Pregame Twelve Pack: Tulsa edition

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(Due to the lack of media access to the team this week, and the Declan Sullivan tragedy, we’re cutting down the 12 pack to 6 items. We’ll be back next week with a full slate of fun facts, tidbits, and miscellaneous items.)

1. While the game will go on, the Irish will pay tribute to Declan Sullivan.

With the week’s tragedy overshadowing the football game, Notre Dame canceled both the Friday pep rally and the football luncheon, weekly staples during home games. Also canceled were Brian Kelly’s radio show, as well as any media availability between Wednesday and Saturday for Irish coaches and players.

Athletic director Jack Swarbrick announced that the Irish will put a decal on their helmets to honor Declan and there will be a moment of silence. They’ll also dedicate this football game to Sullivan’s memory.

2. Notre Dame and Tulsa meet for the first time. The time they almost met is stuff of Tulsa legend.

While Saturday’s date in Notre Dame Stadium will mark the first time these two programs face off in football, “the game that could have been” is one almost for the ages.

According to Robert Ruttland’s 1952 book entitled “The Golden Hurricane: Fifty Years of Football at The University of Tulsa,” the Irish nearly came to Tulsa in 1916.

I’ll let the Tulsa Sports Information Department take it from here:

Tulsa, known as Kendall College at the time, had finished its’ season at 10-0 and were claimed the unoffical “state champions” with wins over both Oklahoma and Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) . . . excerpts from the book tell the story –– “most of the Kendall squad turned in its football equipment and drew basketball uniforms. But to a few Tulsa businessmen, there was one game left on the Kendall schedule –– with the fabulous Irish of Notre Dame. How close Kendall came to playing Notre Dame in the final of the 1916 season probably will never be known, but a definite move was under way with some of the town’s wealthiest oil men reportedly backing the promotion. Notre Dame was contacted regarding the possibilities of such a game, to have been played in Tulsa. Response from the Indiana school indicated an interest in the post-season match. Bringing Notre Dame to Tulsa would have paid immeasurable dividends to both the city and the college. With the exception of the A&M game, the team was virtually untested (Kendall outscored the opposition that year 566-40), and it is possible that the (Sam) McBirney-(Francis) Schmidt combination could have paid off with an upset over powerful Notre Dame. Negotiations for the game, which were hastily drawn and presented, reached a cooling point because of the large guarantee Notre Dame wanted. Tulsa rooters hinted the match ‘fell through’ because, upon checking the records, Notre Dame authorities might have had apprehensions over their own chances. The important fact was that the game was not played, and for reasons that remain obscure. It might have been a mere promoter’s dream, but the value of the match would have reached down to the present day insofar as it would have affected athletic relations at The University of Tulsa.”

Ninety-four years later, The Golden Hurricane finally gets their shot at Notre Dame.

3. G.J. Kinne is a guy that should scare the Irish.

It’s only taken 19 games for junior G.J. Kinne to climb into the record books at Tulsa, with his 4,587 career passing yards the eighth most in the school’s history. Kinne is averaging 241 yards per game, and Brian Kelly compared him to a gunslinger who likes to wear Wranglers.

“Kinne, the quarterback, is — he reminds me of Brett Favre out there,” Kelly said. “He’s got the number. He likes to obviously have the ball in his hands.”

Any questions on Kinne’s pedigree should’ve been answered by his original college choice, when the dual-threat quarterback  signed with his home-state Texas Longhorns and head coach Mack Brown. The two-time Class 3-A offensive player of the year in Texas, who finished his career with 130 touchdowns (second in Texas high school history), transferred after a freshman season stuck behind Colt McCoy, John Chiles and Sherrod Harris.

Kinne’s father is a high school coach and a former teammate of Tulsa head coach Todd Graham, and Graham’s brother Brent worked as a defensive coordinator for Kinne’s father, making the transfer natural.

“We’re extremely excited to have a player of G.J.’s caliber,” Tulsa coach Todd Graham said then. “He has been a winner his whole life. For a player of his caliber to transfer to Tulsa speaks volumes about our program and where we’re are at this point. He had a lot of big-time scholarship offers out of high school.”

