Spring Solutions: Wide receivers and tight ends

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Notre Dame headed into last season without a All-American candidate to catch the football. After a pretty incredible run at the position — from Jeff Samardzija-to-Golden Tate-to-Kyle Rudolph-to-Michael Floyd-to-Tyler Eifert — the Irish had TJ Jones to anchor the position, a solid yet far from spectacular veteran receiver.

Jones flourished in his final season in South Bend, putting together an MVP season as a more than respectable No. 1 wide receiver. But the Irish receiving corps also did its part to step up and move forward, with a nice sophomore season for DaVaris Daniels and impressive contributions by a trio of freshmen.

At tight end, life without Tyler Eifert wasn’t all that painful. Troy Niklas did enough in his lone season as a starter to make a move for the NFL. Ben Koyack put a dreadful sophomore season in the rearview mirror and became a model of productivity. With Tommy Rees at the helm of the offense, the Irish receiving corps put up better numbers than the 2012 edition, something most would’ve found next to impossible heading into the year.

With Jones and Niklas gone from their leading roles, and Daniels away from campus after some academic troubles, the wide receivers and tight ends will be a focus of spring. A talented but youthful personnel group must be ready to grow if the Irish are going to achieve their offensive goals.

Let’s take a look at the depth chart and some objectives over the next few months.

WIDE RECEIVER / TIGHT END DEPTH CHART

Luke Massa, GS
DaVaris Daniels, Sr.*
Chris Brown, Jr.
CJ Prosise, Jr.*
James Onwualu, Soph.
Corey Robinson, Soph.
Will Fuller, Soph.
Torii Hunter Jr., Soph.*
Justin Brent, Fr.

Ben Koyack, Sr.
Mike Heuerman, Soph.*
Durham Smythe, Soph.*

*Denotes fifth-year of eligibility available. 

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Luke Massa: If there was a surprise fifth year candidate on this list, it was certainly Massa. But it goes to show you Brian Kelly’s belief in filling your roster with players that can help both on and off the field. Massa will likely return to be the holder on field goals, a job still his with Signing Day leaving a few roster slots open.

It’s still not fair to call Massa just another scholarship. He’s admitted that a serious knee injury put a damper on his wide receiving skills, a setback in spring practice in 2012 just as he was starting to get into the rhythm of a new position. (Massa was the third QB recruit in his class with Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix.) Massa has an intriguing body type and athleticism. He could be a solution if the Irish ever deploy an H-back. But just like Tyler Stockton last year, Massa will be a veteran presence that will likely make his biggest impact off the field.

Chris Brown: It appeared that Brown was in danger of being lapped by a youth movement on the roster, losing his spot at the designated deep threat in the Irish roster to Will Fuller. But Brown played a nice game against Rutgers, and he enters his spring at a crossroads in his career.

At his best, Brown is an explosive receiver with the ability to get behind a defense. He’s also a player that’s showed suspect hands and disappeared for stretches. Brown found himself the intended target of an endzone interception when he and Tommy Rees struggled to get on the same page. That was hardly a good thing.

This spring, there is no veteran receiver with more experience than Brown. He’s now that guy. It’ll be up to him to take on a leadership role at the position, growing into a veteran in a position room filled with youth.

CJ Prosise: After a big spring at slot receiver, Prosise managed just seven catches in 2013. The Irish offense tended to favor two-tight end sets with Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack over a Z receiver, likely limiting Prosise’s effectiveness. Kelly has already talked about the switch back to a more traditional spread look. That’s got to be music to Prosise’s ears.

At 6-foot-1, 220-pounds, Prosise is a big, strong and physical receiver. He’s got track speed, making him a candidate to return kickoffs as well. After spending his redshirt freshman season as a safety, Prosise’s sophomore year — his first true season on offense — was a good place to start.

He’ll likely battle with Torii Hunter Jr. for reps at Z, a position that Kelly and the Irish offense just haven’t been able to sort out. There’s a place on the offense for an athlete like Prosise. He’ll need to use the spring to make sure it’s his.

