate. That adjective applies sans harshness due to the moments Wimbush would most often miss his targets. Short crossing patterns, check-downs to the flats and screen passes proved especially difficult for Wimbush. Those should be the simplest passes with the highest rate of success; instead, he would throw to junior tight end Alizé Mack’s rear hip on a designed route to the flat, he would throw to sophomore receiver Chase Claypool’s back shoulder on a screen pass, and he would throw behind junior running back Josh Adams on an open wheel route.

Those are throws designed to establish a quarterback’s rhythm, not to stall a drive.

Wimbush’s reads were not inherently bad, but they were often the easy way out, usually the only target considered. Not only does that lead to repeated interceptions or near-interceptions, but it also sometimes ignored the preferable play.

Wimbush’s running abilities nearly overshadowed these aerial flaws, but the one-dimensional offense could not overcome top-line defenses, no matter how good that dimension was.

Notre Dame sophomore quarterback Ian Book did more than enough in leading the Irish to a victory at North Carolina in the one game junior Brandon Wimbush did not partake in this year due to a grade one right foot strain. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

With Wimbush sidelined for a game due to a right foot strain, Book handled all duties at North Carolina, showing he is far more than competent, but also had a limited ceiling.

During the first of bowl preparations, Irish coach Brian Kelly pointed to Davis as someone excelling with the third-string units.

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

In 11 games, Wimbush threw for 1,818 yards on 133-of-267 passing, a 49.8 completion percentage, with 16 touchdowns and six interceptions. He averaged 6.81 yards per attempt.
Wimbush also added 878 yards and 14 touchdowns on 112 rushes for an average of 7.84 yards per carry (sacks adjusted).
Book threw for 292 yards on 32-of-56 passing, a 57.1 completion percentage, with two touchdowns and three interceptions. He averaged 5.21 yards per attempt.

In 2017, Notre Dame threw for 2,110 yards on 165-of-324 passing, a 50.9 completion percentage, with 18 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The Irish averaged 6.51 yards per attempt.
In 2016, Notre Dame threw for 3,051 yards on 224-of-388 passing, a 57.7 completion percentage, with 27 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The Irish averaged 7.86 yards per attempt.

Wimbush will be the starter in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 vs. No. 17 LSU. That much is certain. It also seems decently certain he will take the first snap of the 2018 opener against Michigan.

To do so, he will need to improve his mechanics. Kelly insists Wimbush’s mental makeup is fit for the task. Per Kelly, the focus of real competition exposed holes in Wimbush’s fundamentals not necessarily seen when working on the scout team during the 2016 season. There, the onus was on educating the first-team defense on the coming opponent’s schemes and tendencies. It was not to dissect the quarterback’s release point or throwing motion.

If Wimbush makes the necessary adjustments, he will undoubtedly start.

Who will back up Wimbush is a whole other query. Given the hype surrounding consensus four-star quarterback signee Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland High School; Gibsonia, Pa.), it does not seem unreasonable to think either Book or Davis may transfer. It would be unfortunate for the Notre Dame depth chart, but if either sees himself fall to third-string this spring and does not expect to outdo Jurkovec in years to come, then finding a better route to playing time would make sense.

Citing Miami (OH) as a possible transfer destination no longer holds the same merit as it did when former Irish assistant Chuck Martin first arrived there as head coach, but use that as an example. The RedHawks will have two senior quarterbacks with starting experience next season in Gus Ragland and Billy Bahl. Neither will have eligibility afterward. If Book or Davis were to transfer to Oxford, his greatest competition for the QB1 honors in 2019 would be current freshman Jackson Williamson. Miami also does not yet have a quarterback committed in the class of 2018.

Compare that to spending the coming fall behind both Wimbush and the other of this Book or Davis hypothetical, only to then be passed up by Jurkovec in 2019 and remain third-string.

Consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec may not come near Notre Dame’s two-deep roster in 2018, but he may alter it simply be being on campus. (

There is every expectation for Jurkovec to make his presence known, even if that is only as an announcement of his pending involvement in the 2019 discussion. Less than a week ago, Kelly responded to a softball of a question rather than dodge it. Even on a day full of hype such as national signing day, evading the thought of Jurkovec competing with Wimbush for playing time would have been the smart play.

