Analysis: Will Notre Dame's unknowns add up to a team that's Top 25 worthy?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Long before it became apparent that “Crazy Train” hasn’t quite been expelled from the Notre Dame Stadium play list, the most impressive decibels on a warm Sunday afternoon were produced by the crowd, and not the new sound system.

On the very first drive of an open scrimmage, designed to give fans a sneak peek at both the new Campus Crossroads projects’ bells and whistles and those of eighth-year head coach Brian Kelly’s reimagined football team, Equanimeous St. Brown got behind the Irish No. 1 defense.

The roughly 10,000 curiosity-seekers saw No. 1 QB Brandon Wimbush hit the 6-foot-5 junior wide receiver in stride for an apparent long touchdown and reacted — loudly. Moments later, when the noise died down, the officiating crew explained it had called a sack before Wimbush released the ball.

Some would say a phantom sack.

All four Irish quarterbacks Sunday wore red jerseys, per usual, and were off-limits to contact. So judging a sack became sort of like scoring a triple-axel in figure skating. Some even kind of looked like that.

That Wimbush and the No. 1 offense would finish off the drive with an old-school I-formation, Josh Adams run — with Wimbush under center and not in the shotgun — was a welcome nostalgic twist that Kelly more than hinted would become an offensive staple in 2017.

Lost in that moment and others like it remains the great unknown, 13 days before the Irish kick off against Temple, Sept. 2, for real. And that is what’s going to happen when Wimbush’s runs aren’t blown dead when a defender breathes hard within five yards of him?

“It negates 30 percent or more of my game and some of the attributes I bring to the offense,” Wimbush said after his side’s 14-10 victory, Sunday. “In terms of letting me use my feet and extend plays and also implementing quarterback-driven runs, I think it’ll be huge when I’m able to do it.”

There are only seven rushing attempts on Wimbush’s college résumé — for 96 yards (13.7 average) and a TD, and even fewer pass attempts (five).

But there have been running lanes that have opened up many times in the practices this month in which the media has had access — and in Sunday’s 90-minute scrimmage — where Wimbush looks like he could have outsprinted and/or outjuked everyone to the end zone.

“We blow the whistle quickly and we force him to play as more of a pro-style quarterback,” Kelly acknowledged Sunday after Wimbush went 14-of-18 passing for 168 yards in the scrimmage, per the new stadium video board.

“And that doesn’t necessarily lend to the quarterback that he is.”

And because no one has seen that version of Wimbush since mop-up duty Nov. 7, 2015 in a 42-30 dismissal of Pittsburgh, it becomes one of the tricky elements in trying to decode whether this Irish team is one worthy of a top 25 ranking.

The Associated Press releases its preseason poll Monday, with the Irish historically much stronger the past 20 years when they’ve been unranked than when they are included in the guesswork top 25.

Should the AP pollsters agree with the coaches poll that the Irish belong outside the top 25, it would mark the eighth time in the 21 seasons that constitute the post-Lou Holtz Era at Notre Dame in which the Irish were snubbed by that poll in the preseason.

But of those previous seven AP preseason unranked Irish teams, four of them finished the year in the top 25, including the 2012 squad at No. 4.

Conversely, in the 13 times in which the Irish started the season in the top 25 in those post-Holtz years, they have never finished higher in the poll than where they started. And in 10 of those seasons ND finished outside the AP Top 25.

In 2016, Notre Dame, at preseason No. 10, was one of 11 teams that began the season in the top 25 and finished out of it.

For the first time in years, Kelly didn’t have to assess whether his squad was top 25-worthy. He removed himself from the coaches poll electorate voluntarily.

“I took myself off that, because I felt I couldn’t spend truly enough time on really deciding who deserves to be in the top 25,” Kelly said when pressed for what his assessment would have been. “And I’ve been on it maybe as long as anybody. So I’m out of that business.”

“I think you’ve just got to worry about how you prepare, and that’s kind of what I’ve done since January. So my focus has really been less on how other teams look and how I would peg my team. It’s hard for me to even decide how we fit amongst the other teams.”

For Notre Dame to eventually fit, there are elements it showed Sunday that lend it to starting the season in the 20s.

There are players who appear ready for a transformation season individually, such as sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes, a former five-start prospect with limited opportunity and production last season as a freshman reserve.

The 6-4, 258-pound Hayes was credited with a sack — and it looked like a genuine one — and was stout against the run.

“I would say he’s very intentional with everything he does,” Kelly said. “To his workouts, to what he eats, to his film sessions. Everything is extremely intentional. That’s going to pay off.

“He never comes to anything that’s football-related unprepared. You’ll never find him not sitting in the front row, asking questions, staying late and wanting to be the best. The great players that I’ve always been around possess that trait. And he’s got that trait.

“What he’s also done is put on at least 25 pounds of really good cargo. He’s fast-twitch, physical.”

And as a group, ND’s defensive line is purported to be much improved and stood up to that reputation for the most part on Sunday.

Upwardly mobile teams tend to have some players come out of the blue, and freshman wide receiver/return man Michael Young and freshman safety Jordan Genmark Heath each showed signs Sunday of potentially being that kind of player.

Both were deemed three-star prospects in the recruiting process by Rivals.com.

Both, Kelly said Sunday, have played their way off the redshirt bubble, a list that includes tight end Cole Kmet and defensive linemen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish in addition to more obvious choices such as tight end Brock Wright (the fullback in the I-formation), safety Isaiah Robertson and kickoff man Jonathan Doerer.

Perhaps the position group that looked most convincingly improved Sunday, and will need to continue to be so when the Irish start playing a schedule that includes 10 teams that finished in the top 40 nationally in total defense in 2016, is the offensive line.

Kelly and new offensive coordinator Chip Long are confident enough in the group, that comprises tackles Mike McGlinchey and Tommy Kraemer, guards Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars and center Sam Mustipher, that they’ve altered the playbook to accentuate it.

Case in point, the retro look on the goal line.

“Probably the eighth grade,” Wimbush said when asked when the last time he remembers being under center and in the I-formation. “I do like it. It’s getting back to old school football, with a fullback. And Brock (Wright) has been awesome.”

“We want the game to be in our hands,” grad senior left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “The offensive line should be the engine that runs the team.

“That’s the thing that we preach about every single day in our room. And obvious-pass, obvious-run situations, we’ve got to be at our best. And that’s what coach Long is going to give us the opportunity to do, and we’re very excited about that.”

Quarterback Brandon Wimbush runs the ball during the New & Gold scrimmage game Sunday at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)