Vorel: For Notre Dame's defense, is 'better' good enough?
SOUTH BEND — Brandon Wimbush took a shotgun snap, backpedaled, scrambled to his right, shifted his weight and uncorked a twisting pass off his back foot around the barreling body of senior defensive end Jay Hayes.
The football — a homing missile, its target firmly acquired — fluttered perfectly over junior safety Nick Coleman’s outstretched arms, finding its way into the extended grip of diving wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown.
This was many things, the most obvious being improbable. It was performance art. It was a splash in the endless reservoir of Wimbush’s vast athletic potential. It was perfect video board replay fodder. Most literally, it was a fourth down conversion in Sunday’s open scrimmage inside Notre Dame Stadium.
It was also a distraction from what actually matters most.
The truth is, Wimbush is at worst a competent quarterback, and at best a star. He’s surrounded with talented skill players — St. Brown, running backs Josh Adams, Dexter Williams and Tony Jones Jr., tight end Alize Mack. The list stretches from here to LaPorte.
Notre Dame’s offense will be fine — regardless of how many snaps Wimbush takes from under center, regardless of whether a fullback lines up at the goal line, regardless of whether wide receiver Kevin Stepherson climbs out of his coaches’ disciplinary abyss. First-year offensive coordinator Chip Long’s offense — no matter how fast its tempo or how multiple its formations — is good enough to win games. Lots of them. Maybe even all of them.
The fate of Notre Dame’s 2017 season, however, rests with its defense.
“In college football, if you play good defense, you’re going to win,” senior rover Drue Tranquill said on Sunday. “We saw that last year, with the season we had. Obviously we’re optimistic moving into this season.”
On Sunday, the optimism was swirling. Sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara picked up a pair of sacks. Fellow sophomore Daelin Hayes — a former five-star prospect — added another one, leaving right tackle Tommy Kraemer and running back Jones Jr. in his wake. The Irish — feel free to take a moment to cross your fingers or knock on wood — tackled well, showing off improved fundamentals in front of thousands of scattered fans. First-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s group surrendered a total of 24 points in the 14-10 final.
But was it realistic forecasting, or a fall camp fluke?
“Defensively, even though we gave up a couple plays here and there, we’re going to play so much better up front,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “That really makes you feel pretty good about that front seven. (We’re) Better against the run. Better fundamentally across the board in all areas.”
But, before you start buying bowl tickets, remember what it’s better than. A year ago, Notre Dame’s defense failed to record a sack until the fourth game of the season. It surrendered 50 points to Texas, 36 points at home to a Michigan State team that finished 3-9, and 38 points the next week in a home loss to Duke (the straw that eventually broke defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s back). It finished 72nd nationally in rushing defense and 104th in turnovers gained.
Notre Dame finished 4-8, and while its defense wasn’t the only reason, it may have been the most indefensible.
So, yeah, it’s better. It better be better.
But is “better” good enough?
“Walking into fall camp, I think we all had a lot of questions about our defensive line and how we were going to hold up in the run game and the front seven,” Tranquill said. “We’ve seen them drastically improve and do an incredible job in the run game. Obviously we’re going to have a lot of weapons on third down, rushing the passer. That’s evident.”
Added senior linebacker Nyles Morgan, a bright spot in the season-long solar eclipse that was Notre Dame’s 2016 season: “The biggest change, for me, is that the philosophy is just to get in the backfield. We’re not waiting to see what the offense does. We’re going to do our thing, get into the backfield and find the ball.”
Notre Dame’s defensive leaders are saying the right things, and on Sunday, they showed them, too. But Sunday’s scrimmage, for all its shiny slogans, doesn’t matter.
In two weeks, it’ll matter.
And Wimbush’s acrobatics are wasted unless his defense carries its weight.