“I want him to challenge. I want Brandon to feel competition, and I’m sure Brandon wants to be challenged,” Kelly said Wednesday. “Any great competitor wants that feeling that somebody is pushing him every day and, not that Ian Book doesn’t, but let’s bring in another really good quarterback, a great quarterback.

“That’s our job here at Notre Dame. I’m not doing a good enough job if I don’t bring in a great quarterback to challenge the incumbent quarterback. If that threatens Brandon, then he’s not the guy I think he is. I’m pretty certain he’s going to be excited about Phil being here and the competition.”

Now that is not saying Jurkovec will start. That is not even saying Jurkovec may start. But it is saying the thought has crossed Kelly’s mind.

Although, Wimbush’s November gave the musing plenty of reason to cross Kelly’s ponderings.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame gets the letter: Phil Jurkovec

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs
Where Notre Dame was & is: Offensive Line

Notre Dame wins the Joe Moore; Lenzy displays maturity; links to read


It’s Christmas Eve. If Notre Dame’s roster can do the favor of not forcing any issues in the next few days, then this space will be taking off the next two days.

The audacity!

In the meantime … Let’s start with the video of Irish head coach Brian Kelly announcing the winning of the Joe Moore Award by the Notre Dame offensive line, naming it the most outstanding such unit in the country. Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand and his charges deserved the honor, and there appeared to be rather genuine emotion upon realizing the news.

Expect to see Lenzy’s essay for “The Players’ Tribune” cited repeatedly in these parts. The points it makes need to be pounded into the heads of far too many college football fans. Upon decommiting from the Irish in June, Lenzy said he received messages from fans wishing him ill will to the extent of death threats.

“It got to where I would cringe every time my phone buzzed,” Lenzy wrote. “… I wish I could say I just brushed off the negative messages, or that I was big enough to just ignore them entirely. But that wouldn’t be true. I did read them. And I thought about them a lot.”

Lenzy overcame the influence of those idiots and signed with Notre Dame on Friday.

“I want to make clear not only to those people who sent me those messages directly, but also to every other high schooler who has experienced the same thing: Negative people exist everywhere, but you can’t let them dictate how you live your life.”

Credit to Lenzy for a well-written essay. Credit to Lenzy for making a tough decision. And credit to Lenzy for having ten times the maturity than many Irish fans.

LSU will play Citrus Bowl without Arden Key, 2 other linebackers, Ed Orgeron says

LSU preparing for ‘great challenge’ in Notre Dame running game

10 takeaways from the new early Signing Day and the Class of 2018 — “Lost amid all the excitement that came on Wednesday will be what assistant coaches will end up changing jobs. It happens every single year after the normal signing date in February and nobody quite knows if that will be the case again after the December period closes.”

5 things to know for college football’s new early signing period — “The biggest unintended consequence of the new early signing period will be an industry-wide flurry of assistant coaching movement. Nearly one-third of assistant coaching jobs in college football could turn over the upcoming weeks. In other words, there’s a one-in-three chance the assistant who has been courting a high school prospect the past 18 months will be slipping on a new polo shirt soon.”

Former Notre Dame RB commit Markese Stepp finds new home at USC

Jerry Kill reveals details of how he fought to finish at Rutgers: ‘I loved the staff I worked with’

Monday’s Leftovers: Early signing period basics and Notre Dame’s likelihoods

Notre Dame’s 12 defensive signees: Brian Kelly’s takes

Notre Dame’s eight offensive signees: Brian Kelly’s takes

Friday at 4: Context shows Notre Dame succeeded in the early signing period

With four spots remaining, what recruits is Notre Dame still chasing?

Claypool injured & out

Notre Dame suspends WR Kevin Stepherson and RB C.J. Holmes

Shoulder surgery sidelines Notre Dame TE Brock Wright

Notre Dame announces Alizé Mack suspension

Brian Kelly on suspensions, Notre Dame’s fifth-years’ timetable

Friday at 4 Bowl games are fun, but little else, even for Notre Dame vs. LSU

Running Backs

Defensive Backs

Offensive Line