4. While Gus Malzahn is out at Tulsa, offensive coordinator Chad Morris is the next closest thing.

When Gus Malzahn was pulled from the Arkansas high-school ranks to coordinator then-Arkansas coach Houston Nutt’s Razorback offense, many thought it was a ploy to sign prep-star Mitch Mustain, Malzahn’s prized Springdale quarterback that agreed to join him in Fayetteville. When Malzahn’s no-huddle, hurry-up spread offense was tossed aside for a power running attack, Mustain transferred to USC and Malzahn took his talents to Tulsa, where he ran turned Todd Graham’s offense into one of the most potent in all of college football. When Auburn head coach Gene Chizik lured Malzahn away from Tulsa and back into the SEC, Graham looked back into the high school ranks and hired another successful high school coach, Chad Morris… who just so happened to befriend Malzahn seven years ago, when Malzahn took Arkansas high school football by storm.

“Gus and I have had an unbelievable relationship. I’m very thankful to him,” Morris said earlier this season.

Irish fans don’t have to think hard when trying to imagine what it’d be like if Notre Dame reached out for a succesful high school coach to run their program. For Tulsa’s sake, it looks like the gamble is working again.

5. The road doesn’t get any easier for Bob Diaco.

A week after his worst as a defensive coordinator, Bob Diaco welcomes Tulsa’s high-powered offensive attack into Notre Dame Stadium, short the heart of his defensive line and with a secondary that’s still struggling to get three safeties healthy.

Diaco has gone from pleasant surprise to overwhelmed bum in some fans mind, but if you’re looking for a test of how ready Diaco is to lead the Notre Dame defense, you’ll have four consecutive opponents that’ll push the Irish to the max:

  • TULSA — No. 8 in Total Offense.
  • UTAH — No. 3 in Scoring Offense.
  • ARMY —  No. 8 in Rushing Offense (one place above Navy)
  • USC — No. 7 in Total Offense.

The health of the Irish secondary and Sean Cwynar’s ability to replace Ian Williams will likely decide if Notre Dame goes bowling or not this year, and if the Irish do, credit should go to Diaco for putting together a great final quarter of the season.

For those that want to, it’ll be easy to bury Diaco if the defense gives up a rash of points these next four weeks, but there isn’t a team in the country that faces a more diverse slate of offensive attacks.

6. It looks like a turn for the better for Notre Dame institution Jeff Jeffers.

Let’s end this column with some much-needed good news. This out of WNDU’s NewsCenter, where South Bend sports pillar Jeff Jeffers is reportedly making great progress after he suffered a stroke in late August, just days before he was set to cover his 36th Notre Dame football season.

“When I woke up one morning and they said, ‘You had a stroke’ and I’m like, am I going to die?” Jeff recounted to WNDU’s Maureen McFadden.  “They say, ‘You’re not going to die, you’re in the hospital, you’re in the rehab unit and here’s what we’re going to do.’ And that was a month and a half ago and I’m fine,” says Jeff.

With the help of Jeff’s wife (and live-in nurse) Leslie, Jeff hopes to be back covering the Irish in no time.

“I should be back to work soon, how soon is soon is anybody’s guess, but I’ve received tremendous care with everybody with St. Joe Med and Rehab,” said Jeffers. “I’m on the mend and I hope the worst is passed.”

I had the pleasure to spend some time with Jeff in South Bend this summer as he emceed a few of the dinners for the Fantasy Football camp. There was nobody more welcoming to me, or optimistic that this coaching staff would be the one that brought the Fight back to the Fighting Irish.

It sure seems like Jeff’s practicing what he preaches as well, fighting back strong after a health scare that’d knock weaker men out. Here’s hoping that he keeps taking the fight to his stroke, and is back covering the Irish soon.

Friday at 4: Notre Dame’s unbeaten season yields many wrong preseason predictions

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When wrong, admit it voluntarily. When right, acknowledge it only as necessary. And when it came to preseason predictions, I got a lot wrong about Notre Dame’s 2018. If there is any redeeming thought, it is that at least I expected a win total of more than 9.5. Otherwise, the Irish running game let down a number of projections and Clark Lea’s defense was buoyed by unforeseen contributors.

Friday at 4 (Aug. 17): 40 Predictions, 1-20 with an offensive focus
Friday at 4 (Aug. 24): 40 Predictions, 21-40 with a defensive focus and season-long expectations

Many of these preseason predictions were settled by Notre Dame’s off week in October and discussed then, so those may not be delved into as much at this point …

Revisiting (offensive) predictions from Notre Dame’s preseason (Oct. 17)
Notre Dame’s defense spurs it past preseason big picture predictions (Oct. 18)

1-3) Notre Dame and Michigan will not break 41 total points unless the score is inflated by a defensive or special teams touchdown.
RESULT: Even with a Wolverines kickoff return for a score, the final tally was exactly 41. That’s three in the correct column, and this strong start is misleading.

