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Where Notre Dame was & is: Wide Receivers

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Given the inexperience at quarterback and the relative low number of running backs, it seems odd to say there is more uncertainty for Notre Dame at receiver than either of those skill positions. Yet, largely due to unknowns and general inexperience, that is indeed the case. At least at quarterback, the starter is very much settled and at running back, the leader is a known commodity.

At receiver, spring yielded some theoretical clarity, but that will only be genuinely clear come Sept. 2. For those already counting, that is 123 days away.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
The Irish entered the spring expecting continued progress from rising junior Equanimeous St. Brown following his breakout sophomore campaign. After that, little was known. As a reminder, St. Brown finished 2016 with 58 catches for 961 yards and nine touchdowns, including a 79-yard score against Syracuse. Each number in the preceding sentence led Notre Dame, and by quite a margin. Former Irish receiver Torii Hunter, Jr., offered 38 catches and 521 yards, but no one else approached so much as half of St. Brown’s production.

RELATED READING: Six days until spring practice: A look at TEs & WRs

Kevin Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns in his freshman season, leading Notre Dame with an average of 18.5 yards per reception. In theory, his speed combined with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s arm strength could force defenses to always respect the deep ball against the Irish offense, perhaps opening up space for the likes of St. Brown or sophomore Chase Claypool and junior C.J. Sanders in the underneath and mid-range.

Furthering the questions around St. Brown’s supporting cast, new offensive coordinator Chip Long has shown a penchant for including the running backs and tight ends in the passing game. That may be beneficial for offensive versatility, but it does no favors for projecting a future aerial attack.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
The exact options and order of those options at receiver remains in flux, but no longer is there a concern over a lack of choices. Specifically, Claypool and junior Miles Boykin stepped forward this spring, presenting the possibility of a starting trio of the 6-foot-5, 204-pound St. Brown, the 6-foot-4 ½, 224-pound Claypool and the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Boykin. Such sizable targets creates more of a margin of error for the raw Wimbush.

“You tend to want to miss high more in certain situations,” Wimbush said following the Blue-Gold Game. “You have the ability to put the ball up there and not have it be a perfect throw all the time. Those guys, you saw it today, they’ll go up and make a play for you.”

The possible starting trio’s size plus athleticism also creates opportunities for Long. For one thing, if a receiver catches a pass on a crossing route and ends up on the opposite sideline during an up-tempo drive, he could possibly line up on that sideline for the next snap rather than spend wasted seconds racing back to his original starting position. In this theory, St. Brown and Boykin could readily flip positions.

RELATED READING: McKinley, Boyd show depth in Irish WR corps (includes further discussion of positional flexibility among receivers)
Better balance alongside St. Brown needed at WR

Claypool, meanwhile, would be lining up at the slot position. While some may think his size precludes him from the shiftiness usually requisite the receiver closest to the thick of the line of scrimmage, others see that size and might think of another run-blocker. That versatility is the makings of an offensive coordinator’s dreams.

“It gives you added benefits,” Long said. “That’s our job, to put them in position to make plays. We want to be able to have our base offense and then just get a bigger, faster guy who makes it even better. We’ll tinker it. We’ll find what our guys are best at and put them in position, move them around.

“Being multiple on offense, we can take care of that. We’ll find them a spot, find them their roles, and as they progress, we’ll find where to get them the ball.”

Stepherson is the most-likely backup to St. Brown if the latter ever needs to come off the field and if Stepherson emerges from much spring uncertainty both eligible and in good graces. With that acknowledgement of a cloud of questions, let’s move on rather than fuel speculation.

Junior Chris Finke also fits in well at the field receiver position headlined by St. Brown. At only 5-foot-9 ½ and 177 listed pounds, Finke may seem too much of a shift from St. Brown to fill the same position. At the field position, however, Finke’s ability to maneuver in space could be best utilized.

Meanwhile, Sanders’ pure speed slots him in behind Claypool at the, well, the slot. Of the six receivers mentioned thus far, four, including Sanders, shared a bond with Wimbush before this spring, only furthered during the 15 practices—they came to Notre Dame at the same time and thus spent much time on the scout team developing a rapport. The other two, along with sophomore Javon McKinley (likely providing depth behind Boykin, if by process of elimination than for no other reason), have set to catching up quickly in that regard.

