Notre Dame needs both its primary receiver to stand out even more and a second downfield playmaker to emerge. While the two may go hand-in-hand, Irish coach Brian Kelly is approaching them as separate tasks.
Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown has earned the designation as junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s top target, and deservedly so. That emphasis comes when your sophomore year breakout campaign includes 58 catches for 961 yards and nine touchdown. St. Brown played up to that billing in the season opener, catching four passes for 80 yards and a touchdown. A week later, though, he managed only two catches for 16 yards.
“[Georgia was] really physical with him,” Kelly said Sunday. “When they were in any kind of two-deep coverage, they had somebody over the top, made it difficult to get him the ball.”
Per Kelly on Tuesday, Notre Dame “targeted” St. Brown 20 times in the 20-19 defeat to the Bulldogs on Saturday. By the working definition, that does not mean Wimbush threw toward St. Brown nearly two dozen times. That was nine times. Rather, Kelly’s targeting means 20 plays were called with St. Brown in mind.
“It’s something that we have to be aware of because you’ve got to get the ball to your playmakers,” Kelly said. “… We have to continue to target him.”
Without a second receiver of note just yet, targeting St. Brown could continue to be a fruitless task. Disagreeing with that dichotomy, Kelly does not intend to let the lack of development on one hand alter the effectiveness of the other. He cited past prominent Irish receivers, including Will Fuller, Tyler Eifert and Michael Floyd.
Looking at the most-recent of those, Fuller, simply due to pertinence, Kelly’s point holds merit. In 2015, Fuller caught 62 passes for 1,258 yards and 14 touchdowns. The next most effective Notre Dame receiver was Chris Brown with 48 catches for 597 yards and four touchdowns. A year earlier, Fuller tallied 76 catches for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns, compared to Corey Robinson’s 40 catches, 539 yards and five touchdowns. Fuller had no trouble dominating despite secondaries focusing nearly all their energies on him.
The same could, perhaps should, be said for St. Brown.
“We know how to move him around and get the football,” Kelly said. “That’s not the issue. The issue is we need balance. … We have to continue to target him, but we’ve got to find better balance within the structure of the offense.”
Not that finding a reliable complementary target would be a bad thing. To date, fifth-year receiver Cam Smith has been the closest thing to it, catching seven passes for 54 yards. In the last attempts to regain the lead against Georgia, junior Chris Finke emerged as a possibility, finishing Saturday with three catches for 36 yards. Finke will start this weekend at Boston College.
He takes the spot of senior Freddy Canteen, partly due to a shoulder injury suffered by the Michigan transfer. Canteen has made only one catch for seven yards this season, but that is not entirely on him. Wimbush overthrew an open Canteen on at least one occasion Saturday halfway through the fourth quarter.
The other most-likely possibility remains junior tight end Alizé Mack, only pulling in four passes for 58 yards through two games. Suffice it to say that is a far cry from what was expected from Mack in his return from a season lost due to academic issues. Heading into the matchup with the Bulldogs, Kelly expressed an understanding for Mack starting the season slowly.
“With Alizé we feel like in his situation it’s a young man that really hadn’t played in a long time,” Kelly said last week. “We feel like the improvement we’re going to see from week one to week two is going to be great. … When we come back later in the season, we’re going to be talking about his progression.”
Clearly, that improvement did not come in week two. It could come in week three. Whenever it comes from whomever, if anyone, it will be welcomed by both Kelly and St. Brown, not that the lack of that option is enough of an excuse for St. Brown not making dynamic plays, as well.
“We have to gain balance within our offensive passing game so [St. Brown] doesn’t become double-covered all the time, get somebody rolling up on him, a safety over the top,” Kelly said. “… I think a little bit of that is play calling, a little bit of that is playing and making plays.”
Listed Measurements: 6-foot, 170 pounds 2018-19 year, eligibility: Incoming freshman with four years of eligibility remaining, including the 2018 season. Depth chart: Bracy should be little more than a reserve cornerback this season, barring injury to any of the upperclassmen in the two-deep. Recruiting: Coming from the west coast, the rivals.com three-star and No. 39 cornerback in the country chose Notre Dame over the likes of Cal, Utah and Washington State.