4) Senior kicker Justin Yoon will make the biggest kick of his life.
RESULT: Not yet, so mark it as incorrect, but if the Irish are to upset Clemson, one figures it will be a close game.

5) Notre Dame will trot out a trick play featuring sophomore quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis’ arm.
RESULT: Incorrect, and given Davis’ (lack of) playing time as the season progressed, this verdict will not flip in the Playoff. It should be noted, senior receiver Chris Finke did nearly attempt a pass against USC before wisely tucking the ball for a one-yard loss.

6) Irish running backs will exceed last year’s totals of 24 catches for 134 yards.
RESULT: Nailed it to the tune of 37 receptions for 456 yards, highlighted by junior Tony Jones’ 51-yard score to seal the unbeaten season at USC, part of a 6-catch, 105-yard day for the running backs.

7) Those running backs will lead the way to averaging between 214.5 and 224.5 rushing yards per game.
RESULT: The want is to blame Pittsburgh for this falling short. That day’s 80 rushing yards certainly played a role in the season-long average falling to 190.9. But even removing that game does not yield enough of a bounce, as Notre Dame averaged only 200.5 in the other 11 games. Want to adjust for sacks? Fine, 208.1 in the other 11.

8) Finke will match his career totals of 16 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns.
RESULT: 47 catches for 547 yards and two touchdowns.

9) Two freshmen receivers will exceed Michael Young’s 2017 totals of four catches for 18 yards and a score.
RESULT: While Kevin Austin does have five catches for 90 yards, no other freshman receiver has cracked the stat sheet. If Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s hints of a freshman speedster breaking through against Clemson prove true, this could switch sides of the ledger, but it is marked incorrect until such is seen, and such is unlikely to be seen.

Chase Claypool finished with 48 catches for 631 yards and four touchdowns in the regular season, all very much career highs. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

10) Junior Chase Claypool will not finish second in receptions or receiving yards.
RESULT: That is exactly where Claypool finished.

Just five football weeks ago, this seemed locked in as accurate, which goes to show how strongly Claypool finished the regular season. To pull from then, “Claypool is currently fourth in catches with 23 and third in yards with 261. … This Claypool projection was a subtle way of saying 2018 would be boom-or-bust for Claypool. That has been the case, but to such an aggravating extent, one can already expect another offseason of storylines discussing Claypool’s inevitable and supposed maturation.”

11) Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar will catch at least three touchdowns, furthering his penchant for receptions in the end zone and nowhere else.
RESULT: Weishar finished with two scores … on three catches. Right in spirit, wrong by letter.

12-13) Greg Dortch and Bryce Love will each score two touchdowns against the Irish.
RESULT: It’s almost like defensive coordinator Clark Lea did not want these predictions to succeed. The Wake Forest receiver and Stanford running back combined to score only one more time than you did against Notre Dame’s defense this season.

14-15) The Irish will play in primetime at Virginia Tech, after the Hokies’ “Enter Sandman” has fulfilled the hype that put it on a universal college football bucket list.
RESULT: If not for the easy predictions, there might not be any correct.

16) Junior quarterback Ian Book will attempt fewer than last season’s 75 passes.
RESULT: Is there a world where 280 is fewer than 75? Asking for a me.

17) Sophomore offensive lineman Josh Lugg will start multiple games, as Notre Dame will not enjoy the  health up front of a year ago.
RESULT: Sophomore Aaron Banks stepped in for the injury to fifth-year left tackle Alex Bars, not Lugg. Wrong by the letter but right by the spirit, again.

18) Multiple freshmen offensive linemen will play.
RESULT: Nope. Only Jarrett Patterson did, no matter what concessions the NCAA offered this season regarding eligibility concerns.

19) DeShone Kizer will not have a good year.
RESULT: Again, the obvious spurred this batting average toward Hall of Fame, yet bankrupting, levels. And with a change in coaching staffs in Green Bay, the former Irish quarterback will likely have a new home by summer.

20) The Florida State weekend will include a 30th anniversary celebration of Notre Dame’s 1988 title team.
RESULT: There was not much ‘88 discussion at any point this season, perhaps out of fear of jinxing the current undefeated run.

