The way too early 2012 starting lineup: Offense

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We’ve had our fifteen-window look heading at the 2012 Fighting Irish, culminating in Saturday’s spring football game. While the roster will see the infusion of 14 freshman this summer, let’s take a look at the way too early 2012 offensive depth chart, updating it with what we learned this spring.

OFFENSIVE LINE

With Braxston Cave spending most of spring recovering from a late season foot injury, the Irish trotted Mike Golic out as the center. Whether Golic stays in the starting lineup after Cave returns is likely up to guys like Tate Nichols, Christian Lombard, and Nick Martin.

The left side of the offensive line is rock solid with Zack Martin returning for his third tour of duty protecting the quarterback’s blind side and Chris Watt looking to build on an impressive season. With Cave the third member of this line that’s expected to play at a championship level, the two jobs that still need to shake out are the replacements for Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever.

One thing we’ve learned this spring is that Christian Lombard has seized one of the jobs. Lombard, who the staff thought highly enough of last year to let Matt Romine walk with a fifth-year of eligibility remaining, is going to start the season in the starting lineup. Whether that’s at guard or tackle is likely up to Tate Nichols. Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand have already decided that Lombard is one of the four best linemen on the team. If Nichols shows himself to be the fifth, and can handle the edge of the offensive line, the Irish should be set.

Early Projection for opening day:

Zack Martin, LT
Chris Watt, LG
Braxston Cave, C
Christian Lombard, RG
Tate Nichols, RT

Thoughts: This might be what I’m hoping for as opposed to what’s been decided because the first-string offensive line was featuring Lombard at tackle, with Golic and Nick Martin leading the battle at guard. That said, regardless of the physical improvements Golic has made, he’s still not the type of mauler that Nichols can be, and while Lombard will handle right tackle if needed, a road-grader like Nichols is a much better fifth starter than the physically limited Golic. In an ideal world, Golic turns into this season’s Andrew Nuss, a super-sub type that backs up the three interior positions. (That said, don’t be surprised if Nick Martin is the guy to beat at guard, with Lombard shifting outside.)

TIGHT END

A quick viewing of the Blue-Gold game gives you the feeling that Tyler Eifert will likely be a tight end by name only. Split wide, he’s the Irish’s top receiving threat. Paired with an inline blocker, it’s a mismatch waiting to happen. (Take a look at the deep post Eifert ran, it was a two-man route with Ben Koyack running the under route.) Even with Troy Niklas missing the spring’s final week with the flu and then concussion-like symptoms, he’s got to be the leader in the clubhouse to be the Irish’s top attached blocker.

Alex Welch, who had been passed by Ben Koyack last season, had a nice spring, fighting his way back into the mix and showing just how good the depth chart looks behind Eifert. Koyack is expected to do big things next season and into the future. Jake Golic, who along with Eifert is the elder-statesman of the group, reportedly has come down with mono, but he’ll likely only contribute on special teams.

Early Projection for opening day:

Tyler Eifert (never coming off the field)
Troy Niklas
Ben Koyack
Alex Welch
Jake Golic

Thoughts: Expect Eifert to play as many snaps as he can handle. I fully expect Niklas to become a weapon by the end of the season, and the Irish have taken a look at every snap of the New England Patriots’ tape to see how to use Eifert with Niklas, or whoever else can step up and make an impact. With plenty of two-tight sets, expect the top four on this depth chart to see plenty of playing time, and Golic do his best to get in the rotation.