James Onwualu: While he didn’t show up on the stat sheet (Onwualu made just two catches for 34 yards), Onwualu capably filled the role of Daniel Smith, serving as the team’s best blocking receiver. This spring is an opportunity to add another element to his game, expanding his duties to an all-purpose receiver.

Onwualu is a bigger and more physical receiver than most of the depth chart. He also lacks the top end speed of some teammates. He excelled as a running back and receiver in high school and could be a versatile weapon, though he’ll need to continue to evolve his game. But this spring will be about expanding his role in the offense and continuing to be one of the team’s best special teamers as well.

Corey Robinson: After becoming almost a cult-like hero for his UND.com practice video highlights, just about any freshman season that didn’t include double-digit touchdowns and a YouTube highlight reel would’ve been a disappointment. But after flashing moments as a deep threat, jump ball specialist and making a few clutch catches, this spring is key in Robinson’s development.

Keep your eye on the unofficial spring roster. Robinson could check in a few inches taller, growing just as his father did post entry in the Naval Academy. But just as important as any growth spurt is an evolution to Robinson’s game. There’s every chance for Robinson to become a dominant pass catcher. He’ll need to build on a very good base, a set of hands and catch radius that’s the best on the team.

Will Fuller: That Fuller’s freshman season included a per-catch average almost 10 yards better than anyone else on the team is telling. Now he’ll have to use spring practice as a springboard to becoming an all-around receiver and a potential impact player. Still skinny, Fuller’s year in the weight room will come in handy as his reps increase.

Fuller is among the fastest players on the roster. Seeing TJ Jones run a (unofficial) 4.40 forty gives you an idea that Fuller can straight up fly. Daniels departure might really open a door for Fuller who will likely transition to an outside receiver position. Getting Fuller on the same page as Everett Golson could lead to some explosive plays downfield.

Torii Hunter Jr: It’s finally time to see what Hunter can do. After missing last year after a freak broken femur suffered at the US Army All-American Bowl, Hunter will try and immediately make an impact at a crowded position. With speed and athleticism and a smoothness that turned him into the MVP of The Opening, Hunter could be the Irish’s solution at slot receiver.

Kelly talked about Hunter’s impressive bowl season with the Irish. This spring he’ll need to establish himself in a depth chart that still is looking for a premium playmaker. After dominating “Trick Shot Monday,” this spring Hunter will give Hunter a chance to make a name for himself on the field as well.

Justin Brent: Consider Brent the X Factor of spring workouts. Some think he’s got the size, speed and talent to come in immediately and contribute. Some think he’ll redshirt, spreading the depth chart out by another year. But Brent enrolled early with hopes of battling for playing time immediately, and we’ll get a progress report starting next week.

There’s so much to like about Brent as a prospect. He’s probably the most physically dominant receiver on the roster already and he should be spending the next couple months wondering about a prom date.

If he can grasp a college offense quickly and get into the rotation this spring, Brent could be ready to make moves early next season.

Ben Koyack: Entering his senior season, Koyack still has the chance to be the next great Notre Dame tight end. The Oil City, PA native certainly had the recruiting pedigree that led you to believe he could be an elite player. Now, with Troy Niklas heading to the NFL and Alex Welch gone, Koyack is the lone survivor at the position, and posed to have a monster year.

Koyack needs to be a do-everything tight end. He’s got the bulk and size to play attached. He’s shown himself to be a productive receiver as well. We’ll ultimately see how Kelly views the Irish personnel at tight end this spring by seeing how many two-tight end sets the Irish utilize. Either way, expect Koyack to be the constant at a position with a lot of uncertainty.

Mike Heuerman: One of the biggest indicators to Heuerman’s spring will be the new roster listing for him. Undersized enrolling early last year, Heuerman needs to have the bulk and size that’ll allow him to attach to the line. We have seen so little of the young tight end, but his recruitment showed an impressive athlete with a mean streak. That’s a guy that can find the field.

With only three tight ends on campus this semester, Heuerman will get plenty of opportunities to build chemistry with the No. 1 offense. It’ll be up to him to parlay that into an opportunity next fall.