QUOTE(S) A small town north of San Jose, Calif., Milpitas is not ripe recruiting ground, leading to a quiet recruiting cycle for Bracy. Irish head coach Brian Kelly was glad to be the beneficiary of that calm.
“Tariq Bracy is a young man that I think if he’s in a metro area, his recruitment probably blows up, but he’s in an area that doesn’t get quite the attention,” Kelly said during December’s early signing period. “… [He] is an outstanding player.”
That recruitment was a quiet one despite Bracy excelling as a prep running back, kick returner and punt returner in addition to his defensive back skills. Oh, and he caught a bevy of passes, too. In winning the state title game, Bracy scored rushing (70 yards), receiving (35) and returning a punt (60). Those highlight-reel moments caught the eye of cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght.
“The strength and power area, he’s going to have to do some work, because he’s a little developmental there,” Lyght said in February. “His playmaking skills, his ball skills, his speed, his reactive athleticism are second-to-none in this class.”
WHAT WAS SAID WHEN BRACY’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED “The Irish might be alright with cornerbacks at the moment, but it will need them in 2019 or 2020, and without any in the class ahead of him, Bracy’s timeline will be expedited by a season. He’ll be contributing no later than his sophomore year and, given natural development, could be a starter as a junior.”
2018 OUTLOOK Bracy’s experience in the return game adds a wrinkle to his playing possibilities this fall. It is most likely he dabbles in special teams coverages and sees defensive mop-up duties in up to four games, preserving a year of eligibility. There is a chance, however, of Bracy taking over the punt and kickoff return duties, albeit not inherently a great chance.
The outward transfer of C.J. Sanders opens up the kickoff duties while senior receiver Chris Finke remains the nominal punt returner, a duty he performed serviceably last season but not exceptionally by any means.
Sanders’ career, although now-truncated, proves Kelly has little qualm about putting a freshman on the goal line to receive kicks. The reserve receiver handled all return duties in 2015, returning both a kick and a punt for scores.
DOWN THE ROAD The cornerbacks depth chart is a unique one to look at. The top four players all have two years of eligibility remaining, while the rest of the position group consists entirely of a freshmen quartet, all obviously with full collegiate careers ahead of them.
That dichotomy could keep Bracy off the field for a couple years before suddenly inserting him into a starting role. Being a first-time starter as a junior should not be considered a disappointment; it is often a norm. (See junior Troy Pride this season and possibly his classmate Donte Vaughn in a year.)
That slow pace will actually coincide nicely with Lyght’s hopes of progress in a next-level strength and conditioning program, as long as added muscle and physicality does not come at the expense of Bracy’s natural speed and agility.
Listed Measurements: 5-foot-10 ½, 200 pounds 2018-19 year, eligibility: After transferring from Navy last offseason, the NCAA denied Gilman’s appeal for a waiver granting immediate eligibility, thus stalling the clock on his playing time for a year. Gilman has three seasons of eligibility remaining, beginning with the 2018 season. Depth chart: Gilman is in position to be the salve to Notre Dame’s years of safety deficiencies. The transfer is expected to begin the season as the starting field safety, displacing senior Nick Coleman and holding off the impressive debut of early-enrolled freshman Houston Griffith. Recruiting: Gilman’s was a low-profile recruitment out of Hawai’i, hence his landing at Navy for a year. At that point, he was hardly on the Irish radar.
CAREER TO DATE Gilman spent last season on the sidelines, though he still made an impression on the Notre Dame coaching staff, being named the top prep team player.
At Navy, Gilman’s shining moment actually came against the Irish in a 28-27 Midshipmen victory. He made 12 tackles that day. At that point, Notre Dame had to dread facing him three more times in his career.
2016: 14 games, 12 starts; 76 tackles with five for loss while breaking up five passes, recovering two fumbles, including one he forced and brought to the end zone.
QUOTE(S) The drawbacks of spending a season on the scout team by the NCAA’s decree extend past that fall. Gilman needed to get up to speed on the playbook this spring, something which limited his initial climb up the depth chart.
