SOUTH BEND — Quiet times don’t exist during a Notre Dame football season.
Yet the days following Notre Dame’s 21-20 win over Virginia Tech must feel like serenity in comparison to the aftermath of the 45-14 loss to Michigan the previous week.
“Obviously getting back to preparation this week for Duke, a little quieter around here,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “I don’t know why, but it seems like if you win it’s a little quieter.”
Irish starting quarterback Ian Book would appear to appreciate a little peace and quiet as well. Accompanying a photo of his game-winning touchdown in Saturday’s victory, Book tweeted an emoji of a shushing face Sunday night. Book briefly made a similar pose — holding up his index finger in front of his facemask — immediately following his seven-yard touchdown run.
A clutch finish to another uneven passing performance (29-of-54 for 336 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions) likely won’t silence many Book doubters. But Kelly sees that final scoring drive, of which Book accounted for 63 passing yards and 21 rushing yards, as a potential turning point for his quarterback.
Even though Book remains confident in himself, Kelly said he played a bit too tight last week.
“How would he be loose last week? No, he had to endure a pretty difficult week, and so the whole team was tight, especially the offensive side of the ball,” Kelly said.
“But he’s come through it. He should be loose and excited and should have fun. We’re going to talk about that when we get back together (Monday).
“He’s gone through the worst of it. This should be the best of it for him. This should be a great launching pad for him to go out and really be excited about playing and play with great confidence.”
Book described himself as an “extremely confident person” following Saturday’s game. The No. 15 Irish (6-2) will need him to carry that confidence into another road game this Saturday at Duke (7:30 p.m. EDT on ACC Network).
The ability to maintain unwavering confidence was one of the traits Kelly identified in Book as a three-star recruit out of El Dorado Hills (Calif.) Oak Ridge.
“Look, if you lose your confidence here as the quarterback you can’t play quarterback at Notre Dame. There is just so much noise. So in the recruiting process, it’s like question No. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, and making sure that you vet that out in the process in terms of what kind of personality does he have, what are his traits, his makeup? Can he handle the noise?
“Those are absolutely crucial. Watching a guy throw the ball around in 7-on-7 is one thing. Can they handle all that is encompassing with this position here at Notre Dame is much more important. In the recruiting process we felt like he could handle all those things.
“Although it’s difficult for everybody when you don’t play particularly well, we felt like he had what it took to stand up to that. He did and he’s come out on the other end of it. He should be better for it.”
Lawrence Keys III messed up.
When the sophomore wide receiver fielded a Virginia Tech kickoff in the fourth quarter, he caught a ball in front of Notre Dame’s goal line and drifted back into the end zone to take a knee for a touchback.
But upon review, officials ruled Keys established possession at the one-yard line and his momentum carried him into the end zone. That forced the Irish to start their drive at the one-yard line.
It could have been worse. If officials deemed Keys went back into the end zone on his own volition after fielding it in front of the goal line, the play would have resulted in a safety.
Kelly said Monday the Irish plan to stick with Keys as the starting kick returner.
“We thought that Lawrence might give us a little bit more, and we still believe he does,” Kelly said. “He has a burst.”
The Irish have trotted out several players as the deep men to field kick returns including Keys and fellow wide receivers Michael Young, Chris Finke and Joe Wilkins Jr. and running backs Jafar Armstrong, C’Bo Flemister, Kyren Williams and Mick Assaf.
The results have been far from spectacular. The Irish rank No. 103 in the FBS with an average kick return of 18.23 yards through eight games. That average consists of only 13 kick returns on 36 kickoffs. Opposing kickers registered 17 touchbacks. The Irish also fair caught six kickoffs.
“We kept looking for those guys that were going to get it and go, and minimally get us to the 25 yard line so we had the right field position to start,” Kelly said of the rotation of different players returning kicks, which has been impacted by injury and Young leaving the team to enter the transfer portal.
Notre Dame has returned a kickoff past the 25 on only four of its 13 returns. The Irish have registered an average starting position just shy of the 24-yard line on those 13 returns.
Despite logging a zero-yard return by taking a knee, Keys still outpaces the team average with 19.8 yards per return on his five returns with a long of 45 yards coming against New Mexico.
• With junior Josh Lugg entering the starting lineup at right tackle to replace an injured Robert Hainsey, the Irish don’t have a clear answer for the next man in at tackle beyond Lugg and left tackle Liam Eichenberg.
Finding another replacement tackle could require some position switches. Kelly suggested starting left guard Aaron Banks and starting center Jarrett Patterson could move out to tackle if necessary. If Banks moved, either junior Dillan Gibbons or sophomore John Dirksen would likely slide into his guard spot. If Patterson moved, junior walk-on Colin Grunhard would be promoted to starting center.
“Those are veteran guys that can do that,” Kelly said. “There are other options for us other than trying to play a freshman in (Andrew) Kristofic. If we have to, we will. Yeah, we still have some other options that we can shuffle guys around to make it work.”
• The fractured left ankle Hainsey suffered in the first quarter of Saturday’s win over Virginia Tech will likely keep him out of full contact drills through spring practice, Kelly said.
• With linebacker Jack Lamb sidelined at least this week with a hip injury, the Irish have a hole to fill in their nickel defense package. Kelly offered sophomore Shayne Simon and junior Jordan Genmark Heath as potential replacements.
“There are a couple guys we think can fit in there and do a nice job for us,” Kelly said.