AP Photo

Notre Dame, Ian Book turn to passing game in blow out of Wake Forest

44 Comments

The instinct is to lead with a “book” pun here to cleverly recognize Notre Dame junior quarterback Ian Book’s performance in his first career start made by coaching choice rather than injury to usual-starter Brandon Wimbush. Such wordplay would be a disservice to Book’s showing in the 56-27 Irish victory at Wake Forest on Saturday and minimize the decision made by Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly to make the change despite a No. 8 ranking and remaining undefeated.

“I didn’t sleep great last night because that’s a pretty big decision to make when you’re 3-0 and your quarterback that was leading your team is [12-3] as a starter,” Kelly said. “Had a lot of confidence in Ian and I thought our offense played to the level I thought it was capable of.”

Book improved that record to 4-0 without any trouble, even if the Deacons did hand the Irish their first deficit of the season with a first-quarter field goal. Book responded by completing all four of his passes on the subsequent drive, three of them going to senior tight end Alizé Mack for 41 yards. Once sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong found the end zone with a 30-yard score, Notre Dame never trailed again, rattling off 28 unanswered points in one stretch spanning much of the second and third quarters.

Armstrong finished with 98 yards and two touchdowns on only eight carries, part of the Irish gaining 245 yards on 39 carries (sacks adjusted). Book threw for 325 yards and two more scores — giving him five total thanks to three short jaunts across the goal line of 2, 2 and 1 yard — to bring the Notre Dame total to 566 yards, its most of the season by 152.

Despite giving up more than 17 points for the first time of the year, the Irish had little trouble with Wake Forest’s up-tempo attack. The Deacons gained 398 total yards, their first time falling short of 500 this season, on 92 plays, a lackluster average of 4.2 yards per play. Their final two scores came against what was increasingly Notre Dame’s second and third-units, the first time those reserves have gotten a chance to stretch their legs in a game.

They can thank Book for that opportunity, above all others.

Though this pass in the end zone fell incomplete, senior tight end Alizé Mack benefited from the change in starting quarterbacks, setting a career-high in receiving yards with 61 and tying his career-high in receptions with six. That latter mark was originally set when Ian Book started a 2017 game at North Carolina in place of injured then-starter Brandon Wimbush. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Book, obviously. His stats jump off the page no matter the situation: A 73.5 percent completion rate to gain 325 yards by connecting with 10 different receivers (two more than the season’s previous high, set last week against Vanderbilt). Nine rushes for 47 yards (sacks adjusted). Five total touchdowns.

If this proves to be Book’s coming-out party, that will be a tough standard to maintain.

His connection with Mack stands out. Though the senior did not reach the end zone, Book looked for him eight times, including repeatedly early to build a rhythm. Mack caught six of those for 61 yards, both career highs. Frankly, he nearly matched his combined output in the season’s first three games of six catches for 74 yards.

Book found Mack both in the flat and headed downfield on a seam route, displaying a diverse skill set from the tight end previously only speculated about. Mack was not the only tight end Book looked to, also connecting with sophomore Brock Wright for a three-yard score, Wright’s first in his career and only second career catch. His first? It came last week, on a pass from Book.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
If not the early days of the week when Kelly decided to switch his primary playmaker, inserting Book into the starting lineup and moving Wimbush to the sideline, then …

For the first time this season, the Irish did not score on their first possession. The Book experiment looked to be a questionable one when Notre Dame could not muster much on its second possession, either. A fumble from sophomore receiver Michael Young ended the third. At that point, 12 plays had yielded 42 yards and no points. Wake Forest led. Another long day appeared imminent.

The Irish scored touchdowns on eight of their next nine possessions. The fourth of which eliminated any Deacons hope before it could genuinely take root. Wake Forest had just run a breakneck drive covering 75 yards in 10 plays that took fewer than three minutes to come within 21-13. The Deacons had begun the day trading field goals for touchdowns, but when senior running back Matt Colburn scored from two yards out, suddenly their offense seemed more viable. The execution it needed had shown up.

Notre Dame responded with a play many have become conditioned to cringe at. It is nearly a pavlovian response: When the Irish run a bubble screen to a receiver, express frustration and doubt the play-calling acumen as soon as the pass is thrown parallel to the line of scrimmage.

It is hard to doubt the concept when it results in a 66-yard dash by Young, sprung by blocks from Mack and senior receiver Miles Boykin. Book’s stat line was the beneficiary, thanks to both the yards after the catch and the chance to score a 2-yard rushing touchdown. In just 62 seconds, Notre Dame’s lead was back to two possessions before halftime. Wake Forest would not score again until the Irish had already raced to a 49-13 lead near the end of the third quarter.

