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Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s in-season improvements make the previously-maybe become increasingly possible

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Let’s get this out of the way now: I was wrong.

The Notre Dame team that dominated No. 14 North Carolina State on Saturday was not the same version of the Irish that lost to Georgia in the season’s second week.

“We’ve gotten better each and every week,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said after the 35-14 victory. “We’re physically stronger, so mentally we’ve established a mindset as to how we play. Our kids are trusting the teaching.

“If you take the physical, the mental and the teaching, it’s a team that is getting better.”

The physical and the mental are most-intertwined in the Irish rushing game. Notre Dame briefly dabbled in a sideline-to-sideline ground game this weekend, attempting to get to the corner before turning upfield. The Wolfpack defense, led by senior defensive end Bradley Chubb, quickly relegated that strategy to fruitless at best and loss-inducing at worst, just as the Bulldogs did. In response, the Irish returned to what they do best, running up the middle through holes the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

That philosophical shift makes the ground attack led by junior running back Josh Adams a force no one outside of Alabama wants to reckon with. Gashing North Carolina State for a total of 325 yards on 52 carries, an average of 6.25 yards per rush, will drop the Wolfpack down any defensive rankings. The sample size of a 12-game scheduled season will have that effect, but it does not reduce the actual abilities of that veteran-laden defensive front seven. It is one of the best in the country, and Adams, his offensive line and offensive coordinator Chip Long’s game plan ran through that front as well as any of them could have possibly hoped.

Long’s dedication to the rushing game underscored a broader and more-tantalizing development to Notre Dame’s makeup as a team. The Irish are not fazed by a deficit or even a figurative punch in the mouth.

The last time Notre Dame faced any genuine adversity came in that 20-19 loss to Georgia. Beating the Wolfpack so handily will prevent anyone, including this space, from touting a newfound Irish ability to prevail in close games, but that — excuse this word choice — trait seems more possible than at any point in the last two calendar years. Responding to a challenge creates that kind of thinking, and North Carolina State offered Notre Dame a challenge early.

The first two Irish possessions gained a total of 10 yards. Chubb sacked junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to stymie the first drive and altered each play of the next with penetration into the backfield, a tackle and then a quarterback pressure. To top it off, Chubb drew double the blocking on the subsequent punt. Notre Dame sophomore Daelin Hayes turned to help block Chubb, allowing North Carolina State defensive end James Smith-Williams to break through the line largely unchecked, smothering Tyler Newsome’s boot.

“One of the best defensive ends I’ve played in my five years here,” Irish fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe said. “We knew that coming in. He definitely showed that tonight.”

Notre Dame had failed on two possessions, found no holes in the Wolfpack defense and been manhandled by that unit’s best player, all leading to a 7-0 deficit.

The Irish didn’t much care.

“What was most impressive for me, coaching for as long as I have, when you get a punt block, it has a tendency to really affect your football team,” Kelly said. “Our guys never flinched. It was as if nothing ever occurred other than let’s get back out on the field and get back to work.”

After Notre Dame scored quickly in response, partly thanks to a 35-yard vertical run from Adams immediately followed by a 25-yard touchdown on a middle slant of sorts to Smythe, North Carolina State again seized control, authoring a seven-play, 71-yard touchdown drive of its own.

Again, the Irish didn’t much care.

“In past years, I think we’ve had to group up as an offense and talk about, guys, we need this one,” Smythe said. “… This team hasn’t flinched in scenarios like that. We didn’t have to talk about it at all, really.

“It almost is business as usual regardless of the situation, whether they just scored touchdown or we just scored three straight. We’ll take care of our business.”

It may yet be awhile before Notre Dame needs to respond to such adversity again, but it showed it has both the mental capacity and the physical talent to do so.

Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has begun to show the confidence to rely on his arm at the expense of his legs, while the latter remain a valid weapon for opposing defense’s to fear. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Part of that mental capacity showed itself in the physical realization of Wimbush’s passing progressions, literally and figuratively.
Wimbush still completed only 10 of 19 attempts for a total of 104 passing yards and two touchdowns. Even adding in two drawn pass interference penalties, his stat line of 12-for-21 for 134 yards would remain lacking. Yet, his viability as a dangerous passer took another step forward Saturday.

Wimbush rushed for only 28 yards on five carries, the fewest attempts of the season for the first-year starter, and the fewest yards aside from that loss to Georgia. This was a good sign for Notre Dame moving forward.

Wimbush did not abandon passing plays to pick up yardage in what we’ll call coverage runs. (When a defensive secondary prevents any receiver from breaking open long enough that a defensive lineman can notch a sack, it is known as a coverage sack. This is the flipside of such a scenario, when Wimbush breaks from the pocket entirely because of the secondary’s solid play.) Rather than slip upfield, he showed the needed patience to outwait the defensive backs. When he completed a 13-yard pass to sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, the play delighted Kelly beyond the first down and furthered drive.

Stepherson was Wimbush’s fourth read on the play. He progressed past Smythe, past a go route, finally getting to Stepherson’s curl.

“First time he’s done it this year,” Kelly said. “I was pretty excited on the sideline. … He’s confident and wants to throw the football and can throw the football.”

That is not to say the scrambles will go the way of non-existent. They remain an inherent piece of Wimbush’s overall game.

“Brandon’s a different cat,” Smythe said. “If he doesn’t keep his eyes down the field, there’s a chance he’ll have a 50-yard touchdown run. There’s a delicate balance of telling him let’s keep our eyes downfield, let’s make sure there’s no one running wide open and telling him to follow his instincts and go score 50-yard touchdowns. He’s that kind of athlete.

