Notebook: Notre Dame-Michigan's blind date feel puts pressure on Irish rover

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The beginning of the end of Notre Dame and Michigan’s football divorce started with a phone call from Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh to Brian Kelly.

A little over two years later, and with the reality of the reunion half a week away, the 43rd rendition of the series, and first since 2014, suddenly feels kind of like a blind date.

The biggest reason? From ND’s standpoint, it’s Michigan’s projected starter at quarterback, Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson. That and the presumed evolution to the Wolverine offense that might come with that.

The recent additions of former Florida head coach Jim McElwain and Ed Warinner — the latter the predecessor to Harry Hiestand at offensive line coach for Kelly (2010-11) at ND — to the Michigan offensive coaching staff hints of a philosophical shift as well.

But how much shotgun vs. snaps under center? How many spread elements vs. traditional looks? How much does Harbaugh leave the beloved fullback position out of the playbook?

“There’s no real identity that has been established from a Michigan offense right now,” acknowledged Kelly, ND’s ninth-year head coach, during his weekly Tuesday meeting with the media.

All of which puts pressure on Notre Dame’s rover position.

Even without the Michigan mysteries, it would be the most unsettled detail Irish first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea has on his plate for Saturday night’s Notre Dame Stadium clash between the 12th-ranked Irish and No. 14 Michigan.

The player who brings the best mix of skill set and experience, grad senior Drue Tranquill, moved from rover to inside linebacker in the offseason. He also happens to be the only player from either roster who saw action in ND’s 31-0 rout of the Wolverines back in 2014.

The player with the highest ceiling at the rover position may very well be freshman Shayne Simon.

He’s a 6-foot-3, 222-pound freshman with so much athletic ability that he was Jersey City St. Peter’s (N.J.) Prep’s leading wide receiver last season as a two-way player, and was one of ND quarterback and fellow St. Peter’s Prep alum Brandon Wimbush’s backups at QB as a high school freshman.

The player likely to get the start at rover, a safety/linebacker hybrid, Saturday night is 6-2, 225-pound senior Asmar Bilal, a reserve his entire ND career up until now.

The best-case scenario for him would be facing a traditional offense, pretty much what Michigan had been under Harbaugh. A less-than-ideal matchup would be a spread offense, because of Bilal’s struggles at times in coverage.

“You’ve got a lot of new pieces that are going to go on here,” Kelly said of the Michigan offense. “Not to say that Shayne won’t be out on the field, but the last thing you want is a true freshman trying to sort this thing out, too.

“So he’s in the mix certainly, but there’s going to be some adjustments that need to be made. and you want to rely on some guys that have some experience in those situations.”

Should Michigan show a propensity for three- and four-wide receiver formations — a little less likely now with the recent loss of top receiver Tarik Black for Saturday night and beyond — the Irish could counter with a true defensive back at rover, either cornerback Shaun Crawford or safety Nick Coleman.

Both players worked extensively in that role during preseason camp.

Recalculating

Had Notre Dame successfully appealed its 21 vacated victories and, yes, one vacated loss, Saturday night’s Notre Dame-Michigan game would have featured an intriguing historical footnote.

The winner would have left Notre Dame Stadium Saturday night as the all-time leader in winning percentage among FBS teams. Now Michigan will do so win or lose.

And Notre Dame will have a decided edge in asterisks.

There are 197 to be exact in this week’s Irish football release, to three for Michigan. Neither release contains a depth chart, not an accident on either side, but more on that later.

The asterisks in some cases are present to denote a stat or record that ignores the NCAA ruling. In other cases, it’s present to denote a recalculated figure because of the 22 vacated games.

The perpetual math problem started in February, when the NCAA affirmed its decision 15 months earlier to delete 22 games from the Irish record books for the school’s handling of an academic fraud case in 2014.

Thus, Kelly is still the current FBS coach with the most college wins (219 under the new math), but his lead over Alabama’s Nick Saban shrunk from 22 to one.

As far as all-time winning percentage, the amended figure drops Notre Dame to fourth (.724), with Boise State and Ohio State leaping over the Irish. Under the old math, an Irish win Saturday night would have put them ahead .728987 to .728582.

ND had trailed Michigan in the win-percentage race since the Tyrone Willingham Era (2002-04), when Notre Dame surrendered the all-time lead.

