The knee-jerk reaction to Notre Dame’s loss last weekend was to lampoon the offensive line performance. The harsh judgment made sense considering the game’s sealing play came courtesy of a block so missed it would be both efficient and accurate to call it non-existent.
Even fifth-year left tackle and Irish captain Mike McGlinchey focused on that block. After all, he was the one who missed the block and it was his last snap, remaining his last snap until Notre Dame takes the field at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.
“You sit there all weekend and just watch that one play over and over and over again, and you kind of drive yourself insane,” McGlinchey said Tuesday. “But it’s one play. I guess I’ve got to work on the timing of my misses because it was a pretty brutal one.”
The greater concern this week in conversations with Irish coach Brian Kelly has been his receivers. Kelly knows what he has in his offensive line — a veteran group recently bested by one of the nation’s best defensive front sevens. For that matter, a veteran group now looking to redeem itself.
Kelly does not know what he has in his receivers.
What will Chris Finke make of his opportunity as a starter? Will someone else emerge as a viable aerial threat?
Finke saw four targets in the fourth quarter of the Georgia defeat. He caught three of them for 36 yards. Prior to that, the junior receiver had not been targeted so much as once.
That chance would likely have come eventually, but it arrived last weekend due, at least in part, to senior receiver Freddy Canteen suffering a shoulder injury. The injury combined with Finke’s performance earned the former walk-on a starting chance tomorrow.
Finke will not be able to sustain a three catches for 36 yards per quarter rate. (But can you imagine a 12-catch, 144-yard performance? That would silence any remaining Finke doubters.) He should, theoretically, be able to make an obvious impact in a full day’s work. Notre Dame needs him to.
Notice how many of this week’s topics concerned the search for a receiver to complement junior Equanimeous St. Brown. (Also notice how few dealt with the offensive line.) This is Finke’s chance to showcase himself as that feature. If he doesn’t do so successfully, Kelly will have no choice but to trot out the next candidate, likely sophomore Chase Claypool.
It made sense to give Canteen a few weeks. Presuming he showed something in preseason practice, even if that something was simply consistent contributions, giving Canteen some time to show that in competition was rational. He had not done so by the time he injured his shoulder, a particular concern for Canteen after he lost more than a season to a shoulder injury when he was at Michigan.
It will make less sense to give multiple-week auditions to the next possibilities. If they had not shown what is needed in practice and the adrenaline of a game does not elicit such, then on to the next. This week is Finke’s moment. What will he make of it?
For that matter, is this the week junior tight end Alizé Mack finally shakes off the rust and shows the physical gifts which had so many encouraged by his return? Entering the season, the concern with Mack was his nagging hamstring injury. Now, the worry is his questionable-to-date hands. His athleticism alone makes him a must-play, but if he cannot be relied on in key red-zone or third-down situations, Notre Dame may need to turn to senior Nic Weishar even more. (more…)
Kelly on Notre Dame’s WRs and TEs, namely on Claypool and Kmet
Let’s not call it a guarantee. Let’s call it, intentional foreshadowing.
Irish coach Brian Kelly made it clear he expects to see some new contributors at receiver this weekend when Notre Dame visits Boston College. (Again, kickoff has been moved to 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.)
“From a coaching standpoint, the first move is to settle into where these guys can best help us,” Kelly said Thursday. “Then I think everything flows from there. That’s the best I can give you on that. I think after this weekend, that question will clear itself up a little bit better.”
Through two games, the Irish have struggled to find a second target behind junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. For that matter, they have also yet to break St. Brown loose as desired, finding him for only six catches and 96 yards thus far.
Fifth-year senior and Arizona State transfer Cam Smith leads the Irish with seven receptions and his 54 yards is second to St. Brown’s total among the receivers. (Junior running back Josh Adams has more yards, 60, on six receptions and junior tight end Alizé Mack does, as well, with 58 on four catches.)
“We can’t take reps away from [St. Brown], and Cam’s played a lot on the outside,” Kelly said, setting up the difficult decision he and offensive coordinator Chip Long must make about where to insert the next option.