“He had a slow start to the spring,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in early April. “… He wasn’t taught the defense last year. He was taught everybody else’s defense because he was on scout team. That kind of put him back a few practices, but now that he knows what he’s doing, he can play fast and play physical. We’re really starting to see that skillset that he showed when he was at Navy.”
While first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea also saw that learning curve accelerate through the spring, what he did not need to see progress was Gilman’s leadership tendencies.
“He’s a guy that in one year has made an impact from a leadership standpoint,” Lea said the week of the Blue-Gold Game. “The guys follow him, they listen to him, they trust him. It’s apparent. He’s consistent, he’s dependable, all the things that you would want.
“He’s got it as a leader. We want to harness that and let that shine as he goes.”
WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO “Kelly praised Gilman as a physical safety. That would seem to put him in the same category as [junior Jalen Elliott], though perhaps with better coverage skills. In that instance, Gilman could fill in for Elliott in intermediate down-and-distance situations, guarding against a pass while also providing strong run support.
“On more obvious passing downs, perhaps [junior Devin] Studstill comes in, or perhaps Gilman offers strong enough pass coverage he can continue to man the position, even allowing [then-] sophomore Julian Love to stay at cornerback, further strengthening the Notre Dame secondary.
“The reasons behind Gilman’s transfer should also be acknowledged here. He very clearly has NFL aspirations. That is to be lauded. Just keep it in mind: Once that opportunity presents itself, Gilman will likely take that chance.”
2018 OUTLOOK Last season, the Irish safeties had their hands in a grand total of zero turnovers. The lack of interceptions is well discussed and a greater concern, but Elliott, Studstill and Coleman also failed to force or recover any fumbles. It took Gilman all of two drives in the Blue-Gold Game to showcase that part of his game, halting a big gain from receiver Michael Young by both forcing and recovering a fumble.
Along with his six tackles in the scrimmage, that strip presumably secured Gilman’s starting role entering 2018. Even with the strong springtime showing from Griffith and the arrival of consensus four-star freshman Derrik Allen, Gilman should start alongside Elliott against Michigan, each bringing a year of starting experience to the gig.
Further evidence of Gilman’s spot in the pecking order, Coleman’s work at nickelback during the spring hints at Lea trying to find a way to get his best players on the field one way or another. If Gilman supplanted Coleman, then Coleman spending time at nickel would offer a different defensive look in Lea’s inventory.
To hold off the freshmen duo, Gilman will need to continue finding the ball both in turnover situations and as run fits dictate. Those are the strengths of his game, items sorely lacking from the Notre Dame secondary for a couple seasons.
Coleman accounted for 44 tackles in 2017, Elliott just one behind him. In this system, the safeties do not rack up exceptional numbers of takedowns. Thus, do not expect Gilman to match his Naval total. His ball skills are more crucial to Lea’s defense, anyway.
DOWN THE ROAD Starting the first day he is able usually indicates years of such a duty. Contrarily, the arrival of two four-stars at a position typically points to a short shelf life for the incumbents. One of those trends will have to yield.
It may take Griffith and/or Allen a full year or two to be ready to start. That would hardly bode poorly for their careers, but it would pave the way for Gilman to spend multiple years as the Irish starter.
Twitter is a unique beast, with college football Twitter its own monster and the Notre Dame subsection a terror all its own. The overreactions, hot takes and incessant hand-wringing create an ecosystem unlike any other throughout fall’s Saturdays. The gifs, memes and intentional misspellings of “FIGTHING IRISH” develop a language at best English-adjacent. The on-field highs become greater peaks and each lost fumble craters into a never-ending abyss as far as the proverbial feed is concerned.
As it was first known, twttr officially launched in March of 2006 and gained steam in 2007, but it only found momentum in 2008 and became main-stream somewhere between 2009 and 2010. Personally, it was a slow day in The South Bend Tribune’s newsroom during LeBron James’ first free agency that spurred signing up. (July 4, 2010, to be exact.) Notre Dame football reaches back much, much further than that. More than a century so.
