Friday at 4: Kelly’s ‘most-potent offense yet’

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Let’s conclude the Phil Steele preview portion of the summer with a look at Notre Dame’s offense. It should not take too long.

Why not? Well, for one thing, football season is still eight weeks away. Time in July may be better spent pondering how San Antonio Spurs guard Patty Mills secured a $50 million contract in an NBA enjoying an influx of point guards. Let’s all take confidence from that deal — ceilings are reachable, peaks attainable, unexpected successes achievable.

For that matter, Steele’s projection for the Irish offense hinges almost entirely on one particular player reaching his individual ceiling for the season. That may have seemed to be a forced transition, but it genuinely did develop organically,

When Steele claims this could be Brian Kelly’s “most-potent offense yet,” he stakes that claim on junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush successfully utilizing the talent around him. In ranking individual position groupings, Steele puts every Notre Dame offensive group in the country’s top-10 except for the quarterback, landing at No. 53. If Wimbush can take advantage of those surroundings, Steele fully expects the Irish to exceed 2015’s Kelly-era high of 34.2 points per game.

“He could be a breakout player this year,” Steele said. “I like the surrounding talent around him. A lot of times, that’s a key indicator for a quarterback.

“You take a look at Deondre Francois for Florida State last year. He probably would have had a fantastic year if he hadn’t been running for his life half the game and taking all those hits.”

Wimbush certainly should not be running for his life, playing behind an offensive line Steele considers the country’s No. 6 front, strengthened by projected first-team All-American senior left guard Quenton Nelson and projected second-team All-American fifth-year senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey. With that protection, Wimbush will throw to a receiving corps only bettered by two others in Steele’s eyes (Oklahoma State and Colorado), led by a projected fourth-team All-American in junior Equanimeous St. Brown.

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If that’s not enough, Steele sees the running back trio of juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., as the country’s 10th best set of ballcarriers, largely led by Adams.

“As long as he stays healthy, Adams will easily break 1,000 yards this season.”

Yet it all comes back to Wimbush, a junior who has not started a collegiate game and has thrown a total of five career passes, completing three for 17 yards. Shouldn’t that lack of experience diminish Steele’s high expectations? Won’t growing pains hamper Notre Dame’s attempt to match Steele’s computers’ estimates of 34.3 points per game?

Here, Steele takes a step back, approaching from a macro view to make a valid point.

“People underrate teams with first-year starting quarterbacks,” he said. “After three or four games, you’re experienced. We see first-year quarterbacks have a great deal of success.”

If a quarterback were to start all four years and reach — let’s make this math easy for everyone’s sake—two bowl games during that span, he would play 50 career games. By the end of September, that quarterback would have played 10 percent of his career. The experience does accumulate quickly.

Wimbush will obviously not start all four years. He has three years of eligibility remaining, so that makes a maximum of 36 games plus bowl games. Again, partly for the efficiency of the math, let’s optimistically say Wimbush stays all three seasons and Notre Dame reaches the College Football Playoff National Championship in his fifth and final year. That would equal 40 career starts, presuming health. With that ambitious thinking, Wimbush’s career will be 10 percent complete when the Irish return from East Lansing, Mich., this season.

“A team with a first-year quarterback can do well, but generally everybody says, they have a new quarterback, they’re not going to do well this year.”

After mentioning Wimbush very well may have a stronger arm than either former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer (now with the Cleveland Browns) or Malik Zaire (transferred to Florida), even suggesting Wimbush may have a “higher upside” than either of the other two, Steele brings his complimentary assessment back to the present, noting new Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long’s success last season at Memphis.

A junior-college transfer, Riley Ferguson threw for 3,698 yards on 280-of-443 passing with 32 touchdowns against only 10 interceptions. Like Wimbush this fall, that was Ferguson’s first year as a starter.

“You have to think there is going to be more offense this year,” Steele said. “I think they can get it done, provided Wimbush stays healthy. I’m very high on him.”

When Steele follows an imperative verb with a qualifier of “this year,” it may strike most as generic phrasing. But considering his predilection for basing thoughts in numbers, a look at Notre Dame’s trends over the last five seasons shows just how much of a dip 2016 was.

2012: 412.2 yards per game; 25.8 points per game.
2013: 405.8 yards per game; 27.2 points per game.
2014: 444.9 yards per game; 32.8 points per game.
2015: 466.4 yards per game; 34.2 points per game.
2016: 417.6 yards per game; 30.9 points per game.

The obvious question is, was 2016 an outlier or the beginning of a steep decline? Steele’s computers predict the Irish 2017 averages as 445.4 yards and 34.3 points, indicating the answer is more the former than the latter.

Whether those computers are correct or not lands at the feet and on the arm of Wimbush. No pressure, young man.

If nothing else, Brandon, think of Patty Mills. That young Australian certainly never believed he would turn a solid career at Saint Mary’s College (Calif.) into $12.5 million per year while backing up Dejounte Murray. Yet, Mills did it. If he can do that, there is no reason the Irish offense cannot near five touchdowns a game.

There is also no reason for you to still be here reading this at 4:07 p.m. on a Friday. There are other, more tangible dreams and distractions to go chase.