With those two out wide, the natural move is to find a piece at slot, most likely junior Chris Finke, who, coincidentally, is expected to get his first start this week. If simply looking for the next most-dangerous playmaker, that may be sophomore Chase Claypool, the only other name mentioned specifically by Kelly.
“We have to settle on where are we going to play certain guys?” he said. “We’re kind of in a flux. Where does Claypool fit? Here’s a young receiver that just needs some seasoning, some time. Is he an inside guy? An outside guy?
“… Quite frankly, we’ve made a decision and I don’t want to tell you what it’s going to be because I think that would compromise us a little bit.”
The only further clue Kelly offered indicated Claypool may be joined by freshman Michael Young. Whether that is the case or not, Kelly insisted it will be apparent after the tilt versus the Eagles.
“After this weekend, everybody is going to have a clear view as to the guys that need to be out on the field more and what our direction is going to be,” he said. “We still need the depth. We still need the guys we have. Guys are going to get banged up and we’re going to call on what I think will be outstanding depth at our wide receiver position.
“We really do have to start to feature some guys that might not have all that experience but have a higher ceiling.”
Finke has caught three passes for 36 yards this season, Claypool has one 16-yard reception and Young only a four-yarder.
A similar decision at tight end
Notre Dame has a similar quandary at tight end. A number of possible talents compete for limited playing time, and with Mack seeming to struggle to date, should one of the younger threats get a bigger chance?
“They’ve all graded out very well in terms of blocking and catching the football,” Kelly said. “We want to be a little more consistent, certainly with a couple drops here and there.”
Namely, freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet both appear to be nowhere near considering preserving a year of eligibility. Can one of their roles be increased?
“You’re going to continue to see at least three and then a specialist with Brock [as a fullback],” Kelly said. “Cole is the kind of guy who has great athletic ability but we don’t want to duplicate that because then we’re pulling away from someone that has similar traits.”
A possible kickoff change
Before the season, Notre Dame expected freshman Jonathan Doerer to handle kickoff duties, allowing junior Justin Yoon to focus on placekicking. Just before the season opener, Kelly announced Yoon would handle both for the immediate future to allow Doerer to regain some freshness, having hit something of a freshman wall. That immediate future may be coming to a close soon.
“I’m going to sit down with [special teams coordinator Brian Polian] when we get into Boston and we’ll make that decision,” Kelly said. “Here’s what I can tell you, [Doerer] had a really good week.”
And In That Corner … The Boston College Eagles and Steve Addazio
It’s a tradition unlike any other. An underwhelming Boston College team troubles the Irish. Starting a quarterback with even less experience than Notre Dame’s, these Eagles may keep up that tradition this weekend. To get a better gauge on those chances, let’s consult with Michael Sullivan of Boston College’s The Heights.
DF: For introductory purposes, you are the editor-in-chief at Boston College’s independent student newspaper, The Heights, correct? I know that can be a time-intensive and seemingly-thankless gig. Kudos. How many years have you been on the football beat now?
MS: Thanks, Douglas. It definitely gets tough with a typical five-class schedule, especially at a place like BC. Prior to becoming editor-in-chief, I was sports editor for two years. This is my third full season covering Eagles football, from spring through fall, and I also take up the men’s hockey and baseball beats.
I would like to start with a macro look. Steve Addazio is now in his fifth season as Eagles head coach. He opened with two admirable 7-6 seasons before falling to 3-9 in 2015. Last year’s return to 7-6 ended with a bowl victory, the first such win in just how long? Is there any sense Addazio needs to perform this year? At what point is 7-6 not going to be enough for Boston College?
It’s the first bowl win for BC since 2007, a 24-21 win over Michigan State in what was then the Champs Sports Bowl, with Matt Ryan at quarterback. So yeah, it’s been that long. There’s absolutely a sense right now that Addazio has to perform this year, especially with a new athletic director in Martin Jarmond. The youngest AD in the country, Jarmond comes from two high-profile programs — Michigan State and Ohio State, the latter of which where he was the No. 2 to Gene Smith. He will likely have little patience for continued failure for this program.
