Every football coach wants two things above all else, and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is no different. What is different entering this season is Kelly is not certain the Irish will give him those two things.
“For the success of this football team, it’s going to be up front, it’s going to be our offensive line, our defensive line,” Kelly said last week. “Our ability to run the football and stop the run. If we do that, this is going to be a pretty good football team.”
As individually talented as Notre Dame’s offensive linemen are, the preseason did not feature them working wonderfully as a unit. That cohesiveness may yet come, but Kelly will need to see it to believe it.
As hyped as the Irish defensive ends are, the interior of the defensive features little depth and even less experience. It will remain a question until very much proven otherwise.
Run the football and stop the run.
Everything else gleaned from the Labor Day spotlight will be merely tentative. Louisville simply is not good enough to put too much stock into any stellar showing, and the season opener is never a smart time to overreact to any individual struggles. But if Notre Dame cannot move the ball on the ground, consider it an alarm for the season’s potential, and if the Irish cannot stop the Cardinals cold, look at it as a clear precursor of troubles to come. After all, Louisville gave up 277 rushing yards per game and six yards per carry last season while gaining only 142 rushing yards per game.
Notre Dame should be able to churn for yardage against such a defensive front. It may be fun to pin the Cardinals’ miseries in 2018 on fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, but his woebegone schemes were only a part of the problems. The rest was, well, a lack of talent and development. One offseason does not rectify an entire roster.
Thus, the Irish offense should rely on the run. Time was spent this offseason worrying about senior quarterback Ian Book’s arm strength, and understandably so, but any deep balls will still be set up by forcing the opposing defense to tend to the trenches. Notre Dame has solid running backs in junior Jafar Armstrong and senior Tony Jones; turning them loose will establish a floor for the Irish offense that will push Notre Dame at least into the Playoff conversation. Without the run, the Irish season’s highest hopes will be truncated before the holiday weekend concludes.
With the run, Notre Dame’s offense just may be all it has been cracked up to be. Even without junior tight end Cole Kmet and junior receiver Michael Young, the Irish should hang a crooked number at Louisville. In their stead, sophomores Tommy Tremble and Joe Wilkins will have a chance to validate contributing roles. Tremble, in particular, could become a piece of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme even after Kmet returns from his broken collarbone.
“Tommy’s really coming on,” Long said last week. “A very versatile guy, very explosive and physical for his size. He just needs to keep playing.”
Getting Tremble and Wilkins the ball, Book should show newfound patience against the Cardinals. As much as he is often criticized for not having a strong arm, Book’s greatest lacking last season was a penchant to abandon the pocket too quickly.
As Pro Football Focus recently pointed out, Book is one of the country’s best passers when he stays in the pocket. “Book showed outstanding accuracy when pressure was kept at bay, as he recorded the second-highest ‘accurate plus’ rate and third-lowest uncatchable pass rate, per PFF’s quarterback charting system.” When Book was frenzied, though, he became one of the country’s worst passers.
That panic was typically unwarranted, created in Book’s head, not by opposing pass-rushers. As PFF put it, “most of this pressure wasn’t let up by the offensive line, it was because Book brought it on himself. As a first-year starter, Book bailed on the pocket far too often and had the most pressures allocated to himself among all college football quarterbacks (29 total). Out of those 29 pressures, 18 ended as a sack which was seven more than any other college quarterback.”
Notre Dame’s offensive line should keep the Louisville defense far from Book, if he can allow himself to trust it. Spinning out of the pocket and rolling toward the sideline is not what made Book a success story. Eradicating the habit will go a long way toward elevating the Irish offense as expected.
Defensively, stopping the run is imperative this weekend primarily because it is the only genuine unknown on that side of the ball. Coordinator Clark Lea has luxuries at safety, defensive end and cornerback. He has questions at defensive tackle and linebacker, questions that have been mulled over for months now. Parsing them further is an exercise in redundancy until actual football occurs.
As much skepticism as this space has levied at the Cardinals this week, they do boast a possible first-round draft pick at left tackle in junior Mekhi Becton. Watching the Irish ends challenge Becton will be a delightful way to end the first weekend of college football.
“We’ve been very impressed with [Becton’s] ability,” Kelly said. “We’ve got some outstanding pass-rushers, and I think they’ll be challenged in this ballgame. He really is a player that jumped out at us.”
Run the ball. Stop the run. Show patience in the pocket with new pass-catchers available. And relish strength vs. strength showcases. Not a terrible to-do list to kick off the season, and not one unique to Kelly and Notre Dame.