“When he puts those two together, and he’s starting to do that now, he’s a true dual-threat, and that’s kind of scary.”

The more Wimbush becomes a feared passer, the more Notre Dame can open up defenses to be pillaged by Adams.

As for the purely physical, Te’von Coney’s impact continues.
The junior linebacker led the Irish in tackles for the second consecutive week, making nine tackles, including a two-yard loss on a crucial fourth down in the red zone. His efforts landed him the game ball.

“He’s just ascending, playing really, really good football,” Kelly said simply enough.

Senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini appeared healthy and productive, but Coney will demand only more playing time as long as he finds the ballcarrier with such frequency.

While Notre Dame is a team getting better, its future opponents do not appear to be.
Namely, No. 20 Stanford and No. 8 Miami (FL) both struggled immensely with vastly-inferior opponents this weekend, beating Oregon State 15-14 and North Carolina 24-19, respectively. Both the Cardinal and the Hurricanes won — and as is said, a win is a win is a [insert four-beat pause] win — and style points are largely overrated, but the difficulties pointed to deeper concerns.

The Irish proved wrong any remaining doubters, yours truly included, with the 35-14 toppling of the Wolfpack. Their schedule suddenly looks much more reasonable. They remain absurdly healthy.

Perhaps it is time to revise last week’s “Maybe, just maybe …” to Maybe, even probably …

Leftovers & Links: Brandon Wimbush heads to Central Florida for his final season

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Former Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush will continue his career at Central Florida. Wimbush announced his graduate transfer destination Tuesday morning.

“The journey continues on …,” Wimbush wrote on Instagram. “A sincere thank you to Notre Dame for giving me endless opportunities on and off the field. Words truly can not (sic) describe what this incredible University and the PEOPLE mean to me and always will mean to me. I’m truly thankful. Cannot say it enough.

“With that being said, I am excited to announce that UCF has granted me an awesome opportunity to play my last year of collegiate football for their great University.”

Wimbush will enter into a starting opportunity, although an unfortunate one and a competitive one. The late November horrendous knee injury to three-year starter McKenzie Milton will almost-assuredly sideline him through the 2019 season. If not for the injury, Milton would either be starting 2019 for the Knights or headed to the NFL.

In his first year of any action, sophomore Darriel Mack played in 10 games for Central Florida, completing 51 of his 100 pass attempts for 619 yards and three touchdowns, including going 35-of-71 for 526 yards and three scores in the two-plus games Milton missed.

In other words, Mack put up Wimbush-esque numbers, despite Heupel’s high-scoring offense.

Wimbush finishes his Irish career with a 13-3 record as a starter, including four wins during 2018’s unbeaten regular season. After the Notre Dame offense failed to break 24 points in the first three games of the season, offensive coordinator Chip Long turned to Ian Book for a spark, one Book provided and then some.

Wimbush’s role became non-existent after that, aside from a Senior Day start in place of an injured Book, throwing for 130 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 68 yards.

RELATED READING: The quarterback Notre Dame needed, Brandon Wimbush

In the lead-up to the Cotton Bowl, word broke Wimbush would seek a graduate transfer, confirming what had long been obvious. It had been so clear, it did not faze anyone within the Irish locker room.

Mustipher and Co. will now have reason to keep an eye on the Knights in 2019. After going 25-1 in the last two seasons, Central Florida will want to keep the momentum rolling, particularly with Stanford arriving in Orlando on Sept. 14, a week before the Knights head to Pittsburgh. The Knights genuinely entering the College Football Playoff conversation remains unlikely, but topping those two before rolling through the American Athletic Conference would at least start the discussion, especially if a former Irish quarterback headlines the way.

A consensus three-star prospect out of Virginia, Mack held offers from eastern schools in the Big Ten (Maryland), Big 12 (West Virginia) and ACC (Virginia, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh).

Named 2018’s Next Man In, Wimbush finishes his Irish career with 2,606 yards on 193-of-382 passing with 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions along with 1,155 rushing yards and 16 additional touchdowns.

AS FOR NOTRE DAME’S QB IN 2019 …
Early Heisman odds came from an online sportsbook Tuesday, betonline.ag. Irish rising senior Ian Book was given 16-to-1 odds, tied for ninth on the listing. Given the names ahead of him, Book’s realistic chances of winning the Heisman Trophy are slim. Only Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa have odds lower than 12-to-1, at 7-to-2 and 4-to-1, respectively.

Then come two Notre Dame opponents — Georgia running back D’Andre Swift and quarterback Jake Fromm, both at 12-to-1. Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson checks in at 25-to-1, just ahead of Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello at 33-to-1.

If nothing else, Book can count on some early-season hype if the Irish top Swift and Fromm on Sept. 21.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Even the ‘way-too-early’ 2019 polls already respect Notre Dame
Notre Dame’s offensive depth chart entering the 2019 offseason
Claypool’s return welcome news for Notre Dame
Program-record 10 early enrollees mark the beginning of Notre Dame’s 2019
Autry Denson leaves Notre Dame to take over at Charleston Southern
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest

OUTSIDE READING
Brandon Wimbush and UCF are a promising match for a pivotal 2019
The three biggest questions in college football for the 2019 season
2019 NFL draft underclassmen tracker: Who has declared?
Stanford’s Bryce Love ‘on the path to recovery’ from torn ACL
College football’s 100 best games 2018-19

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