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Things We Learned: Notre Dame can turn to Book, though may prefer not to

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For at least a day, No. 21 Notre Dame could survive without junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. Testing that fate long-term might be a riskier proposition.

Irish sophomore quarterback Ian Book started in Wimbush’s stead during Notre Dame’s 33-10 victory at North Carolina on Saturday. Book completed only 17-of-31 passes for 146 yards and one score, also throwing two interceptions and rushing for 47 yards on 11 carries.

Those statistics certainly qualify as underwhelming — especially the 4.7 yards per passing attempt, compared to Wimbush’s 5.9 to date — but Book did not need to put up dazzling numbers to qualify as a one-off success. He needed to avoid crippling mistakes, he needed to keep the Irish offense on-task and he needed to make a play here or there. That much, Book did.

“He’s a very confident kid,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He overthrew a couple of balls here and there. For a first start, I was really pleased with what he did today. To win on the road is hard to do. The ideal situation is to start at home in a more comfortable environment but I thought he went in and did some really good things for us.”

Even the two interceptions were tolerable. One came from Notre Dame’s own three-yard line. Without many options available, Book heaved a pass downfield for junior receiver Chris Finke. Slightly overthrown, it gifted possession to the Tar Heels at the 47-yard line. Essentially, it served as a punt without the risk of a punt block in the end zone.

The other pick came when Book overthrew fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe. That mistake cost the Irish a red zone opportunity, but it may have been the result of Book’s inexperience more than anything else. To the untrained eye, it looked as if Book expected Smythe to run the route a yard deeper, but Smythe gauged the coverage slightly differently.

Neither turnover qualified as “crippling.”

Wimbush should be back against USC in two weeks. (More on that, and other injuries, in a bit.) Presuming that is the case, Book served the spot starter role well. More than that, though, he showed the potential to carry the load down the line.

His arm is not as strong as Wimbush’s, few are, but it was more than able to get passes into tight windows. Some of that can be attributed to accuracy, a rare sight around the Irish offense with Wimbush at the helm.

Notre Dame frequently got sophomore quarterback and first-time starter Ian Book out of the pocket Saturday to simplify the reads in front of him as well as to play to Book’s strengths as a mobile passer. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Book lacks Wimbush’s big-play running ability, but he was mobile enough to throw on the move. That skill, in fact, played a part in Notre Dame’s 25 first-half passes. From the outset, Kelly wanted to play to Book’s strengths.

“We wanted to mostly take advantage of some of the play-action opportunities to complement our run game,” Kelly said. “It was going to be a run-centered game for us. Getting some high-percentage throws, on the move, where he didn’t have to sit in the pocket and do progression reads across the field.”

The first touchdown pass of sophomore quarterback Ian Book’s career was also the first touchdown at Notre Dame for fifth-year senior and Arizona State graduate transfer Cam Smith. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Those play calls served to simplify Book’s reads and to tilt the field toward his favor. Without Wimbush’s speed, Book’s rollouts-turned-scrambles were never going to gain 30-plus yards, but he frequently took advantage of open space available. Most notably, he ran for nine yards on a second-and-10 from the North Carolina 20-yard-line at the end of the first quarter. Two plays later, Book found fifth-year receiver Cam Smith for the first score of the day. That scramble kept the drive moving forward, preventing a worrisome third-and-long.

Book worked through his progressions well. He knew where his safety valves were. With more time, those skills would only grow, and he would better understand what Smythe sees in a defense.

Book did not play so well Notre Dame hopes he gets that playing time in the near future, but he did play well enough the Irish won’t need to panic should that situation arise.

Wimbush should be back after the bye week. As should everybody else.
Kelly claimed he debated playing Wimbush up until Saturday. The starter looked good Friday, very much wanting to play, but on game day, Kelly did not see the requisite “bounce” in Wimbush’s step as he recovers from a grade one right foot strain.

“Today he just didn’t have it in him,” Kelly said. “He just didn’t feel great. He didn’t have any bounce. Yesterday he looked good in our walk-through preparation and he had a lot of energy. It went back-and-forth.”

In other words, Wimbush should be good-to-go with a bye week’s rest ahead of him. The same goes for junior running back Dexter Williams. He did not even dress for the contest, following the same timeline as sophomore running back Tony Jones did a week ago coming back from an ankle sprain Kelly has compared to Williams’ now.

