Associated Press

Notre Dame’s scripts bear more repeating

55 Comments

Maybe Notre Dame scripts its first possession, or perhaps that is an out-of-date phrase in the days of extensive film study and pre-snap adjustments, but still something of a general concept. What cannot be argued is the No. 8 Irish (3-0) have excelled offensively to start each of their first three games and then they have ground to a halt.

Against Michigan, Notre Dame scored with a 7-play, 75-yard drive executed in fewer than 90 seconds to open the game. A week later, five plays and 74 yards took fewer than two minutes. Against Vanderbilt, nearly four minutes elapsed as the Irish drove 74 yards in 10 plays, finishing with a field goal in part due to a false start by a reserve offensive lineman in a jumbo package. If once is chance and twice is a coincidence, this is very much a trend: Notre Dame’s offense is at its most efficient immediately after the opening kickoff.

It makes sense. The Irish begin the game aggressively, calling plays with the greatest chances of success, whether it be because of schematic fit or, to take senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s word for it, repetition and subsequent comfort.

“You run those opening nine [plays] three or four times throughout the week,” Wimbush said after Notre Dame’s 22-17 victory against Vanderbilt. “You do get comfortable with those looks and your progressions throughout those reads.”

Looking through those drives — and including the second Irish possession against the Commodores, in which they scored a touchdown after 15 plays went 94 yards in 5:21 — only a couple plays show up in common, but they are successful plays, relatively speaking.

Notre Dame’s first snap against Ball State ended up Wimbush’s longest completion of the day, a 27-yarder to senior receiver Chris Finke. The Irish appeared to run the same play to the opposite side of the field against Vanderbilt, waiting until the third snap to deploy it. Junior receiver Chase Claypool gained 17 yards.

Wimbush’s progression seems clear: Consider the screen and at the least give it a pump fake. With how often Notre Dame runs such a screen, the secondary leans into the possibility, creating a cushion behind them for Finke and Claypool. To keep the safety occupied, another receiver runs a deep route a lane inside the eventual target. Theoretically, if the safety sagged onto Finke or Claypool, that could result in the deep target becoming the proper read.

Both times Wimbush executes this well, getting the ball to his receiver while within the gap in coverage, a space created in part by the Irish habit of throwing those screens to sub-par success and cemented by Wimbush’s pump-fake.

It is logical to think Wimbush handles the progression and eventual read well because he has worked on this exact play numerous times throughout the week. It does not have to be in a debated script to still be a play Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long likes to call early to get his quarterback comfortable and in a rhythm.

“Just got to keep the same energy,” Wimbush said. “Understand that we’ve run through so many of these plays throughout the week and we have to just execute them.”

Another passing play shows up in common in these opening drives, one the casual observer may use to criticize Wimbush despite the replicated outcome pointing to an intentional thought process.

The second Irish play of the season included pressure from Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich. Similarly, a play on Notre Dame’s second drive against Vanderbilt featured pressure from a Commodores defensive end. Both times Wimbush rolled to his right to evade the chase and heaved up a jump ball toward a receiver standing 6-foot-4 or taller.

The first rendition concluded with a contested incompletion intended for Claypool. Senior Miles Boykin nearly caught the second before the ball, again, fell incomplete.

Two incompletions on two drives that still finished with touchdowns — the reward available was a gain of chunk yardage on a play blown up by a pass rush. The risk?

Well, some deference should be offered to Claypool and Boykin. They both get their hands on the off-balance throws, both have a chance to catch the pass. These do not qualify as drops or failings by the receivers in any regard, not that those have been in short supply already this season. Rather, this is to say the physical presences of Claypool and Boykin made it exceedingly-unlikely Wimbush’s passes would be intercepted. Thus, the risk was actually low.

In fact, of Wimbush’s four interceptions this year, only one has been in the vicinity of the big targets, a slant that bounced off Boykin’s hands against Ball State. Another interception that day was also intended for Boykin, but that one came from Wimbush not seeing a defender and misreading the situation, not from a one-on-one opportunity down the sideline.

Despite the pass rush, Wimbush was comfortable looking down the sideline, trusting his biggest receivers to be sure respective defenders would not haul in his jump ball, leaving a chance for an Irish gain on the play. That possibility would not exist if simply throwing the ball into the sidelines. Analytically, the difference in expected gain may be infinite.

Before pounding a keyboard insisting this is a foolish view, watch that clip again. The passes were hardly in true jeopardy of being intercepted, a credit to Claypool and Boykin. They were, however, in play to be caught, especially the second of the two. Thus, expect to see that reflex again from Wimbush, at the least early in the game, but possibly more often than that, as well.

“We just get into a good flow early on and what we probably need to do is be more repeaters of plays,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “Go back to plays that have been successful and come back and repeat them.”

