Photo courtesy of Irish 247

Irish A-to-Z: Micah Dew-Treadway

When Micah Dew-Treadway arrived at Notre Dame, it was unclear what position he’d play on the defensive line. A redshirt fall and spring season under his belt, where Dew-Treadway will end up is still cloudy, but it does appear that he’s a contender to make an impact.

On a defensive line without Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara—and a line a year away from losing Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell—opportunity awaits. And as Keith Gilmore still sorts through his options at defensive end and tries his best to find his best four defensive linemen, Dew-Treadway’s sophomore season should be spent trying to make a pitch for some playing time in a rotation that’ll have to be deeper than last year’s.

An early-entry into college certainly helped Dew-Treadway. But with an eligibility clock that begins ticking come the fall, there’ll be an urgency to get on the field that maybe wasn’t felt before now for the Chicagoland prospect.

 

MICAH DEW-TREADWAY
6’4″, 300 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 97, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A Semper-Fi All-American, Dew-Treadway picked Notre Dame the summer before his senior season. He was a three-star prospect, with eight sacks and 12 TFLs as a senior, earning All-State first-team by the Champaign News-Gazette and All-Area by the Chicago Sun Times.

Had offers from Mississippi State, Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, Wisconsin and others.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action, preserving a year of eligibility.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Sometimes getting the obvious ones right is a good thing.

Barring a nightmare scenario, I don’t see Dew-Treadway on the field this season. And that’s not a bad thing. Watching highlights from his senior season of high school, you saw Dew-Treadway do some very good things, displaying the type of player who could very easily turn into a Jarron Jones type performer. But there are also the habits of a high schooler on display, things that will need to be drilled out of him.

Fifteen practices this spring won’t necessarily do that. Nor will a fall playing behind veterans Sheldon Day and Jones. But as the Irish rollover their interior depth, newcomers will need to step to the forefront. So throw Dew-Treadway into a promising group that’ll include Jay Hayes and Jon Bonner, developmental players who could be key to providing the next level of reinforcements.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s still hard to figure out what Dew-Treadway’s ceiling could be. He projected as a developmental prospect as a recruit and did nothing to change that during his redshirt season. We saw glimpses of athleticism and potential productivity during spring drills, though that’s hardly a data point worth chasing.

With good size and ability, Dew-Treadway could be an effective player in the trenches, showcasing the type of athleticism Kelly talked about on Signing Day. Until then, we’ll have to see how the 2016 season plays out—and if Keith Gilmore trusts him to be more than just a guy behind a guy.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Brian Kelly’s mid-June comments about Jarron Jones might actually help Dew-Treadway see the field. Because if the optimum amount of snaps for Jones is 35, that means there’s about 20 more for some lineman not named Daniel Cage or Jerry Tillery, and it’s anybody’s guess who will fill those snaps.

I tend to think those snaps could go to Jon Bonner first. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Dew-Treadway finds his way into those second-team developmental snaps this year, moving ahead of a veteran like Peter Mokwuah or converted offensive lineman John Montelus, with athleticism a key factor in all of this.

 

*First 5-yard penalty for falling out of order. 

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg

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.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Rough weekends for Florida State & USC with little relief in sight

Associated Press
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Ever want to underestimate the possible effects of turnovers? Check back on Northwestern’s loss to Akron this weekend. Notre Dame has flirted with such disaster once this season, but escaped Ball State unscathed. Despite those three interceptions, the Irish are plus-three in turnover margin this season.

Michigan (2-1): The Wolverines had no trouble with SMU, winning 45-20 and led by an efficient performance from quarterback Shea Patterson (pictured above), completing 14-of-18 passes for 237 yards and three touchdowns. For comparison, Patterson went 20-of-30 for 227 yards against Notre Dame to open the season.

Michigan now gets a chance to pile on Nebraska’s woes (12 ET; FS1), favored by 18.5 against Scott Frost’s Cornhuskers with a combined point total over/under of 49.5. In other words, the Wolverines should not match last week’s tally, but a 34-15 victory would be a statement unto itself.