Whether that means bringing in a new guy at the end of the year remains to be seen — a bowl berth this season, even at 6-6, might be enough to do it. But looking critically at the Eagles’ seasons shows another trend. In 2014, BC gave away a couple of winnable games: Colorado State and Clemson each were a drop in the end zone away from wins, and a missed PAT in the Pinstripe Bowl might’ve been a 10th. In 2015, the Eagles had the No. 1 defense in the nation, but lost back-to-back games by less than three points in which kicker Colton Lichtenberg missed a combined three field goals — 9-7 to Duke and 3-0 to Wake Forest. In 2016, same story against Georgia Tech, not to mention the 4th and 19 play that kept the Yellow Jackets alive in Dublin.
Some might say this is just a play here, a play there, and failure to execute. But, as I’m sure Notre Dame fans understand, a fanbase can only tolerate so many one-possession defeats, and it could mark the difference between a good and bad coach. This is all to say, 7-6 might be good enough this year, given BC’s tough schedule. For how many years after that though? It’s likely to be few, if any.
The micro view should probably start at quarterback. Freshman Anthony Brown had a rough week against Wake Forest, only a week after a rather promising debut at Northern Illinois. He’ll get the starting nod again this week, right, even after being pulled after this third interception against the Deacons?
Oh absolutely, Brown is sure to start this week, and going forward in all likelihood.
In the short-term, what are Brown’s greatest strengths? Weaknesses?
He’s got the kind of arm Addazio hasn’t had since coming to Boston College. He really has a good amount of strength in that right shoulder and can air it out deep. His weaknesses aren’t abnormal to any redshirt freshman thrust into a starting role. Brown has trouble with his accuracy right now on the deep ball. But what stands out to me is when he misses, he overthrows his receivers, rather than underthrows them. Brown does a good job keeping the ball away from opponents — if you look at the picks in the Wake Forest game, two were tipped. At the same time, he’s not afraid to squeeze it in there and thread the needle when need be. All-in-all, if he can shore up the accuracy, he’s going to be the quarterback the Eagles have missed since at least Chase Rettig, but perhaps since Matt Ryan.
What about the long-term? Even when Notre Dame doesn’t play the Eagles, Irish fans are always aware of how that school out east is doing.
Long-term, Brown appears to be “The Answer” at quarterback, and Boston College projects still to be a six-win team this year. You can expect some easy wins against Connecticut or Central Michigan, and they’ll be competitive with North Carolina State, Syracuse, and Virginia — I’d expect one or two wins from them out of that trio.
Personally, I was surprised to see Wake Forest score 34 points last weekend. A look further points out seven of those came on an interception return, and another touchdown drive needed to cover only 26 yards. Perhaps I should have been more impressed with the Deacons holding the Eagles to 10 points. How did they limit Boston College so effectively?
A big reason was because of the play of the offensive line. The Eagles have lost two starters: left guard Elijah Johnson, who tore his ACL in the spring, and center Jon Baker, who tore his ACL against Northern Illinois. With the up-tempo pace Addazio was expecting to implement, he needs a stable of linemen to rotate. Now, he’s down to only five or six that can start. On Saturday, he started freshman Ben Petrula, a 300-pound tackle, at center, because left guard Sam Schmal was out and backup center Shane Leonard has been out for a month. Petrula struggled to get his feet wet, with a few bad snaps and some hard rushes by the defensive tackles that had Brown scrambling out of the pocket. Petrula will be back there on Saturday, as will Schmal, but the line really needs to hold up strong for BC for chance at a victory.
The conversation around Boston College’s defense begins with end Harold Landry. Can you explain to Notre Dame fans just what makes him so dangerous? They are already doubting the Irish offensive line’s competence in all facets. A few Landry sacks won’t do much for morale.
Irish fans might remember Matt Milano from two years ago, the outside linebacker who, along with Justin Simmons, helped force five turnovers, most of which were on fumbles/picks of Deshone Kizer, in Notre Dame’s 19-16 win over Boston College at Fenway Park. Now imagine that in a defensive end’s body. Landry played outside linebacker for years in high school, learning how to drop back effectively in pass coverage. But he’s just relentless when he’s going after the quarterback, as evidenced by his 16.5 sacks last year, most in the nation. His pop out of the crouch on the line of scrimmage is so quick and can’t be rivaled by anyone else in the country.
Aside from Landry, what can be expected from the Eagles defense?