Durham Smythe: Another redshirt who drew praise from Kelly during bowl prep. Smythe was tasked by the coaching staff to add weigh and turn himself into a tight end who can play attached or in the slot. Again, we’ll see if he’s physically grown into that role yet.

Anyone with a true feel for how Smythe will do has an insiders perspective. But most of the word on the Texas native has been positive. With a more than great opportunity in front of him, Smythe needs to embrace the challenge of contributing right away and take control of his fate this spring.

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.

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

Associated Press
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Wake Forest’s BB&T Field is not Hard Rock Stadium, and Winston-Salem is not Blacksburg, Va., but this is still Notre Dame’s first road trip of the season, the first since two debacles away from home back in November. Amid talk of a budding quarterback controversy, praise of the Irish likely-yet-to-peak defense and looking ahead to the arrival of Stanford, some time needs to be spent remembering the horrors of road trips past.

Notre Dame remains in the national conversation, despite those close victories against Ball State and Vanderbilt. In fact, it is still in that discussion because of those victories. That all goes out the window if the Irish lose to the Demon Deacons.

Can Notre Dame maintain its already tenuous focus while on the road? If not, that may not lead to a loss this weekend, but it will bode very poorly for the trek to Virginia Tech in two weeks. If Wake Forest manages to put the Irish behind on the scoreboard for the first time all season — a reasonable thought if the Deacons so much as win the opening coin toss — the rhythms of playing at home will not be available to ease Notre Dame back into the flow of the game.

“There’s a little bit of preparation that needs to occur relative to travel,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Then just understanding that when you’re on the road, momentum is going to usually work against you. You have to close out opponents.”

Sometimes that is all the effect a road game needs to have; just because BB&T is a mild venue barely holding 30,000 does not mean the unfamiliar sidelines, locker room and atmosphere would not be enough to compound an early deficit.

To overcome any deficit at all, the Irish would need to find a reliable offense. Who leads such a foreign concept?
This segment of this weekly piece intended to focus on Notre Dame’s receivers. To draw from the notes scribbled across a legal pad, “At some point, WRs need to stop dropping passes. This is a weak D ready to be run upon. ND running will not surprise anyone, averaging 43.33 carries/week (sacks adjusted) already. Could lead to WF stacking the box. Can ND’s receivers finally not drop multiple passes in a week? Claypool, Finke, Davis …”

Notre Dame senior receiver Chris Finke began the season well, most notably with a highlight-reel 43-yard touchdown grab, but he has been inconsistent since, just like all the Irish receivers. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Before moving on to what has become the week’s topic du jour, let’s emphasis the question at the end of those notes. Can the Irish receiving corps get through a week without dropping multiple passes, including a likely touchdown? Against Ball State, sophomore Avery Davis worried about his next steps before catching a seam route that should have gotten him to the end zone. A week later, senior Chris Finke dropped a crossing route because his head was already turning upfield where he knew he had a clear path to the end zone. Those mistakes are utterly inexcusable, simple as that.

Who will throw the majority of those passes this week?
When various national handicappers begin citing multiple sources within the Notre Dame program saying junior Ian Book will start at quarterback, it is eyebrow-raising. This is not to outright throw doubt on those podcasts and tweets, but their speculation is vague, at best.

Brandon Wimbush has played well this season, but perhaps not well enough to cement his status as unquestioned starter in the minds of Notre Dame’s coaching staff. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Making a change now would not have much to do with senior Brandon Wimbush’s performance against Vanderbilt, finishing 13-of-23 for 122 yards passing with another 84 rushing yards and a score. As mentioned before, a few drops limited his completion percentage. It easily could have (should have) been 16-of-23 for 160 or 170 yards. That may not jump off the page, but it is also hard to find fault in it.

Then why might this shift be afoot now? First of all, let’s again tap the brakes on thinking Book will start. Fully expect Wimbush to start, but perhaps Book gets more action than he has to date, a full series even, if not multiple. Why now?

Two reasons: Looking ahead at the coming fortnight, Notre Dame needs to know exactly what it has at all points of the roster before welcoming Stanford and then traveling to Virginia Tech. That two-week stretch will likely make or break this season.

