Things To Learn: Clemson’s concerns do not change Notre Dame’s needs at Georgia Tech

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“We know they’re there.”

Suddenly, we are not entirely sure who “they” entails, but Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book’s blunt assessment of No. 1 Clemson made sense when he spoke with Jac Collinsworth on the ND on NBC Podcast earlier this week. Like Irish head coach Brian Kelly for the past two weeks, Book was not going to pretend to diminish the top-four tilt just eight days away.

That day-count matters in the wake of Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s positive coronavirus test announced Thursday night. At the minimum, Lawrence is required to isolate, the exact amount of time he needs to isolate moving forward up to some interpretation. If from the onset of his symptoms, Lawrence may be out of isolation before Clemson travels to South Bend. There may still be some cardiac testing and re-acclimation requirements to meet, nonetheless.

Health concerns about next weekend’s opponent lead this column previewing Notre Dame’s trip to Georgia Tech (3:30 ET; ABC) because if there is any one thing to learn this weekend — beyond if the Irish can reach 6-0 and 5-0 in the ACC by winning their 12th straight — it is Lawrence’s status moving forward. If he is medically cleared, there should be every expectation of the presumptive No. 1 overall draft pick playing on Nov. 7.

If there is any one player in the country who could face a Clark Lea defense without having practiced in nearly two weeks, it is Lawrence, and if there is any one player who could do that successfully, it is Lawrence. Book has gotten to know the junior a bit in the last couple years, primarily when both work as counselors at the Manning Passing Academy. Book knows, as everyone knows, Lawrence’s physical attributes are rare, but that is not what Book thinks sets apart the heretofore Heisman frontrunner.

“His composure, you never see that kid freaking out when bad plays happen or freaking out when good plays happen,” Book said. “He’s level-headed.”

Clemson Will Likely remain mute on Lawrence’s timetable for a bit, partly because college football’s lack of a central power has given schools cover to do so, and partly because counting the days is moot if Lawrence’s “relatively mild” symptoms do not abate, which should be the first and foremost concern of anyone involved.

To a lesser degree, counting the days should be moot, anyway, as it is not as if the Tigers will be lacking for talent even without Lawrence. Freshman D.J. Uiagalelei was the No. 1 quarterback in the recruiting class, a consensus five-star, standing at 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, more than able to take a hit.

With or without Lawrence, “We know they’re there” remains applicable. Finalizing what version of Notre Dame will meet Clemson remains a pressing priority for this weekend’s jaunt to Atlanta.

“At Notre Dame, you have to win every game to do what we want to do and win a national championship,” Book said to the media Tuesday. “Obviously Clemson is on the list, that game has been circled for a while, so it’s hard not to think about it, but we have to go — we have a job to do this week, so we have to go down to Georgia Tech and get the win, and then it’s time for Clemson.”

Let’s be clear: There should be no trouble for the Irish in getting the win. The defense very well may outscore the Yellow Jackets’ offense, given the latter turns over the ball an average of three times per game.

Forcing a few turnovers against an offense ripe for those mistakes would go a long way in reinforcing an instinct to look for the ball. Before last week, Notre Dame had forced just three turnovers; it then added three interceptions at Pittsburgh.

Lea’s defense is not predicated on forcing turnovers, but logging only three through four games was quietly becoming a concern. Matching that in one afternoon, and tripling the previous interception count, turned a rout into a blowout, or perhaps that should be the other way around. Either way, the turnovers played a role in the 45-3 demolition.

At no point this season did the Irish forget they would rather have the ball than the alternative, but sometimes a start is needed to lean into that mentality. If that was found against the Panthers, furthering it courtesy of the Ramblin’ Wreck could help flip a scoring chance or two against the Tigers.

Leaning into a certain type of mentality will also be crucial for the remaining Notre Dame receivers. With no Kevin Austin and no Braden Lenzy, the Irish are increasingly low on perimeter playmakers. Graduate transfer Ben Skowronek’s 6-foot-3 frame may help him snag a deep ball, but another viable contributor needs to exist to draw some safety help away from Skowronek’s side of the field.

That will not be Jordan Johnson, though this week has been filled with praise of the freshman from both Book and Kelly.

“Today’s practice was one of the best Tuesdays we’ve had, and Jordan Johnson did an unbelievable job,” Book said. “He took pride in being up there and knowing the plays for this week, and he had some unbelievable catches, and that’s what we need to see.”

Wait, then why will Johnson not be Skowronek’s complement? Because he will be Skowronek’s backup as the field receiver.

“He’s not physically at a position where he can excel at that (boundary) position,” Kelly said Thursday. “We’d rather have him in a position where he could get more free releases. The [boundary] receiver gets a lot more press coverage than the [field]. As a younger player, you would prefer much more free access.”

Avery Davis Pittsburgh
Avery Davis‘ three catches for 44 yards last week both marked season highs for the senior as Notre Dame continues to look for passing game continuity. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Any success for Johnson at Georgia Tech will still bode well, it just may not be the table-setter for a Clemson impact implied by the praise. Then again, earlier this week Kelly said Skowronek moved to the field side only when Austin broke his foot in August. Up until then, the Irish had anticipated the veteran to play the boundary, much in the mold of Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin. Perhaps a Johnson emergence could bring that approach back to the present.

Otherwise, Skowronek’s complement may have to come from either senior Avery Davis or junior Joe Wilkins. Each has found moments of success this season, Wilkins with all four of his catches coming in the season-opener and Davis snagging three receptions at Pittsburgh. Each has also missed time due to injury or the coronavirus.

“We’re gaining some continuity and I have said it many times that I believe in this group,” Kelly said Monday. “When we got continuity within the offensive structure, in particular the passing game, it would look better. It would get better and Ian would feel a lot more confident in getting the ball out on time.

“Some of that timing element where many people comment on the ball not coming out on time is working with those guys, so you can throw it before they get out of their break and do those kinds of things.”

Book has whom he will have. No more reinforcements are coming to buoy the passing game before facing Clemson. The bad news is that is referencing the absences of Austin and Lenzy; the good news is Notre Dame has one more chance to firmly establish that continuity.

We know they’re there (with or without Lawrence).

Now we need to learn who will be contributing when Clemson is here.