Junior running back Josh Adams had another short day, partly due to dehydration. Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown also saw limited action thanks to cramping. Anyone worried about senior linebacker Nyles Morgan need not do so: The captain suffered a stinger in the third quarter and was back to full health by game’s end. None of those should linger past, well, past Sunday, frankly.

Senior right tackle Alex Bars suffered an ankle sprain, but Kelly made it clear it was not a high ankle sprain. Traditionally speaking, that is considered a good thing.

But if Bars is out, Hunter Bivin will not be the answer.
When Bars first went to the sideline, fifth-year offensive lineman Hunter Bivin stepped in at right guard, as would be expected. Then Bivin committed two penalties within three plays to knock Notre Dame out of an ideal first-and-goal from the four-yard line. His day ended.

The Irish shifted sophomore Tommy Kraemer from his timeshare at right tackle, allowing freshman Robert Hainsey to take over those duties full-time.

This personnel development is worth remembering for two reasons: Obviously, if the ankle plagues Bars down the line, this will be the alignment deployed. Beyond that, it speaks to Hainsey’s rapid development. If he could not be counted on at right tackle, Kraemer would need to remain there. Bivin would then be the best option available at right guard, no matter how inconsistent he may be.

In the long-run, an argument can be made Kraemer’s best future is at guard. Hainsey’s emergence makes that more of a possibility, one that just might bring the beginnings of a consideration of a smile to Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s face.

Hey, look, that’s Alizé Mack chipping away.

Junior tight end Alizé Mack moved the chains on four of his six catches during Notre Dame’s 33-10 win at North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The junior tight end was targeted 10 times, catching six of them for 38 yards. Just more than three dozen yards and no scores may sound like another underwhelming stat line. That would be too simple of a reading, and an incorrect one.

Four of Mack’s catches yielded first downs, including a fourth-and-one conversion and a third-and-two conversion. This is the consistent production expected of a tight end presenting the target Mack does.

Entering the weekend, he had caught six passes of fewer than 15 yards. Those receptions hold merit, much merit. At North Carolina, Mack matched that total.

Chunks of 32 or 33 yards may be preferable, but they cannot be counted on. Gains of seven, six and even three yards are the plays that keep drives moving down the field.

All good things must end.

CHAPEL HILL, NC – OCTOBER 07: Nick Polino #58 of the North Carolina Tar Heels dives for a fumble forced by Te’von Coney #4 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the game at Kenan Stadium on October 7, 2017 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Two stats had become the preferred methods of illustrating just how different these Irish are from last year’s version. Notre Dame had scored on all 22 trips to the red zone this season, and the Irish had scored touchdowns after 10 of 11 forced turnovers, the one exception coming less than a minute before halftime.

Both storylines became cluttered this weekend. A trip to the red zone resulted in one of Book’s aforementioned interceptions. That stat line now stands at scores on 24 of 25 trips with 21 touchdowns. It remains hardly something to scoff at.

Of the three Tar Heels turnovers, only one resulted in any Notre Dame points, and that was just a field goal. Nonetheless, the Irish have now outscored their opponents off turnovers by a whopping margin of 73-10.

C.J. Holmes joins the running back fray.

Junior running back Deon McIntosh played a key part in Notre Dame maintaining possession for 12:16 of the fourth quarter. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

If sophomore running back Deon McIntosh continues to turn mop-up duty into a starring role — taking 12 carries for 124 yards and two touchdowns against the Tar Heels — then freshman C.J. Holmes will be stuck as the fifth running back on Notre Dame’s depth chart. However, a week ago that designation would have been nominal only. Now, it is a sincere description.

Holmes took eight carries for 32 yards in his first collegiate action, also participating on at least three of the Irish kicking units.

With Adams, Williams and Jones all tending to battered ankles already, Holmes may be needed yet this year, fifth running back or not.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest

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A sign of a strong program is one that loses players to the NFL before they exhaust eligibility. In that vein, Notre Dame lost a consensus first-team All-American cornerback, its leading receiver and a long-time tease of a tight end. The last of those (Alizé Mack) was never expected back for a fifth season; replacing Miles Boykin’s production is certainly within reason; and a consensus first-team All-American should be expected to take the route junior Julian Love has.

Even with that expectation, losing Love — and to a lesser extent, Boykin — alters the natural roster cycle, the inherent design intended during recruiting. Reloading is always the hope, the next intention, but very rarely is the young backup comparable to the near professional, even by the end of the coming season.

