Notre Dame had not played an opponent in nearly nine months. The Irish barely played against themselves in the preseason. Full tilt had been as rare as close quarters. A slow start in week one was logical if not expected.
A bashful beginning in week two would be a bit more foreboding for No. 7 Notre Dame’s Playoff hopes.
“We have to get off to a better start,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “We talked about four quarters of football, for us it is to get off to a good start, have an attention to detail. Our attention to detail wasn’t great at times, especially defensively. We gave up some uncharacteristically big plays, which was about attention to detail.”
As much as Kelly’s point about Notre Dame’s initial defense against Duke is valid — the first play from scrimmage was a 22-yard Blue Devils completion, after all — it was the Irish offense that gained all of seven yards in the first quarter of the 27-13 victory. Worse than that, the opening frame featured Notre Dame rushing seven times for a loss of three yards.
“Our practices have been really good, very purposeful, guys have been locked in,” Kelly said. “Flipping from a practice mindset to a competition mindset is a big difference, so I’d like to get sharper there.”
Eventually, the Irish ground game found its footing against Duke, finishing with 192 yards (sacks adjusted), but the passing attack never established a rhythm. Fifth-year quarterback Ian Book finished 19-of-31 for 263 passing yards, including 75 on a screen pass to sophomore running back Kyren Williams. While it is not fair to remove that successful play without going line-by-line in discussing the other 30 pass attempts, the basic math is simple: Without that screen, Book went 18-of-30 for 188 yards, a scuffling showing to say the least.
That will happen with a new set of receivers replacing the expected new set of receivers after an offseason robbed of most reps to build chemistry. It will also happen with a quarterback aware of the expectations of a three-year starter at Notre Dame.
“More than anything else, probably just a little too amped up and just needed to settle him down a little bit this week,” Kelly said. “A little bit more patience in the pocket. Maybe a little too anxious to make some plays. …
“Watching him this week, he fully understands how some of those smaller plays turn into big ones. He’s got to make those for us.”
Smaller plays like that screen pass, which is why it is not fair to remove it from the stat line, but I digress over a trivial argument.
Book will again be throwing to names unexpected a week ago. A hamstring injury will sideline graduate transfer receiver Ben Skowronek this weekend, elevating junior Braden Lenzy into the starting lineup along with classmate Joe Wilkins Jr. A hamstring injury benched Lenzy last weekend unbeknownst to anyone outside the program until it was occurring, but Kelly expects him back in action against South Florida (2:30 ET; USA Network).
“Hamstring injuries are such, especially the skilled players, they have to feel comfortable and they have to feel a sense of being able to run out and do the things necessary at that position,” Kelly said. “A big thing for [Lenzy] is his speed, his ability to really push at the top end and get out of breaks. I think he feels that way now.”
If so, then Book’s offensive arsenal can begin to resemble what he worked with throughout August, including Wilkins, who estimates he took about half the first-team snaps in preseason practices. Those built enough confidence to make his first career catch with 50 seconds remaining in the first half last week, finishing with four receptions for 44 yards.
Wilkins has long shined in practice, only to have minor injuries keep him from converting that into weekend production. That was presumably part of why the Irish pursued Skowronek in the first place. Frankly, Wilkins’ estimate of splitting first-team reps 50/50 might be generous, but even if he physically took only a quarter of those practice snaps, he mentally took each one of them, tracking Skowronek’s movements, working through the play’s steps in his head.
That built trust in Wilkins for the coaching staff. It paid off.
“Coach applauded me in our meeting because one of the plays, I didn’t take one rep at that play all week,” Wilkins said Tuesday. “But my mental reps, I’m always watching. I’m always paying attention, so when I got in the game, I knew exactly what I was supposed to do.”
As much as a quarterback’s chemistry with a receiver is contingent on timing built on practice rep after practice rep, it is also built on trusting that receiver to make the right break at the right distance at the right pace. If Wilkins has proven that to Book in a game setting, then Notre Dame might not need to grasp for another receiver to step forward just yet.