Ball St. (1-2): A week after coming within a touchdown of the Irish, the Cardinals fell 38-10 to another in-state foe, Indiana. Junior quarterback Riley Neal completed 12-of-24 passes for 115 yards, a large drop-off in attempts from the Notre Dame game when he threw 50 times. Ball State did average 5.2 yards on 39 rushes, much more effective than the 3.6 yards per rush in South Bend.

The Cardinals may get back to winning ways before conference play commences with a visit from Western Kentucky (3 ET; ESPN3) in which Ball State is favored by three. The over/under of 52.5 hints at a 27-24 conclusion.

Vanderbilt (2-1): The Commodores lost, in case that was missed in these parts. They now welcome South Carolina (4 p.m.; SEC Network) with the Gamecocks favored by 2.5 and an over/under of 51.5. That math equals another 27-24 ending.

Wake Forest (2-1): Junior receiver Greg Dortch did not score in a 41-34 loss to Boston College on Thursday, but he did catch nine passes for 93 yards and return two kickoffs for 57 more. It was the Demon Deacons’ ground game, though, that kept them in the game with 298 yards on 60 carries. Yes, 60. (Context: Vanderbilt ran a total of 70 plays this past weekend.) The Eagles responded with 220 rushing yards of their own, averaging 5.0 yards per carry.

The Irish arrive at Wake Forest (12; ABC) as eight-point favorites with an over/under of 57.5, posing a 33-24 possibility. It may be hard to believe Notre Dame could score 30-plus points given its inconsistent offense to date, but the Deacons have held only one of their last eight Power-Five opponents to fewer than 30 points, a streak that includes the 48 the Irish scored against Wake Forest last year. Those eight opponents have averaged 38.6 points.

Stanford (3-0): Senior running back Bryce Love sat out the 30-10 victory against FCS-level UC Davis with an undisclosed injury. Trevor Speights handled the rushing duties in his place, taking 11 caries for 87 yards, but it was once again the KJ-to-JJ connection that set the tone for the Cardinal. Quarterback KJ Costello found receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside for two touchdowns.

Stanford will most likely need Love back at full strength this week for a trip to Oregon (8 ET; ABC). Favored by two points with an over/under of 55.5, the Cardinal may come out ahead by a score as narrow as 28-27, but it is more likely they have an easier time of the Ducks than that.

Virginia Tech (2-0): Hurricane Florence gave the Hokies a bye week, though they did not agree with the timing of East Carolina’s decision to cancel the game. Odd as this may sound, Virginia Tech travels to Old Dominion this weekend (3:30 ET; CBSSN). The Monarchs are in their fourth season at the FBS level. With Virginia Tech favored by 27.5, a 38-11 conclusion seems generous to Old Dominion on both sides of the ledger.

Pittsburgh (2-1): The Panthers bounced back quickly from their 51-6 embarrassment to Penn State, responding with a 24-13 upset of Georgia Tech. At least, it was an upset by the bookmakers’ concerns; Pittsburgh was a field goal underdog.

Now the Panthers are on the precipice of an ACC winning streak, visiting North Carolina (12:20 ET; ACC Network) as 4.5-point favorites with an opportunity to put another hole in Larry Fedora’s sinking ship. Expect Pittsburgh to do much better than a simple 27-23 victory over the Tar Heels.

Navy (2-1): The Midshipmen ran 62 times for 484 yards, an average of 7.8 yards per carry, in a 51-21 victory against FCS-level Lehigh and now travel to SMU as touchdown favorites (12 ET; ESPN News). The over/under of 65.5 suggests the Mustangs should at least score a few more points than they did against Michigan, albeit in a 36-29 loss.