Secondly, this is the Saturday to experiment with the passing game. The Deacons defense is off to a torrid start. Facing the murderers’ row of Tulane, FCS-level Towson and Boston College, Wake Forest has allowed 310 passing yards per game, ranking No. 120 of 130 FBS teams. Those three threw 10 touchdown passes without any interceptions.

If there was ever a week to look at as a passing exhibition, it was not against Ball State (No. 65 nationally with 205.3 passing yards allowed per game, including 297 against the Irish). It is against the Deacons.

That can reveal itself both in moments of Wimbush intentionally struggling through his progressions and in Book getting extended playing time to pick apart Wake Forest in a scheme that may be ripe for his skill set, an afternoon where his higher floor is more necessary than Wimbush’s higher ceiling.

Somewhere here requisite praise of Deacons junior receiver Greg Dortch will show up, right? Of course. He is part of why Book may be called upon, actually. As terrible as Wake Forest’s defense has been, its offense has played just as well. Dortch has played spectacularly. He averages 224.67 all-purpose yards per game, most in the country, including an average of 112 receiving yards per game.

Notre Dame’s secondary is a strength this season, odd as that may sound. Dortch’s 12 yards per catch will test junior cornerbacks Julian Love and Troy Pride. Looking far ahead, how they handle Dortch will give an idea of how they match up with USC freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown, currently averaging 16.9 yards per reception with 304 yards on the season. He has played three games to date — give him another eight of experience and St. Brown should prove to be quite the hassle to defend, a la Dortch already.

How well has the Deacons’ offense played? It should be the first to break 17 points against the Irish this season. In its last 16 games, Wake Forest has averaged 35.25 points, including 36 per game this year. The last team to hold the Deacons to 17 or fewer points was some program called Clemson last October. Wake Forest is averaging 542 yards per game this year while Notre Dame has given up a respectable 358.7.

Something will have to give.

It’s an early game. What should an Irish fan do after the noon kickoff concludes? Stay on ABC. Stanford heads up to Oregon at 8 p.m. ET. It should be both entertaining and an educational opportunity anticipating the Cardinal’s challenge in a week.

And In That Corner … The Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Associated Press
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As much as a team can struggle to a 3-0 record, that is how Notre Dame has started this season. Wake Forest would jump for that complaint, though, coming off a 41-34 loss to Boston College. That defeat dampens the Demon Deacons’ conference dreams in a year in which the ACC seems to be in flux.

Irish fans remember Wake Forest from last year’s 48-37 victory that seemed to serve as something of a demarcation point in the season. Conor O’Neill of the Winston-Salem Journal tells us what to expect this time around …

DF: Conor, of all things, I hate to ask you to focus on football this week. You have lived in North Carolina for a few years now, right? Even with that being the case, you cannot be used to hurricanes. How have you and Winston-Salem as a whole endured Hurricane Florence?

CO: Thanks for starting on this note, Douglas.

Yes, I’ve lived in North Carolina full-time for almost seven years, and I went to college at Elon, which is about 45 minutes east of Winston-Salem, so I know the region well. That certainly doesn’t mean I’m used to hurricanes.

Winston-Salem was spared from the worst of Florence. It rained for nearly all of Saturday and Sunday, but other than a few downed trees and flooded intersections at low areas, there really wasn’t much of an impact. It was pretty much the best-case scenario, especially when you see much of the eastern part of the state is under water — still.

Obviously, I am still going to ask you to focus on football. If you’ll forgive me … Let’s start with the quarterback situation at Wake Forest. It went from stable in the spring to clouded in the summer when presumptive starter Kendall Hinton was suspended for three games for a violation of team rules. At Notre Dame, that phrasing could mean a litany of things, so I won’t put you on the spot to shed some light with an interpretation. I will, however, ask you, why was he working at receiver in the preseason?