Nonetheless, the Irish got off easy this cycle compared to four of their 2019 opponents …

GEORGIA: Junior running back Elijah Holyfield, the Bulldogs’ second-leading rusher, departs after gaining 1,018 rushing yards with seven touchdowns on 6.4 yards per carry this season. Frankly, that is the least of Georgia’s losses. Three of quarterback Jake Fromm’s four favorite targets will leave eligibility on the figurative table:

— Junior receiver Riley Ridley: 44 catches for 570 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018.
— Junior receiver Mecole Hardman: 34 catches for 532 yards and seven touchdowns.
— Junior tight end Isaac Nauta: 30 catches for 430 yards and three touchdowns.

Without running back Karan Higdon, Michigan will presumably rely on its passing game more in 2019, quarterback Shea Patterson’s second season as a Wolverine. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

MICHIGAN: The Wolverines got good news when quarterback Shea Patterson opted to return for 2019, but losing leading-rusher Karan Higdon (1,178 yards, 10 touchdowns, 5.3 average) will be an issue head coach Jim Harbaugh undoubtedly hoped to avoid. Junior tight end Zach Gentry, Patterson’s third-most prolific target with 32 catches for 514 yards and two scores, will also head to the next level.

On the flip side, Harbaugh could have hoped linebacker Devin Bush (team-leading 80 tackles with 9.5 for loss including five sacks), defensive end Rashan Gary (44 tackles with seven for loss including 3.5 sacks) or linebacker David Long (17 tackles with one interception) might return, but no such luck for Michigan.

Duke junior quarterback Daniel Jones will head to the NFL after his third season as a starter, immediately lowering the Blue Devils’ 2019 expectations. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

DUKE: Junior linebacker Joe Giles-Harris paced the Blue Devils with 81 tackles, including seven for loss with one sack, doing so in only nine games. But losing Giles-Harris is hardly the concern for Duke. The decision to turn pro from quarterback Daniel Jones is.

In his third year as a starter, the junior fought through a broken collarbone to still play in 11 games in 2018, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 2,674 yards and 22 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He added 319 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Jones’ decision may come as a surprise, but it is one that should work out well for both him and Notre Dame. Some mock drafts project him as a top-10 pick. In a draft light on quarterbacks — partly because Oregon’s Justin Herbert returned for another season, yet already somewhat counteracted by the Monday draft entry from Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray — Jones could end up being the third or fourth passer picked.

BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles will say farewell to junior cornerback Hemp Cheevers after he notched seven interceptions this season, returning one for a touchdown, to go along with 39 tackles.

STANFORD: This will seem like the Cardinal lost a lot to the NFL draft, but it could have been worse: As the departures mounted, so did speculation junior quarterback K.J. Costello might follow them. He opted not to.

Stanford will be without running back Bryce Love after his prodigious two seasons as the starter. Consider that a loss akin to the Irish Love, the inevitable price of enjoying the success in the first place.

Junior receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside will capitalize on his breakout season of 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns, depriving Costello of his favorite jump-ball threat.

Junior tight end Kaden Smith will also head to the next level, in large part thanks to his 47 catches for 635 yards and two touchdowns this past season.

Louisville, New Mexico, Virginia, Bowling Green, USC, Virginia Tech and Navy all did not lose anyone early or pseudo-early to the NFL draft.

Autry Denson leaves Notre Dame to take over at Charleston Southern

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Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher will no longer coach its current running backs. After four seasons at his alma mater, Autry Denson has been named the head coach at Charleston Southern, an FCS-level program, per a release Monday afternoon.

The second-longest tenured coach on Brian Kelly’s staff (behind only defensive line coach Mike Elston; tied with cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght), Denson had produced quality Irish backs, peaking with Josh Adams’ 1,430 rushing yards in 2017, leading an offense that averaged 269.5 rushing yards per game.

“I am so excited for Autry as he embarks on the next step of his coaching career as the new head coach at Charleston Southern,” Kelly said in a statement. “He has done a tremendous job for us during his time at Notre Dame.

“He not only developed our running backs to produce at a high level on the field, but he was also instrumental in their growth as young men.”

Only Adams and C.J. Prosise broke 1,000 rushing yards in a season under Denson, though Dexter Williams gained 995 in only nine games this past season. A third-round pick in 2016, Prosise has spent his entire career with the Seattle Seahawks, while Adams rushed for 511 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Williams should join them in the NFL in April’s draft.

All of them paled in comparison to Denson’s college days, a career that saw him gain 4,318 rushing yards, 43 touchdowns and three seasons of more than 1,000 rushing yards. A 1998 All-American, Denson then spent five years in the NFL.