“We were running freshman year together, so we had little bit of chemistry built there,” Wimbush said. “Obviously, the younger guys came in and have done a great job progressing themselves throughout the spring. We’ve built great chemistry.”

That chemistry may most-clearly show itself on back-shoulder throws. To make the reference clear: For a few seasons now, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has feasted on such throws with his favorite target, Jordy Nelson. The receiver begins the route as if on a go or possibly a post route. Something deep. Then, without looking back at the ball, the receiver cuts sharply toward the sideline. If done correctly, the quarterback released the ball before the receiver even cut, anticipating its desired location.

The defensive back, theoretically, doesn’t stand a chance.

“We’re going to run the ball effectively, and if you’re going to drop an extra [defender near the line of scrimmage], we’re going to get a lot of those one-on-one matchups,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “That’s one of the reads in that individual matchup.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE:
In an up-tempo offense, six or seven receivers may seem more shallow than desired. That should be mitigated greatly by Long’s preference to include running backs and tight ends, even two tight end sets, in the passing game. Furthermore, Notre Dame will add incoming graduate student transfer Freddy Canteen and freshman Jafar Armstrong in the summer.

For that matter, two four-star receivers have already committed to the class of 2018.

RELATED READING: Michigan WR Canteen announces transfer to Notre Dame
Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish
WR Lenzy brings speed to Irish

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Rover
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Safeties
Where Notre Dame was & is: Cornerbacks
Where Notre Dame was & is: Offensive Line

No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 12 Syracuse: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much?

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WHO? No. 3 Notre Dame (10-0) vs. No. 12 Syracuse (8-2).

WHAT? The Irish can burgeon their Playoff claim with a second top-15 win. It will be their third if considering when teams were ranked, but Stanford has plummeted from its No. 7 ranking in September.

The Orange, meanwhile, can come this close to securing a spot in either the Peach Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl. Syracuse will still most likely need to beat No. 20 Boston College next weekend, but even a loss there could have the Orange in consideration after a win this weekend. Suffice it to say, such would be a program high tracing back to at least 1998, which ended with a 31-10 loss in the Orange Bowl to Florida.

WHEN? 2:30 ET with kickoff set for a dozen minutes later. For all the griping about moving this game to Yankee Stadium, at least it gives those in attendance a chance to still enjoy New York City on a Saturday night.

WHERE? Yankee Stadium, The Bronx, New York City. But yes, this is considered a Notre Dame home game because words don’t have meaning.

NBC will have the broadcast, with the game streaming online here or on the NBC Sports app.

Per usual, NBC Sports Gold is available to international fans.

WHY? Obviously, this is the 10-year rematch of the 2008 Irish loss to Syracuse in South Bend.  Despite lacking a head coach — Greg Robinson was fired the week prior, though he coached through the end of the season — the Orange pulled off a 24-23 victory to spoil Notre Dame’s Senior Day.

It was not just a cold day, but a snowy one, with students apocryphally throwing snowballs at the Irish sideline. That dramatic retelling ignores the very obvious truth that the undergrads were proving who could throw the farthest, and only three or four genuinely reached the field. They were poor optics, to be sure, but no worse than the quartet of scrawny shirtless freshmen in the stands.

The day did reap some reward for Notre Dame. A future All-American linebacker spent his official visit bundled up in the snow, wondering why people live anywhere on this mainland. Those snowball-throwing students, though, showed enough passion despite the weather to get Manti Te’o’s attention.

The Irish never played Syracuse during Te’o’s time, but they have won their last two meetings, both technically Orange home games though held in MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands: 31-15 in 2014 and 50-33 in 2016.

A STAT THAT MAY HAVE BEEN MISSED IN THE WEEK’S COVERAGE
Syracuse is No. 70 in rushing yards allowed per game at 169.0 and No. 78 in yards per carry against at 4.40. Those numbers are very similar to Pittsburgh’s: No. 76 in yards per game at 172.0 and No. 79 in yards per carry at 4.41.

Then again, the Panthers held Notre Dame to 112 yards on 35 rushes (sacks adjusted), a 3.2 average.

BY HOW MUCH?
Favored by 10 points with a combined point total over/under of 65.5, the Irish are expected to win 38-28. That would necessitate holding the Orange to 16 points below its season average. That is ambitious, even for Clark Lea’s defense.

