Notebook: Chip Long sacrifices sleep to solve spotty Notre Dame passing attack

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

ORLANDO, Fla. — Chip Long didn’t look the least bit disheveled.

Promptly at 9 a.m. on Friday, Notre Dame’s first-year offensive coordinator took a seat at a table inside the Rosen Plaza Hotel in Orlando. Behind him, there was a black Overton’s Citrus Bowl backdrop. Beside him, there was a consensus All-America left tackle named Mike McGlinchey.

In front of him, there was a microphone, two helmets and the official Citrus Bowl trophy, which was a literal bowl, stacked high with an array of untouched oranges.

The 34-year-old first-year Irish assistant sat there, leaning into the microphone, with his red hair parted neatly to the side and his Under Armour sweatsuit zipped nearly to his neck. There were no bags under his eyes; no mismatched socks; no weary, prolonged yawns.

No sign, in other words, that Long has been spending long nights searching for answers, staring blankly at his ceiling.

“Obviously, the consistency in our passing game has to improve dramatically,” Long said on Friday. “I can’t sleep at night with this going on.”

Specifically, Notre Dame ranks 105th nationally in passing yards per game (175.8) and 104th in passing efficiency, heading into a bowl game Monday against an LSU defense that sits seventh nationally in pass-efficiency defense.

A year ago, Long’s Memphis Tigers finished 11th nationally in passing touchdowns (34), 14th in passing yards per game (304.4), 17th in passing efficiency and 21st in yards per pass attempt (8.3).

This is not that team, with that production.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be.

“That's a step that the entire offense has to make. It's not just the quarterbacks, the receivers, the tight ends,” Long said. “You know, in this offense we should be throwing 65, 70 percent completions, and averaging close to 300 yards passing a game to go with our ability to run the ball. So there's great, great strides we need to be making in this offense.”

But is it possible to do that with Brandon Wimbush in the shotgun? In his first year as the Irish starting QB, the 6-foot-2, 228-pound junior completed just 49.8 percent of his passes, throwing for 1,818 yards with 16 touchdowns and six interceptions. He completed more than 50 percent of his passes just three times in 11 starts and currently ranks 87th nationally in passing efficiency.

Does Long believe that guy, with another year of familiarity with the offense and focus on his mechanics, can transform into a 65- to 70-percent passer?

“I do,” Long said. “Every quarterback we’ve had in this system has been there. There’s no question he has the ability to do it.

“Some of it takes time. But that is the expectation. Now, whether we get there game-in and game-out, I don’t know. But that’s the expectation I have in this offense and what we want to achieve.”

It’ll be awfully difficult to achieve that on Monday, especially considering that Notre Dame will be without three of its top four receivers: wide receivers Chase Claypool (injury) and Kevin Stepherson (suspension) and tight end Alizé Mack (suspension). Still, Long will keep on coaching and scheming.

As for sleeping? Not so much.

Tempo trouble

Long knows that tempo doesn’t always translate.

The Irish coordinator’s vision for his offense hinges on speed and physicality.

And though Notre Dame certainly displayed one of those characteristics throughout its 9-3 regular season, the Irish averaged just 69.7 offensive plays per game, which ranks 67th nationally. A season ago, Long’s Memphis offense managed 74.6 offensive plays per game.

Twelve games later, Long’s philosophy hasn’t changed.

But tempo, it seems, takes time.

“I don't think we're even close to the tempo that we need to go,” Long said, “and that's usually the case the first year. If you look back on the season, a lot of our games we played, they're really over in the middle of the third quarter, so a lot of it was just running the clock out, just the way a lot of the games went. So it was hard to really get that (consistent tempo) instilled in our guys.

“Certain games — I think (the 35-14 victory over) North Carolina State — the tempo really helped us, and we were able to execute it really well. But that's something you just always gradually have to keep getting better at.

“The better the kids know the offense, the faster they'll play. So it's kind of a work in progress.”

Picture perfect

Last summer, Long put a picture of the Joe Moore Award trophy in the locker of each of his offensive linemen.

Six months later, they can stare at the real thing.

This month, the Irish offensive line — which cleared the way for 6.4 rushing yards per carry (third nationally) and 279.1 rushing yards per game (seventh) — took home the hotly contested award, which honors the premier offensive line in college football.

“You won't find a harder-working, better prepared group than that offensive line, how they go about their business day in and day out,” Long said, with McGlinchey seated to his left. “(We were) almost having to kick them out of the facility, they're in there so much. They just take great pride in what they do.”

From 1988 to 1996, Moore coached the offensive line at Notre Dame under Lou Holtz, who resides in Orlando and will serve as the grand marshal of Saturday’s Florida Citrus Parade.

Maybe, considering its namesake’s origins, the award is finally back where it belongs.

“It means a lot to us, more than anything that we could accomplish individually, because we did it together,” McGlinchey said. “There were six of us that contributed to getting to that award, and being able to accomplish something as a full unit and becoming the best in the country was a very, very big feat for us.

“And it adds that much more knowing how important (offensive line coach Harry) Hiestand is to us and what he means and the relationship that we have with him, winning his mentor’s award. It was a very, very special moment for him, and I know it's something that he'll take away as one of the top moments of his career.”

Back in the running

Of course, running back Josh Adams benefited greatly from that nationally renowned offensive line, turning in career-highs in rushing yards (1,386), yards per carry (7.3) and rushing touchdowns (9) in his junior season.

But while he couldn’t have done it alone, few running backs nationally could have done it quite like Adams.

“I think Josh is a unique back,” Long said. “Like I told a lot of people, he's one of the hardest working superstars I've ever been around. You know, he gets everything he deserves by the way he prepares, by the way he practices, and he's just a product of what he does each and every day.

“Very good leader. Very intelligent. It's just been a great pleasure to be around him each and every day, and seeing him have the success has been a real treat for us and for the offensive line.”

That success waned over the final third of Notre Dame’s 9-3 season, as Adams managed just 217 rushing yards and 3.7 yards per carry in his team’s 2-2 finish.

But, with a month to prepare for Monday’s Citrus Bowl, Adams’ explosiveness has returned.

And he isn’t the only one.

“He has had as good a bowl prep as anybody,” Long said of Adams. “It's been fun seeing these guys, once the exams and all that got over, just to see the explosion back in them.

“(Sophomore running back) Tony Jones is finally healthy, seeing him back to where he was in the spring and (fall camp in) Culver. And you know, people forget, he was one of my most explosive players, especially when I first got here in the spring and fall camp. He had a high ankle (sprain), and being a young kid trying to fight back from an injury, that’s something you have to learn.”

Jones — a 5-11, 225-pound sophomore from St. Petersburg, Fla. — rushed for 232 yards, 5.4 yards per carry and three touchdowns in 11 games this season.

Now, imagine what he could do with a healthy ankle — starting in his home state.

“To see him coming to practice now with a great balance, his smile is back,” Long said.

Notre Dame's offensive coordinator Chip Long walks the sideline during the Miami (Ohio) at Notre Dame game at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 30. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)