Denson began his coaching career at the FCS level at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., a couple hundred miles up the coast from his hometown outside of Miami.

“I was drawn to Charleston Southern by the vision of this great Christian university of integrating faith in learning, leading and serving,” Denson said. “As a result, I knew this could be a place where I could build and lead a program to honor Christ by operating with character, integrity, transparency, accountability and community.”

Charleston Southern went 5-6 in 2018 under Mark Tucker, who went 11-11 in two seasons before resigning last month.

Program-record 10 early enrollees mark the beginning of Notre Dame’s 2019

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With the early enrollment of 10 freshmen, Notre Dame’s 2019 has begun. Usually this sparks a debate among outsiders pitting the advantages of early enrollment against the high school experiences lost. Not only is that an argument held by those far from both the program and high school, but it is also one missing the team-wide edge gained.

With 10 additional scholarship bodies this spring, the Irish will have 77 on hand, as of now. A total of 16 of those will be offensive linemen, including four mid-year arrivals. Whereas there are some springs in which Notre Dame struggles to field a second unit on its offensive line, this March and April will feature three complete units with a body to spare.

There will be just as many defensive lines, with three early enrollees bringing the total up to 14 scholarship players knocking around this spring, though the health of rising sophomore Ja’Mion Franklin (quad) may drop that a notch.

Either way, the Irish will have more depth on hand this spring than usual. The 10 freshmen spurning a semester of high school will still have their chance at added weight room time, meaningful spring repetitions and theoretical development, but those rewards can end up as much hypothetical as realized. It is nearly impossible to predict if running back Kyren Williams (pictured above) will be tangibly more developed in September because he got to South Bend in January. Linebacker Jack Kiser is unlikely to play much as a freshman in either scenario; punter Jay Bramblett is certainly going to no matter what. However, the opportunity to have thorough practices with up-front depth should only enhance the effects of this spring.

None of this will ever become exactly normal, even if Notre Dame has increased its early enrollee numbers from beginning in 2006 to seven last season and now these 10. Of this grouping, some are the first to make this exact leap in their high school’s history. Many private schools do not make such possible. For that matter, this influx speaks to this group in particular, not an overall trend.

It is, nonetheless, a group receiving many of the same praises Irish head coach Brian Kelly has offered in years past and will undoubtedly offer as long as he remains in this post.

“These guys are serious about what they are doing,” Kelly said in December’s early signing period. “They are signing up for getting a degree and winning a national championship. These are not silly guys. These are guys that are really focused on coming here to win a national championship.”

Of course, that is always Kelly’s stated goal. The national championship game may be 364 days from now, but that process has already begun anew.

The 10 early enrollees:
Offensive tackles Quinn Carroll and Andrew Kristofic
Offensive guard John Olmstead
Center Zeke Correll
Running back Kyren Williams
Defensive tackles Jacob Lacey and Hunter Spears
Defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah
Linebacker Jack Kiser
Punter Jay Bramblett

Claypool’s return welcome news for Notre Dame

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Notre Dame will need to replace only one receiver next season. Chase Claypool announced he will return for his senior season Thursday evening. This may have been long presumed, but less qualified players have entered the NFL draft with eligibility remaining in years past.

With the departure of Miles Boykin, Claypool will become the leading Irish target, the prime candidate to replace Boykin’s 59 catches for 872 yards and eight touchdowns. A year ago, asking Claypool to put up numbers like that would have been a leap beyond reason, but after a 2018 season in which he accounted for 50 catches, 639 yards and four touchdowns, Claypool becoming an offense’s best playmaker is fathomable beyond just pinning those hopes on the Canadian native’s athleticism.

Claypool’s career began as a special teams star, making 11 tackles in 2016, while catching only five passes for 81 yards. An inconsistent sophomore season followed, managing 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns. Those may sound like solid numbers, but they include only five catches in the season’s final four games and only one game with more than four catches all season.

Claypool had at least four catches in seven games this season, all started by junior quarterback Ian Book. With Book throwing, Claypool averaged 4.67 catches and 58.56 yards per game, highlighted by eight for 130 at Northwestern.

Claypool and current senior Chris Finke will presumably both start again, while one of a number of rising sophomores could step in either for Boykin on the boundary or for Claypool on the field side with Claypool possibly taking over boundary duties.

With five catches for 90 yards in his freshman campaign and a skill set similar to Boykin’s, Kevin Austin may be the front-runner for that starting role.