As NBC sideline reporter Kathryn Tappen’s game day assistant, I keep an eye on the Notre Dame sideline, noting behavior, looking for patterns and then deviations from those patterns. While pandemic regulations restricted general attendance and drastically reduced our sideline access, the quieter stadium atmosphere allowed for more nuanced sideline observations.
Some of my takeaways through five home games this season:
Throughout the year, Ian Book and Kyren Williams have frequently visited the offensive-line huddle on the sideline. Book usually approaches the seated huddle multiple times per game and fist-bumps each player in it. Williams also makes it a point to regularly show appreciation to members of the line, especially after his scoring drives.
“As a running back, it’s what you dream of, when you have an offensive line like the one we have where they’re moving the line of scrimmage every single run,” Williams said earlier this month. “When you believe that, you can stay patient, you can tip-toe behind the line and still be able to find the hole you need to go to. That’s when you know you have a good offensive line.
“Whenever you have that, us running backs, we cherish that. We are very grateful for them. We just love our O-linemen, love what they do for us.”
That habitual acknowledgment by Book and Williams ties into the larger cohesiveness of the offense, which is exhibited by another trend that has increased over the course of the season: The offense congregates as a whole before breaking into position groups. Often set in motion by Book and Williams venturing to the offensive-line huddle, the group grows as tight ends and receivers join. A rarity last season, this offensive sideline huddle has appeared in multiple games this year.
(A note from Douglas Farmer: Position groups interacting more this season could be a reflection of players following their coaches’ leads. Irish head coach Brian Kelly has praised his offensive assistants this season for their collaborative work, something not a part of the previous offensive coordinator’s usual approach.)
This cohesive nature translates onto the field and seems to correlate with the emergence of a successful ground game. When Brian Kelly spoke about the running backs’ performance after Florida State, he talked about all of the pieces responsible.
“They have really good guys blocking for them,” Kelly said. “There’s five guys up front. There’s receivers blocking for them. There’s tight ends that are blocking for them.
“We got a lot of guys that are doing a lot of pretty good work for the backs. Then they’re making good, decisive cuts, seeing things very well. It’s a combination of all those things. Good backs that are making really patient cuts, letting the offensive line do their work.”
Williams is not a forward-motion machine just on the field. He also has a bounty of energy on the sideline, rarely standing still, instead frequently pacing or jumping up and down while the defense is on the field. He injects energy into the sideline demeanor before key drives or plays, including during the fourth quarter and in both overtimes of the Clemson game.
Liam Eichenberg has noticed that energy
“It’s definitely nice having somebody who brings the juice every single day and a positive attitude and wants to get better,” the fifth-year left tackle said the first week of November. “One of the biggest things I like about him is he has a chip on his shoulder. You see it every single day. He comes out to practice with a chip on his shoulder. He works to get better every single day.”
Williams is the most energetic back on the sideline, moving around more than freshman Chris Tyree and junior C’Bo Flemister. But that difference in sideline behavior mirrors their complementary differences on the field.
“We all know what we can do,” Williams said. “We’re all different types of backs, which makes us one of the best back rooms in the nation.”
As a captain, fifth-year defensive end Daelin Hayes is a leader of the team, and it shows in the defensive-line huddle during games. The defensive line is positioned on the south end of the sideline, away from the band, which typically cultivates an environment quiet enough to avoid yelling. When defensive line coach Mike Elston isn’t talking or drawing on his dry erase board, players talk amongst themselves. When Hayes speaks, though, he catches his teammates’ attention.
Brian Kelly has noticed this trend, as well.
“He’s an integral part of what we’re doing, not only his leadership which has continued to grow as a captain,” Kelly said. “Daelin was always vocal, he now is extremely pointed when he talks now. Pointed in the sense that the guys are really listening to what he has to say. It’s clear that he has their ear.
“You do that when you are a man of your word and you’re trusted. And they see how he’s performing as well. Your best players, by and large, gain a lot of credibility as well. So, you’re seeing all that happen with Daelin Hayes this year.”
It is a given that aside from the biggest moments against then-No. 1 Clemson, the atmosphere in the stadium is muted with attendance reaching only 14 percent capacity. As a result, individual voices carry farther — even down to the sideline. Whether students are trying to catch players’ attention or yelling at referees, players can often hear their shouts. On multiple occasions, players in or near the defensive line huddle have laughed or rolled their eyes when students badger referees.
This subdued environment also led to a more touching interaction: When the video board showed a feature on junior receiver Joe Wilkins and his late father during a break in the action against Louisville, many of his teammates turned to watch the emotional story. When the feature was over, multiple players approached Wilkins on the sideline, offering hugs and support before returning focus to the game.
Before Saturday’s matchup with Louisville, meet @NDFootball’s Joe Wilkins, Jr.
— The Fighting Irish 😷 (@FightingIrish) October 16, 2020
But while the smaller crowd allowed for unique moments like this, the combination of the live audience, the band and artificial crowd noise in the background still created an atmosphere that impressed Kelly.
“I was blown away,” he said after the opener. “I’m not saying it was a roaring den that we couldn’t hear, but they made it loud, too, at times, where it felt like a football game. So really appreciate what our students did in coming out in force and making a great environment.”
A junior at Notre Dame studying Film & Television with a Journalism minor, Caroline Pineda has assisted the “ND on NBC” broadcasts from the sideline since 2019 and is bringing some much-needed quality writing to “Inside the Irish” this season, as well.