Notebook: Brian Kelly downplays effects uptempo offenses may have on his Notre Dame defense

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND

The fourth time — not the third — was the charm. Or, perhaps rather, the breaking point.

After dancing around the tempo question the first three times he was pressed with at his weekly Tuesday press conference, Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly came out swinging.

“They get the rest of their career to rest,” Kelly said of the high volume of reps his starting linebackers and secondary have been taking and likely will sustain again Saturday against tempo-happy Wake Forest (2-1).

Kickoff for the first road game of the season for the eighth-ranked Irish (3-0) is noon EDT. ABC has the telecast.

The Demon Deacons ran off a school-record 105 offensive plays Thursday night in a 41-34 loss to Boston College. That puts Wake at No. 2 nationally in average offensive plays per game (93.3), behind only Texas Tech (93.7). The national average is 71.3.

Two other teams among the top seven nationally, Northwestern (fourth at 87.0) and Syracuse (seventh at 85.3), pop up on the Irish schedule in November.

Ball State, eighth at 82.7, is in the rear-view mirror, having logged 97 against the Irish on Sept. 8. That’s a school record for the most ever against an ND defense.

Linebackers Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill, safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott and cornerbacks Julian Love and Tory Pride Jr., have rarely come off the field this season.

“I mean, they’re young,” Kelly continued of his professed comfort level with very limited substitutions to date in the back seven of the ND defense. “I think we do a great job with taking care of our players, making sure that they’re getting treatment.

“But we might be making a little bit too much of how many reps they’re getting.”

Maybe we are.

Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea and predecessor Mike Elko have been dealing with spread and uptempo concepts since they started coaching and didn’t have to reinvent themselves the way say, former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder tried to.

The Irish did win VanGorder’s first encounter with an uptempo team — North Carolina, in game 6 of the 2014 season — but barely. The Tar Heels ran 84 offensive plays in a 50-43 ND win.

Notre Dame had held every one of its first five opponents to 17 points or fewer prior to the North Carolina game that 2014 season. Inclusive of the matchup with the Tar Heels, every ND opponent scored at least 31 points in each of the remaining games that season.

More significantly, Notre Dame never won another game with VanGorder running the defense in which the opposition ran 80 plays or more (0-4).

Since VanGorder was purged four games into the 2016 season, Notre Dame has played six games in which its defense was on the field for 80 plays or more. and the Irish have won all six, including a 48-37 decision over Wake Forest last season at Notre Dame Stadium (88 plays).

“I think we’ve got a good team, and I want to keep the good players on the field as long as I can,” Kelly said. “If we can find ways, certainly — and I’m not trying to be a wise guy with this — but I want to keep our players on the field. If we can find spots to get them off — well, other than that, let’s go play.”

The waiting game

Irish senior running back Dexter Williams has been dropping some not-so-subtle indications about his return to the active roster, still expected to be Sept. 29 against Stanford.

The final game of his apparent university-imposed four-game suspension is Saturday. and if it follows the model of former ND wide receiver Kevin Stepherson’s path back to reinstatement, Williams won’t make the road trip to Winston-Salem, N.C. this weekend.

The question is what has Williams been doing behind the scenes to get ready for his reintegration into the running back rotation?

“He’s been working hard,” Kelly said. “We’ve been working with him on the things that he’s gotta get better at.

“Every single day he’s on our SWAT (accountability) team — so just representing the little things, classroom attendance, in the weight room, on the football field, just being a good teammate, doing all those little things.

“He’s been great. So he’s making good progress for us.”

Williams was ND’s fourth-leading rusher last season, with 360 yards on 39 carries (9.2 per carry) with four TDs. He had two catches for 13 yards and a receiving touchdown.

Personnel matters

Tight end Cole Kmet will miss his second straight game after suffering a high ankle sprain Sept. 8 against Ball State, per Kelly.

“Cole tells me that he’ll be ready for Stanford (Sept. 29),” Kelly said. “So I’ll go with what Cole tells me. He’s a guy that has worked his tail off in the training room. Cole’s a pretty committed guy. So we’ll stick with that.”

• Wake Forest’s No. 1 quarterback coming out of spring practice, junior Kendall Hinton, returns from a three-game suspension this week but, as expected, will not be in the starting lineup.

The Demon Deacons will continue to roll with true freshman Sam Hartman, who has thrown for 884 yards with six TDs and five interceptions, and has run for 193 yards on 47 carries (4.7) and a TD.

Hinton could emerge, though, as a changeup QB with a specific package of plays. The 6-foot, 195-pounder also worked at wide receiver during August training camp.

Wake has strung together four 500-yard games in total offense for the first time in school history. The streak dates back to John Wolford’s final game as starter in 2017.

• Wake Forest has suffered eight season-ending injuries since the end of the 2017 regular season. That includes ACL tears suffered by starting left tackle Justin Herron and backup safety Coby Davis in the season-opening win over Tulane.

Squibs

• Notre Dame is one of 10 teams in the FBS that has yet to yield a single 20-yard rush to an opponent thus far in 2018.

• Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson is 0-7 against top 10 teams at Wake Forest and 2-11 against the Top 25. The Irish are ranked in the top 10 for the fourth time in five all-time meetings with the Demon Deacons.

• The next Irish-Wake matchup — on Sept. 26, 2020 — will be played in Charlotte, N.C., at Bank of America Stadium.

• Among Wake’s 105 plays against Boston College last Thursday were seven fourth-down conversion attempts. The Demon Deacons were successful on six. That gives Wake eight fourth-down attempts this season, 12th-highest among FBS teams.

Tied at the top, with 12, are future ND opponent Northwestern (three converted), and Florida Atlantic, with South Bend Saint Joseph High grad Charlie Weis Jr. at the controls of the Owls’ offense (eight conversions).

Vanderbilt’s Ke’Shawn Vaughn gets brought down by Notre Dame cornerback Troy Pride Jr. (on the ground) and safety Jalen Elliott, two of ND’s ironmen on defense, during a 22-17 Irish win Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

WHO: No. 8 Notre Dame (3-0) vs. Wake Forest (2-1)

KICKOFF: Saturday, noon, EDT

WHERE: BB&T Field, Winston-Salem, N.C.

TV: ABC

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Notre Dame by 7½