OUTSIDE WIDE RECEIVER

If tight end is an embarrassment of riches, the outside receiver is quite the opposite. While John Goodman was voted most improved by the coaching staff this spring on the offensive side of the ball, believing that the fifth-year senior is ready to tap into all of his bottled promise is a leap I’m not yet willing to make. Same goes for Daniel Smith, who made it through spring practice healthy, and passes the eyeball test, but doesn’t look to be an explosive option. Davaris Daniels is the guy the Irish staff likely wants on the field, and might hope is flying under the radar. TJ Jones doesn’t look to have the physicality needed to be a top-flight outside wide receiver at this level (or at least he hasn’t shown it yet), but he’s taken a lot of snaps and needs to be a leader. Chris Brown and Justin Ferguson, not on campus until this summer, are true wildcards, with the staff believing Brown has the speed and athleticism to get on the field quickly. The loss of Luke Massa to a knee injury, after he looked good during spring drills, can’t help from a sheer numbers perspective either.

This is still a spread offense, regardless of how good the tight end depth chart is. The Irish are going to need two or three of these guys to be ready to go from day one, and the loss of Floyd, not to mention the late defection of Deontay Greenberry, will have Irish fans quickly wondering what could’ve been. That said, Mike Denbrock has done nothing but good things since he stepped back on campus, and he and Chuck Martin taking the reins of the passing game should open things up.

Early Projection for opening day:

Davaris Daniels
TJ Jones
John Goodman
Chris Brown
Daniel Smith
Justin Ferguson
Luke Massa (injured)
Andre Smith (walk-on)

Thoughts: This group doesn’t give you much confidence, but there is some talent here. Past numbers certainly won’t show that, but Goodman has a chance to be this season’s Jonas Gray, and Jones has shown flashes of being a starting-caliber player. While we’ll talk about the quarterback being a game manager, the Irish coaching staff will need to call the right game and play the best scheme to bring the most out of this group, as it’s not going to wow you with its athleticism.

SLOT RECEIVER

This is where we see the versatility of the Irish offense. On paper, there looks to be only Robby Toma currently on campus that plays the position. Davonte Neal, who was among the top recruited skill players in the country, could immediately make his mark, but he’ll need to learn the concepts and the playbook first. The same goes for KeiVarae Russell, who might be the forgotten man in this recruiting class, but someone people think could be a game-breaking talent. The versatility of the roster, where Tony Alford coaches both slot receivers and running backs, and Martin’s redesign of an offense that got way too vanilla last year, make this position a true mystery.

George Atkinson, Cierre Wood, and Theo Riddick all looked very good this spring, with the Irish running attack truly three-deep during the spring game. All three can play some version of slot receiver, with Riddick leading the team in catches during the scrimmage and Atkinson making some explosive plays in the passing game as well. We’ve only seen him with crutches, but the Irish believe they have another elite talent with Amir Carlisle, who dominated during the All-Star game circuit as a blue-chip recruit at wideout and was USC’s most versatile running back before transferring to South Bend.

It may be difficult to classify these guys correctly, but from this point going forward, who cares. The staff knows they are going to need to get the ball in their best players hands. How and where they do it will be fun to track.

Early Projection for opening day:

Robby Toma (could be a breakout player)
Amir Carlisle
Davonte Neal
George Atkinson
KeiVarae Russell

Thoughts: This group is going to be the most fun to watch. I could make a good argument that every guy listed here is going to have a huge season. The upside potential on all of these guys is tremendous and Chuck Martin is committed to finding interesting ways to get these guys touches. That’s all you can ask for.

RUNNING BACK

When Jonas Gray went down last season, the Irish’s biggest depth-chart deficiency on offense was revealed. With only freshmen Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson available as back-ups, Brian Kelly returned Theo Riddick to the backfield, where he’s stayed after looking natural at the position against Stanford and Florida State.

The addition of Amir Carlisle, the recruitment of Will Mahone and KeiVarae Russell, and the ascension of Atkinson this spring has turned this into one of the strongest positions on the Irish roster, and led to McDaniel getting reps with the depleted cornerbacks. Top-lined by returning starter Cierre Wood, the Irish can easily trot out four starting caliber running backs, before ever knowing what Mahone or Russell bring to the table.

With the balance of power in the offense tilted to running back and depth at tight end, expect all these guys — whoever is starting — to get carries.