21) Freshman defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin will manage at least eight tackles with 0.5 behind the line of scrimmage.
RESULT: Those numbers would have matched Kurt Hinish’s output in 2017, but a torn quad ruined any chance Franklin may have had. Classmate Jayson Ademilola stepped in, easily eclipsing Hinish’s debut season, with 17 tackles and 0.5 for loss. Thus, another incorrect by letter, but the thought was in the right place.

Senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery led Notre Dame with eight sacks, the most by a single Irish player since 2012 when end Stephon Tuitt racked up a dozen. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

22) The Irish will have multiple players with at least six sacks.
23) Junior end Khalid Kareem will lead Notre Dame in sacks.
24) He will have at least eight, marking the most in the program since 2012.
25) And the defense as a whole will match 2012’s 34 sacks.
RESULTS: Senior tackle Jerry Tillery led the Irish with eight sacks and junior end Julian Okwara managed seven, part of a group that managed 31. Despite being largely on the right track here, the verdicts that matter still count just 1-3, barring a three-sack performance in the next game (or two). If Notre Dame is to notch another win, defensive line pressure figures to be a key piece of that upset.

26) The Irish will give up more than 20 points more than three times, but the defense will still allow fewer than 21.5 points per game, both being 2017’s marks.
RESULT: Got one! Wake Forest (27), Virginia Tech (23), Navy (22) and Northwestern (21) all broke 20, but the season average remained just 17.2 points against per game.

27) Again using last season as the initial measuring stick, Notre Dame will allow fewer than 369.2 yards per game. In fact, let’s lower it to 350.
RESULT: Two in a row! The final figure … 331.5, the lowest since 2012’s 305.5.

28) This was a very specific projection expecting opposing running backs to score in the passing game, but here’s the thing …
RESULT: Hardly anyone scoredin the passing game against the Irish, who gave up just seven passing touchdowns this season.

29) Freshman linebackers Shayne Simon and Bo Bauer will not preserve a year of eligibility. Freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec will.
RESULT: Check.

30) A Notre Dame safety will intercept a pass, unlike in 2017.
RESULT: How does five sound?

31) Simon will make 10-plus tackles.
RESULT: If only that had read Bauer. Simon finished with four, while Bauer reached 10. The idea was it would be a freshman linebacker, so there’s that consolation prize.

32) Fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill and senior linebacker Te’von Coney will combine for 220 tackles.
RESULT: Tranquill’s 76 plus Coney’s team-high 107 equal 183. Even a two-game Playoff run would not likely include 37 more.

33) The Yankees really let down their fans this year. You can gather the result by that sentiment.
34) At least Big East basketball in Madison Square Garden still lives up to all expectations. Again, the result is obvious.

35) Nationwide win total unders … Texas Tech under 6.5 (5), Washington State under 5.5 (10), Arizona State under 4.5 (7), North Carolina under 5.5 (2).
RESULT: This is going to sound like a reach, but there are records of this thought process — An added investment in that North Carolina belief actually made this a profitable set.

36) Nationwide win total overs … Virginia Tech over 8 (6), Vanderbilt over 4.5 (6), Northwestern over 6.5 (8), Michigan State over 8.5 (7), TCU over 7.5 (6), Arizona over 7.5 (5), Oregon over 8.5 (8).
RESULT: The two correct — Vanderbilt and Northwestern — were believed as strongly as the previous Tar Heels thought was, but not strongly enough to make 2-4 acceptable.

37) Notre Dame will not reach the top five at any point in 2018.
RESULT: That’s “Playoff-bound” Notre Dame now …

38) The Irish will win more than 9.5 games.
RESULT: Remember when time was spent wondering if Notre Dame could beat three of Michigan, Stanford, Virginia Tech, Florida State and USC?

39) Notre Dame will play in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day.
RESULT: Only one loss away from being accurate.

40) At least 15 of these 40 will be wrong, the Prognosticator’s Paradox.
RESULT: Try 23.

Though, four could conceivably flip Dec. 29 (Nos. 4, 9, 11 and 25) and five more were right in spirit, but not precise enough to count as winning wagers (Nos. 5, 17, 21, 24, 31).

How about a surefire 41st? In a season this fun, this devoid of controversy, little is better than being wrong. This drink is to being wrong often.

