Things We Learned: Book, Williams make Notre Dame’s offense a real threat and its dreams closer to reality

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — If looking for historical precedent of the last time Notre Dame rushed 55 times, it was not even a year ago. The Irish took 57 carries for 341 yards only 51 weeks ago at North Carolina, an even more impressive showing than Saturday’s 55 attempts for 272 yards in a 38-17 victory against No. 7 Stanford.

Fittingly, that day had something else in common with this Saturday’s offensive breakout: the starting quarterback. Ian Book completed 17 of 31 passes for 146 yards against the Tar Heels, adding two interceptions and only one touchdown.

How things change with time.

Book leading the offense no longer means the Irish need multiple 100-yard rushers overpowering the defense. That was fortunate this weekend, because with sophomore Jafar Armstrong sidelined (see more below) and senior Dexter Williams only now beginning his season, it seemed only one running back might be capable of a triple-digit day, junior Tony Jones. Then Jones sprained an ankle (questionable moving forward), and only Williams remains as healthy.

Williams, a back who before this weekend had never had more than eight rush attempts in a game or 10 total touches.
Williams, a back who has now had two brushes with disciplinary issues.
Williams, a back who negated a 31-yard rush against LSU in the Citrus Bowl by blowing a blitz pickup on the very next snap, leaving his quarterback — Book — exposed and irretrievably vulnerable.

At least, those were the descriptors before Williams took the field Saturday some six-and-change minutes into the first quarter. They were all accurate. Even precise. They are now, outdated.

Dexter Williams, a back now both a big-play threat and a workhorse.
He broke his first carry for 45 yards and a score. It was a prototypical Williams’ dash, one-cut and gone. Aside from that, though, he also had eight carries gaining 4-to-9 yards, the type of medium-length rushes that turn an inconsistent approach into a grinding force wearing out defenses. His 18- and 17-yard rushes were promising, but they are much like the 45-yard burst, not reliably available. Rather, managing to gain six yards on a first-and-10 is how an offense stays ahead of the chains, facing 3rd-and-long only three times while reaching 3rd-and-short seven times.

Notre Dame did not convert any of those 3rd-and-longs, but went 4-of-7 on the 3rd-and-shorts and 9-of-17 on third down overall.

“We think success starts around controlling down-and-distance with the running game,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We were able to do that today.”

That traced to Williams, plain and simple.

Dexter Williams, a back now capable of both churning through tackles for a short gain and of picking up a block to allow his quarterback — Book — time to find a wide open Nic Weishar in the end zone for a 6-yard touchdown and a 14-7 lead.

No, Williams did not stop the blitzer, but a pass-rusher arriving that quickly on a play-action is rarely going to get picked up at all. The premise of a play-action is to delay some of those blitzes or at least misdirect them. That didn’t happen in this instance, yet Williams put up enough resistance to give Book the window needed to connect with Weishar.

The pass was high, but that was a symptom of the throwing lane, not of a mistake on anyone’s part.

By picking up that block, Williams put his fingerprints on both of Notre Dame’s first-quarter scores.

Dexter Williams, the back apparently responsible for the word “juice” pervading the Irish interviews after the game.

“Juice” is Williams’ nickname, one he said he picked up in high school.

“That’s why they call me the juice,” he said. “I have to be able to keep them going, keep them rallied up, keep them on their toes. We can’t ever settle for less. We have to always want more.”

Rather than an OJ Simpson reference — frankly, these players are largely too young to think in those terms, as hard as that may be to fathom — it is a loose thought of electricity, power, bloodflow.

“The juices were flowing for sure,” Book said of the 14-0 fourth-quarter scoring differential in Notre Dame’s favor. “Every guy on our team, we knew that it was a great point to keep going, keep attacking, keep scoring points and really make this game — shut this game out and don’t let up. We didn’t want to let up at all tonight.”

The exact closing mentality was as much a byproduct of circumstance as anything else. Do not misconstrue that just yet. Both fourth-quarter touchdowns came on short fields, one from a poor punt and one from senior linebacker Te’von Coney’s first-career interception. But both turned into touchdowns, and that has not always been the case.