Early Projection for opening day:

Cierre Wood
Theo Riddick
Amir Carlisle
George Atkinson
KeiVarae Russell
Will Mahone

Thoughts: The running game is going to power this offense. Call me crazy, but each of the top four guys listed could put up thousand yard seasons when you tally up rushing and receiving yards. That’s a scary proposition, especially when you know that Tyler Eifert is going to get his fair share of touches, too. For as much as people complain about the Irish’s weapons, this position grouping is definitely BCS caliber, and should remind Irish fans of the running game Lou Holtz used to trot out on the field.

QUARTERBACKS

Of course, it all is going to come down to the man behind center. The Blue-Gold game showed that the position battle, likely a three-man race between incumbent Tommy Rees and challengers Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix, is far from over. It might be so unresolved that it gives Gunner Kiel a chance to fight his way into it, too.

The spring game was a microcosm of all three starting candidates problems. Rees forced a ball into coverage and threw a bad interception. Hendrix locked on a receiver, never even noticing a dropping linebacker that was there to pounce, too. Both are mistakes that upperclassmen can’t make. Golson, who looked the best of the three, struggled to get the team in alignment quick enough, burning two timeouts in more than comfortable circumstances.

This battle could go any way before the Irish board the plane to Dublin. But as of now, here’s my gut on where things will end up.

Early Projection for opening day:

Everett Golson
Tommy Rees
Andrew Hendrix
Gunner Kiel

Thoughts: Chuck Martin will earn his salary, and likely his first major head coaching opportunity, if he can get this group to play up to its potential. Admittedly, this depth chart is based around what we saw during the spring game, and the coaching staff had 14 other opportunities to evaluate the position. During his postgame press conference, Kelly made it clear that Golson, while he looked good, needed to put in the time during voluntary workouts to win the job. Never one to shy away from playing multiple guys behind center, there’s a high likelihood that we’ll see three (and maybe even four) of these guys.

Notre Dame, Ian Book turn to passing game in blow out of Wake Forest

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The instinct is to lead with a “book” pun here to cleverly recognize Notre Dame junior quarterback Ian Book’s performance in his first career start made by coaching choice rather than injury to usual-starter Brandon Wimbush. Such wordplay would be a disservice to Book’s showing in the 56-27 Irish victory at Wake Forest on Saturday and minimize the decision made by Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly to make the change despite a No. 8 ranking and remaining undefeated.

“I didn’t sleep great last night because that’s a pretty big decision to make when you’re 3-0 and your quarterback that was leading your team is [12-3] as a starter,” Kelly said. “Had a lot of confidence in Ian and I thought our offense played to the level I thought it was capable of.”

Book improved that record to 4-0 without any trouble, even if the Deacons did hand the Irish their first deficit of the season with a first-quarter field goal. Book responded by completing all four of his passes on the subsequent drive, three of them going to senior tight end Alizé Mack for 41 yards. Once sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong found the end zone with a 30-yard score, Notre Dame never trailed again, rattling off 28 unanswered points in one stretch spanning much of the second and third quarters.

Armstrong finished with 98 yards and two touchdowns on only eight carries, part of the Irish gaining 245 yards on 39 carries (sacks adjusted). Book threw for 325 yards and two more scores — giving him five total thanks to three short jaunts across the goal line of 2, 2 and 1 yard — to bring the Notre Dame total to 566 yards, its most of the season by 152.

Despite giving up more than 17 points for the first time of the year, the Irish had little trouble with Wake Forest’s up-tempo attack. The Deacons gained 398 total yards, their first time falling short of 500 this season, on 92 plays, a lackluster average of 4.2 yards per play. Their final two scores came against what was increasingly Notre Dame’s second and third-units, the first time those reserves have gotten a chance to stretch their legs in a game.

They can thank Book for that opportunity, above all others.

