Analysis: Sizing up the state of Notre Dame football three weeks until the season opener
Notre Dame special teams coordinator Brian Polian’s voice had atrophied Saturday to the point that it sounded like he swallowed a handful of gravel.
Which made the static message on the Notre Dame Stadium videoboard during practice — Countdown to Kickoff: 21 Days —sort of redundant.
The severe rasp, three weeks to the day before the Irish season opener with Michigan in the very same facility, was right on schedule in relation to the start of the season. So was the mixed bag of both issues relating to the 11th-ranked Irish that are coming into focus and lingering questions that head coach Brian Kelly is trying to get to the bottom of before 14th-ranked Michigan does it for him on Sept. 1.
The following is a snapshot of the most pertinent ones of both varieties:
Where Wimbush stands
Kelly and the coaching staff made a significant investment this summer and during the first eight practices of preseason camp in incumbent starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush being significantly better in the passing game than he was as the FBS’ 86th-rated passer last season.
At seemingly every juncture during the winter, during spring practice and again in the film room this summer, the 6-foot-2, 222-pound senior kept checking off boxes that validated that investment.
The goal in August wasn’t to structure practices to make Wimbush look like a finished product, but rather to test whether the improvement away from the bright lights would hold up once the high stakes and high scrutiny returned.
To that end, some occasional steps laterally or even backward should be expected amid the progress. The great unknown, though, among tangible mechanical improvements, remains Wimbush’s mental game.
Kelly offered after Saturday’s practice that Wimbush had a great day in Friday’s session, the one practice over the past three to which the media wasn’t invited. Saturday, though, you could vividly see both the growth and the growing pains.
“Last year he struggled with the short throws, decelerating, not finishing,” Kelly said. “He’s much more efficient in those throws. Now the next stage in his development is the athletic throws — the hot throws, the screen throws — things where you just mechanically have to let it go and trust it, and not think about it.
“He’s a cerebral kid. He thinks about those things maybe too much sometimes. He’s got to move the offense better. You’ve got to be efficient, and you can’t be worrying about throwing the football, or you can’t run the offense.”
No diminishing returns?
Settling on the punt returner, and a couple of concrete backup plans, has been a much faster process for Polian and Kelly than sorting through the kickoff return candidates.
Perhaps somewhat of a surprise is that senior Chris Finke has retained the punt return job, with safety Alohi Gilman and wide receiver Michael Young as the backups.
Finke averaged 6.5 yards on 24 returns in 2017, but his last two returns of the season — 20 and 41 yards — skewed the average. Through the first five games of the season, Finke amassed a total of two yards on nine returns. He also had a stretch of two games in November, against Miami (Fla.) and Navy, in which his returns totaled minus-eight yards.
“The big difference with Chris is added strength,” Kelly said of the 2018 version of the former walk-on wide receiver. “Much more explosive. Puts his foot in the ground and can translate that explosiveness. He’s very confident in himself.
“That’s what you want for a punt returner, the ability to get 5-7 yards. and if you make a mistake, he can turn it.”
On kickoff returns, settling on the personnel beyond the two deep men is what the Irish are working on before they narrow the field on the returners. On Saturday, Avery Davis, Jafar Armstrong, Nick Coleman, Shaun Crawford, Young and Finke all rotated in deep.
“We’re going to look closely at some of the young players (too),” Kelly said. “It’s still a fluid situation.”
The Notre Dame offensive line depth chart under new O-line coach Jeff Quinn is as difficult to diagram in a traditional two-deep graphic as it was under predecessor Harry Hiestand.
A case in point, the backup right tackle is not sophomore Aaron Banks or freshman John Dirksen, as will likely be listed, but rather junior Tommy Kraemer, who just happens to be the starting right guard. In a way, he also figures into the backup left tackle scenario.
So if No. 1 Liam Eichenberg suffered an injury during a game, right tackle Robert Hainsey would likely move to left tackle, Kraemer would slide to right tackle, and either sophomore Josh Lugg or junior Trevor Ruhland would elevate to No. 1 right guard.
Potential injuries at center and left guard also have similarly convoluted solutions.
Kelly and Quinn planned to explore and work on all of those contingencies next week, but a calf strain that sidelined Hainsey on Saturday moved up the timetable.
“We’re going to do an MRI, but we don’t think it’s anything but muscular,” Kelly said. “We want to be careful with him.”
Among those players just outside the core rotation of seven, Banks and true freshman offensive tackle Jarrett Patterson continue to surge.
Mixing and matching
The next layer of schematics that the Irish defense is working on is taking the rover off the field in obvious passing situations and replacing him with an extra defensive back, namely either safety Nick Coleman or cornerback Shaun Crawford.
Last season, when Drue Tranquill manned the rover position, he stayed on the field in nickel coverage.
As for the rover himself, a chronic hamstring injury has halted the progress of sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, so senior Asmar Bilal and true freshman Shayne Simon continue to gobble up the practice reps.
Kelly keeps hinting that the rover role will morph from week to week depending on what kind of offensive personnel — traditional or spread — the Irish defense is facing. Then again, that was the plan last year, and Tranquill’s exceptional play changed the plan.
As fascinating as safety Alohi Gilman’s tale of chasing chickens as an alternative to playing video games while growing up in Hawaii seemed to be, the most compelling thing to come from the Navy transfer’s mouth Saturday was his assessment of fellow safety Nick Coleman.
It should be noted that freshman prodigy Houston Griffith had been slowed by a hamstring injury and is just now getting up to speed, but Kelly puffed on Saturday that Coleman, a senior who labored through spring, has been the best safety in preseason camp.
As was the case Thursday, Coleman and Gilman took the No. 1 reps at safety on Saturday.
But is Coleman just the flavor of the week?
“I think the one thing that I’ve seen is he’s able to read and diagnose plays faster,” Gilman said of the difference between Coleman in 2017 and the version we’re seeing now. “And he’s a lot more confident.
“When you’re confident and you read things faster, you play faster.”
Kicking and screaming
Senior Justin Yoon easily converted a 50-yard field goal, with distance to spare, on Saturday while being heckled by none other than Brian Kelly.
“His focus is amazing,” Kelly would say later. “He can tune out everything. I was yelling, ‘This is too far. This is way too far for you. You can’t hit it from here. Let’s move it up.’
“And I do that, because he tunes it all out. I asked him what I said. He said, ‘I didn’t hear you.’ So he’s either a great liar or his ability to really focus has been his key.”
And Kelly said he doesn’t take getting ignored personally.
“I’m a parent,” he said. “I get being tuned out.”