One of two interceptions from Wildcats senior quarterback Clayton Thorson that Akron returned for touchdowns to upset Northwestern 39-34. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

Northwestern (1-2): This bye week probably arrives at an ideal time for the Wildcats. Senior quarterback Clayton Thorson threw for 383 yards and three touchdowns on 33-of-53 passing, but also had two interceptions … returned for touchdowns by Akron in a 39-34 Northwestern loss. The first pick-six cut the Wildcats’ lead to 21-19 after initially leading 21-3. The second gave the Zips a 39-28 lead. Between them, Akron ran a fumble back to take its first lead.

Yes, in a game in which Northwestern was favored to win by three touchdowns, it gifted the opposition three touchdown returns off turnovers.

Florida State (1-2): Something has gone awry in Tallahassee, and it has done so in drastic fashion. To be clear, Syracuse is a good team with an experienced playmaker at quarterback. Losing at the Carrier Dome should not be considered a huge step backward for the Seminoles. Clemson did just that in 2017, after all.

Although the Tigers scored more than the seven points that Florida State managed in a 30-7 loss. The Seminoles took 23 rushes for 62 yards and managed 240 total yards, converting 1-of-14 third downs.

A year ago, Florida State’s porous offensive line was faulted for much of its struggles. That line has continued to regress to the point that now articles are published pondering just why it is so bad all of three weeks into the season. With all that in mind, this is an unfortunate time for the Seminoles to host Northern Illinois (3:30 ET; ESPNU), even if favored by 10 points. The Huskies return their entire defensive line from last season, a unit that led the team to 43 sacks, 14 of which came from junior end Sutton Smith, the reigning MAC Defensive Player of the Year. Forget the spread, take Northern Illinois outright. (Want further reason? The Huskies gave up only 120 rushing yards per game, three yards per carry, last year. Florida State’s running game will not find its way this weekend.)

Syracuse (3-0): The Orange naturally deserve some credit for the Seminoles’ misery this weekend. Even with senior quarterback Eric Dungey sidelined for much of the game with an eye injury, Syracuse did not struggle. Holding Florida State to four yards per play will help that cause.

Dino Babers should have no trouble building that momentum moving forward thanks to a visit from Connecticut’s atrocious defense (4:00 ET; ESPN News). The Huskies gave up 56 points to Central Florida in the opener, understandable considering how long it has been since the Knights lost. Then came 62 points from Boise State, a rather high-powered offense in its own right, so arguably excusable. But 49 points to FCS-leve Rhode Island this past weekend? That makes the spread of 27.5 in the Orange’s favor feel slight, although the over/under of 75 is probably well set, a testament to Syracuse’s defense, despite its lofty nature.

USC (1-2): Publicly, Trojans head coach Clay Helton is feeling the heat after a 37-14 loss at Texas. As bothersome as the loss was, the rushing stats are much more embarrassing. By the box score, USC ran for -5 yards. Stephen Carr led the Trojans in rushing, taking seven carries for 10 yards, somehow including a 23-yard gain.

Freshman quarterback J.T. Daniels did play well, completing 30-of-48 for 322 yards with one interception, again relying on classmate and high school teammate Amon-Ra St. Brown for nine catches and 168 yards.

This may be make or break time for Helton and USC. They host Washington State on Friday (10:30 ET; ESPN) as 3.5-point favorites with an over/under of 53. Can the Trojans get their season back on track with a 28-24 victory? Helton has done it before, bouncing back from a 1-3 start in 2016 to finish 10-3 with a Rose Bowl victory. Technically speaking, USC is only 0-1 in the Pac 12 at this point, so another Rose Bowl berth is still very much in play if a ground game shows up in any regard whatsoever.

On this touchdown, Trojans running back Stephen Carr gained 23 yards. On his other six, he lost a total of 13. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

10:30 p.m. ET Friday: USC vs. Washington State on ESPN.
12 p.m. ET Saturday: Michigan vs. Nebraska on FS1; Wake Forest vs. Notre Dame on ABC; Navy at SMU on ESPN News.
12:20 p.m. ET: Pittsburgh at North Carolina on ACC Network.
3 ET: Ball State vs. Western Kentucky on ESPN3.
3:30 ET: Virginia Tech at Old Dominion on CBSSN; Florida State vs. Northern Illinois on ESPNU.
4 ET: Vanderbilt vs. South Carolina on SEC Network; Syracuse vs. Connecticut on ESPN News.
8 ET: Stanford at Oregon on ABC.