Relatively speaking, the moments of the last decade have largely been muted, considering just how much Twitter overreacts to trivial moments and nearly-combusts on big occasions. For every South Florida rainstorm, a Kick-Six stands out as a true demonstration of college football Twitter’s reach. A national championship game blowout quickly turns into an hour-long Irish roast followed by two hours of boredom.
Thus, the pointless-but-for-entertainment question becomes …
What Notre Dame football events from the pre-Twitter era would have been best suited for the platform’s hyperbolic reaction, universal enjoyment and continuous feedback?
A few categories of replies emerge.
THE RECENT HISTORY The years immediately preceding Twitter’s takeover offered numerous days of hysteria, obviously halted by 2007’s 3-9 disaster, a season in which Twitter’s barroom snark may have provided some needed company for the miserable, company which could have included Michigan fans to open the season, courtesy of that legendary Appalachian State upset.
A simple peak came with Brady Quinn finding Jeff Samardzija for a 45-yard touchdown pass in the final minute to beat UCLA in 2006. Weeks before that, though, both the Irish comeback at Michigan State and the reaction to it would have been ripe for the picking.
Scoring 19 straight points to win 40-37 at a rival’s venue is about as sweet as it gets in college football. Eliciting an uninterrupted, 15-minute meltdown from the rival’s radio jockey is another brand of delight. The longest breath ever taken by Mike Valenti, of 97.1 “The Ticket” in Detroit, is hardly remembered today, but imagine if Twitter had sunk its teeth into the rolling and roiling takedown of everything associated with Drew Henson and Mark Dantonio.
It begins nicely enough, repeatedly deeming the loss a “choke job.” Valenti touches on football concepts familiar to Notre Dame fans remembering 2016, “You’re asking Drew Stanton to run the option in Hurricane Katrina.” Valenti’s voice halts, cracks and nearly gives out. “God forbid if they had tripped over themselves and gained 20 yards, they wouldn’t have even gotten a field goal off. The unit wasn’t ready.”
And in a moment of resignation perfectly designed for Twitter’s character limits, “I’m tired. I’m hurt. I’m emotional. I’m shot. I’ve got nothing left.”
Before 2006’s dramatics, there was 2005’s “Bush Push.” Not much else needs to be said. Irish fans would have conjured up thrice the conspiracy theories they already have if Twitter and gifs had been there to aid the bargaining fans. In time, they would have found some comfort in the inevitable memes of Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush crying. For an hour that afternoon, before all dreams were dashed, Tom Zbikowski’s punt return for a touchdown and a 21-14 halftime lead would have delivered Notre Dame fans quite the social media hubris, counteracting the expected public cries of despair at the sight of green jerseys before the game, justifiably so given their production in 2003 against Boston College.
THE DISTANT HISTORY Two nominees jump to mind, both dealing with the state directly north of campus. Twitter would have wrung itself into an incoherent, morally-outraged mess following the 10-10 tie between the No. 1 Irish and No. 2 Michigan State in 1966. How could Ara not try to win? Why play the game? How weak!! Valid strategy or not, Notre Dame holding the ball for the final 70 seconds of a tie game would have sparked backlash so strong it then would have induced its own backlash which would, presumably, lead to backlash to the backlash of the initial backlash.
THE ALLEN ROSSUM HEROICS One is well-known for its preservation of the eventual 43-year Irish winning streak against Navy.
The memes of “Rossum saving …” would have been a catalyst for Notre Dame football Twitter for some time to come.
That pales in comparison to the thoughts of the freshmen in the student body in 1996, when Rossum returned the opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown against Purdue. Every single one of those freshmen would have tweeted exactly what they thought, “Holy *$#%, we’re going to go 48-0!”
Narrator: They did not go 48-0.
THE GREATEST FALSEHOOD There are a number of off-field debacles that would top each of these in-game highlights. The video of Lou Holtz cutting loose at a pep rally could have enraged entire opposing stadiums. Every moment of Jimmy Clausen’s time in South Bend likely lent itself to mockery from afar.
Yet nothing, nothing whatsoever (with the possible exception of the in-the-heart-of-the-Twitter-era Manti Te’o dating debacle), not all of these thoughts combined, would have topped Twitter’s euphoria for five days in December of 2001.
