In the first two games of the season, Notre Dame’s wide receiver group combined for just 11 of the team’s 32 pass receptions. That’s a shockingly low number in the modern college football era — let alone one for a spread offense.
Navy’s triple-option offense completed only four fewer passes to wide receivers — 7 of its 11 completion — in its first two games of the season.
The Irish offense leaned heavily on passes to tight ends and running backs in victories over Duke and USF as the running game found some traction for 459 rushing yards. Two tight ends — Tommy Tremble (eight) and Michael Mayer (four) — caught more passes together than all of Notre Dame’s wide receivers combined.
The production at the wide receiver position could start increasing as soon as Saturday when the No. 5 Irish (2-0, 1-0 ACC) host Florida State (1-2, 0-2 ACC) in Notre Dame Stadium (7:30 p.m. EDT on NBC). The group will be bolstered by the season debut for junior Kevin Austin Jr., the return of grad transfer Ben Skowronek from a hamstring injury and a clean slate of health for junior Braden Lenzy.
That all should be welcome news for quarterback Ian Book.
“Eventually we’re going to look for some more production from that (wide receiver) unit,” head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “But it has been, quite frankly, one that has not had great continuity yet. We’ve had some guys out and injured.
“What you’ll see is that unit will be one that provides a little bit more consistency and continuity for Ian in the passing game. And I do see a unit that will produce at a higher rate. But it’s still going to be one that takes some time.
“There are a lot of first-year players that are out there, but I do believe it has a high ceiling.”
Austin, who missed the first two games of the season recovering from a broken bone in his left foot suffered on July 29, hasn’t played in a game since the 2018 College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Clemson and his last reception came against Navy in late October of that year. Austin was suspended all of last season, so the last time he was in anything close to game action was last year’s Blue-Gold Game.
Kelly said Austin will likely be limited to 15-20 plays on Saturday if all goes well. But what does Kelly expect to see from Austin when fully unleashed?
“Based upon what we’ve seen prior — explosive, rangy, outstanding ball skills and a guy that can open up the game,” Kelly said. “He can take the top off of coverages. He can catch it and go the distance, and he can win one-on-one matchups. A guy that would be nice to get on the field for us.”
Skowronek and Lenzy have each missed one game this season. Skowronek, who caught 110 passes for 1,417 yards in his Northwestern career, left the Duke game late in the first half before recording a catch. Lenzy, who missed the Duke game with a hamstring issue, caught three passes for 34 yards in the 52-0 blowout of South Florida.
According to this week’s depth chart, Lenzy will start at the field receiver position with Skowronek behind him. Austin will rotate in at the boundary receiver position behind grad senior Javon McKinley.
“You’re going to see in time,” Kelly said, “an offensive passing game that’s going to resemble the kind of talent we have at that position.”
Book made his 25th career start as Notre Dame’s quarterback in the 52-0 win over USF. He’s compiled a 22-3 record as a starter with 21 of those wins coming since he took over as the full-time starter against Wake Forest in game four of the 2018 season.
When asked about Book’s progression from start one to start 25 and what he continues to bring to the Irish at quarterback, Kelly pointed primarily to that winning record.
“He’s a winner. He wins football games,” Kelly said. “Maybe it doesn’t necessarily always pass the test for those that try to evaluate Ian Book in terms of every little category, but he wins.
“He’s a guy who prepares the football team so well. He is prepared himself. He brings a sense of calm to the unit that they believe that they’re going to win no matter what the circumstances are. That’s been the case every time Ian Book has run out on the field as the starting quarterback at Notre Dame except maybe one game that we played and that was the Michigan game.
“He just brings that sense to the unit. He brings an incredible confidence to the other players on that offense.”
In a small sample of two games, Book hasn’t matched the passing efficiency standards he set the past two seasons. After finishing 2018 with a passing efficiency rating of 153.97 and 2019 with a rating of 149.14, Book currently has a 132.98 rating in 2020 on 31-of-50 passing for 407 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Book’s 132.98 passing efficiency rating ranks No. 39 in the FBS this season among 65 quarterbacks who meet the qualifications in games played and passes attempted. He’s five spots behind former Notre Dame quarterback Phil Jurkovec’s rating of 138.15 through three games at Boston College. Alabama’s Mac Jones leads the country with a rating of 222.07.
“I don’t know that I spend that much time evaluating all these little things about where he’s grown as much as he’s helped the other 10 players around them believe that they’re going to win,” Kelly said of Book. “That’s a pretty good thing for a quarterback to have.”
A quarterback also needs to have chemistry with his receivers. Notre Dame held a scrimmage during Sunday’s practice in part to help Book make live decisions with his evolving cast of receivers.
“Scrimmages have a lot to do with the timing of the quarterbacks seeing things,” Kelly said. “The quickness, the pace. Not being able to throw live means a lot. So scrimmaging live is certainly about tackling — and that’s a component that I had mentioned earlier — but this has a lot to do with the timing of the quarterback as well and giving him the chance to see things, react to things because it happens so quickly against a fast defense like ourselves.”
Sunday’s scrimmage should be the only major change to Notre Dame’s typical practice week schedule. Monday’s football activities included weight training, conditioning, mental performance training and meetings, Kelly said.
“We wanted to get back to our habits and our routine and really get this back to what a normal week would be like,” Kelly said. “Because nothing’s been normal for the last couple of weeks. Getting back to normalcy, getting back to a routine, has been really my focus with our football team leading into this week.”
Two more Notre Dame football players tested positive for COVID-19 since Monday of last week, but none of their teammates were placed in quarantine due to contact tracing.
As of Monday, Notre Dame had seven players in isolation from positive test results and four players in quarantine from contact tracing. One week ago, Notre Dame had 25 players in isolation and 14 in quarantine.
Kelly said the team’s depth chart is in good shape heading into Saturday.
“In terms of who’s available, we’ll continue to test during the week so the roster is a fluid situation, but we’re in a very good place relative to our two deeps,” Kelly said. “We’re going to be just fine for Florida State.”
Players who have recovered from COVID-19 may have a lighter workload, because they were unable to condition during their 10-day isolation and had more hurdles to clear in the following days. Asymptomatic players in 14-day quarantine could start modified workouts on their own after one week.
“We have had to bring (isolated players) along a lot slower,” Kelly said. “How’s that going to affect us coming Saturday? I would say primarily if a player was normally playing 50 plays, they may be in our mind playing probably half of that. That’s kind of how we have processed that out during this time.”