Favorites: USC -3.5; Michigan -18.5; Navy -7; Pittsburgh -4.5; Ball State -3; Virginia Tech -27.5; Florida State -10; Syracuse -27.5; Stanford -2.
Underdogs: Wake Forest +8; Vanderbilt +2.5.

Questions for the Week: Who can Notre Dame play at nickel back to slow Wake’s Greg Dortch?

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There is a chance it was nothing more than a quirk in the game plan. That seems unlikely, but there may be no greater reason Notre Dame defensive back Nick Coleman did not play during the 22-17 Irish victory against Vanderbilt on Saturday.

Whatever the reason, he did not. Coleman had been Notre Dame’s primary nickel back in the first two weeks, an unexpected role until senior Shaun Crawford tore his ACL days before the season began. Without Coleman on the field against the Commodores, early-enrolled freshman Houston Griffith (pictured above against Ball State) stepped in, finishing with four tackles.

That was not entirely unexpected. From the moment that Crawford went down, Griffith’s name quickly followed Coleman’s when Irish head coach Brian Kelly discussed the need at nickel back. Coleman was also expected to continue to contribute at safety, but that was before the emergence of junior Jalen Elliott solidified the defense’s back line. Without a need for him at safety, it was easy to presume Coleman would become a full-time nickel back.

His deflection to create Elliott’s first interception against Ball State furthered that thinking.

Then he did not play this past weekend, though by no means did Griffith play without mistake.

As Vanderbilt drove looking for a last-minute lead, junior cornerback Julian Love moved inward to nickel back, bringing junior cornerback Donte Vaughn off the sideline to work the boundary. A pass interference penalty against Vaughn aside, the alignment worked. (A sideline viewing followed by multiple reviews since has this scribe still thinking Commodores quarterback Kyle Shurmur’s hurried throw was yards further upfield than the intended route, leading to Vaughn’s incidental interference. That does not mean it was the wrong call, as supported by Vaughn’s muted/non-existent celebration after the fourth-and-10 incompletion; he expected the flag.)

Who will work at nickel back this week is more important than ever. Be it Coleman, Griffith or Love, Notre Dame will need excellent coverage at the position to limit the impact made by Wake Forest junior receiver Greg Dortch. In three games this year, he has 28 catches for 336 yards and a touchdown. Extrapolate that over a 12-game season and it projects to 112 receptions for 1,344 yards and four scores. If that sounds outlandish, consider he started only six games last season and played in eight before injury cut short his debut campaign. Even without being a primary role to begin the year, he was on pace for 80 catches, 1,083 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Don’t recognize the name from the 48-37 Irish victory against the Deacons a year ago? That is because Dortch suffered an intestinal injury on his second touchdown the week before against Louisville. Note: Dortch played through that to score twice more.

Looking at just that game, it is clear how important Notre Dame’s nickel package will be this week. Of Dortch’s four scores, two screen passes and a swing pass out of the backfield all would have stressed a nickel back. Subpar play at the position will cost the Irish, to say the least.

That means Love is the most-likely solution no matter Coleman’s status, but that only works if Vaughn is capable for a full 60 minutes. If not, then Coleman or Griffith could be needed at either the nickel back spot or as the boundary cornerback for spells. One way or another, Notre Dame will need three cornerbacks in coverage.

To date, this is the best offense the Irish have faced. Even if Michigan continues to find its groove, the Wolverines were hardly a cohesive threat in week one. Wake Forest is, averaging 36 points per game with a true freshman at quarterback in Sam Hartman.

