Notre Dame counting on ‘time’ to heal passing game woes

Ian Book
ACC Media
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Stats can be manipulated. Pointing out Notre Dame has averaged just 206 yards through the air can be countered by arguing the two defenses faced currently rank No. 30 and No. 4 in passing efficiency defense. Criticizing Irish fifth-year quarterback Ian Book for throwing for only one touchdown yet this season can be met with the facts that he has completed 62 percent of his passes and averaged 8.14 yards per attempt while leading the offense to average 39.5 points through two games.

And player availability can factor into those manipulations. Bafflement that Notre Dame’s receivers have totaled 11 catches for 115 yards makes some sense when remembering junior Kevin Austin, arguably the best receiver on the roster, has yet to play due to a broken foot and classmate Braden Lenzy, the fastest of the bunch, missed the opener due to a frustrating hamstring, an ailment underscored when graduate transfer Ben Skowronek, the most experienced option, missed most of that game and all of the next with his own hamstring issue.

What has not been manipulated or disputed, though, is that the pessimistic halves of all these sentences have been worrisome for Irish hopes. The narrative may be downplayed, but even Notre Dame does not argue it exists for a reason.

“Eventually we’re going to look for some more production from that unit, but it has been, quite frankly, one that has not had great continuity yet,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “We’ve had some guys out and injured. I think what you’ll see is that unit will be one that provides a little bit more consistency and continuity for Ian in the passing game. I do see a unit that will produce at a higher rate. It’s still going to be one that takes some time.”

No. 5 Notre Dame (2-0, 1-0 ACC) has made do with lackluster production from its receivers to date because 1) it has played only two games thanks to a coronavirus outbreak and 2) junior tight end Tommy Tremble has caught eight passes for 99 yards to keep the offense moving, with freshman tight end Michael Mayer adding four receptions for 43 yards. Irish running backs have chipped in with chunk plays, as well, led by sophomore Kyren Williams’ four catches for 103 yards, highlighted by a 75-yard screen pass, and senior Jafar Armstrong’s three snags for 38 yards.

Those are all efficient numbers, hence Book breaking eight yards per attempt. If that proficiency finds its way to the receivers, to Austin in his first action since 2018, to Lenzy now fully healthy, then Notre Dame could have a burgeoning offense on its hands.

“We are getting very close to our potential,” fifth-year receiver Javon McKinley said Tuesday. “Just a couple nicks and bruises have kept us at a lower level.”

In that respect, the three weeks between games may have played to Irish favor. Not only were Austin, Lenzy and Skowronek given more time to get healthy without missing any games, but they were all also able to work with Book a bit more than they had in the truncated preseason.

With that timing and chemistry in mind, Notre Dame held a scrimmage Sunday, trusting its top-tier defense to stress the offense and force it to up its game.

“The scrimmage has a lot to do with the timing of the quarterback seeing things, the quickness, the pace, not being able to throw live means a lot,” Kelly said. “The scrimmaging live is certainly about tackling, … but this has a lot to do with the timing of the quarterback as well as giving him the chance to see things, react to things, because it happens so quickly, especially against a pretty fast defense like ourselves.”

That is where the loss of spring practice, of the Blue-Gold Game and of a preseason spent not focusing on keeping the team somewhat apart can stand out. Kelly cites Book’s need to see things, but that goes for the receivers, too, particularly with an inexperienced corps like this one. Their routes need to be ingrained in their memories, no matter what a defensive back is doing. That takes mental and physical repetition.

Losing the spring game tape to toil over throughout the summer was a detriment, as was losing the chance to go one-on-one against the likes of sophomore cornerback Tariq Bracy from March through August. Remember the tales of Miles Boykin and Julian Love trying to claim alpha status throughout the 2018 preseason? Or Chase Claypool and Troy Pride’s tempers flaring a bit ahead of 2019? That work benefited all involved, drilling into Boykin’s and Claypool’s minds what it would take to win the 50/50 balls throughout the season, something each excelled at.

That back-shoulder dominance may not be on the immediate horizon, the reality of Austin yet to be seen, but getting nearly two weeks of practice in between games (a measurement that excludes the better part of a week pause due to the coronavirus outbreak) is a step in the direction of replacing what was lost in the 2020 offseason.

Braden Lenzy
Irish junior receiver Braden Lenzy played well against South Florida, catching three passes for 34 yards in his season debut, but if the Notre Dame aerial attack is to reach its potential, that type of afternoon must become a bare minimum for the speedster. (ACC Media)

“I expect very high things,” Lenzy said. “… Although not everyone has gotten too many touches and that connection with Ian yet, we’ve had many practices, a lot of us have had years.

“I’m excited to see what’s going to happen because I think with an elite quarterback and an elite group, we should have the numbers.”

Those numbers can be questioned, this concern cannot. Not even Kelly dismissed the premise of the question, something he has been inclined to do anytime the running game has been challenged in the last 12 months.

“You’re going to see in time an offensive passing game that’s going to resemble the kind of talent that I think we have at that position,” Kelly said.

The question then becomes, how long is in time? If Book and Austin do not link up on the latter’s limited snaps, it may be understandable given Austin’s long layoff and what could be a short Saturday for him against Florida State (7:30 ET; NBC). If Book and Lenzy struggle to connect, some credit may be due to All-American candidate Seminoles cornerback Asante Samuel. If Book’s completion percentage drops, it will be quickly explained away as a result of rust from the three-week layoff.

In time may extend for another week, but a genuinely stout defense — not one propped up by a small sample size such as South Florida’s No. 4 ranking in passing efficiency defense — is only three weeks away at Pittsburgh. At some point, Notre Dame needs to have a fully-functional offense.

“It’s really about ‘let’s keep playing,’” Kelly said. “Let’s not take two weeks off.”

On all fronts, agreed.