Associated Press

Things To Learn: How injured is Wimbush; Can Mack and/or Stepherson provide reliability?

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The most notable item to learn this weekend is rather obvious: How is Brandon Wimbush’s foot?

The junior quarterback injured his right foot at some point Saturday after 5 p.m. ET. That much is known. How the grade one strain will affect him moving forward is the unknown.

Irish coach Brian Kelly said Wimbush was cleared to run Wednesday. The next update should come yet this evening during Kelly’s weekly post-practice Thursday update. For fun’s sake, let’s ballpark today’s odds of Kelly describing Wimbush as a game-time decision at -170, as cleared to play at +150 and as ruled out for this weekend at +250. In other words, today’s update will likely be of the non-update variety.

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That would bring this watch to Saturday’s pregame warmups at 2:30 p.m. ET, give or take. (Kickoff this week will be a few minutes past 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC.)

If Wimbush starts, he may not need to make many plays. North Carolina could not be much further from the Tar Heels that won 11 games in 2015. They are but a loss vs. Virginia (Oct. 14) and a defeat at Pittsburgh (Nov. 9) from looking at the prospect of winning only two or three games this season. Yes, injuries have played a role in those struggles, but such is football and such is sport. (North Carolina still has to travel to both Virginia Tech and North Carolina State while also hosting Miami.)

It is then easy to think, “Wimbush should not play. Throw in the backup. Surely he can do enough to get the win before the bye week. Let Wimbush rest and recover.”

Yes, sophomore quarterback Ian Book should be able to meet that standard, but Wimbush still needs the playing time, experience in various game situations and more repetitions in the passing game. There is only one way to get these things, and that is to play.

If Wimbush’s foot precludes Saturday action, then the bye week quickly becomes the most-pivotal week of the Irish season. If he plays in a limited fashion against the Tar Heels, then it can be surmised the walking boot is just a precaution for a truly minor injury and his development should be able to proceed without much inhibition.

With Wimbush possibly hampered or Book starting in his place, how much will Notre Dame rely on Josh Adams?
Kelly began beating the drum for the junior running back to receive more recognition immediately after the 52-17 Irish victory over Miami (OH) on Saturday. Following that with a game plan centered on Adams makes logical sense, but Notre Dame’s offense has already primarily featured the run game.

Notre Dame fans are very familiar with junior running back Josh Adams (No. 33), though they do not know junior tight end Alizé Mack as well just yet. Could Adams gain national attention and Mack more local notice against North Carolina on Saturday? (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

With Adams as healthy as he will be the rest of the year, season, perhaps it is time to get him a few carries from inside the five-yard line. The Irish have 10 touchdowns from that range this season. Only one has been in Adams’ hands.

RELATED READING: Adams moves up Notre Dame record books while awaiting national attention

In a nationally-televised afternoon slot, Adams rushing for 170-plus yards with multiple touchdowns would likely get him some of the notice Kelly feels the workhorse deserves.

Will this be the week Alizé Mack makes a sustainable impact?
Spring and preseason practice always overly-hype a few players. The junior tight end certainly received great reviews from both those sessions, but his 11 catches for 116 yards to date have not quite lived up to those laudings.

This is not to say Mack was not worth the hype. Between his size and speed, he is a walking mismatch. He has five catches of at least 15 yards, including one each of 32 and 33. Do the quick math now. While Mack has been good for a handful of big-chunk plays, his other six catches have gained a total of five yards. The Irish have not been able to maximize Mack’s possibilities. That could be a result of Wimbush’s inaccuracy, Mack’s rust or simply the five-game sample size.

If Notre Dame takes to blowing out the Tar Heels, working on the connection between Mack and Wimbush, or even focusing on building Mack any momentum, would pay benefits in the season’s second half.

If North Carolina keeps it close, then Mack could be a crucial third-down piece. Nationally, third downs are converted at a rate of 37.4 percent. Notre Dame has been successful on 41.3 percent of its third downs. The Tar Heels allow first downs 42.2 percent of the time.

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In those particular spots, Mack could excel, keeping the Irish offense on the field, the first step to putting up a fourth tally of 40-plus points.

Was another week of practice the difference for Kevin Stepherson?
Probably not, frankly. Junior Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomore Chase Claypool have separated themselves from the rest of the receivers, and sophomore Kevin Stepherson is not about to join their ranks after only two weeks of practice and one catch against the RedHawks.

Akin to Mack, though, a rout would provide the chance to establish Stepherson some opportunities to move past any lethargy and then establish momentum. As much as Notre Dame has relished relying on the run thus far, at some point a passing situation will arise. Perhaps USC will take a two-touchdown lead into the fourth quarter. Maybe North Carolina State will completely shut down Adams & Co. Both scenarios are very plausible, and both would require the Irish to produce through the air.

Having some proven options in addition to St. Brown and Claypool will increase the odds of such an attack succeeding. Mack and Stepherson remain the most-dynamic possibilities for those roles, but they also remain the most-unproven in 2017, behind the likes of fifth-year receiver Cam Smith, junior receiver Chris Finke and fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe.

Against the Trojans and the Wolfpack, the Irish coaching staff will defer to those who have produced consistently already this season. Saturday is the last chance to establish that track record before a rather competitive four-game run leads into the always interesting matchup with Navy.

Why is this all about the offense?
North Carolina may find some offensive success this weekend, but it is hard to envision it being frequent. At this point, the Notre Dame defense is increasingly a known commodity. Its greatest weakness shows against vertical passing games. The Tar Heels do not feature such.