Though this pass in the end zone fell incomplete, senior tight end Alizé Mack benefited from the change in starting quarterbacks, setting a career-high in receiving yards with 61 and tying his career-high in receptions with six. That latter mark was originally set when Ian Book started a 2017 game at North Carolina in place of injured then-starter Brandon Wimbush. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Book, obviously. His stats jump off the page no matter the situation: A 73.5 percent completion rate to gain 325 yards by connecting with 10 different receivers (two more than the season’s previous high, set last week against Vanderbilt). Nine rushes for 47 yards (sacks adjusted). Five total touchdowns.

If this proves to be Book’s coming-out party, that will be a tough standard to maintain.

His connection with Mack stands out. Though the senior did not reach the end zone, Book looked for him eight times, including repeatedly early to build a rhythm. Mack caught six of those for 61 yards, both career highs. Frankly, he nearly matched his combined output in the season’s first three games of six catches for 74 yards.

Book found Mack both in the flat and headed downfield on a seam route, displaying a diverse skill set from the tight end previously only speculated about. Mack was not the only tight end Book looked to, also connecting with sophomore Brock Wright for a three-yard score, Wright’s first in his career and only second career catch. His first? It came last week, on a pass from Book.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
If not the early days of the week when Kelly decided to switch his primary playmaker, inserting Book into the starting lineup and moving Wimbush to the sideline, then …

For the first time this season, the Irish did not score on their first possession. The Book experiment looked to be a questionable one when Notre Dame could not muster much on its second possession, either. A fumble from sophomore receiver Michael Young ended the third. At that point, 12 plays had yielded 42 yards and no points. Wake Forest led. Another long day appeared imminent.

The Irish scored touchdowns on eight of their next nine possessions. The fourth of which eliminated any Deacons hope before it could genuinely take root. Wake Forest had just run a breakneck drive covering 75 yards in 10 plays that took fewer than three minutes to come within 21-13. The Deacons had begun the day trading field goals for touchdowns, but when senior running back Matt Colburn scored from two yards out, suddenly their offense seemed more viable. The execution it needed had shown up.

Notre Dame responded with a play many have become conditioned to cringe at. It is nearly a pavlovian response: When the Irish run a bubble screen to a receiver, express frustration and doubt the play-calling acumen as soon as the pass is thrown parallel to the line of scrimmage.

It is hard to doubt the concept when it results in a 66-yard dash by Young, sprung by blocks from Mack and senior receiver Miles Boykin. Book’s stat line was the beneficiary, thanks to both the yards after the catch and the chance to score a 2-yard rushing touchdown. In just 62 seconds, Notre Dame’s lead was back to two possessions before halftime. Wake Forest would not score again until the Irish had already raced to a 49-13 lead near the end of the third quarter.

Notre Dame relied on its rushing game less than ever before this season, but it still produced. Sophomore Jafar Armstrong began the day of Irish scoring with this 30-yard touchdown run. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

STAT OF THE GAME
At halftime, Book’s stat line read 16-of-24 passing for 189 yards. The two dozen pass attempts stood out, especially in comparison to the team total of 15 rushing attempts to that point. It was the first time Notre Dame’s offense skewed toward the air in the first half.

Vanderbilt: 27 rushes in the first half; 17 passes.
Ball State: 20 rushes; 17 passes.
Michigan: 25 rushes; 15 passes.

Even with the hefty lead, the Irish balance came closer to even than it had all season.

Wake Forest: 40 rushes in the game; 36 passes.
Vanderbilt: 48 rushes; 26 passes.
Ball State: 41 rushes; 31 passes.
Michigan: 47 rushes; 22 passes.

“It’s where we have wanted it to go and grow,” Kelly said. “The balance necessary of run and pass is where ultimately this offense has been (going). I brought [offensive coordinator Chip Long] in to run a balanced run-pass offense.

“You saw what it should look like today.”

