Things To Learn: Notre Dame has a defensive plan for USC, but can it stick to one on offense?

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Brian Kelly may have declared Jack Coan as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback this weekend against USC (7:30 ET; NBC), but the biggest questions around the No. 13 Irish (5-1) remain focused on the quarterback depth chart. The curiosity of playing—of needing three quarterbacks to get through the first half of the season opens the door to rampant speculation coming out of the idle week.

Will Coan look like he did to start against Virginia Tech, when Notre Dame’s first three drives netted just 17 yards? Or will he resemble the closer who channeled Lane Stadium’s “Enter Sandman” ethos with two efficient drives in the fourth quarter to tie and then win the game?

“Jack’s like a stone-cold killer, he’s cold-blooded,” fifth-year receiver Avery Davis said on this week’s ND on NBC Podcast. “… He knows where he needs to go with the ball.”

Will freshman Tyler Buchner impress enough to supplant Coan, as it looked like Buchner might in the second quarter two weeks ago, when he spurred the Irish to two touchdowns to erase a 10-point deficit? Or will Buchner’s struggles reading coverages remain his present downfall, as exhibited by his three interceptions on only 20 pass attempts to date?

No amount of outside wondering can answer these questions. No volume of message-board squabbling deciphers what Notre Dame sees in practice, even if those practices now include Buchner and sophomore Drew Pyne splitting not only the No. 2 reps but also the scout team reps after junior Brendon Clark entered the transfer portal this week.

Only time and competition, obviously, will clear up the confusion Kelly has seemingly had no choice but to further this season. That may be the biggest wonder with half the year left:

Can any one Notre Dame quarterback play consistently enough so as to not need to be benched, to take the controls of the carousel out of Kelly’s hands?

That is not to say play brilliantly, and it is not arguing for any of the three quarterbacks in particular. It is simply a typical necessity, one that has eluded the Irish thus far in 2021. Coan played miserably in the first quarter against the Hokies. He played masterfully in the fourth. That rapid up-and-down showing has been typical of Irish passers thus far, and winning despite those inconsistencies can be only so sustainable.

Each quarterback has shown moments of aptitude. Each has also struggled at some point or another. Those trends then naturally extend to Notre Dame’s offense.

“We would take bits and pieces of how we’ve looked,” Kelly said Monday. “The first drive at Florida State, first drive against Cincinnati, I could give you a lot of examples of the first drive where we looked like, wow, that’s a pretty good indication that this team has really turned the corner.

“It’s one mistake here, one mistake there. It’s maturation and 11 players pulling together as one. We had that more or less in the second half against Virginia Tech. We’re hoping that was a turning point for us offensively, that we can get more of that on a consistent basis.”

Trotting out the offensive line seen in that second half should help the Irish toward that consistency, with freshman Joe Alt at left tackle and junior Andrew Kristofic replacing junior Zeke Correll at left guard. Alt is now so established at left tackle that the former high school tight end is not the lineman who will dabble at tight end as an extra blocker. Instead, sophomore Michael Carmody — the backup left tackle when the season began before a sprained ankle knocked him out of the Toledo game and limited him for the following month — is quite literally listed among the tight ends on the Notre Dame depth chart.

Such an extra blocker may be more necessary than usual, though USC’s defense is the worst the Irish have faced to date. With sophomore running back Chris Tyree a game-time decision, per Kelly, coming back from a turf toe injury suffered at Virignia Tech, Notre Dame’s backfield will not have the pass-blocking depth it usually does, an acumen that has occasionally made the offensive line look less inept than it was.

“Running backs, they’ve got to be at 100 percent. I don’t know that he’s 100 percent right now,” Kelly said. “… I will tell you that we have confidence in both [freshman Logan Diggs] and [senior C’Bo Flemister] if Chris isn’t able to go at a high level. … I wouldn’t get worked up on whether it’s No. 2, 3. I would really say it’s 2A, 2B with those kids right now.”

That may be, but given Flemister’s unavailability for five of this season’s first six games, another strong showing from Diggs may widen a gap between the two.

LOOKING IN A MIRROR
Irish junior safety Kyle Hamilton is a rare breed, a 6-foot-4 safety widely seen as a top-five draft pick next spring and a likely unanimous first-team All-American, so comparing anyone to Hamilton is an aggressive description.

Yet, Trojans junior receiver Drake London warrants such praise. And from the West Coast point of view, Hamilton is the one receiving a compliment in this comparison.

“It’s kind of like looking in a mirror, body-wise,” Hamilton said Tuesday. “He’s really athletic, he’s high-pointing balls, he’s a good route runner, knows how to use his body, obviously a big receiver, doesn’t let that slow him down, really. Doesn’t have any weaknesses. They love getting the ball to him.”

If Hamilton were merely offering typical laudings of an opposing player, he would not have done so at such length. London has caught Notre Dame’s attention on film, both in terms of needing to defend him and in terms of simply appreciating a great football player.

“He’s a really good receiver, he’s a problem,” Hamilton said. “Hopefully we can solve it, but our game plan is definitely centered around him.

“If we can stop him, we stop the offense.”

Easier said than done. London is averaging nearly 11 catches and 138.7 yards per game. His worst game, a 42-28 USC loss to Stanford that led to the firing of Trojans head coach Clay Helton after just two games this season, still included four catches for 68 yards and a touchdown.

London may be the single best player the Irish face this season. Either he or Purdue defensive end George Karlaftis is the best pro prospect on the schedule, both in conversation with Hamilton as top-10 draft picks. Notre Dame successfully schemed around Karlaftis, despite playing a third-string left tackle in his first career start. That required Tyree and junior running back Kyren Williams to help on many passing downs.

Slowing London may require similar devotion from Hamilton.

“We couldn’t just line up and say, ‘George, just rush the passer,’” Kelly said. “We had to have a plan for him. So, we’ll have to have a plan for [London], as well.”

At least defensively, the Irish can expect a plan to hold up largely as intended and not need to abruptly reverse course due to persistent struggles. Clearing that low bar offensively could establish one Notre Dame quarterback as the Notre Dame quarterback.