SOUTH BEND — Call it Clemson envy?
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly set himself up for this in a way. He unabashedly pushed out a new standard, after his 2018 Irish team’s College Football Playoff crumpling 21 months ago, of closing the gap with the Clemson team that just handed it a 30-3 drubbing.
Implied along with Clemson were playoff regulars Alabama and Ohio State in that aspiration. Kelly went so far as to proclaim last December, days before Notre Dame took apart Iowa State 33-9 in the Camping World Bowl, loftier ambitions on the recruiting trail to that end — and he predicted results to match.
Thus, the closing of the gap (or lack thereof) became the new frame of reference for the ND fan base. In every situation. In every context.
Even when the seventh-ranked Irish (1-0) are 25½-point favorites, as they are for Saturday’s Notre Dame Stadium matchup with South Florida (1-0). Kickoff is 2:30 p.m. (EDT). TV coverage slides over to USA Network, with NBC committed to U.S. Open Golf for the weekend.
The presumption is that the 2020 Irish, the team with the least preseason conventional uncertainty of the 11 Kelly has assembled at ND, should look Clemson-like this week and certainly should have in the season-opening 27-13 eventual subduing of Duke.
The reality is that team building at Notre Dame is going to look different. So might September football.
And that it’s taking place with a pandemic as a backdrop only heightens the different processes between ND and the teams that can actually just reload.
Kelly’s methodology allows for some growing pains early in the season in order to crescendo in November, when No. 1 Clemson visits Notre Dame Stadium in prime time.
That’s not to say every imperfection in the Duke game has a long-term purpose — or even an explanation — behind it. Quarterback Ian Book’s intermittent skittishness, for instance, against Duke was surprising, but fixable.
The two most significant long-term commitments that risked short-term unflattering consequences are:
Offensive line play: The expectations from the folks who hand out the Joe Moore Award are for the Irish to be a finalist for the award that they won for best offensive line nationally in 2017 — and maybe its first two-time winner.
To get there, and in an effort to upgrade the offense under first-year coordinator Tommy Rees, Notre Dame changed its base blocking scheme from pin and pull to outside zone. But the ultimate goal is to be able to do all that and more, all at an elite level.
“We believe with the size that we have, with the athleticism that we have, the ability that we want our offense to look like — utilizing multiple tight ends and then the misdirection, the boot(leg)s, the things we want to do off of that — that’s what we believe is our (best) system of offense from a running game perspective.”
The easiest way to look good in September with all five starters returning would have been to stick with the familiar. Rees’ departure from predecessor Chip Long in O-line approach gives the Irish a shot at a higher ceiling eventually.
The stat to keep your eye on when it comes to the O-line in the run game is power success rate. That’s defined as the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown.
Last year, ND ranked 106th (out of 130 FBS teams) at 62%. In the 2019 opener against Louisville, the Irish were 0-for-4 in those situations. Saturday against Duke they were at 80% (4-of-5).
That the Irish O-line was markedly better in the second half than the first should be the significant takeaway from the Duke game.
Defensive rotation: Before the end of the first quarter of the Duke game, Notre Dame had played 11 defensive linemen and by game’s end seven linebackers (not counting players who only saw special teams duty).
So frenetic was the hockey line-shift mentality, the ND stat crew is still trying to catch up with everyone who rotated in. Among the highlights, the Irish got 14 tackles out of the rover position — a game-high nine from preseason All-American Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and another high from Penn High’s Paul Moala.
The next step?
Even more rotation, beginning this week. Kelly wants the cornerbacks and safeties to come at opposing offenses in waves as well.
More than anything, Kelly would like preseason All-America safety Kyle Hamilton to be part of that equation, but as of Thursday midday, Hamilton’s status remained day to day with a sprained ankle suffered in the Duke game.
“He is in a PPT program right now,” Kelly said. “Prayers and personal thoughts are welcome.”
DJ Brown figures to start if Hamilton can’t. But Kelly wants to see notably Houston Griffith, Isaiah Pryor and converted cornerback KJ Wallace play alongside or spell strong safety starter Shaun Crawford.
Kelly noted Wallace is back healthy after a preseason groin injury that required surgery.
“There are roles for all these guys, whether it’s in a sub package or first and second down, even in a rotation,” Kelly said.
The purpose of so many players being involved goes beyond insurance guarding against COVID-19 quarantines/isolations and injuries. The hope is to wear down opposing offenses with so much capable depth.
Even with just the front seven flexing its numbers, the premise seemed to work against the Blue Devils. Duke amassed just 27 of its 334 total yards in the fourth quarter and two of its 19 first downs. And the visitors averaged 2.3 yards per offensive play, less than half their end-of-the game rate (5.0).
Tight end twist?
Notre Dame may be known as Tight End U, but it’s not been Freshman Tight End U very often.
Perhaps Michael Mayer will change that.
His three catches (for 38 yards) in Saturday’s opener against Duke are more than any ND freshman tight end has accumulated in a SEASON since Kyle Rudolph’s 29 in 2008, save Alizé Mack’s 13 as a freshman in 2015.
Because Notre Dame has had such a relentless line of standouts at the position, there haven’t been a lot of opportunities for freshmen to get meaningful and plentiful snaps at the position. Beyond Mack and Rudolph only Derek Brown (12) since ND’s 1988 national title run has more than eight catches as a freshman tight end.
Mayer, though, also has older players ahead of him and may force the issue anyway. At the top of the Irish depth chart are senior Brock Wright and junior Tommy Tremble, the latter of whom was ND’s leading receiver in the Duke game with five catches (for 38 yards).
“I think he’s got great potential,” Kelly said of Mayer. a 6-foot-5, 235-pounder. “Look, he’s still a freshman. There’s a learning curve there. But I think athletic ability is pretty evident.
“The way he catches the ball, soft hands, puts the ball away, can run after the catch, can shake a tackle or two. It’s going to be obviously fun to watch his growth and development.
“Obviously, there are things in the running game. Got knocked down a couple of times, but he’s game. There’s room to grow, and he knows that.”
A mid-October return for Notre Dame’s most dynamic wide receiver, junior Kevin Austin Jr., remains on schedule.
- Austin suffered a broken bone in his left foot during pre-camp workouts and underwent surgery on Aug. 3. “Kevin Austin had his six-week scan, showed good signs,” Kelly said Thursday. “He is now no longer in a walking boot. He is on the AlterG (anti-gravity treadmill), so he’s begun a running progression. We’ll get one more scan done in two weeks, and at that time (he) could be cleared to be practicing.”
- Another probable starting wide receiver, Braden Lenzy, held out of the Duke game with a hamstring injury, appears to be progressing toward making his season debut against USF on Saturday. “A big thing for him is his speed and his ability to really push at the top end and get out of breaks,” Kelly said. “I think he feels that way now. He had a good day (Wednesday).”
- As Kelly alluded on Monday, starting wide receiver Ben Skowronek is out for the USF game with a hamstring injury sustained against Duke.
A punter for the ages
USF standout punter Trent Schneider, at age 30, is older than both of the offensive coordinators who will coach in Saturday’s Notre Dame-South Florida game.
ND’s Tommy Rees is 28, while USF’s Charlie Weis Jr. is 27.
Schneider worked construction for eight years in his home country, Australia, before becoming a collegiate punter. He played rugby and soccer in high school.
This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Analysis: Potential long-term gains are worth the September imperfections for Notre Dame