Where Notre Dame was, is, and what it needs vs. Clemson: Offensive line

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All the ingredients were there for Notre Dame to have a poor offensive line this season, at least relatively speaking. Only so much can be expected when two All-Americans hear their names called in the first nine picks of the NFL draft, when an esteemed position coach also heads to the NFL and when a presumptive All-American tears his ACL in the first half of the season.

Yet, this Irish line has been good enough to support this unbeaten push to the Playoff, though by doing so, the line’s greatest challenge now awaits.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
The loss of fifth-year left tackle Alex Bars cannot be overstated. The Irish line was not playing excellently through the season’s first third, but it was playing no worse than satisfactorily and its concerns were limited. The four sacks allowed against Ball State were as much a symptom of a questionable offensive game plan and its execution than they were a sign junior right guard Tommy Kraemer was not going to work out as a full-time starter.

The solid core of Bars and fifth-year center Sam Mustipher, an eventual All-American in his own right, made it easier for Notre Dame to compensate elsewhere. Entering the year, that qualification was expected to apply to junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, but with Bars at his side, he wrought no worry. Instead it was Kraemer and to a lesser extent sophomore right tackle Robert Hainsey.

Getting beaten by Michigan’s ends is hardly a fault; few lines in the country could conceivably slow down both Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary. No other threats of that level lingered on the Irish schedule. Planting a running back or tight end to help out against singular dangers — Florida State junior end Brian Burns comes to mind — would be the preferred strategy proven time and time again a year ago. But then Bars got rolled up on against Stanford.

In retrospect, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly may have revealed the awaiting issues when discussing Bars’ injury just the day after it occurred. Kelly wanted to offer nothing but praise of senior Trevor Ruhland, but the differences between him and Bars were too stark to leave unmentioned.

“We don’t have to alter our game plan or calls when Trevor’s in,” Kelly said. “He’s very reliable.

“He doesn’t have the size, necessarily, as Alex does, but he brings some other strengths to the position. … He’s a really solid player.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Thus the one spot of mild concern became two, one on each side of the line, otherwise known as one too many to patch with a running back or tight end while still maintaining the structural integrity of Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme.

Ruhland played well, but he was also needed to shore up right guard for Kraemer. Perhaps it is the workload, maybe he needs time on the sidelines to think through what he is seeing, who knows — Kraemer was not quite handling his first season as a full-time starter. So Notre Dame moved Ruhland over to a timeshare at right guard while promoting sophomore Aaron Banks into the starting lineup at left guard coming out of the October off week.

“[Banks has] been emerging over a period of time,” Kelly said. “Certainly when [Bars] went down, it created more of a focus on the position itself. Tying to duplicate that kind of size and quickness that Alex has is very difficult.

“We felt like Aaron has accelerated his game to the point where we feel comfortable starting him at the left guard position. Still have a lot of confidence in Ruhland and Kraemer … but we think our best chance at playing at the level that we need to puts a 6-5, 325-pound lineman that pass protects very well, moves his feet very well, and plays with explosiveness — now gives us two really big, physical, athletic players on the left side.”

Sophomore right tackle Robert Hainsey and the Notre Dame offensive line allowed only 19 sacks this season. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Banks has largely delivered. Some credit there should probably go to Eichenberg who has handled his tasks as a first-year starter stepping into a position manned by three straight top-20 NFL draftees across the last eight years. The concerns remain the patchwork right guard spot of primarily Kraemer and some Ruhland, and a bit revolving around Hainsey in the run game, his handful of false starts this season overblown in their practical effect.

Gauging the line’s effectiveness in the ground game is difficult, given the up-and-down production of late. Each of the following stats is true, once again proving how easily statistics can be manipulated to fit any storyline:

— The Irish averaged 200 rushing yards per game (sacks adjusted) this season, the third-highest mark of Kelly’s nine years at Notre Dame, trailing only last year’s prolific attack and 2015’s high-powered offense.
— The Irish averaged 209.4 rushing yards per game (sacks adjusted) since inserting Banks into the starting lineup following the off week.
— If removing a 365-yard explosion against an apathetic Florida State defense, that latter figure drops to 170.5.
— Three of the five games in question were far below the 200 mark, averaging 142.5 yards (still sacks adjusted), and even that is inflated by some garbage time breakaways against Syracuse.