It is a cliché to say a game will hinge on the turnover battle, but it is such for a reason. It is true, and perhaps especially true this weekend. Syracuse has forced 25 turnovers this season, 2.5 per game. Notre Dame has coughed it up 12 times. (Even if removing senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s five interceptions, the Irish average 1.17 turnovers per game with junior Ian Book starting, compared to 1.2 turnovers per game all season.)

One turnover may happen; it usually does. Notre Dame may not be able to afford any more than that. The Orange will score, and giving up chances to match that is a recipe to end an unbeaten season.

Here is where it proves worth remembering the Irish running backs have not lost a fumble in 37 games, tracing back to its last in a baseball stadium, a 16-13 victory against Boston College at Fenway Park in 2015. Relying on the ground game again would reduce Notre Dame’s turnover risk. Let’s presume that happens.

Notre Dame 35, Syracuse 27.
(9-1 in pick; 4-6 against the spread, 4-6 point total.)

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s Senior Night special for all, but especially two linebacker captains
Can Notre Dame count on Book’s health?
Conversation around Notre Dame changes, even as the Playoff poll does not
The rise of Pittsburgh, Northwestern and Syracuse
And In That Corner … The No. 12 Syracuse Orange at Yankee Stadium
Brian Kelly on Notre Dame’s 2016 fall and 2018 rise
Notre Dame’s offense needed more than ever
The quarterback Notre Dame needed, Brandon Wimbush

OUTSIDE READING:
Inside the creation of a football field at Yankee Stadium
Why does Notre Dame ever deviate from its ionic uniforms?
Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick talks Brian Kelly, a 10-0 start, moving the Syracuse game and more ($)
Subway alums on board for Notre Dame return to New York City
Who is the third-best team in the country?
Don’t let anyone tell you the Irish are out with one loss.
All the chaos that can still happen in the season’s final three weeks
The highest-graded players in every Week 12 marquee matchup in college football
‘Finally, we got one’: Ball State football upsets Western Michigan in overtime thriller

Friday at 4: The quarterback Notre Dame needed, Brandon Wimbush

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For the better part of two seasons, junior quarterback Ian Book has been compared to his position coach, Tom(my) Rees. Both began their Notre Dame careers as understudies, seemingly physically-limited, clearly not as athletic as particular peers at the position. The Book-led Irish comeback in the Citrus Bowl seemed to cement his standing as super-sub, a la Rees in 2012 behind Everett Golson.

Perhaps the Rees comparisons should have instead featured senior Brandon Wimbush.

Last week, it was Rees who texted Wimbush on Monday, distracting him throughout a class as he tried to figure out what could possibly be so urgent. Once Wimbush got to the football facilities, Rees told him that Book probably would not play against Florida State. It was a role Rees had handled himself in 2012, most notably when Golson suffered a concussion against Stanford and Rees started the next week against BYU.

‘That guy’s been through everything you can imagine at the quarterback position here,” Wimbush said of Rees. “He’s helped me. He’s led the entire quarterback room, being that young figure who was here not too long ago.

“He has the experience and the knowledge and the wisdom to teach us. He’s done a great job of putting us in a position to succeed on and off the field.”

Wimbush threw two interceptions last week, his fifth and sixth of the year. Yet, the 42-13 victory made his spot-start an unqualified success. His demeanor in handling it, the benching back in September that made last weekend just a spot start, and any of the expected turmoil in the interim, all extended the success to off the field, as well.

As the 10-0 Irish continue this regular season unbeaten and set for the Playoff, Wimbush’s contributions warrant more praise. Not becoming a malcontent is a low bar to clear, but one too high just a couple years ago. It has not gone unnoticed in this locker room.

“Brandon is a high character guy, great guy to be around, we love him to death,” junior defensive Daelin Hayes said following the victory against the Seminoles. “It was our job to go out and have his back.

“He came out and obviously with him being the starter, he handled that as well as anybody could possibly handle that situation.”

Notre Dame likely would have beaten Florida State with freshman Phil Jurkovec at the helm. Frankly, given the first-quarter interception return to the three-yard line from senior Nick Coleman and Julian Love’s two-point return, the Irish may have prevailed with you or me at quarterback. Can you successfully hand off to Dexter Williams 20-plus times?