On Dec. 28, 2013, Notre Dame dispatched Rutgers, 29-16, in the Pinstripe Bowl on an unseasonably warm afternoon in Yankee Stadium. Later that night, as word was leaking out that Brian VanGorder was Kelly’s choice to replace departed Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, Michigan was crushed by Kansas State, 31-14, at the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl at Tempe, Ariz.

The Irish ended the night in the historical first place spot.

Fast forward to Sept. 24, 2016. With Notre Dame’s 38-35 home loss to Duke and Michigan’s 28-16 triumph over Penn State, the Wolverines surged back into the lead in all-time winning percentage. The next day VanGorder was fired.

Playing chicken

The fact that Harbaugh once discouraged former Michigan quarterback and last year’s opening-day starter, Wilton Speight, from eating chicken, and the fact Chik-fil-A will be sold in Notre Dame Stadium for the first time on Saturday night is pure coincidence.

Harbaugh’s motivation for the advice, per Speight, now at UCLA? A chicken is a nervous bird.

The fact that neither team is producing a depth chart for public consumption this week is definitely not coincidence. and it’s not because they’re chicken.

Michigan, per Harbaugh’s direction, hasn’t produced one during his three-plus seasons as head coach, just out of general principle. Notre Dame is simply playing along this week. The Irish depth chart will be back for the Sept. 8 matchup with Ball State.

Fear factor

On Thursday, Kelly effectively blurred what had been a clear-cut quarterback hierarchy on his roster, hinting that backup Ian Book may play against Michigan. and if so, Kelly professed that both Book and starter Brandon Wimbush would be OK with it.

Tuesday, Kelly cleared up the dynamic at a position that in 2017 produced prolific QB rushing numbers, elite red-zone efficiency, but a pass-efficiency rating that ranked 101st nationally out of 129 and sunk the Irish in big games.

“We can’t have a fear of failure at that position,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We’re going to make mistakes. We have to understand the difference between letting our guys make plays and be who they are versus being paralyzed with fear of failure. and Brandon falls under that category.

“At times he got himself in a place where he didn’t want to fail. The quarterback position can’t be that. You have to be a guy that is out there making plays within the scope of the offense — we’re not drawing it up in the sand.”

Kelly said there’s been a shift in fear factor during the offseason, and that’s why Wimbush is the starter on Saturday night.

“I think just our confidence in his ability to go be who he is,” Kelly said, “and not try to conform him to who we want him to be. This is much more about calling the offense for who Brandon Wimbush is than who we want him to be more than anything else. and that’s what you’ll see Saturday night.”

Personnel matters

Senior running back Dexter Williams is still expected to miss the first four games of the season because of a university-imposed suspension. and unlike the suspensions Kelly imposed himself, the ND coach is tongue-tied by student privacy laws from directly addressing it.

Had Williams been available, he would have been no worse than ND’s No. 2 option at the position against Michigan.

“He’ll be dressed and he’ll be on the sideline, and we’ll see what happens when we kick it off,” Kelly said when asked about it Tuesday.

Keep in mind, former Irish wide receiver Kevin Stepherson was in the same position last season. He also was in uniform for Notre Dame’s two homes games during his suspension but didn’t travel to road venues during that stretch.

• Kelly said sophomore right offensive tackle Robert Hainsey continues to work with the first team after returning to practice last Wednesday from a leg injury.

“We want to be smart and careful,” Kelly said of Hainsey, who missed a week and a half. “We have limited his pitch count, just to make sure that we don’t have anything flare up. But he’s good to go.”

• Freshman Kevin Austin and sophomore Michael Young have emerged as the key pieces of the wide receiver rotation beyond starters Miles Boykin, Chris Finke and Chase Claypool.

“I think those two guys have proven themselves to be part of it as we move forward,” Kelly said of Austin and Young. “We play three and four tight ends, so I think you have to include that as part of what we do.

“And then the multiple running back situation. So I wouldn’t look just at a wide receiver group as much as incorporating tight ends and running backs into being pass receivers and touching the football.”

Asmar Bilal (22), here running a drill with linebacker Te’von Coney (4), is one of several options Notre Dame has at the rover position.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly talks with quarterback Brandon Wimbush during a recent practice inside Notre Dame Stadium.

No. 12 NOTRE DAME (0-0) vs. No. 14 MICHIGAN (0-0)

Kickoff: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT

Where: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

Radio: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1)

Line: Notre Dame by 1