The shift toward the air showed in both the total of 566 yards and in the average of 7.4 yards gained per play. The previous peak for the Irish was 5.8 against Ball State. (Vanderbilt: 5.1; Michigan 4.4)

PLAY(S) OF THE GAME
Young’s bubble screen nearly to the end zone could qualify, but instead this space will include mention of a moment that occurred long after the result was determined. Freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec undoubtedly did not expect his first collegiate playing time to come anywhere but Notre Dame Stadium, but the last two weeks of close games had changed those plans. With about four minutes left at Wake Forest, the heralded passer entered.

On his third snap, he comfortably and confidently fired a deep pass toward classmate Kevin Austin. The receiver’s legs innocently tangled with the defensive back’s, removing any chance of a completion, but it was telling how at ease Jurkovec was with the heave.

On the next snap, Jurkovec ran around the right end for a 7-yard gain, enjoying every step of it.

It was not all wonderful by the supposed quarterback-of-the-future, as he then missed a wide-open Wright on a crossing route, the exact kind of spot a quarterback praised for his accuracy should shine.

A WIN IS A WIN IS A …

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
5:19 — Wake Forest field goal. Nick Sciba 30 yards. Wake Forest 3, Notre Dame 0. (4 plays, 1 yard, 0:41)
3:06 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jafar Armstrong 30-yard run. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Wake Forest 3. (6 plays, 75 yards, 2:13)

Second Quarter
14:56 — Wake Forest field goal. Sciba 39 yards. Notre Dame 7, Wake Forest 6. (12 plays, 54 yards, 3:10)
11:25 — Notre Dame touchdown. Brock Wright 3-yard pass from Ian Book. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Wake Forest 6. (10 plays, 80 yards, 3:31)
9:19 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tony Jones 4-yard run. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Wake Forest 6. (2 plays, 4 yards, 0:10)
6:26 — Wake Forest touchdown. Matt Colburn 2-yard. Sciba PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Wake Forest 13. (10 plays, 75 yards, 2:53)
5:24 — Notre Dame touchdown. Book 2-yard run. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Wake Forest 13. (4 plays, 75 yards, 1:02)

Third Quarter
9:46 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chase Claypool 7-yard pass from Book. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 35, Wake Forest 13. (9 plays, 74 yards, 3:18)
5:15 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jafar Armstrong 1-yard run. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 42, Wake Forest 13. (7 plays, 71 yards, 2:25)
4:18 — Notre Dame touchdown. Book 2-yard run. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 49, Wake Forest 13. (3 plays, 47 yards, 0:47)
0:44 — Wake Forest touchdown. Kendall Hinton 23-yard run. Sciba PAT good. Notre Dame 49, Wake Forest 20. (9 plays, 75 yards, 3:34)

Fourth Quarter
11:27 — Notre Dame touchdown. Book 1-yard run. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 56, Wake Forest 20. (11 plays, 75 yards, 4:17)
4:53 — Wake Forest touchdown. Jamie Newman 15-yard rush. Sciba PAT good. Notre Dame 56, Wake Forest 27. (13 plays, 79 yards, 6:34)

Notre Dame at Wake Forest: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much?

Associated Press
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WHO? No. 8 Notre Dame (3-0) at Wake Forest (2-1).

WHAT? A rematch from last year’s 48-37 Irish victory, though both of these teams have since lost their greatest offensive weapons. Notre Dame can no longer claim a record-setting back running behind two offensive linemen already starting in the NFL, and the Demon Deacons are without four-year starting quarterback John Wolford and his impeccable understanding of the scheme.

WHEN? 12 p.m. ET. Yes, a rare early kick for the Irish, their first since back-to-back noon kicks to start October in 2016, a 50-33 victory against Syracuse in East Rutherford, N.J., and a 10-3 loss at North Carolina State in a literal hurricane.

WHERE? BB&T Field, Winston-Salem, N.C. The smallest home stadium of all 65 Power Five schools, BB&T holds 31,500. The next smallest is Washington State’s Martin Stadium, holding a bit more than 32,000.

ABC will have the national broadcast, and one presumes it will be available for streaming through the Watch ESPN app.

