Analysis: No 'ducking' the need for Notre Dame to evolve for College Football Playoff run

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The notion that knocked the smile off Brian Kelly’s face Sunday, wasn’t the possibility of having to beat No. 2 Clemson — and likely No. 1 Alabama too — to bring home Notre Dame’s first national championship in football since 1988.

It was the revelation that his players were treated to duck crepes during their watch party for ESPN’s final College Football Playoff show of the season.

“Duck crepes?” The Irish head coach said, his face scrunching up in disgust. “I sure hope not. That makes us sound entitled.”

Which is pretty much the reverse formula from the one that drove No. 3 Notre Dame into the College Football Playoff for the first time in the format’s five-year history.

The Irish (12-0) will play Clemson (13-0) at 4 p.m. EST on Dec. 29 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in one national semifinal. Alabama (13-0) squares off against No. 4 Oklahoma (12-1) at 8 p.m. EST in other, at Miami Gardens, Fla.

The winners of the Cotton and Orange bowls advance to the CFP National Championship Game Jan. 7 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. All three games are on ESPN.

As much as Notre Dame did enough to keep from getting dragged into the Oklahoma-Georgia-Ohio State verbal scrum for the fourth and final playoff spot, the Irish find themselves the biggest underdog in the field — and would-be underdogs, per Las Vegas, had either the Bulldogs or Buckeyes found a back door into the field.

“I mean, nobody likes Notre Dame. That’s just the reality of it,” Irish linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill reacted. “If you’re not Notre Dame, you don’t like Notre Dame.

“All the experts have to pull from in their recent experience is what’s happened over the last 10 years, and how we got blown out by Alabama in ‘12 and lost to Ohio State in ‘15 in the Fiesta Bowl. Every time we go against a school with seemingly superior athletes on paper, we haven’t fared well.

“This team is different. This team is not the ‘12 team. This team isn’t ‘15. Look at our athletes on paper. I think we’ve got a pretty good spread as well, and I’d take us.”

The reality is the Irish team that plays Clemson in just under four weeks has to be better than the version that got them into the playoff.

And that’s certainly Kelly’s mindset heading into his first playoff since his Division II days with Grand Valley State.

For the record, Kelly was 11-4 in playoff games in six appearances, losing his first three times in the first round before finishing on an 11-1 tear with two national titles (2002 and 2003).

So how does Notre Dame evolve in December? It starts with the offensive line, but it certainly doesn’t end there.

Here are the ways Kelly can coax the Irish to a new level:

Experimentation

The two questions in this realm that it would seem the most beneficial to get to the bottom of are:

• Can backup quarterback Brandon Wimbush help make the offense more dynamic, either as a package quarterback or a hybrid part-time player at another position?

• Are there players on the roster who have gotten little or no playing time to date who could grow into at least a niche role for a playoff game or two?

To the Wimbush question, from a QB standpoint, Kelly pointed to Georgia’s QB rotation in its 35-28 loss to Alabama Saturday in the SEC Championship Game and how inserting freshman Justin Fields seemed to do more harm than good.

“It’s hard not to disrupt the rhythm and the timing,” Kelly said. “We’d like to see Brandon be more involved in the game, because we think he can impact it. It’s just trying to get him into the flow of the game without disrupting what you’re doing.”

Left unsaid were the out-of-the-box options. Running back? Wide receiver? In a limited role, there could be a significant impact, and the early practices should be able to tell Kelly soon enough if there’s a worthy investment there.

As far as adding new faces to the mix, Kelly hinted that he’ll take a look at elite speed, which would suggest freshmen Braden Lenzy and/or Lawrence Keys III, neither of whom have played in a game this season.

“They have been practicing for us,” Kelly said generically of possible new roles. “And there are some things we think we need against the competition that we’re playing. We’ll see how that plays out over the next few weeks.”

Finding the practice sweet spot

There’s not a limit on the number of practices Notre Dame can stage between now and Dec, 29, beyond working around the 20-hour rule when applicable, exams and a quick trip home for the players before Christmas.

ND’s first full practice session — beyond informal/uncoached 7-on-7 sessions, weight lifting and conditioning — will be Saturday.

But the balance between rest/recovery and game prep is key. Even standout cornerback Julian Love suggested the best way the nation’s No. 4 pass-efficiency defense could improve for the Clemson game was to get healthy.