George O’Leary’s padded résumé would have shut down much of the internet by crashing the servers of every online college football outlet
Instead, NYU-Stony Brook University is a figment of the imagination long forgotten.
A FEW THOUGHTS TOO LONG FOR TWITTER — At least one Notre Dame alum remembers the Valenti rant quite well. In his friend group, it is a piece of legend: He had the audio file on his phone, listening to the phone on shuffle on a road trip with his girlfriend, a Michigan State alum. The Valenti outburst came on. The Irish fan let it play in its 15-minute entirety. The remaining 90 minutes of the ride were uncomfortably silent. Worry not. They will be married less than a month from now.
— There would have been universal social media joy following the Appalachian State topping of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Not just because of what happened at the Big House, but also because of the events at Appalachian State’s stadium, where the students broke in, tore down the goalposts and walked them a mile to the chancellor’s lawn.
— In its own way already proven, the late ‘80s matchups with Miami would have been ideal social media material, verified by how well Twitter received ESPN’s “30 for 30” on the rivalry.
ON TJ SHEFFIELD It has already blown over. Hard as that may be to believe, given Wednesday’s likely end to the Notre Dame recruitment of rivals.com three-star receiver TJ Sheffield (Independence High School; Thompson’s Station, Tenn.). Sheffield committed on July 6, described his pledge as “100 percent” two days later, and then announced the Irish coaching staff had withdrawn the offer on July 11.
(Why bring up this old news now? One, to emphasize how it has already left most concerns. Two, only about 20 percent of U.S. adults use Twitter and many may have missed the ins and outs of this odd recruitment.)
“After establishing a long-term relationship with Coach Alexander the Receiver’s Coach for Notre Dame, I called him on the morning of the 6th of July and stated to him my intensions to commit [sic],” Sheffield posted to Twitter. “Coach Alexander then congratulated me on committing and he spoke with my parents as well stating that he looked forward to coaching me. Today I received a call from Coach Alexander stating that Notre Dame was not going to honor my commitment due to a change of plans. Coach Alexander stated that he should have let me know on the 6th of July that Notre Dame had different plans.”
Such as it goes, unfortunate as it is for this situation to have come to light at all. Sheffield will be better off learning of this shift now rather than closer to a signing date, the most likely outcome otherwise. That said, Alexander certainly made a public mistake in a public fashion.
To summarize how this miscommunication presumably occurred: All scholarship offers and subsequent commitments are mutually non-binding. Thus, not all scholarship offers are true offers. They are conditional on these grades or that other player or general timing. Sheffield did not have the same read of his conditions as the Irish coaching staff did. Simple as that, although yet embarrassing.
Compare it to a redhead behind the bar. If she gives the customer her number, she has not agreed to a date. She has simply put the option on the table pending timing, interests and textual manners.
The five-day life cycle of Sheffield’s commitment is nothing more than some mud on Notre Dame’s face that will wash off quickly, if it has not already.
National Hockey League unveils the 2019 NHL Winter Classic logo for Chicago Blackhawks & Boston Bruins outdoors battle at Notre Dame Stadium on New Year’s Day. pic.twitter.com/yG1hpBhNQZ
Listed Measurements: 6-foot-1/8, 200 pounds 2018-19 year, eligibility: A junior academically, Book has three years of eligibility remaining, including the 2018 season. Depth chart: Book will back up senior Brandon Wimbush this fall, deemed “1B” by Irish head coach Brian Kelly after the spring-concluding Blue-Gold Game. Book is entrenched enough in the position to lead to sophomore Avery Davis working at running back and receiver, but he will obviously now have to hold off the challenge of incoming freshman Phil Jurkovec. Recruiting: Book’s recruitment was led by former Notre Dame quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford, having pursued the California-product while at Boise State before joining Kelly’s staff. A consensus three-star prospect and the No. 15 pro-style quarterback in the country, per rivals.com, Book originally committed to Washington State before reconsidering.