Of course, another young receiver stepping forward would be a nice luxury to have.
“Somebody’s got to step up now and accelerate their growth,” Kelly said Monday. “… Somebody’s got to continue to grow.”
Just a few moments earlier, though, Kelly had been asked about the readiness of freshman receiver Jordan Johnson, and he did not indicate the former five-star recruit is on the verge of pushing Wilkins or Lenzy.
“Physically, he’s coming along quite well,” Kelly said. “He’s still finding himself as a student-athlete here. There’s a lot on his plate. … This isn’t just about football. He’s got football talent. We’ve got to continue to work on his attention to detail and his focus and we’re getting better there.”
Presuming Johnson does not crack the rotation this weekend, another freshman could continue to establish himself there all the same.
Book found tight end Michael Mayer three times in the opener for 38 yards, including this seven-yard completion that kept a touchdown drive alive.
Also, jokes aside about "Baby Gronk", this did look Gronk-ish from Michael Mayer.
— Mike Monaco (@MikeMonaco_) September 12, 2020
“He’s been doing that all camp, as well, so I wasn’t surprised, but he’s just physical, and everybody saw that tonight,” Book said after Notre Dame’s first-ever conference victory. “He’s not going to go down the first time he’s touched. As a quarterback, that’s huge.
“It almost feels like you might check the ball down to him, but he’s going to get more than where he catches it at.”
Uncovering these developing players one by one, Wilkins by Mayer by whoever is next, should give Book more comfort to get off to a strong start moving forward.
Defensively that could be a bit tougher against the Bulls. That opening 22-yard completion Duke enjoyed a week ago? Irish sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton made the tackle, as he would three more times on the opening drive before breaking up a fourth-down pass to end it.
Not too much later he sprained his ankle, an injury that has Hamilton day-to-day currently, in the “PPT” program as Kelly called it, “prayers and personal thoughts are welcome.”
There should be little risk in playing South Florida without Hamilton, even if he is arguably Notre Dame’s best defender. There could be a small gain in doing so, given Kelly recognizes the need to build a backline rotation.
Sixth-year senior Shaun Crawford played well a week ago, but junior DJ Brown missed a few tackles and dropped an interception, while junior Houston Griffith and graduate transfer Isaiah Pryor did not see meaningful defensive time.
“We’ve got to be able to begin to see a lot more of those guys on the back end of our defense,” Kelly said. “… There are roles for all these guys. Whether it is in a sub-package or first and second down, and even in a rotation, so I expect to see [defensive coordinator Clark Lea] really working to get them involved in more of a rotation.”
Pryor may have been the fifth safety deployed last week, but he still made the most memorable play, non-Hamilton category.
BIG Tackle Tuesday…@D1Zay13 was on one with this hit. 😬#GoIrish x #BeatUSF pic.twitter.com/nLPDkI9N0M
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) September 15, 2020
Broadly speaking, backups may not see as much time in a possible blowout as they would in any other year. This is largely speculation, but it applies now more than ever, as South Florida is the only non-ACC (read: likely worst, pending Syracuse) opponent on the Irish schedule. If there is a true blowout to be had this year, it is most likely this weekend.
But given the practice time the first- and second-strings have lost this spring and preseason, given the need for Book to develop trust and timing with his receivers, given the new blocking scheme the offensive line is adjusting to, it could be prudent to give them run in garbage time.
Even at quarterback, rather than lean on sophomore Brendon Clark to carry the offense if needed, Kelly would prefer to have Clark lean on the offense to carry him.
“A very good offensive line, skill players, they don’t have to go in and win the game on their own,” Kelly said. “They just can’t lose it.”
To use that safety net strategy, first the offensive line and skill players have to be humming on all cylinders themselves. That takes time. More than a first quarter in the opener, but too much more than that could teeter toward costly.
Oh, and do you know what channel the USA Network is in your cable listings?