But Wimbush removed most, perhaps all, stress from the situation. That is not as dramatic as Rees leading the winning drive against Purdue or throwing the winning touchdown against Stanford. It may not stand the same test of time in lore. But it should. Wimbush took the back seat maturely, as frustrating as that must have been. Then he stepped forward when needed, threw three touchdowns and enjoyed a victorious Alma Mater.

The Irish needed that stability as much as they once needed Rees’ heroics.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s offense needed more than ever

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When now-No. 3 Notre Dame opened its season against now-No. 4 Michigan, the Irish relied on their quarterback, and senior Brandon Wimbush delivered. In meeting No. 12 Syracuse at Yankee Stadium, Notre Dame once again will presumably need its quarterback in order to keep up with the Orange scoring pace, averaging 44.4 points per game.

And the Irish will have junior Ian Book ready to go, per head coach Brian Kelly on Thursday.

“He’s had a good week,” Kelly said. “Normal rust on Tuesday, Wednesday ran the offense effectively and then [Thursday] settled in as if he had not had a week off.”

Despite a ribs injury that kept him sidelined against Florida State, Book is already back working within the entirety of Notre Dame’s offense.

“We have run game in for him,” Kelly said. “He’s going to get hit. We feel very comfortable — we wouldn’t play him if we had to put him in bubble wrap.”

This should be an occasion for Book to put up some gaudy stats … in part because Syracuse runs its offense at a high pace, creating more plays for both teams; in part because the Orange defense is somewhat susceptible to the passing game; in part because Book’s numbers in his six starts have been relatively absurd on their own.

Syracuse averages 82.2 plays per game, fourth-most in the country and just behind Wake Forest’s 83.9. That distorts giving up 261.3 passing yards per game (No. 107), but the 7.5 yards per pass attempt still shows a struggle to defend the pass. For comparison, Northwestern gives up 6.8 yards per attempt, and Book memorably threw for 343 yards and two touchdowns on 22-of-34 passing against the Wildcats, mostly with the rib injury.

Yet, the Orange may present Book a challenge he has not yet seen. Giving up a 56.0 percent completion rate (No. 32), Syracuse makes opposing quarterbacks work for their gains harder than any of the six defenses Book has faced. If styles make fights, then it is worth remembering Book leads the country with a 74.5 completion rate.

Book can also prove once and for all whether this season or last was the anomaly as it pertains to his turnovers. Book has thrown four interceptions in 2018, just as he did in 2017. This year they have come on 204 attempts, nearly triple last year’s 75. The Orange intercepts the opposition once every 25 attempts (14 picks on 350 attempts), a number that would pose a concern against the more inexperienced version of Book.

“They play good defense,” Kelly said. “I wouldn’t call them a trapping defense in a sense that they’re in a lot of exotic (coverages). They’re a four-down front that plays Cover 1 and they rotate down and play some three-down.

“My first characterization of them wouldn’t be that of a team that takes the ball away. I think they’re fundamentally sound and they put their kids in good position.”

This is all of such concern because Syracuse is going to score. The offense is too high-powered to presume otherwise. Notre Dame behind Wimbush would probably not be able to keep up. With Book back, it becomes more likely, if not outright probable.

Nick Coleman’s interception on Florida State’s second play last week set up an Irish score and Coleman for an increased role at nickel back moving forward. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The Orange will stress the Irish defense in ways not yet seen, particularly its nickel packages and senior Nick Coleman. Notre Dame has struggled to replace senior Shaun Crawford since his preseason ACL tear. With an interception and a pass breakup a week ago, Coleman once again asserted himself as Notre Dame’s presumed nickel back. Freshman Houston Griffith has struggled in coverages, leaving only junior Julian Love as a remaining viable option, which then forces freshman TaRiq Bracy (or, less likely due to his lackluster performance this season, junior Donte Vaughn) into outside coverage.

Thus, Coleman will be counted on against an offense with four receivers averaging 11.17 yards or more per catch with at least 28 receptions, all with multiple scores this season.

“Certainly with their [one running back, no tight end] personnel, the nickel will be a very important piece in terms of what we do,” Kelly said. “I thought [Coleman] was savvy. … I got a chance to see him a lot this week, and I thought he was on top of his game.”