Hinton was working at slot receiver for several reasons, but the main one was that his athleticism is going to have to be used at some position. And since it seems like Sam Hartman has a firm grasp on the position — at least, for now — Hinton wouldn’t be doing Wake any favors by standing on the sideline as a backup quarterback. So while Hartman and sophomore Jamie Newman took the first- and second-team reps in their fall camp battle, Hinton needed to prove he could be valuable to the team and learn to play receiver.

A freshman, Hartman has played well. Maybe not excellently or even well enough to capture the country’s attention, but well. What about him has Hartman in line to face the Irish this weekend?

The best attribute for Hartman right now — and it honestly might be this way for his entire career — is that he’s been through things no 19-year-old should ever have to go through. The main two events I’m talking about there are: 1) His adopted brother, Demitri Allison, committed suicide when Hartman was a sophomore in high school. He won a state championship game three days later. And 2) Hartman suffered from a birth defect that was discovered before his junior season started, and the fluid buildup in his left shoulder nearly led to his death. That happened about a month before the season opener. Hartman came back for that opener, weighing 40-50 pounds less because of surgery and a hospital stay, and threw an 80-yard touchdown on the first play.

The kid has been through some things.

He’s been groomed to be a quarterback by Will Grier’s father, among others, and at the risk of heaping too much hyperbole on here, it almost feels like it was destiny that Hartman is where he is right now.

RELATED READING: Talent, tragedy and triumph: The legend of Sam Hartman
Sam Hartman’s path to Wake Forest’s starting QB has been anything but normal

No matter who the Deacons trot out at quarterback, we all know who his favorite target will be. I don’t mean to sound lazy or come across as the reporter so many of us cannot stand in post-game scrums, but I am afraid if I ask you a question about Greg Dortch, I will fill up any reasonable word count with adjectives. Just this once I am going to use the dreaded two-word command: Talk about junior receiver Greg Dortch.

Oh man, I should’ve looked here before I answered the Hartman question, because I could talk about Dortch for twice as many words.

He’s just everything you want out of a dynamic slot receiver in today’s college offenses. He can separate from coverage, has open-field moves to make defenders miss in a phone booth, has an insane catch-radius — everything. Dortch really is the complete package, and as Deacons head coach Dave Clawson said before the season, everything Wake Forest’s offense does is designed to get Dortch the ball in space.

What separates Dortch is that he genuinely loves football. Watching him in spring practice, when he was finally able to return to the field after recovering from the punctured small intestine that cost him the final five games last season, was like watching a little kid who was just released from a timeout. That continued into fall camp, and with a country-leading 224.7 all-purpose yards per game, his rise has been incredible to watch.

Wake Forest junior receiver Greg Dortch leads the country with 224.67 all-purpose yards per game. For context: The next Power Five player is Purdue receiver Rondale Moore with 190.33 yards per game. (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Okay, but seriously, can Notre Dame legitimately hope to stop Dortch or should defensive coordinator Clark Lea simply try to contain the damage he does? It has been a bend-don’t-break defense this year, but Dortch’s bubble screens seem perfectly designed to counter that.

Dortch is almost assuredly going to get the ball – the key is to limit his yards-after-catch and the number of times he gets it. Kicking through the end zone on kickoffs and punting away from him are two of the easiest ways to play keep-away from Dortch.

And if Julian Love can move into the slot, that’s a matchup I’d love to see – no pun intended.

One more offensive question: The beauty of playing last Thursday night was everyone in the country watched. Otherwise I may not have noticed Wake Forest ran 105 plays, many a symptom of an up-tempo offense. Is that the norm? I don’t really remember that being the case last year, but I could be forgetting or it could be dictated by new personnel.

That was pretty much the norm last year, especially in the second half of the season. It has honestly caught me off guard that Hartman has come in and still been able to run 94 (Tulane), 81 (Towson) and 105 plays. I thought there would be a slight drop in pace, just because you’re replacing four-year starter John Wolford with a true freshman. I was wrong.