There’s a few key players to keep an eye on in that regard on both sides of the ball:

• One of Notre Dame’s biggest strengths has been its quality depth of its defensive line, and the return of sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa — out since breaking his foot Sept. 1 against Michigan — could be significant.

“He’s cleared in the weight room,” Kelly said. “He (can do) on-the-ground movement exercises. So I think we’re really close. I’ll have a better sense next week.”

• Quarterback Ian Book’s stats sagged a bit after his rib injury, sustained on Nov. 3. And while Book answers questions about his own health in vague and semi-glowing terms, Kelly admitted Sunday that the junior was somewhere between 50 and 100 percent physically for ND’s wins over Syracuse and USC the final two weeks of the season.

His toughness quotient was apparently at a much higher level.

“He drops his shoulder and he runs through a defender for first down (against USC),” Kelly said. “That’s not a guy that’s worried about his ribs.

“I just think that he’s still evolving as a young quarterback and I think there’s going to be a couple of games where he’s not at his best each and every week, but his B game is pretty good. We’re just going to need his A Game for a couple weeks.

“The more efficient that he is in practice, I think we’re going to see the growth continue for him.”

• Tranquill, meanwhile, isn’t sure if the high ankle sprain he’s been playing with since Nov. 3 will heal fully before ND takes the field at Jerry’s World on Dec. 29, but he said he’s done playing and practicing with the cast on his left hand for the first time since breaking it against Stanford on Sept. 29.

“To actually have my hand back and be able to shock and escape and use my other hand for block destruction, it will be nice to have for sure,” he said.

As far as the mechanics behind striking the practice balance needed, Kelly said there would be days when the team practices in helmets and shorts, and others where they’ll grind through a 70-play scrimmage with tackling.

“This is a comfortable area for me,” he said. “Being in the (Division II) playoffs and understanding how to prepare during playoff competition. … You’ve got to get them peaking for December 29th, and peaking in a sense of tackling and execution and special teams.

“The bowl game (vs. playoff prep) is a whole different mentality. You’re thinking about yourself and what bowl gifts you get. Maybe I don’t play; I don’t want to get hurt.

“There’s a different mindset. This is, ‘We’re on a journey here. We’re going to continue onto the next step. We want to win a national championship.’ ”

Rising to the occasion

There will be a certain culture shock for both Notre Dame and Clemson on Dec. 29 in that neither has faced a team this season as complete on both sides of the ball as the other, and as elite in certain statistical areas as the other.

Clemson’s calling card is its defensive line.

The Irish will face three 2019 projected first-round draft choices in end Clelin Ferrell and interior standouts Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence. The only one of the Tigers’ front four who isn’t held in quite that regard, end Austin Bryant, has 10.5 tackles for loss, with six sacks, and 10 QB hurries.

Collectively, that translates to being ranked third in the nation in rushing defense, third in sacks and second in tackles for loss.

Only Michigan is in Clemson’s defensive stratosphere among ND’s opponents. Beyond facing the No. 1 team in total defense — yes, despite the Ohio State debacle, the Wolverines are still first — the highest ranked team in total defense the Irish have been tested by is USC’s No. 59-ranked unit.

“There’s no weakness across the front four,” Kelly said of Clemson. “You can’t pick a particular guy and say, ‘We’re going to run at him or we’re going to run away from him or we’re going to slide the protection to him.’

“If we slide it over here and we leave him one-on-one, that’s a problem, or we’re going to chip this side with the back … if there’s a one-on-one (matchup) across the board, they are all problems. That’s what makes it difficult.”

And that’s where the investment in sophomore Aaron Banks, once left guard Alex Bars was lost for the season to a knee injury, comes into play. Doubling down on junior right guard Tommy Kraemer too.

And getting left tackle Liam Eichenberg’s nagging high ankle sprain finally behind him.

“I see it each and every week as improvement as a group,” Kelly said of his offensive line. “I think we expect to see that through these next few weeks, as well, that they will continue to grow together. I don’t see how that’s going to change.”

Notre Dame QB Ian Book (12) reaches out for a first down as USC linebacker Palaie Gaoteote (1) chases him during ND’s 24-17 win, Nov. 24 in Los Angeles.