Notre Dame relied on its rushing game less than ever before this season, but it still produced. Sophomore Jafar Armstrong began the day of Irish scoring with this 30-yard touchdown run. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

STAT OF THE GAME
At halftime, Book’s stat line read 16-of-24 passing for 189 yards. The two dozen pass attempts stood out, especially in comparison to the team total of 15 rushing attempts to that point. It was the first time Notre Dame’s offense skewed toward the air in the first half.

Vanderbilt: 27 rushes in the first half; 17 passes.
Ball State: 20 rushes; 17 passes.
Michigan: 25 rushes; 15 passes.

Even with the hefty lead, the Irish balance came closer to even than it had all season.

Wake Forest: 40 rushes in the game; 36 passes.
Vanderbilt: 48 rushes; 26 passes.
Ball State: 41 rushes; 31 passes.
Michigan: 47 rushes; 22 passes.

“It’s where we have wanted it to go and grow,” Kelly said. “The balance necessary of run and pass is where ultimately this offense has been (going). I brought [offensive coordinator Chip Long] in to run a balanced run-pass offense.

“You saw what it should look like today.”

The shift toward the air showed in both the total of 566 yards and in the average of 7.4 yards gained per play. The previous peak for the Irish was 5.8 against Ball State. (Vanderbilt: 5.1; Michigan 4.4)

PLAY(S) OF THE GAME
Young’s bubble screen nearly to the end zone could qualify, but instead this space will include mention of a moment that occurred long after the result was determined. Freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec undoubtedly did not expect his first collegiate playing time to come anywhere but Notre Dame Stadium, but the last two weeks of close games had changed those plans. With about four minutes left at Wake Forest, the heralded passer entered.

On his third snap, he comfortably and confidently fired a deep pass toward classmate Kevin Austin. The receiver’s legs innocently tangled with the defensive back’s, removing any chance of a completion, but it was telling how at ease Jurkovec was with the heave.

On the next snap, Jurkovec ran around the right end for a 7-yard gain, enjoying every step of it.

It was not all wonderful by the supposed quarterback-of-the-future, as he then missed a wide-open Wright on a crossing route, the exact kind of spot a quarterback praised for his accuracy should shine.

A WIN IS A WIN IS A …

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
5:19 — Wake Forest field goal. Nick Sciba 30 yards. Wake Forest 3, Notre Dame 0. (4 plays, 1 yard, 0:41)
3:06 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jafar Armstrong 30-yard run. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Wake Forest 3. (6 plays, 75 yards, 2:13)

Second Quarter
14:56 — Wake Forest field goal. Sciba 39 yards. Notre Dame 7, Wake Forest 6. (12 plays, 54 yards, 3:10)
11:25 — Notre Dame touchdown. Brock Wright 3-yard pass from Ian Book. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Wake Forest 6. (10 plays, 80 yards, 3:31)
9:19 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tony Jones 4-yard run. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Wake Forest 6. (2 plays, 4 yards, 0:10)
6:26 — Wake Forest touchdown. Matt Colburn 2-yard. Sciba PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Wake Forest 13. (10 plays, 75 yards, 2:53)
5:24 — Notre Dame touchdown. Book 2-yard run. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Wake Forest 13. (4 plays, 75 yards, 1:02)

Third Quarter
9:46 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chase Claypool 7-yard pass from Book. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 35, Wake Forest 13. (9 plays, 74 yards, 3:18)
5:15 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jafar Armstrong 1-yard run. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 42, Wake Forest 13. (7 plays, 71 yards, 2:25)
4:18 — Notre Dame touchdown. Book 2-yard run. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 49, Wake Forest 13. (3 plays, 47 yards, 0:47)
0:44 — Wake Forest touchdown. Kendall Hinton 23-yard run. Sciba PAT good. Notre Dame 49, Wake Forest 20. (9 plays, 75 yards, 3:34)

Fourth Quarter
11:27 — Notre Dame touchdown. Book 1-yard run. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 56, Wake Forest 20. (11 plays, 75 yards, 4:17)
4:53 — Wake Forest touchdown. Jamie Newman 15-yard rush. Sciba PAT good. Notre Dame 56, Wake Forest 27. (13 plays, 79 yards, 6:34)

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

Getty Images
22 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.