Notre Dame still runs the ball whenever Long wants to. The most flexible of selections results in 34.3 attempts per game in those three games of struggles (at Northwestern, vs. Syracuse, at USC), hardly giving up on the ground attack. It just is not breaking defenses that way, and some of that lackluster production comes from the offensive line not getting inherent push.

WHAT NOTRE DAME WILL NEED AGAINST CLEMSON
Its best performance of the year.

There is an alternate universe where Bars does not get hurt, plays left tackle, and Quenton Nelson returned for a fifth season. The left side of that line against this Tigers defense would have triggered exultations from football purists best left undescribed. Alas, this is not that universe. The Irish have not enjoyed such fortune; only Clemson has.

By any measure, this opposing defensive front is better than any Notre Dame has faced to date.

“They have all the pieces,” Kelly said earlier this month. “They have the long, athletic edge player with the physical two-gap inside player. They don’t have just the one kind of player that most defensive lines have, a one-dimensional player. They have them across the board. … There’s no weakness across the front four.

“So you can’t pick a particular guy and say, we’re going to run at him or we’re going to run away from or we’re going to slide the protection to him. If we slide it over here and we leave him one-on-one, that’s a problem. … If there’s a one-on-one across the board, they are all problems. That’s what makes it difficult.”

Ranking the top players across the country in a neat top 50 is an exercise for debate and clicks, but there is still a reason ESPN puts three Tigers defensive linemen in its top 12. They are that good.

Of the defenses the Irish played since turning to Banks, only Northwestern (No. 19) and Florida State (No. 30) hold pertinent rush defense rankings by advanced metrics. The former held Notre Dame to 121 yards on 40 carries, while the latter gave up 365 yards on 50 rushes.

There is a big jump from No. 30 to No. 1, bigger than 29 spots indicate, but if the Irish can run for 200 yards, they would be the first ones to do so against Clemson since the 2016 national championship game. The Tigers still won that, 35-31, despite giving up 221 rushing yards to Alabama, but it took every ounce of offensive production Clemson could muster to outpace the Tide.

As much as keeping junior quarterback Ian Book upright and only mildly hassled, the offensive line’s Dec. 29 performance will be measured by the push it gets on running plays. Long is going to call them regardless.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
Returning four starters next year will not be a bad spot to start, though losing Mustipher is a blow not to be overlooked. A three-year starter at center, he handled protection calls without any second-guessing. Whether it is Ruhland, Hainsey or an underclassmen who steps in for him, there will be a learning curve in that regard.

Where Notre Dame was, is, and what it needs vs. Clemson: Receivers and Tight ends

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The obvious, shortened version of this thought process ties every piece of the receivers’ and tight ends’ development to the shift in quarterbacks. That change certainly aided their production, but so did their development.

A year ago, Brandon Wimbush’s inaccuracy was exacerbated by repeated drops from the likes of Chase Claypool and Alizé Mack. Some of those passes were not perfectly on target, but many hit the target in the hands and yet fell to the turf.

This season, Claypool made twisting grabs contested by defensive backs. Mack held onto passes despite immediate hits. The receivers and tight ends improved on their own, improvements made more evident by Ian Book’s aptitude distributing the ball.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
While discussing the quarterbacks a couple days ago, this space featured a quote from Irish head coach Brian Kelly following the victory in week two against Ball State. In it, Kelly claimed Notre Dame’s leading receiver had nine catches entering 2018. It was only hyperbolic in that senior Miles Boykin had 12 last season and 18 in his career. If Kelly were speaking specifically to Boykin’s regular season output in 2017, nine was indeed accurate.

It remained quoted as nine, rather than with a usual parenthetical correction, because it so aptly underscored the Irish inexperience at receiver and tight end entering this season. Whether Boykin had nine or 12 or 18 receptions, it was not many.

Notre Dame senior receiver Miles Boykin entered the season with 18 career catches for 334 yards and three touchdowns. He has more than doubled each of those in 2018 alone, pulling in 54 passes for 803 yards and eight scores. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

When Boykin established himself as the leading receiving in spring practice and even more so in the preseason, it seemed to serve as a reminder of Claypool’s continued inconsistencies. When sophomore Michael Young suffered a hamstring injury in August, it seemed to lower the ceiling on the passing game even further, pulling the only-known speed threat and replacing it with Chris Finke’s good hands, but not much more.