Switching to defense, it struggles. If looking at only Power-Five opponents, seven of the last eight have gashed the Deacons for at least 30 points. Any hopes of that having been fixed were effectively dashed by Boston College’s 41 points last week. Specifically, the run defense is a problem. Last year the Deacons allowed 186 rushing yards per game, No. 89 in the country, which may seem borderline acceptable, if not for the six-game stretch where that jumped to 256.8 yards per game. What is missing in Wake Forest’s run defense?

Honestly, the run defense has been the strength of the defense so far. Yes, AJ Dillon ran for 185 yards last week. But 88 of those yards came on three carries, leaving the other 97 yards on 30 carries.

The problem last week was that Dillon hit them for a 45-yard touchdown run on the third play of the game. He’s a legitimate Heisman contender, and the pre-game focus on Dillon coupled with a big run on the third play meant play-action worked all night against some creeping-up safeties and linebackers.

Wake Forest’s defense has not been stout of late, despite the best efforts of senior safety Chuck Wade. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

What changed? In a year-plus of the scheme formerly run by Mike Elko, Notre Dame has fared well defending the run. This season it has done such to the point that opponents attempt many more passes than usual, essentially bailing on the ground game. How have the Deacons fallen off so quickly from allowing only 142 rushing yards per game in 2016?

I don’t think Elko’s importance can be overstated. Wake Forest had a hidden gem for three years and obviously it’s hardly a secret anymore that Elko is one of the best coordinators in college football. It helps Notre Dame that Lea was his understudy.

The other major factor in the Deacons’ defense, as Clawson explained this week, is that they lack an alpha communicator in the back-seven. They had one with Ryan Janvion, whose last season was 2016, and to a lesser extent had one last year with Jessie Bates III. Now, it’s on senior safeties Cameron Glenn and Chuck Wade Jr., both captains, to be louder.

I can’t let you skip out of here without offering a vague prediction for Saturday afternoon. And you can’t just say you predict you will be thankful for the early kickoff, because that is a certainty.

Well … I am happy with a noon kick.

I think there’s going to be no shortage of points scored, to begin with. And I think Wake’s defensive struggles are more of a story than Notre Dame’s offensive struggles, so I’d give the edge to the Irish. Something like 30-21 would be a probable score. ​

Notre Dame’s scripts bear more repeating

Associated Press
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Maybe Notre Dame scripts its first possession, or perhaps that is an out-of-date phrase in the days of extensive film study and pre-snap adjustments, but still something of a general concept. What cannot be argued is the No. 8 Irish (3-0) have excelled offensively to start each of their first three games and then they have ground to a halt.

Against Michigan, Notre Dame scored with a 7-play, 75-yard drive executed in fewer than 90 seconds to open the game. A week later, five plays and 74 yards took fewer than two minutes. Against Vanderbilt, nearly four minutes elapsed as the Irish drove 74 yards in 10 plays, finishing with a field goal in part due to a false start by a reserve offensive lineman in a jumbo package. If once is chance and twice is a coincidence, this is very much a trend: Notre Dame’s offense is at its most efficient immediately after the opening kickoff.

It makes sense. The Irish begin the game aggressively, calling plays with the greatest chances of success, whether it be because of schematic fit or, to take senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s word for it, repetition and subsequent comfort.

“You run those opening nine [plays] three or four times throughout the week,” Wimbush said after Notre Dame’s 22-17 victory against Vanderbilt. “You do get comfortable with those looks and your progressions throughout those reads.”

Looking through those drives — and including the second Irish possession against the Commodores, in which they scored a touchdown after 15 plays went 94 yards in 5:21 — only a couple plays show up in common, but they are successful plays, relatively speaking.

Notre Dame’s first snap against Ball State ended up Wimbush’s longest completion of the day, a 27-yarder to senior receiver Chris Finke. The Irish appeared to run the same play to the opposite side of the field against Vanderbilt, waiting until the third snap to deploy it. Junior receiver Chase Claypool gained 17 yards.

Wimbush’s progression seems clear: Consider the screen and at the least give it a pump fake. With how often Notre Dame runs such a screen, the secondary leans into the possibility, creating a cushion behind them for Finke and Claypool. To keep the safety occupied, another receiver runs a deep route a lane inside the eventual target. Theoretically, if the safety sagged onto Finke or Claypool, that could result in the deep target becoming the proper read.