WHY? In many respects, the schedule has set up nearly-ideally for the Irish, and this trip plays right into that. Notre Dame got to face Michigan before the Wolverines found anything of an offense, having scored 49 and 45 points in the two weeks since. Then the Irish could work through offensive struggles of their own against Ball State and Vanderbilt. Now Notre Dame’s first road trip of the season also looks to be its easiest of only four true road games.

That has opened the door for Irish head coach Brian Kelly to reportedly start junior Ian Book at quarterback in place of a healthy Brandon Wimbush, the starter in 15 of the last 16 games, only sitting at North Carolina last year due to a mild foot injury.

IT SEEMS LIKE NOTRE DAME HAS PLAYED WAKE FOREST A LOT OF LATE.
That is not false. The two met for the first time in 2011, and this will be their fifth matchup in only eight years. The Irish have won the previous four, with the only trip to Winston-Salem being the only one-possession contest of the bunch, a 24-17 outcome in that first game. At the time, it did not feel low-scoring; No. 1 LSU was holding off No. 2 Alabama 9-6 in overtime without anyone finding the end zone as Brian Kelly began his own postgame press conference.

BY HOW MUCH? After spending much of the week with Notre Dame favored by eight points, the spread swung Friday to a 6.5-point margin with a combined point total over/under of 59.5. If sticking to those marks, a 33-27 Irish win would be the conclusion.

Two parts of that stick out. Notre Dame has yet to give up more than 17 points in a game while the Deacons managed just 23 in their opener at Tulane. The Irish, meanwhile, have not scored more than 24 points in a game since running up those 48 against Wake Forest last year, a seven-game stretch.

Then why the elevated over/under? The Deacons defense is bad enough, bookmakers expect Notre Dame’s offense to finally break through, no matter who leads the way at quarterback.

I’ll believe that when I see it, though the atrocious Wake Forest defense should give way more often than speedy and shifty receiver Greg Dortch finds the end zone.

Notre Dame 27, Wake Forest 24.
(3-0 in pick; 1-2 against the spread, 3-0 point total.)

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Could Notre Dame’s identity be as obvious as it seems?
Who can Notre Dame play at nickel back to slow Wake’s Greg Dortch?
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Rough weekends for Florida State & USC with little relief in sight
Notre Dame’s scripts bear more repeating
And In That Corner … The Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Things To Learn: Will Notre Dame’s offense show up on its first road trip?
Brian Kelly refuses to tip Notre Dame’s hand amid QB rumors
When applauding Notre Dame’s opponents is appropriate

OUTSIDE READING:
Ian Book expected to start for Notre Dame
Third and too many for Notre Dame
Wake Forest, and Greg Dortch, primed for opportunity against No. 8 Notre Dame
Kendall Hinton’s return to field could come in a few different places
Magic won’t fix Wake Forest’s issues with pass defense, so the Deacons turn to other methods
Talent, tragedy and triumph: The legend of Sam Hartman
Sam Hartman’s path to Wake Forest’s starting QB has been anything but normal
How did Florida State’s offensive line get this bad?
Eagles promote running back Josh Adams from practice squad

Friday at 4: When applauding Notre Dame’s opponent is appropriate

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It took me four years to watch every episode of “Cheers.” Late at night, wanting background noise while turning notes into coherent sentences, the banter filled the silence at an appropriate rate. The few laughs every 22 minutes were a bonus. Once Sam Malone turned off the lights at the bar for the last time, it was only natural to continue with “Frasier.”

An episode late in season four played on a screen to my side while compiling the needed scores, stats and spreads for this week’s Notre Dame’s Opponents entry. I barely heard Frasier’s son, Frederick, explain he had long known his dad wasn’t perfect.

“You couldn’t fix my computer. You thought Venus was the North Star, and I’ve seen you run.” Frederick told Frasier before explaining why he had never pointed out these deficiencies. “I thought it might hurt your self-esteem.”