Book changed those perceptions, but arguably not as much as the receivers themselves did throughout the season.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Let’s continue to use Claypool as the driving example, and let’s acknowledge a mistake in analysis from yours truly. At Northwestern to start November, Claypool had a catch on the second Irish drive, gaining 16 yards and a first down. A possession later, he pulled in another for 19. Both were quality, physical plays. Then he went silent for more than a quarter, targeted just once. Claypool was no longer getting separation as he had to begin the evening.

The halftime score of 7-7 left one wondering how Notre Dame would find needed offensive output. One colleague posited it would come from Claypool. This response? “He already has his two big catches for the day. He’s good.”

To that point, Claypool had not strung together consistently-good performances at any point in his career. Last season he exceeded three catches just twice, and they were separated by six weeks. Through this September and October, he had established five as his lofty ceiling, reaching it in each of the two weeks preceding the trip to Lake Michigan. Expecting Claypool to break out in the second half of a close game was a hope based on little evidence.

Then he put together six catches for 95 yards in that half alone. Two weeks later, a similar stat line came in Yankee Stadium. Claypool has not yet shown a reliable ability to reach his best, but in Book’s last five starts, the junior receiver’s floor became five catches for 60 or so yards. That is production the Irish will gladly take.

“He has really ascended this year,” Kelly said following that Northwestern showing. “… The way he practices, anybody who has been around the game knows the great players are great practice players. The way he practices now carries over to the way he plays, and it’s showing itself in his maturity and the way he practices.”

Similar growth has been seen from the rest of Notre Dame’s primary passing targets.

Boykin’s breakthrough came as September turned to October, making 11 and eight catches in back-to-back weeks, each breaking triple digits and reaching the end zone. Before last year’s Citrus Bowl heroics, Boykin had never made as many as three catches in a game. At this point, he has done so in eight straight. Senior Chris Finke has gone from only one game with multiple catches in 2017 to managing such in every game in 2018.

Miles Boykin: 54 catches for 803 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Chase Claypool: 48 catches for 631 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Chris Finke: 47 catches for 547 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Alizé Mack: 34 catches for 349 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Cole Kmet: 14 catches for 151 yards.
Michael Young: 7 catches for 138 yards and 1 touchdown.
Kevin Austin: 5 catches for 90 yards.
Nic Weishar: 3 catches for 10 yards and 2 touchdowns.

If Notre Dame senior tight end were to match his two touchdowns scored against Florida State when the Irish face Clemson on Dec. 29, that would bode very, very well for the chances of extending his collegiate career by a game. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

WHAT NOTRE DAME WILL NEED AGAINST CLEMSON
This newfound consistency, plus a big play or two from the tight ends. That is where a mismatch may be found.

Such an added dimension has been lacking in part because the receivers have played so well, in part because sophomore Cole Kmet has battled a lingering ankle injury, and in part because it is a difficult aspect of the game in general, let alone for a first-year starting quarterback without the greatest deep ball.

Kelly has spoken of slipping in a speedy freshman to create a deep threat and put pressure on the Tigers’ safeties.

“We’re looking for maybe one speed guy that could do some things for us in a limited role,” Kelly said last week. “… We’ve got a couple guys on audition. We’ll see if it’s a gong show or if there is someone that can up and do something.”

The thought feels manufactured, something to motivate the freshmen through this month and possibly make Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables think for a night. There is a reason it has not happened yet this season, and that is the Irish know what they may have at tight end.

“Chris Finke was clearly established at that position (where a freshman could step in),” Kelly said. “Our ability to use a tight end as the next guy in at the position in terms of how we were going to run our offense …”

In other words, Finke is backed up by Kmet, not by freshman Braden Lenzy or Lawrence Keys. Kmet’s or Mack’s athleticism and size could put a Tigers safety in a compromised position, creating a 30-yard shot downfield against the defense that ranked No. 11 defending those this season.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
A tricky question to ponder until knowing whether Boykin and Claypool head to the NFL or not. Finke is staying, Mack is going, and fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar is out of eligibility. The decisions affect the position’s experience, not as much its depth, considering 11 receivers and six tight ends (counting Mack and Weishar) currently populate the roster with two more receivers expected to sign National Letters of Intent in less than a week.

Where Notre Dame was, is, and what it needs: Running backs

Associated Press
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This discussion will shift greatly a month from now. As soon as Notre Dame’s Playoff run ends, one way or another, the Irish running back room will revert back to what it was in August.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Treading water until the return of a flashy big-play threat who had never shown any semblance of consistency, a reputation underscored by his unspoken four-week suspension to start the season.

