A year ago, Notre Dame’s receivers slowly wore out, getting less and less separation from defenders, an effect of playing only three wideouts for much of the season. The Irish hoped to avoid that in 2019, and with a bevy of youngsters searching for playing time, it seemed likely.
Yet, only three receivers have more than three catches. That should change this weekend with a fourth possibly getting that many catches in just one half. Junior Michael Young’s return from a broken collarbone not only adds his play-making abilities to Notre Dame’s offensive repertoire, but it may also embolden those of others.
“Mike’s going to help us, there’s no question,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday, for once not hedging the likelihood of a player’s return from injury. “It allows us to balance out the reps. [Fifth-year receiver] Chris Finke was taking 75-80 snaps, that’s a lot for Chris. Mike’s going to be able to take some of that load off of Chris.”
Young had established himself as the field-side starting receiver this preseason before his injury, complementing Finke (pictured at top) in the slot. A domino effect of losing Young, Finke moved to the outside, a more physical position that limits his ability to showcase his best features, speed and agility in tight spaces. It is no coincidence Finke has only seven catches for 81 yards through three games, and if removing a 54-yard shovel pass against New Mexico, those numbers are a more accurate six catches for 27 yards.
When senior receiver Javon McKinley caught two touchdowns against the Lobos, the thought was he might be able to provide an outside presence at Georgia and allow Finke to move back inside. Instead, McKinley loafed on an early blocking assignment and did not attack a target in the end zone, not seeing much playing time after that.
Per Kelly, Finke took a hit in the second quarter during the 23-17 Irish loss, requiring halftime treatment to his ribs.
“Things like that where now we can pace [Finke] a little bit better, Mike allows us that flexibility,” Kelly said.
There is no reason to expect Young to come out of the gates as strongly as junior tight end Cole Kmet did last Saturday, catching passes on three of Notre Dame’s first four snaps, but he should make an impact, nonetheless. The real benefit to Young’s return, though, will come in how he influences others’ performances, namely Finke’s.
Kelly also pointed to sophomore Braden Lenzy’s return (concussion) and the possibility of sophomore Joe Wilkins getting playing time as more reasons to think receiver depth may now become a strength, rather than a question thus far in 2019 and a weakness in 2018.
“[Wilkins] has had back-to-back really, really good weeks,” Kelly said. “He had been a little inconsistent in practice. He’s starting to stack together better practices. We really want to get Joe going. That’s giving us more depth and that’s going to allow us to utilize all those guys.”
The Irish do not have a strong running game, and the usage of the adjective strong may have been superfluous. Going against Virginia’s No. 12 rush defense, allowing all of 2.17 yards per carry, will not help that cause. Florida State’s Cam Akers is one of the best running backs in the country, no matter the state of his offensive line, and he managed only 78 yards on 18 carries against the Cavaliers, his team rushing for just 95 yards on 29 attempts, a 3.3 yards per rush average.
For the second week in a row, Notre Dame should not expect to have much success on the ground. Leaning on its receivers will have a better chance of success if that corps can be deeper and more varied.
The Irish defense will have its hands full with one player, and one player in particular. Virginia senior quarterback Bryce Perkins is the proverbial straw that stirs the drink.
“It all runs through [Perkins],” Kelly said. “He is the guy that runs this offense. If he is on, if he is playing well, they are a difficult offense to defend.”
Kelly then specifically mentioned Cavaliers senior receiver Joe Reed. A year ago, Reed averaged 18.6 yards per reception with seven touchdowns, but has been kept in check somewhat this season, turning 23 catches into 215 yards and three scores.
Big plays to Reed are not how Virginia wears out an opposing defense, though. It does that via Perkins, both on the ground and in the air. The mere threat of him getting loose on a scramble changes a defensive approach.
“If he doesn’t have his first or second read, he’s going to be difficult to defend,” Kelly said. “When you talk about a great pass rush, it gets neutralized with Perkins. If you try to get upfield on him, he’s going to slide up in the pocket and make it really difficult on you.”
Thus, this may not be the week when Notre Dame’s star defensive ends break through on the official stat sheet, even if they do in the Irish coaching staff’s grades. Kelly and his staff will consider any tackle of a scrambling Perkins within three yards of the line of scrimmage to be the equivalent of a sack.
“You’ve effectively done your job,” Kelly said. “Sacks are looked at a little bit differently this week in our eyes.”
That cause will be greatly aided by continued breakout showings from Notre Dame’s linebackers. A group that was expected to be a weak point entering the year and a liability against Georgia’s vaunted rushing attack has instead gradually improved to the point it stood its ground against the Bulldogs. Perkins will present a different form of a challenge, one testing their discipline as much as their instincts, but it increasingly seems Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea has the unit ready for whatever is next.
The most notable of the bunch may be fifth-year Asmar Bilal, from whom the public — fans and media, alike — expected little this season. He may have played error-free between the hedges, finishing with three tackles.
“We’re really seeing some strong improvement from Bilal,” Kelly said Sunday. “He played really well. He continues to emerge as somebody that we feel is not even merited getting off the field. He’s played really well now in successive weeks. Struggled a little bit against Louisville, and since that time has played very, very good football for us.”
On the other side, junior rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah led Notre Dame with eight tackles, seven of which were solo, including 2.5 for loss at Georgia. What was once projected to be a timeshare with sophomore Paul Moala is now a role firmly held by Owusu-Koramoah barring injuries (like in last weekend’s third quarter).
“He showed some flashes and did some good things against Georgia,” Kelly said Monday. “He made the kind of progress that we were looking for against Georgia. I guess the best way to put it is that the arrow is up after the Georgia game with Jeremiah.”
Bilal and Owusu-Koramoah on the edges, with the defensive lines trying to flush Perkins forward, will put the impetus on the Irish defensive tackles to keep the mobile quarterback in front of them, if not force him to the ends and linebackers.
“It’s going to put a lot of pressure on our defensive tackles to really push the pocket and to flush him out,” Kelly said. “Our guys have to be able to contain him. That’s really what we’re looking for more than anything else.”
Kelly went so far as to outright say, “Bryce is not as accomplished as a drop-back thrower of the football.” Notre Dame’s secondary has long been seen as a strength, and this weekend it may feast, but only if the upward-trending parts of the Irish defense can continue on those current trajectories.