I have never worried about those feelings with my father. His shortcomings are too apparent to pretend not to notice. He finishes off the tray of potatoes at dinner without asking if anyone else wants them, before they have made so much as one trip around the table. Calling his handwriting illegible is an insult to any three-year-old who ever picked up chalk.

And, he’s a Boston Red Sox fan.

Despite that terrible mistake, my father still always gave a nod to New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter as someone he could tolerate. More than that, he outright respected Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. Greatness like that should not be clouded by rivalry, no matter how many times Rivera and the Yankees shut the door on the Red Sox.

The same can and should be applied in any sport. Make no mistake, Rivera is the extreme of a fandom’s struggle. He was such a class act while throwing the single-greatest pitch in baseball history, a Red Sox (or Braves or Mets or Phillies) fan could hate how effective he was, but not the player himself. Watching Mariano required a touch of admiration.

By no means are any of the following examples anywhere near Rivera’s caliber. He may be on his own in that right. (After all, more men have walked on the moon than knocked in an earned postseason run against Rivera.)

So early in his career, perhaps Wake Forest junior receiver Greg Dortch should be considered near the other end of this thought process, but Notre Dame fans should watch Dortch tomorrow and expect to marvel at what he can do on a football field, even as he keeps the score a bit closer than they may like. If not rationally capable of that, then perhaps table the appreciation for afterward and provided an Irish victory, return to some of Dortch’s dashes down the field. He is electric with the football in a way not seen often enough. Then again, it is its rarity that makes it so worthwhile.

Dortch has touched the football 45 times in three games this year. He has gained 674 yards. At some point, he will beat Notre Dame’s secondary. Separate the effect on the game from the actual ability for just a moment, and recognize how unfathomably quick Dortch is.

In a year, expect to experience something similar when Boston College visits South Bend in late November. Sophomore running back AJ Dillon may already be the best running back in the country. With another year, he could be approaching the platonic ideal of college football.

It will be tougher to appreciate Dillon than it should be with Dortch, though. The Eagles will be a better team than the Deacons are. Given last week’s result, Boston College already is. Unless a player is as peerless as the Great Mariano — who holds the record for throwing the last pitch in the most World Series. How many did he do so? Answer at bottom. — some ill will remains as they succeed at your team’s expense. Despite Dortch’s best efforts, Notre Dame should still win this weekend, just not by as much as if he was out with another injury. Topping Boston College in 14 months will not be as certain.

That is part of the formula to appreciating individual opponents in college football. An excellent player on a defeated foe is more palatable to reminisce over thanks to the eventual victory. The win makes the remembered frustration feel deserved afterward.

It is why names like Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson and Pittsburgh receiver Larry Fitzgerald are remembered with nothing but fondness. Combined, they went 0-6 against Notre Dame.

In an informal survey of a dozen Irish fans this week asking what past opposing players they had most enjoyed to watch, those names were mentioned frequently, but combined they did not outpace USC running back Reggie Bush. The praises uttered for the Heisman-returnee all included caveats. Those disclaimers did not tie to any of the Trojans’ vacated wins or issues with the NCAA. They boiled down to one thing: USC went 3-0 against Notre Dame during Bush’s time there.

Dortch has not played the Irish. A life-threatening intestinal injury sidelined him last year. He may well end his career 1-0 against Notre Dame, but that is not reason enough to not take a moment Saturday afternoon and mutter some four-letter words under your breath out of respect, appreciation and admiration.

Even my father mustered that much for Mariano after he threw three scoreless innings in game seven of the 2003 ALCS to keep the Red Sox at bay for another year. His handwriting remains terrible and Thanksgiving potatoes are a 50/50 proposition for the rest of us, but he at least got that acknowledgment right.

(Five. Mariano threw the last pitch in five World Series, which includes the 2001 defeat.)

Brian Kelly refuses to tip Notre Dame’s hand amid QB rumors

Associated Press
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Brandon Wimbush will play. Ian Book will play. That much is clear, and it is not a change from the season’s first three weeks.