But will Hartman remain the quarterback with junior Kendall Hinton’s return from suspension?
Most likely, since Hartman has completed 55.3 percent of his passes for 834 yards and six touchdowns while leading the Deacons to a 2-1 start, with the loss hardly the offense’s fault after scoring 34 points.

During the summer, Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson suspended his presumptive starter for three games due to a violation of team rules. In preseason practice, while Hartman won a quarterback derby, Hinton worked at receiver. He is explosive with the ball, rushing for 705 yards and 10 scores in his career despite limited action behind John Wolford.

If this is the best offense Notre Dame has faced, and the Irish defense has yet to give up more than 17 points per game, which trend is expected to win out this weekend?
Apparently, bookmakers think it more likely Notre Dame’s defense gives a bit. A 57.5 combined point total over/under sets a bar more than two touchdowns higher than an Irish game has reached this season. Realizing how inconsistent Notre Dame’s offense has been, those extra points coming solely from it may be a reach. The Deacons breaking 20 should be necessary for that over/under to be tested.

Will Cole Kmet be available to add an Irish playmaker to the mix?
High ankle sprains can be tricky, so if the sophomore tight end needs another week to get fully healthy, taking such precaution would be understandable. Last weekend showed Notre Dame has other tight ends, trotting out three in the blue zone to spring fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar free for a touchdown reception. Sophomore Brock Wright ran a secondary route on the score while senior Alizé Mack picked up a pass-rusher to give junior quarterback Ian Book enough time to find Weishar.

Kmet adds another dimension to the offense as a whole, but the Irish should not be limited without him, either.

In two-plus seasons as USC’s permanent head coach, Clay Helton is now 22-8, a record that has him on an increasingly-warm seat. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Until then, will USC essentially save its season Friday night? (10:30 ET; ESPN)
The Trojan absolutely need to beat Washington State. Not only is Wazzu one of the Pac 12’s lesser teams, but the Cougars ruined USC’s title hopes long before Notre Dame got a chance to in 2017, so this occasion has some revenge thoughts to it. This time it is at home and the Trojans are coming off two offensively-inept losses.

That should be three more reasons than usual to make this a must-win. Furthermore, the fallout of falling to 1-3 and 0-2 in the Pac 12 would not make for an enjoyable next two months.

Leftovers & Links: Could Notre Dame’s identity be as obvious as it seems?

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Brandon Wimbush was twice asked about No. 8 Notre Dame’s offensive identity after Saturday’s 22-17 victory over Vanderbilt. Neither of his responses provided a description of that identity, both because it is unknown and because in that moment, immediately following a close victory, he was not about to focus on it.

“Three wins, I don’t care,” if the lack of a distinct identity is a good or bad thing to this point, the senior quarterback said.

“We’re still forming that identity. [Irish head coach Brian] Kelly came up to me and said, week three is the time that you kind of form that identity. Just looking back on the first three weeks, I don’t think there’s something we can kind of hang our hat on yet.”

Perhaps there is, though. And it was Kelly who pointed toward it Saturday evening.

“You see us early on in three games, we’re not going to beat you 52-3,” Kelly said. “We’re going to grind it out. We’re going to play tough, hard-nosed, blue-collar football.”

A day later, Kelly spoke of the physicality Notre Dame had played with in two of the first three weeks, acknowledging the lack of such against Ball State. If discounting that malaise during a 24-16 win as an anomaly deriving from overlooking a MAC opponent, then the Irish offense has shown some tendencies in its two games against Power-Five opponents.

Notre Dame has rushed the ball 45 and 48 times in those two games, averaging 4.25 yards per carry (sacks adjusted). That average is by no means a startling figure, but running the ball that often is. Such a rate over a full season would have put the Irish at No. 15 in rushing attempts per game last season, with five of the teams ahead of them relying on option-based schemes. Even last year’s record-setting Notre Dame rushing attack averaged only 40.77 carries per game (sacks adjusted).