ON NICK COLEMAN & HOUSTON GRIFFITH
Senior Nick Coleman did not play against Vanderbilt, leaving freshman Houston Griffith to handle most nickel back duties. There was no underlying reason other than wanting to give Griffith more playing time, per Kelly.

“We’ll need Nick this weekend,” Kelly said Tuesday. “This will be a game that he’ll have to play a considerable amount of football for us.”

That does not mean Griffith will not see action, as well, especially since Wake Forest will be happy to rattle off an absurd number of plays.

“He’s obviously a guy that each and every week when he gets a chance to play, we see more and more from him,” Kelly said. “It’s just a true freshman playing. He’s got a nice skill set, but he’s learning every time he goes out there.”

Griffith finished with four tackles against Vanderbilt.

ON GREG DORTCH
Coleman will be needed for “considerable” contributions because the nickel back is likely to frequently line up opposite Demon Deacons junior receiver Greg Dortch. Kelly broke out most cliché pieces of praise for Dortch, though deservedly so.

“He can take over a football game,” Kelly said. “Electric player, great acceleration, great hands, makes people miss as a highlight reel.”

COLE KMET UPDATE
Kelly said Irish sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will remain sidelined at Wake Forest as he recovers from a high ankle sprain, but Kmet should be healthy before the Stanford tilt on Sept. 29.

Spring won’t answer all of Notre Dame’s questions

Getty Images
26 Comments

With spring practice mere weeks away, it is tempting to think Notre Dame’s 2019 will be well in focus by mid-April, if not by the end of March. Some positions may find clarity in that timespan, but other wonderings will hardly be put to rest, if at all. Admittedly, that will not stop discussions of those questions in the interim, including in these parts before spring practice even commences.

Before diving into spring practice previews, let’s acknowledge the things not to be learned before the summer …

Phil Jurkovec’s development will be neither rapid nor dismal this spring. The sample size of drill-heavy moments should not be weighed too heavily when discussing the rising sophomore quarterback’s progress. Barring injury to rising senior Ian Book, Jurkovec will not enter the summer as the Irish starter. Barring injury to Jurkovec, he will not fall lower than second on the depth chart, either.

What may be most crucial to Jurkovec’s short-term success will be the time he spends in the summer studying film of himself throughout the spring. Those lessons could lead to leaps and bounds before August, not necessarily in the meantime.

Notre Dame will not firmly determine a No. 2 cornerback anytime before August, at least not until fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford gets a chance to practice healthy following a torn ACL last August. Rising senior Troy Pride will be the unquestioned heir to Julian Love’s role as the best coverage corner while rising sophomore TaRiq Bracy challenges rising senior Donte Vaughn (pictured at top) to be Pride’s counterpart.

One of those two may emerge, but Crawford will still get a chance in the preseason. If nothing else, his ability to prove healthy and capable enough to handle nickel back duties could ease the pressure on finding someone to fit there, thus perhaps altering the equation throughout the entire secondary.

Running backs coach Lance Taylor’s impact will not be perceptible, possibly not for quite awhile. Taylor’s work will be seen in positional recruiting — which could conceivably take a cycle or two to actually yield the desired results — and in the usage of the running backs in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s September game plans.

Just last preseason, Avery Davis looked the part of a dangerous utility knife. His work in the red zone in preseason practices foreshadowed coming headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. Instead, the quarterback-turned-running back managed just 27 touches for 100 yards and no scores. By November, opposing defensive coordinators’ scouting reports barely mentioned Davis.

If Davis or a rising sophomore (C’Bo Flemister more likely than Jahmir Smith) or even the upperclassmen atop the depth chart impress in the passing game this spring, hold the exhilaration until they do so against a Power-Five foe in September, and preferably not one coming off a season viewed as nothing but a defensive calamity. (No offense, Louisville.)

The Irish will have punter and kicker questions into September. Despite the early enrollment of punter Jay Bramblett and a full offseason devoted to rising junior kicker Jonathan Doerer, replacing multi-year starting specialists is not an undertaking to be taken lightly. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian will spend more time with the legs than they have in recent years.

Winters in South Bend reduce how much spring work kickers and punters get. The new indoor facility will not be ready for use until mid-to-late summer, meaning every day the Irish have to spend indoors this spring is a day the kickers are unlikely to get more than a few swings in.

Doerer might have an excellent Blue-Gold Game (on April 13), knocking in multiple 40-yard field goals. Bramblett could boom a couple punts with no signs of nerves. Until they show such in pressure situations, their real worth will remain unknown.

Such are the perils of talkin’ ‘bout practice, to quote an 11-time NBA All-Star as All-Star Weekend begins.