Which will start? Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly would not divulge that Thursday, though that was probably more an inclination to stick to inane modern coaching standards than it was actual indecision.

“We need them both to win,” Kelly said of his quarterbacks. “They are both ready.”

The questions arose out of speculation from national media personalities the Irish may turn to the backup Book more at Wake Forest, if not even start the junior. Book has seen less than a handful of snaps in each game thus far this season, usually within yards of the goal line.

Notre Dame turned to Book in those spots as they fit his aptitude in read-option packages beginning under center. That does not mean Book was not ready to play no matter the field position.

“He was prepared to play anywhere,” Kelly said. “That’s just where he played in those games.”

Once asked, there was no situation in which Kelly was going to say more than that. Given the Irish have already made it a point to include Book in each game plan, downgrading that status to insist Wimbush is the starter would serve no function but internal confusion. If Book’s role is going to increase, then Kelly gains nothing by warning the Demon Deacons.

RELATED READING: Things To Learn — Will Notre Dame’s offense show up on its first road trip?

He did make one unexpected acknowledgement, though. Throughout Kelly’s tenure, the backup quarterback has taken about 40 percent of the reps in practice. That was true with Book during the preseason, but the ratio has apparently since skewed.

“They’ve been pretty close,” Kelly said. “… This has been pretty close to 50/50. We’ve been managing it that way.”

The one quarterback not in the mix is freshman Phil Jurkovec, working primarily with the scout team. Kelly would like to get Jurkovec some playing time in line with the new NCAA rule allowing up to four games of action without jeopardizing a year of eligibility. Any playing time for Jurkovec would come in the specific scenario of a blowout, naturally.

“If we got an opportunity, we would love to get him some playing time, as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve been in some close, hard-fought games.

“… It’s hard when you’re running someone else’s offense each week. We bring him up [to practice with the offense] and he’s working off a card. What we like most about him is his leadership presence, just the way he handles himself, but I couldn’t really tell you whether he could go in there and run the offense. He hasn’t had that much work.”

Other freshmen are on the verge of contributing in competitive moments, some perhaps not in more than four games. Kelly noted cornerback Tariq Bracy and linebacker Shayne Simon, having appeared in three games and the latter two contests, respectively, as well as cornerback Noah Boykin and receiver Joe Wilkins, neither of which has taken the field yet.

“There’s probably half a dozen guys that we’re seeing that, ‘Hey, we’re probably going to see two or three or maybe four games on some of these guys,’” Kelly said. “I don’t want to say this in a negative way, there’s a list that are moving from suspects to prospects relative to playing time now.”

Freshman receiver Braden Lenzy is not among that grouping at the current moment as he recovers from a concussion, per Kelly. Lenzy was not in uniform last weekend and will not travel to Wake Forest.

ON NOTRE DAME’S NICKEL BACK PACKAGES
Against the Deacons and junior receiver Greg Dortch, the Irish will rely on sets with more defensive backs than the usual base will. Without senior Shaun Crawford (torn ACL), Notre Dame lacks an established nickel back. The luxury of junior cornerback Donte Vaughn allows star junior cornerback Julian Love to spend more time across from the slot and therefore probably Dortch.

“Julian has that flexibility to move inside,” Kelly said. “We taught him the nickel, (he) had known it. It puts three veteran players on the field for us [at cornerback].”

RELATED READING: Who can Notre Dame play at nickel back to slow Wake’s Greg Dortch?

ON DARNELL EWELL
The sophomore defensive tackle shall now be described as a sophomore offensive guard.

“We felt as we looked at the depth of certain positions, that was an area that we had some issues,” Kelly said. “We felt like in particular this year he could make some strides there.

“He has. He’s really strong. He uses his lower body very well. He can move people off the point. Early indications are that might be a good fit for him.”

At guard, Bars is in the mix with sophomores Dillan Gibbons and Josh Lugg and freshman John Dirksen.