Landry’s successor, Zach Allen, plays at his opposite position on the defensive line. He’s a dangerous, 300-pound monster constantly hungry for quarterbacks. The Eagles’ secondary is also for real, allowing fewer than 180 passing yards per game. Seniors Kamrin Moore and Isaac Yiadom are legitimate shutdown corners, Will Harris has a Landon Collins-esque feel about him in the way he tackles, and Lukas Denis is a rising star in his free safety ability. Going to the air will be a challenge for any opposing quarterback this season.
This is admittedly a cop out, but what else should Notre Dame fans be aware of this weekend? Who or what am I missing?
The Eagles are very deep at receiver/tight end for the first time in the Addazio era. Kobay White, Michael Walker, Jeff Smith, Tommy Sweeney and Charlie Callinan, just to name a few, are among the many weapons offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler can put out there for Brown to attack. They’re still working through some of the drop troubles they had last year, but they’ve done an excellent job, better than I’ve seen at Boston College, at getting open and giving Brown opportunities. For the first time in a long time, BC also appears to have foud some stability at kicker with Lichtenberg, who is 4-for-4 this year.
While we are asking the obvious questions, how do you expect this weekend to play out? The Irish are favored by 13.5. Can Boston College keep it closer than that?
That’s a good line if you ask me. When it comes down to it, it’ll be a matter of how well the defense can contain Brandon Wimbush. The Eagles haven’t had much success against two running quarterbacks in NIU’s Ryan Graham and Wake’s John Wolford, who each ran for more than 90 yards. Wimbush is by far the best runner of that group, and if BC can’t contain him and lock down time of possession, it’ll be a long afternoon. I do, however, think the offense will rebound to the levels it showed against Northern Illinois, and the passing defense will force Notre Dame to be somewhat one-dimensional. I can’t necessarily say I see an Eagles win, but I can definitely see Boston College keeping it to around 7-10 points. I’d go with a cover.
For that matter, do you have a score prediction?
24-17 Notre Dame. I think the Eagles keep it a lot closer than they did to Wake Forest, but I’m not sure if it’s enough to seal the deal. An Eagles win, in a game that’s sure to be emotional, wouldn’t floor me given Notre Dame’s own struggles, but I’ll hold it to a one-possession loss.
Notre Dame looks for St. Brown to step up AND a No. 2 option, not OR
Notre Dame needs both its primary receiver to stand out even more and a second downfield playmaker to emerge. While the two may go hand-in-hand, Irish coach Brian Kelly is approaching them as separate tasks.
Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown has earned the designation as junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s top target, and deservedly so. That emphasis comes when your sophomore year breakout campaign includes 58 catches for 961 yards and nine touchdown. St. Brown played up to that billing in the season opener, catching four passes for 80 yards and a touchdown. A week later, though, he managed only two catches for 16 yards.
“[Georgia was] really physical with him,” Kelly said Sunday. “When they were in any kind of two-deep coverage, they had somebody over the top, made it difficult to get him the ball.”
Per Kelly on Tuesday, Notre Dame “targeted” St. Brown 20 times in the 20-19 defeat to the Bulldogs on Saturday. By the working definition, that does not mean Wimbush threw toward St. Brown nearly two dozen times. That was nine times. Rather, Kelly’s targeting means 20 plays were called with St. Brown in mind.
“It’s something that we have to be aware of because you’ve got to get the ball to your playmakers,” Kelly said. “… We have to continue to target him.”
Without a second receiver of note just yet, targeting St. Brown could continue to be a fruitless task. Disagreeing with that dichotomy, Kelly does not intend to let the lack of development on one hand alter the effectiveness of the other. He cited past prominent Irish receivers, including Will Fuller, Tyler Eifert and Michael Floyd.
Looking at the most-recent of those, Fuller, simply due to pertinence, Kelly’s point holds merit. In 2015, Fuller caught 62 passes for 1,258 yards and 14 touchdowns. The next most effective Notre Dame receiver was Chris Brown with 48 catches for 597 yards and four touchdowns. A year earlier, Fuller tallied 76 catches for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns, compared to Corey Robinson’s 40 catches, 539 yards and five touchdowns. Fuller had no trouble dominating despite secondaries focusing nearly all their energies on him.