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting success continues into 2020

rivals.com
23 Comments

Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2019 included a defensive line emphasis featuring 5 four-star prospects. That trend has already continued into the next recruiting cycle with the Wednesday commitment from rivals.com four-star defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (J.K. Mullen High School; Denver).

The No. 17 defensive tackle in the country, per rivals.com, Keanaaina joins Düsseldorf defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger among the five commits in the Irish class of 2020. Keanaaina holds offers from all the Power Five conferences, including the majority of the Pac 12, led by Oregon and USC, and the majority of the Big 10, led by Michigan and Ohio State.

His anticipatory play is aided by solid tackling form and a wide body. That frame, in particular, should lend itself to further development in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.

By signing two defensive tackles in the class of 2019, the Irish depth chart reached minimum levels at the position. All six tackles currently on that depth chart should return in 2020, making it less of an absolute necessity to sign a pair this cycle, though that remains more likely than not.

Notre Dame officially announces Lance Taylor as RB coach

und.com
5 Comments

Notre Dame finally confirmed the hire of Lance Taylor as running backs coach Tuesday. Taylor’s addition to the Irish coaching staff was first widely reported last month.

Replacing Autry Denson — who took over as head coach at Charleston Southern — Taylor spent the last two seasons coaching receivers with the Carolina Panthers and was the running backs coach at Stanford from 2014 to 2016.

“I was primarily looking for two things,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “The candidate had to have the right skill set. He needs to be a great teacher and communicator. He also needs to fit Notre Dame, culturally, and Lance, most certainly, possesses all of those qualities. He recruited at an extremely high level during his time at Stanford, and he worked with the very best in the NFL. His ability to bring both of those experiences together makes him a perfect fit for our staff.”

The time at Stanford, in particular, sets up Taylor for success at Notre Dame, having successfully recruited players to an academic institution and then developed them to on-field success. Namely, Taylor recruited Bryce Love and worked with both him and Christian McCaffrey.

RELATED READING: Lance Taylor checks all the boxes Notre Dame needs in new running backs coach

“I’ve been blessed to work at some incredible places in my career, but Notre Dame is truly special,” Taylor said. “I’m honored and humbled to represent this incredible University as its running backs coach. I’d like to thank both Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for this opportunity. I’m excited to get on campus, meet our players and get to work.”

Taylor will have his work cut out for him this spring as the Irish need to replace Dexter Williams. Rising junior Jafar Armstrong is the presumed starter, granted health, with rising senior Tony Jones his primary backup. After those two, Taylor has nothing but raw and unproven talent awaiting him in rising sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister and early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams, not to mention rising junior quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis.

No other coaching staff turnover should be expected at this point in the offseason.

Leading candidates to be Notre Dame captains

Getty Images
22 Comments

Notre Dame has not begun spring practice yet, unlike Labor Day opponent Louisville. (Yes, really, the Cardinals held their first practice under new head coach Scott Satterfield on Monday.) At some point near the beginning of spring practice, though, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will likely name a few 2019 team captains.

Notre Dame narrowed the candidates for the parlor game of guessing those captains by announcing the eight “SWAT” leaders earlier this month, a subset identified as the motivating and organizing forces of offseason activities. Those eight …

— Senior quarterback Ian Book
— Senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg
— Senior safety Jalen Elliott
— Fifth-year receiver Chris Finke
— Senior safety Alohi Gilman (pictured at top)
— Junior right tackle Robert Hainsey
— Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem
— Senior defensive end Julian Okwara

Half of the eight could have eligibility in 2020 — Book, Eichenberg, Gilman and Hainsey — but the better indicators of captainship do not inherently tie to that. For example, it is expected Gilman will head to the NFL following the 2019 season if he plays well enough to warrant that pondering at all. His transfer following the 2017 season was entirely due to professional aspirations. That, along with his competitive attitude very clearly demonstrated during last season’s unbeaten run, makes Gilman a frontrunner in this speculation.

Book, meanwhile, is unlikely to be one of the captains simply because the starting quarterback already serves in that role to some de facto extent. The coaching staff generally prefers to elevate a few others while not taking away from the inherent nature of the quarterback position.

On the other hand, the Irish have had at least one captain on the offensive line each of the last seven seasons. Either Eichenberg or Hainsey seems positioned to continue that, the former with an additional year in the program but the latter with one more season of playing time under his belt.

Presuming one of those offensive linemen joins Gilman, it remains likely Notre Dame names at least one more captain. His rise from walk-on to offensive contributor and multiple-year starter makes Finke uniquely relatable to the entire roster.

Guessing here is, of course, inconsequential, but with spring practice about three weeks away on the horizon, pondering now helps pass that time.