As Eric Dungey goes, so goes Syracuse’s offense and the four-year starting quarterback is having quite a productive season, accounting for 26 total touchdowns. (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Syracuse senior quarterback Eric Dungey further complicates that concern, the best dual-threat the Irish have faced this season. On paper, it was a schedule littered with such concerns, but Virginia Tech’s Josh Jackson was knocked out for the season by injury before Notre Dame arrived, Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson has not been as mobile since tearing his ACL in December, and the same can be said of Florida State’s Deondre Francois regarding his ACL tear to start the 2017 season.

Dungey, meanwhile, has taken 147 carries for 690 yards, not adjusting for sacks, and 12 touchdowns. With Coleman at nickel, the Irish will need to rely on linebackers Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill to keep an eye on Dungey, especially in the red zone.

He is but a piece of an offense ranked No. 28 in rushing yards per game with 216.1, No. 6 in rushing touchdowns with 32 and No. 12 in attempts per game with 46.1.

“The whole change in their ability to sustain their offensive structure is their ability to run the football,” Kelly said. “If they can’t run the football, this team is not 8-2.

“… By being an effective ground team, it sets up everything they can do.”

Everything the Orange does may make it the best offense first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea has faced. In the Notre Dame Stadium press box before last week’s 42-13 victory, it was an easy conversational piece to ponder if Syracuse is the best offense the Irish will play this season. The answer is obviously yes. The follow-up question was tougher to answer, who has been the best thus far?

Michigan’s has come furthest, the best at this point, but it was a shell of this version to open the season. Stanford’s was expected to be much more than it has been, bothered by uncharacteristically poor offensive line play. The consensus settled on Wake Forest, which also scored a season-high 27 points against Notre Dame. If/when the Orange tops that, it will not be an indictment of Lea’s defense, but a challenge to Book’s offense.

Lastly, will freshman defensive end Justin Ademilola play? This is largely a piece of housekeeping, but Ademilola has appeared in three games, meaning he can play in one more before losing a year of eligibility. Given how many games are left — two — and what is at stake — a Playoff berth — burning the year may make sense. Defensive line depth is not something to be taken for granted, and Ademilola has shown he can hold his own for a handful of snaps per game.

The only other freshmen worth monitoring in this regard would be running backs C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith and receiver Joe Wilkins, all having played in two games to date. Barring injury, four games should be the logical limit for each.

Mike Tirico Podcast: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame’s 2016 fall and 2018 rise

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Brian Kelly can very much understand what Dino Babers has done to bring Syracuse to No. 12 in the country. Babers orchestrated that rise along the exact same timetable the Notre Dame head coach made his career on, a timetable that then risked his career, Kelly explained to NBC Sports’ Mike Tirico on his eponymous weekly podcast.

Babers is in his third year leading the Orange, now at 8-2 after back-to-back 4-8 seasons.

“He has stuck with his system and developed his players,” Kelly told Tirico. “These young men are now veterans on the offensive line. He has gone out and brought in some veteran players on the defensive line. He can do some things on the line of scrimmage that he couldn’t before.

“They present a challenge because they can run the football, they can throw it, they’re balanced on offense. … He’s a smart football coach, and he’s developed Syracuse into a winning team.”

While each of Kelly’s first two seasons at Notre Dame matched Babers’ combined wins in his first two with the Orange, it was still Kelly’s third that saw his break through, a la Syracuse currently. That season, as many remember, ended in the BCS national championship game.

This followed a trend for Kelly, going 19-16 in three seasons at Central Michigan before moving to Cincinnati where he went 34-6 before taking over the Irish. That final season with the Bearcats featured the same regular season record Kelly’s third at Notre Dame did, 12-0.

Then, one could say Kelly and the Irish stagnated for three seasons. He had not needed to navigate those years at the FBS-level before.

“Got here and after that third year, really went past that three-year turnaround again and stopped doing the things that I had been doing in the process that I had always stuck with,” Kelly said. “The 4-8 season (in 2016) was a re-awakening of getting back to the things that I had always done and just validates the fact that if I stick with the process and the things that I have always done as a football coach, then we can have success.”

This, along with the general enormity of coaching at Notre Dame and all that comes with it, had Kelly unprepared for the scope of the gig despite being a 19-year head coach when he arrived in South Bend.

“I don’t think I was actually adequately prepared for it,” he said in a moment of candor.

To hear Kelly expound on that list of responsibilities, on recruiting players who fit the University’s culture and on his early career in politics, give Kelly and Tirico a listen via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever else you may get your podcasts.