The same could, perhaps should, be said for St. Brown.
“We know how to move him around and get the football,” Kelly said. “That’s not the issue. The issue is we need balance. … We have to continue to target him, but we’ve got to find better balance within the structure of the offense.”
Not that finding a reliable complementary target would be a bad thing. To date, fifth-year receiver Cam Smith has been the closest thing to it, catching seven passes for 54 yards. In the last attempts to regain the lead against Georgia, junior Chris Finke emerged as a possibility, finishing Saturday with three catches for 36 yards. Finke will start this weekend at Boston College. (more…)
Gaining third yard more important for Notre Dame’s Wimbush than the seventh
Brandon Wimbush used his legs to keep one drive alive, spinning forward with an acute awareness of what was needed for a first down. The very next drive, the junior quarterback broke outside rather than charge forward, falling a yard short on a third-and-three. One minute he knew what to do. Just a few minutes later his instincts misled him.
“Just trust what you see and go with it,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday of what he has emphasized with Wimbush since the 20-19 defeat to Georgia. “Don’t be indecisive. Be decisive. Trust it and go with it.”
Such are the perils of placing a season on the shoulders of a first-year starter, especially when he faces a top-tier defense in only his second career start.
“That’s probably the biggest learning curve for all young quarterbacks,” Kelly said. “At times they become a little bit — they think a little bit too much instead of just trusting it and going with it. Just trust your teaching.”
When Saturday’s fourth quarter began, Notre Dame faced a second-and-10 at its own 31-yard line. A short completion later and Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long called for an old-fashioned quarterback draw. Wimbush dropped back as his receivers began routes, though they didn’t even bother to look back toward the ball as they crossed the field, indicating in hindsight the play’s intended design. With a hole on the line open, Wimbush started up field, spinning through the tackle of Bulldogs freshman safety Richard LeCounte to gain eight yards, two more than were needed.
That was only the second successful third down for Notre Dame to that point. Wimbush would connect with junior receiver Chris Finke to convert another one that same drive, before the next Wimbush dash fell short on third-and-nine in the red zone. Nonetheless, the earlier draw led to the drive continuing up to a field goal from junior kicker Justin Yoon to give the Irish a 19-17 lead.
That was the good.
Georgia went three-and-out on its following possession. Facing a third-and-three, Wimbush kept the ball on a zone-read. As he started up field, rather than drive right into Bulldogs junior linebacker Natrez Patrick nearly exactly three yards past the line of scrimmage, Wimbush attempted to cut outside. A diving tackle to Wimbush’s right thigh by Georgia junior safety J.R. Reed felled the quarterback a yard short of the needed gain.
That was the bad.
“He needs to stick his foot in the ground and go north and south instead of bouncing it out,” Kelly said. “Just the little nuances of the game. … But those are experiences he’s never had before. He’s learning those things, then he’ll take the next step.”
As much as the Bulldogs did limit Wimbush, giving up only 28 yards on 13 carries, including the two aforementioned eight-yarders, the greater concern for Kelly and Long is the situational moments. Gaining that third yard would hardly have effected Wimbush’s stat line and may evade much notice later on, but it could have elongated a Notre Dame drive well into the last third of the fourth quarter. Additionally, it may have pushed Georgia further back into its own end of the field before beginning what would be a game-winning drive.
“They’re really details of small, minute things you may not see,” Kelly said. “But when he went through them this week, he’ll be better for it next week.”
Wimbush’s progression will also aid the offensive line in its protection. His decision to keep the ball on that third-and-three was the right one, but as often as not, he may keep it instead of handing it to junior running back Josh Adams or sophomore Tony Jones even when they have a better lane. Those misreads alter the offensive line’s positioning.
“I know we immediately go to the offensive line and say we didn’t do this, we didn’t do that,” Kelly said Sunday. “Some of that might be true, but your assessment is correct in that they’re all working together post-snap off of decisions the quarterback is making.”
When the Irish next face another top-tier defense (sometime in mid-to-late October), Wimbush will have a chance to show he learned from those seemingly-small, yet quite crucial mistakes.
“He learned a lot from that game. I think it will be a springboard for him.”