The expectation is to start off discussing how vital Brandon Wimbush’s possibly-improved accuracy will be to Notre Dame’s season. It will be important, and therefore discussed, but it is not the greatest takeaway to glean from No. 14 Michigan’s meeting with the Irish this weekend. That would be …
How much has Notre Dame’s line fallen off from last year?
It is somewhat inevitable the line will not match last season’s Joe Moore Award-winning performance. When both pieces of the left-side pairing hear their names in the top 10 of the NFL draft, some regression is to be expected. That does not mean the Irish offensive front will not still be very good and one of the country’s best. Any line that includes fifth-year left guard Alex Bars and fifth-year center Sam Mustipher will be no worse than a strength. But can it be more than that?
If it is a dominating force, if first-year starter Liam Eichenberg plays without hesitation at left tackle, if junior Tommy Kraemer excels at right guard as has been long-anticipated, if the line gels as a unit under new position coach Jeff Quinn, then Notre Dame can rely on many of the offensive staples it used last year to get out to an 8-1 start. Wimbush’s rushing abilities will be showcased again in the red zone, nearly an unstoppable utility inside the five-yard line. Defenses will have to devote defenders to the blitz in order to create pressure, giving the senior quarterback better odds at finding an open receiver. A young and inexperienced running back corps should have glaringly-open holes to enjoy.
However, if that line is merely very good, then a defense like the Wolverines’ could be the undoing of the Irish offense. Eichenberg has hardly played in his collegiate career, let alone started. His lack of emergence a year ago could be considered as incriminating as his step forward this spring has been praised as a breakthrough. Sophomore right tackle Robert Hainsey had an abundance of support last year, as his time share with Kraemer gave him moments to ponder what he was seeing on the field and any time a dangerous pass-rusher faced him, Notre Dame rotated extra blockers to his side.
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Those two will be tested this weekend by Michigan ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich. The duo combined for 14 sacks and 30 tackles for loss last year. Outside linebacker Khaleke Hudson added eight sacks among 17.5 total tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Eichenberg and Hainsey are not likely to see greater outside rush threats this season. Few schools in the country can claim better.
Saturday night could be all about the pass rush on both sidelines. If Notre Dame can handle Gary and Winovich, it should be well set for the entire season.
Of course, Wimbush’s effectiveness will determine quite a bit, as well.
The most-cited stat Sunday morning might not be the final score. Rather, it could be Wimbush’s completion percentage, statistically-small sample size ignored and all. Across all of 2017, Wimbush completed just 49.5 percent of his passes. Some of those misses were actually inexcusable drops, others should have been caught but were also not perfectly on-target. A greater number still were poor throws, perhaps due to a mechanical issue, perhaps due to a mental hiccup.
Whatever the situation was, it was.
Rather than focus on Wimbush’s final stat line or chalk up the final score as a direct result of it, pay attention to how he does on the plays designed to be sure-things. If Wimbush can build a rhythm with passes to the flat, quick slants and five-yard crossing routes, that will be a step forward hardly seen last year. Against a defense like Michigan’s, it will be a notable accomplishment. After all, Wolverines’ opponents completed just 48.8 percent of their passes last season.
The Irish may shift some of the offense to further help Wimbush, something that arguably should have been done sometime last year.
“Our confidence in his ability to go be who he is and not try to conform him to who we want him to be (has developed),” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “This is much more about calling the offense for who Brandon Wimbush is than who we want him to be more than anything else and that’s what you’ll see Saturday night.”
For that matter, can Wimbush lead a two-minute drill?
He has not yet, falling short against Georgia and at Stanford, though that was more a general come-from-behind situation than a specific late-game moment. Obviously, part of why this is still such an unknown is the Irish rarely needed to produce in close moments in 2017, winning by an average of 23.6 points in the regular season. Nonetheless, it is an unknown.
“He’s a playmaker and he’s got to go out there with the confidence to make plays,” Kelly said. “He’s going to make some mistakes but as long as he understands that within the scope of the offense, making good decisions — he’s a smart kid, he cares, but it can’t be that we’re handcuffing him that he can’t go out there and make plays.”
Saturday night should be a low-scoring affair. Two top-flight defenses facing uncertain quarterbacks will lead to that, and low scoring often results in one-possession outcomes. If Wimbush does not get the opportunity to put this query to rest this weekend, that could be a good thing for Notre Dame, but it also would mean it probably will not be answered for a few more weeks.
Excluding Wimbush, how will the carries be distributed among running backs?
The dual-threat quarterback will run the ball plenty, sometimes by design and sometimes by necessity. Who else does so frequently is far more curious. Junior Tony Jones will probably start, while sophomore Jafar Armstrong has received the most lauding this preseason, by far. Sophomore Avery Davis is also in the mix, but doubtfully for as much of a workload.
Not to mention the two freshmen, Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister. Not much was seen from either in the preseason, but given the nature of the position, at least one will be needed this fall. Seeing the field at all, even on special teams, against Michigan would be a notable occurrence moving forward.
Asmar Bilal is the biggest, in some regards only, question defensively. Is he ready to seize his chance now that it has finally arrived?
The senior rover has never had a clear path to playing time before. He certainly was not going to force Drue Tranquill to the bench last season, not as Tranquill racked up 85 tackles with 10.5 for loss and had his hand in numerous turnovers. Now, though, Tranquill has moved to the interior, promoting Bilal to starter by default.
He is the only utterly-unproven piece of this defense. The only other wondering comes at safety, where at least junior Alohi Gilman played a complete season at Navy in 2016 and whoever starts alongside him will have beaten out junior Jalen Elliott, establishing a baseline of play commensurate with the 2017-starter’s.
Rover has no such assurances. Kelly said freshman Shayne Simon will probably not be relied upon against Michigan. Even if he has not played much, Bilal has seen far more football than Simon has, and that experience may be necessary against a top-15 opponent. But if Bilal proves not up to the moment, Simon’s opportunity could be coming sooner than expected.
Speaking of safety, who starts is not yet certain.
There was no official Irish depth chart this week. If there is any moment of the season where that is understandable, it is only this week. Once game film exists, the gamesmanship is nothing but pointlessly aggravating.
For now, senior Nick Coleman is the presumed starter alongside Gilman. There remains a slight chance freshman Houston Griffith gets the nod, but that chance would hinge on Coleman having only moved past Griffith during preseason practice temporarily due to Griffith tweaking a hamstring.