Comparing those two offenses is a recipe for disappointment, one led by a brief Heisman campaign and two offensive linemen already starting in the NFL, and the other not. It was led by Wimbush and junior running back Tony Jones this week. Wimbush’s 19 rushes consisted of 18 designed carries, per Kelly, with the exception a scramble ending in the end zone. Jones, meanwhile, took 17 carries for 118 yards, not to mention two catches for 56 yards. Every number listed in the previous sentence was a career high for Jones, building on his 13-carry, 61-yard performance against the Cardinals.

“It started last week in the Ball State game when he started to run with a demeanor and mindset that he wasn’t going to be tackled,” Kelly said. “He carried that into practice.

“We felt he was getting ready to be the kind of back that we had been talking about, in the way he’s run: physical, kind of being who we thought he needed to be. That’s the way it certainly turned out this past weekend.”

If these trends were to continue — 40-plus carries a game, Wimbush and Jones splitting the workload with sophomore Jafar Armstrong adding some dynacism, theoretically senior Dexter Williams sprinkling in some big-play potential beginning two weeks from now — then this is essentially what was always expected. It just hasn’t been as dominant as 2017’s precedent.

Struggling to pull away on the scoreboard underscores the value of this approach. Running the ball 45 times shrinks the game, reduces the chances for an offensive mistake as well as the opportunities for the opponent to break the Irish defense.

With such a formula, special teams take on added importance. A mistake there counteracts the cautious effects of a “tough, hard-nosed, blue-collar” scheme. Fortunately for Notre Dame, its special teams finally showed up in a positive way this weekend.

Sophomore Jonathan Doerer did not send one kickoff out of bounds. Instead, he knocked four of six into the end zone for touchbacks, and those two returns netted Vanderbilt an average starting field position inside the 20-yard line.

Sophomore Michael Young broke off a 48-yard kickoff return when the Irish needed a spark. The drive resulted in a missed field goal, but that should not diminish the promise shown in Young’s return.

Despite missing that field goal, senior kicker Justin Yoon remained reliable, making hi first three. Kelly took some of the onus for the miss, positing they rushed Yoon on the kick after pondering some clock mechanics.

Fifth-year senior punter Tyler Newsome’s five booms gave the Commodores average field position of the 23-yard line, part of a day in which he averaged 59.6 yards per punt. His final punt was snapped with 12 seconds remaining in the game and was fair caught with five left on the clock. The hang time math speaks for itself.

It was a good week for Doerer and Newsome to step forward, both as it tied to that victory and as to the timing moving forward. Wake Forest junior Greg Dortch has already returned two punts for touchdowns this year and averages 17 yards per return with another 27.3 yards per kick return. Finding a way to limit Dortch’s impact on special teams will be crucial.

One additional note on special teams: Armstrong joined Young on the back line to return kickoffs, not freshman C’Bo Flemister, who had decent success with three returns for 65 yards against Ball State. It is most likely Flemister was an experiment during a week Notre Dame felt it could test out some things or reduce other’s workloads.

ON DEFENSIVE SCORING AVERAGE
If looking at the simple averages kept by the NCAA, the Irish scoring defense is No. 31 in the country at 16.7 points per game. After three games, however, one favorable matchup can skew those numbers greatly. Most of those ahead of Notre Dame have enjoyed an afternoon against an FCS-level opponent, for example.

Only three times have faced only FBS foes and not yet given up more than 17 points in a game: Minnesota, Alabama and Notre Dame.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Notre Dame escapes genuine test from Vanderbilt
Things We Learned: Not yet ‘great,’ Notre Dame’s ground game and safety play emerge
A more focused playbook could key a more consistent Notre Dame offense

OUTSIDE READING
Some Wake Forest defenders played well, Greg Dortch needs the ball and some confusing play calls
How did Florida State’s offensive line get this bad
Syracuse football stock watch: Dino Babers’ 2017 prophecy is coming true
USC kicker Chase McGrath out for the year with torn ACL