CAREER TO DATE Book preserved a year of eligibility as a freshman in 2016 and then spent last season as the most popular player on any football team: the backup quarterback. Only a play away from running the Irish offense full-time, Book first saw genuine action in the blowout of Miami (OH) and his first real responsibilities came when Wimbush was sidelined at North Carolina with a foot injury. In his first career start, Book completed 17-of-31 passes for 146 yards and a touchdown against the Tar Heels while throwing two interceptions.
Of course, Book is best remembered for leading the comeback victory over No. 17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl, throwing for 164 yards on 14-of-19 passing with two touchdowns and one interception.
2017: 10 games, one start; 46-of-75 for 456 passing yards and four touchdowns with four interceptions; 207 rushing yards on 37 rushes.
QUOTE(S) Book’s spring may have started a bit slow, certainly when compared to the dramatic ending of his season.
“Ian’s been a little bit spotty at times in the morning with some of his reads,” Kelly said at the end of March. “Sometimes that’s just focus and concentration on his part, but his feet are light. He’s throwing the ball well.”
Within a week, Book started performing closer to how Kelly had preferred.
“Ian has been, over the last couple of practices, much more consistent,” Kelly said. “The last time I was [addressing the media], I commented we wanted more consistency out of the quarterbacks. Ian has been much more consistent the last three practices, and that’s what we want from our quarterbacks, the ability to execute and work on a consistent basis.”
WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO “Book will back up Wimbush. That also means, Book will play this season. By no means is that a prediction Wimbush will suffer an injury, though that is obviously possible. Rather, it is a prediction Kelly will get Book into a game the first chance he has, quite likely in the second half against Temple if the Notre Dame lead is cushion enough.
“Getting Book a few reps then, or perhaps two weeks later at Boston College, will help calm any nerves for when he may have to step in for Wimbush in a competitive situation. Perhaps Wimbush rolls an ankle a few minutes before halftime against North Carolina or maybe he takes a shot to the head against North Carolina State. Either scenario would force Book to move the offense forward without missing a step in what should be tight games.”
2018 OUTLOOK Just as was said definitively a year ago, Book will play this season. While Kelly will want to get Jurkovec some in-game development, keeping Book at the ready will be a higher priority. The coaching staff will need to find the balance between Jurkovec’s development and the best competitive decisions for 2018.
There is a scenario where Jurkovec passes Book for primary backup duties, but that seems unlikely. Presuming that does not come to fruition, Book could be counted on in a make-or-break moment when Wimbush sprains an ankle against Stanford or loses his helmet at Virginia Tech. Those are not moments for a true freshman less than two months into his collegiate career. They are also not the time for Book to see his first action of 2018, no matter how much he played a year ago. Thus, some of the season’s first relaxed moments (looking at you, Ball State on Sept. 8) will land in Book’s hands for few series before turning to Jurkovec.
In the past, those blowouts focused solely on the backup quarterback getting reps. With the NCAA’s newfound generosity toward freshmen, a lopsided victory will also consider the true freshman looking to develop without losing eligibility. In a season where more than four blowouts is a wild pipe dream, those needs will come at the expense of each other, both statistically and practically.
DOWN THE ROAD With Jurkovec arriving to raised banners, blown trumpets and elated crowds (Okay, that is an exaggeration.), Book’s chances at becoming the Irish starting quarterback narrowed. The best possibility requires Wimbush excelling this season while Jurkovec struggles with the college grind. That could lead to Wimbush heading to the NFL with a season of eligibility remaining and the Notre Dame coaches opting to develop Jurkovec for another season with more snaps as the backup rather than the eligibility-preserving freshman.
More likely, Wimbush plays well this year but does not scorch the Earth’s surface, bringing him back for 2019. At that point, with Jurkovec having two full years of prep, he would be stiff competition for Book to be the starting quarterback in 2020, Book’s last chance. With that in mind, a Wimbush return very well may precipitate a Book transfer.
Even if Wimbush does end up elsewhere in 2019, Jurkovec looms. Book showed last season he can lead the Irish in limited stretches, but he also threw an interception every 19 attempts and averaged only 6.08 yards per pass attempt. Those numbers will not produce a dynamic offense. Jurkovec’s ceiling should be higher than those figures. At least, that is why there are those proverbial banners, trumpets and crowds, right? (Yes, that is tongue in cheek.)