The Irish could not wait for senior Dexter Williams to return from that forced sabbatical, and with sophomore Jafar Armstrong and junior Tony Jones around, they did not need to, but neither represented the same potential as Williams.

The duo combined for 111 total yards against Michigan before Armstrong broke loose a bit against Ball State (66 rushing yards, 61 receiving) and Jones did so a week later against Vanderbilt (118 rushing, 56 receiving). They kept things afloat, and that has been forgotten due to Williams’ eventual eight-week explosion. It should not have been. Considering how stilted Notre Dame’s offense was in those two one-possession victories, it is not hard to fathom a loss if not for those respective dual-threats out of the backfield.

To a degree, such an absence was expected; those showings the welcome Irish surprise. Armstrong is a converted receiver, a first-time contributor. Jones proved steady when healthy in 2017, but he had never produced more than 59 yards in a game, let alone nearly triple that.

As Notre Dame struggled to its first three wins, its running backs provided enough offense to keep the Irish afloat, despite the absence of senior Dexter Williams. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

“Jafar is developing each and every week,” head coach Brian Kelly said following the 24-16 win against Ball State. “You saw his versatility again. … He’s learning a lot every week. There’s new experiences for him each and every game that he plays in. This is just accumulating reps for him, game reps, learning as he goes. He’s got some really good skills.

“Tony Jones, we just need him in there, consistency, play at that high level. I think he can be an outstanding back. We just got to get that on a more consistent basis.”

That was the world Notre Dame lived in for four weeks, one where the running backs needed to learn, needed to be consistent. Not one where they ripped off 45-yard touchdown runs against a Stanford front …

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As Williams did on his first carry of the season, and he has hardly looked back since. Not much more time needs to be spent on what the senior has done in a truncated season. Averaging 6.63 yards per rush, Williams gained 941 yards and scored 12 touchdowns in eight games. Both Pittsburgh and Northwestern bottled him up, but that came at the cost of their passing defenses.

The conversation around Williams has focused on his return from suspension, the second notable misstep in his career, complementing injuries and lackluster pass blocking. That conversation is warranted. But so is realizing just how much Williams progressed in on-field ways this season. He had never before touched the ball more than 10 times in a game. His 2018-low came against the Panthers, 15 touches for 33 yards. That durability and reliability comes from more than a simple flip of the proverbial switch.

And it pales in comparison to the 202 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries Williams put together against Florida State.

“His attention to detail now is so much better,” Kelly said the day after that performance. “His working out, his taking care of his body, all the things that championship athletes have to do, Dexter is doing that. Now put the athleticism in front of that, and you’re not surprised that he’s having the kind of success that he’s having.”

WHAT NOTRE DAME WILL NEED AGAINST CLEMSON
As much as Williams can muster, and then some from Armstrong, plus a bit of physicality from Jones. And yes, that is a lot to ask.

Going by numbers beyond sheer yardage allowed per game, the Tigers have the best rush defense in the country. As it pertains to Williams and his penchant for breaking long runs, Clemson limits rushing explosiveness better than 129 other teams in FBS. Note: There are a total of 130 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

The Irish are going to struggle against the Tigers front. Any chances at chunk rushing yardage will be few and far between. In a way, the afternoon of Dec. 29 may need a heavy dosage of Jones’ bruising style to loosen up the defense before Williams can then chip away at it.

The best rush defense Notre Dame has faced with Williams included has been Northwestern (No. 19 by advanced metrics). The Irish gained 132 yards on 37 carries (kneel downs adjusted) against the Wildcats, numbers that may need to be satisfactory against Clemson. Before junior quarterback Ian Book’s game-clinching 23-yard touchdown run in the final minutes, the longest Notre Dame rush was Williams for 19 yards.

To get to 132 yards without relying on big plays showed how devoted Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long was to the run that evening along Lake Michigan. Such stubbornness kept Northwestern honest, eventually allowing the passing game to open up.

Expecting more than a hard-nosed and frustrating effort against possibly the most-talented defensive line in a generation is to pin hopes on the exceedingly unlikely. A serviceable showing, though, would keep Notre Dame in the mix at the end of the month.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
Without Williams next season, the thoughts will again return to the two-headed possibilities of Armstrong and Jones, with current freshmen C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith their backups.