Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long was supposed to have it all figured out this season, more a reflection of a stable and loaded offense than of any struggles in his first two years in the role. The Irish returned seven starters, had two other established playmakers stepping into leading roles, plausibly found their center before 2018 even ended, and had a number of young receivers to step in as the final piece of the puzzle.
Then junior tight end Cole Kmet broke his collarbone. A week later, so did junior receiver Michael Young. All along, sophomore receiver Kevin Austin remained unavailable. By the end of the first Notre Dame drive of the season, junior running back Jafar Armstrong was lost for a considerable chunk of time, and the following week’s practice cost Long his newfound goal-line presence in sophomore running Jahmir Smith (“doubtful” this weekend, per Irish head coach Brian Kelly, with a sprained toe).
So much for having it all figured out.
Yes, Long still had four experienced offensive linemen flanking sophomore center Jarrett Patterson, and senior quarterback Ian Book can still look to senior receiver Chase Claypool and fifth-year Chris Finke for reliability. But on a team hoping to return to the Playoff on the back of its offense, the dramatic dropoff in expected contributors caused understandable concern.
Notre Dame now finds out how much of that concern has been soothed, how much will linger, and if enough of the former exists to survive the latter.
It will start with Book, all along the presumed catalyst to an efficient and explosive offense. While he may not have been that just yet, he has also not been as lackluster as the first half at Louisville inspires memories to insist. Even if removing the two shovel passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns last week against New Mexico, Book is averaging 9.78 yards per pass attempt. Across a season, that would be second-best in Irish history. (His actual rate of 11.77 yards per attempt readily outpaces the record of 10.06 set by John Hurate in 1964.) To give that further context, Book averaged 8.37 yards per attempt last year.
There is a sample-size aspect to that number, as well as an opponent qualifier, but it is simply one illustration that the reports of Book’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. On passes that traveled more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage in the air against the Lobos, Book went 3-of-7 for 78 yards with two touchdowns, plus another attempt which drew a pass interference call and thus 15 yards. Of the four incompletions, another (to Claypool at the goal line) arguably should have drawn a flag; Claypool leaned inward instead of toward the sideline for Book’s pass in the first quarter; sophomore Lawrence Keys mistimed his jump on a third attempt; and the fourth was more a ball thrown away than an incompletion, avoiding a sack.
On eight deep balls from Book, the Irish gained 93 yards, avoided a sack, and were never outright out of a play. All this just a game after Book did not attempt a single 20-yard pass on Labor Day.
“All of these guys needed to make a play,” Kelly said after the 66-14 victory. “Ian Book needed to make a play. I think he needed to make that throw to Chase Claypool (for a 37-yard touchdown), and all those things needed to come together. We thought they would, and we saw them come together this afternoon.
“… To get this game under our belts going into Georgia, it was really big for us and to get Ian into a rhythm really helped today a lot.”
Of course, that was against New Mexico, now No. 7 Notre Dame faces No. 3 Georgia (8 ET; CBS). The former boasts the No. 126 defense in the country, per SP+, while the latter has the No. 7 defense. Those ratings factor in opponents, as best as can be done. If differing to the NCAA’s passing defense efficiency metrics, the Lobos rate No. 121, and the Bulldogs come in at No. 16. While Book was moderately successful against New Mexico, life is about to get much more difficult for him.
“There is no doubt, the competition will be greater,” even Kelly admitted Monday. “But you need to make some plays to build that inner confidence that you can do it all the time.”
Book may have two “new” pieces of help Saturday, with each theoretically amplifying others on the offense, as well.
Senior receiver Javon McKinley’s two touchdown catches against New Mexico — the latter of which being one of those three deep completions by Book — assuredly put him on Georgia’s radar. One could rashly make an argument McKinley should have been kept in the figurative back pocket, but some aspect of instilled confidence trumped that strategic possibility.
“He’s a physical presence,” Kelly said. “He got on the field in a first-team rotation, so we’re starting to get it here, and figure it out. He’s not a No. 2. He can play as a No. 1.”
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If McKinley is a genuinely-viable receiving threat against a defense like Georgia’s, that alone is notable and something to be, well, learned. But it also creates a positive domino effect for the Irish.
When Young was injured, Finke moved to the field position from his usual slot work. The move put Finke against more traditional cornerbacks rather than safeties and linebackers. His skillset better exploits the mismatch gained with speed and agility in tight spaces, not one at its best running a precise route against a cornerback accustomed to such. Remove Finke’s 54-yard “reception” of a shovel pass, and he has two catches for five yards this season.
“He’s had to do a little bit more than just his normal slot,” Kelly said Sunday. “He’s had to get out on the perimeter and do some different things and block. A little more pressure on him, but he’s handled it well.”
Insert McKinley, though, and Finke can return to the slot, be it with Claypool flanking him and McKinley working alone along the boundary or vice versa.
“[Finke] certainly loves having Chase next to him because he picks up a lot of the dirty work for him,” Kelly said. “What really has helped has been the emergence of Javon McKinley because now you can flip Chase out there and it gives us great flexibility with the group of receivers.”
Another option in the slot is junior tight end Cole Kmet, expected to make his 2019 debut in Athens. There is no way to know how effective Kmet will be after more than a month on the shelf, but if he is a decent semblance of himself, suddenly Notre Dame is nearing a full array of offensive options, as Long once expected. Claypool, Finke and McKinley make up a facsimile of last year’s leading trio, with speedsters Keys and sophomore Braden Lenzy offering a change of pace, while Kmet and sophomore tight end Tommy Tremble create physical mismatches for Book to rely upon, all with a receiving threat out of the backfield in senior Tony Jones, even if he is not as dynamic as Armstrong.
“We know we have some guys that can make plays and now after [New Mexico] it allows us to put the pieces together as to how we want this offense to move forward knowing we have guys that have the confidence to go out there and make plays,” Kelly said.
It is not the group Long spent the offseason planning for, but it might just be similar enough for him to find success between the hedges.