That is where this offensive praise turns to Book. He remained patient against a genuine defense, one of which no detriments can be spoken a la Wake Forest last week. He took what was available, even if that meant throwing only nine times in the first half.

“What we did all week is really tell him if he didn’t like what he saw, just solve it with your feet today,” Kelly said. “… [Stanford’s defensive scheme] can be troublesome if you’re not exactly sure where that free-dropper is.

“When [Book] didn’t like it, he took off. When he was sure of what he saw and he was decisive, he put the ball where it needed to be. And I was proud of him because of it.”

Nine times Book ran in the first half, not counting one sack. On three of those, he picked up a first down. On another, nine yards. In the second half, he ran only five times while attempting 24 passes. He had figured some of the Cardinal approach out. His patience paid off.

Book may not yet have a genuine deep ball, but he has now faced two defenses on equal ends of the competence spectrum and completed 73.1 percent of his passes for 603 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions.

The Irish offensive explosion under Book is … real.

“We just want to be an elite offense,” he said. “I know that one thing we were talking about through the first couple of games was having such a great first half and then kind of letting go the second half. So week in, week out, in our preparation we just want to keep scoring points as an offense.”

Scoring 94 points in two weeks counts as such. Worry not, Ian.

Notre Dame’s defense was already known to be good. It has given up only 18.8 points per game. That is not a number to be argued against in any way. Yet, the Cardinal arrived averaging 29 per game. Even with one of the nation’s most-explosive running backs and a seemingly-uncoverable outside passing game, Stanford could not come within a possession of that mark Saturday.

The Irish contained Bryce Love by focusing on him, and the likes of JJ Arcega-Whiteside were kept in check by harassing junior quarterback K.J. Costello.

Notre Dame senior defensive tackle tied a school record with four sacks Saturday night, giving him seven on the season. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s defensive front seven may be better than optimists had previously considered. It is certainly better than any of the offensive lines it has yet to face.

Five sacks among nine tackles for loss with another four official quarterback hurries and that is probably an underestimation. The Irish front outdid the Cardinal offensive line, plain and simple.

“That’s how you beat Stanford,” said senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery while cradling the game ball given to him in recognition of his four sacks, including two on the Cardinal’s final drive and three total in the fourth quarter. “They want to get in to [jumbo] personnel and run it at you. If you can’t stop that, you’re going to have a long night. We were able to stop them right on the ball and that’s how you open it up against Stanford.”

Winning the trenches early forced the Cardinal to drop back and throw, which made it open season for Tillery, junior end Khalid Kareem & Co.

Combining what Williams showed in his 2018 debut and Book’s proof of concept against a viable defense with the continued dominance from Notre Dame’s defense opens up a door to bigger conversations.

“We’ve got a long season ahead of us,” Kelly said. “If we’re going to walk out of here thinking that we just are the best team, we’re going to get beat and it’s going to diminish this victory.”

The point is not invalid. The Irish are not the best team. Alabama retains that honor until further notice or until the sun rises in the west, whichever comes first.

But Notre Dame staked a stellar claim to belonging in the rest of that conversation. The Irish have beaten two top-15 teams, no matter what metric is used to gauge them. With a quarterback change in the rearview mirror, they won the latter of those contests in dominating fashion, a manner which only Stanford managed in this series for the last dozen years, a span covering the entire tenures of David Shaw and Jim Harbaugh.

Saturday night, Brian Kelly finally bested Stanford, in every way, and that puts Notre Dame near the top of the nation’s pecking order.

QUICK NOTES
— Kelly said surgery was needed to clean up the infection in Armstrong’s knee. He will be out for a few weeks, unlikely to return until after the bye week.
— Fifth-year left guard Alex Bars suffered a wrenching knee injury late Saturday, but Kelly could not offer much information the eye did not already glean. An MRI will give a clearer outlook.
— Notre Dame will be on ABC at Virginia Tech next week, kickoff at 8 p.m. ET.

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.