Both times Wimbush executes this well, getting the ball to his receiver while within the gap in coverage, a space created in part by the Irish habit of throwing those screens to sub-par success and cemented by Wimbush’s pump-fake.

It is logical to think Wimbush handles the progression and eventual read well because he has worked on this exact play numerous times throughout the week. It does not have to be in a debated script to still be a play Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long likes to call early to get his quarterback comfortable and in a rhythm.

“Just got to keep the same energy,” Wimbush said. “Understand that we’ve run through so many of these plays throughout the week and we have to just execute them.”

Another passing play shows up in common in these opening drives, one the casual observer may use to criticize Wimbush despite the replicated outcome pointing to an intentional thought process.

The second Irish play of the season included pressure from Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich. Similarly, a play on Notre Dame’s second drive against Vanderbilt featured pressure from a Commodores defensive end. Both times Wimbush rolled to his right to evade the chase and heaved up a jump ball toward a receiver standing 6-foot-4 or taller.

The first rendition concluded with a contested incompletion intended for Claypool. Senior Miles Boykin nearly caught the second before the ball, again, fell incomplete.

Two incompletions on two drives that still finished with touchdowns — the reward available was a gain of chunk yardage on a play blown up by a pass rush. The risk?

Well, some deference should be offered to Claypool and Boykin. They both get their hands on the off-balance throws, both have a chance to catch the pass. These do not qualify as drops or failings by the receivers in any regard, not that those have been in short supply already this season. Rather, this is to say the physical presences of Claypool and Boykin made it exceedingly-unlikely Wimbush’s passes would be intercepted. Thus, the risk was actually low.

In fact, of Wimbush’s four interceptions this year, only one has been in the vicinity of the big targets, a slant that bounced off Boykin’s hands against Ball State. Another interception that day was also intended for Boykin, but that one came from Wimbush not seeing a defender and misreading the situation, not from a one-on-one opportunity down the sideline.

Despite the pass rush, Wimbush was comfortable looking down the sideline, trusting his biggest receivers to be sure respective defenders would not haul in his jump ball, leaving a chance for an Irish gain on the play. That possibility would not exist if simply throwing the ball into the sidelines. Analytically, the difference in expected gain may be infinite.

Before pounding a keyboard insisting this is a foolish view, watch that clip again. The passes were hardly in true jeopardy of being intercepted, a credit to Claypool and Boykin. They were, however, in play to be caught, especially the second of the two. Thus, expect to see that reflex again from Wimbush, at the least early in the game, but possibly more often than that, as well.

“We just get into a good flow early on and what we probably need to do is be more repeaters of plays,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “Go back to plays that have been successful and come back and repeat them.”

ON NICK COLEMAN & HOUSTON GRIFFITH
Senior Nick Coleman did not play against Vanderbilt, leaving freshman Houston Griffith to handle most nickel back duties. There was no underlying reason other than wanting to give Griffith more playing time, per Kelly.

“We’ll need Nick this weekend,” Kelly said Tuesday. “This will be a game that he’ll have to play a considerable amount of football for us.”

That does not mean Griffith will not see action, as well, especially since Wake Forest will be happy to rattle off an absurd number of plays.

“He’s obviously a guy that each and every week when he gets a chance to play, we see more and more from him,” Kelly said. “It’s just a true freshman playing. He’s got a nice skill set, but he’s learning every time he goes out there.”

Griffith finished with four tackles against Vanderbilt.

ON GREG DORTCH
Coleman will be needed for “considerable” contributions because the nickel back is likely to frequently line up opposite Demon Deacons junior receiver Greg Dortch. Kelly broke out most cliché pieces of praise for Dortch, though deservedly so.

“He can take over a football game,” Kelly said. “Electric player, great acceleration, great hands, makes people miss as a highlight reel.”

COLE KMET UPDATE
Kelly said Irish sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will remain sidelined at Wake Forest as he recovers from a high ankle sprain, but Kmet should be healthy before the Stanford tilt on Sept. 29.