Analysis: Five significant spring football developments for the Notre Dame offense

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Chip Long managed to use the word “caveman” as a verb Thursday morning, and deftly so.

The third-year Notre Dame offensive coordinator also was able to work renowned Alabama establishment Dreamland Barbecue into a conversation mainly focused on the Irish offense, and confirm that baby No. 2 in the Long household — another daughter — was due to arrive on a spring practice off day, April Fool’s Day.

Big smiles accompanied all of those topics, but they also did so with some subjects that wouldn’t automatically figure to coax such a genial reaction, in Long’s first meeting with the media since Clemson smothered his offense to three points and the lowest yardage total in the school’s 38 bowl appearances (248).

“I think I probably could have done a better job schematically with the run game, keeping us ahead of the chains to help Ian (Book) a little bit,” Long said of the 30-3 Irish loss Dec. 29 in its first-ever College Football Playoff game. “He’s a 70 percent passer and went to 50. That’s one part that I regret.”

Three practices into the 15 allotted by the NCAA this spring, Long appears to see many more antidotes to what bogged down QB Book and his surrounding cast 2½ months ago than he does lingering headaches from a 12-1 season.

The Irish now hit the pause button for spring break before resuming with practice No. 4 on March 19. Spring practice concludes April 13 with the annual Blue-Gold game at Notre Dame Stadium. Tickets go on sale for that on Wednesday.

In the meantime, here are the five most significant developments thus far on an offense that has a No. 1 objective of being more explosive in 2019.

Fast forward at wide receiver

That Long professed sophomore Braden Lenzy had three practices as good as anyone among Notre Dame’s wide receiver corps, including surging senior Chase Claypool, is a seismic revelation if it’s sustainable.

And Long, for one, believes it is.

Lenzy, classmates Lawrence Keys and Joe Wilkins Jr., and junior Michael Young were the receivers on the 2018 roster with the kind of speed that could have added another gear to an attack that leaned heavily on power and efficiency.

What they lacked was the complete skill set to challenge for consistent playing time — or, in Lenzy’s case, playing time at all.

“You can’t come here when you weigh 155, 160,” Long said. “You’re going to get broken in half.

“When we got back from the bowl game, I was telling our guys, ‘Our offense starts in the weight room.’ And those guys, the way they’ve transformed their bodies has been awesome.”

They’ve also gotten serious about mastering the playbook, another component that will make the speed receivers a fun group to watch this spring.

“The biggest thing in a tempo offense, you just can’t have a lot of guys who are slow to get lined up,” Long said. “I’m very excited about those young guys. What they’ve shown in three days tells me they’ll be able to help us in the season.”

The enigma in 2018 among the now-sophomore class of receivers was the one who did challenge early for playing time as a freshman, Kevin Austin, but whose opportunities faded late in the season.

“How you live life off the field is how you’re going to play on it,” Long said when asked about Austin. “You come to Notre Dame, there’s an expectation to do things right and to do them the right way all the time. I think he’s figuring that out right now, but that’s the main thing that held him back.”

Pushing Ian Book

The most serious nudge coming at incumbent starting quarterback Ian Book this spring isn’t emanating from sophomore backup Phil Jurkovec, but rather Book himself and the brazen approach Long has challenged the new school record-holder for completion percentage to take this offseason.

“Make throws that you probably wouldn’t have made, because I would have been mad about your putting the ball in jeopardy,” Long cited as an example.

“We had to do what we had to do to win games last year. Obviously, he’s not being careless with the ball. We don’t want to do that. But I don’t want to see a checkdown.

“I want him to try to throw the whole shot, and keep working the 50-50 balls. Give our guys a chance to make plays. He’s doing a nice job of that.”

In other words, playing it safe and conservative isn’t going to get Book to the next level. So there will be more work in the deep passing game, more throws over the middle in tighter windows, more pressure exerted to help him find the ways to counter it.

All the things that challenged Book in the only top 50 defense to date he’s started against, Clemson, which was a top five defense nationally.

“We’ve all got to get better,” Long said.

Kraemer lightens up

The new spring roster lists senior right guard Tommy Kraemer at 6-foot-6, 319 pounds, actually up 3 from what he was listed at during the 2018 season.

Possible typos aside, the buzz Thursday, though, from Long was that of a leaner, lither version of Kraemer, the offensive lineman on the Irish roster with the highest recruiting pedigree.

The former tackle also was the one of the four O-line returnees most in need of a mini-transformation.

“He had to move better,” Long said. “I like to pull our guys, and we were not very good last year. And we’re not going to lose that part of our offense. So you see another confident guy out there, who’s stronger. You can see him bouncing around out there. It’s been a great move for him.”

Coming into focus

In almost every burst or surge in Chase Claypool’s evolution as a college wide receiver, there’s been an “if” or a “but” attached to it. And not the flattering kind.

And because of that, his potential most often overshadowed production. Until this offseason.

“I don’t really talk numbers with Chase, because if Chase is focused, he’s going to dominate,” Long said of ND’s leading returning receiver (50 catches, 639 yards, 4 TDs). “And that’s where he is right now. Him and Chris Finke.

“The focus in that room right now is as good as I’ve ever been around in a receiving group top to bottom. It’s awesome.

“Great example, (Claypool) had to take a test, missed half of practice. Comes out there, catches three balls in a row. In the past, he would have just been so flustered with what’s going on, he probably wouldn’t have had a great practice.

“But when that young man is focused, and the speed he’s playing at right now, it’s really exciting.”

The new Williams

Early enrolled freshman Kyren Williams is no relation to Dexter Williams, the NFL-bound leading rusher in 2018 who left behind a stable of question marks at the position group.

And the two Williams’ skill sets don’t align either.

Dexter was a breakaway threat. Kyren is more apt to break a defense with his versatility, though he had quite a few long runs at St. John Vianney High in St. Louis last season. He rushed for more than 2,000 yards with 26 TDs while sometimes running out of the Wildcat formation.

But he lined up quite often as a wide receiver, and caught 55 passes for 725 yards.

And while a rejuvenated junior Jafar Armstrong and senior Tony Jones Jr. are leading the way this spring under new running backs coach Lance Taylor, the fact that the 5-9, 209-pound Williams isn’t a spring afterthought is a positive sign.

“I love Kyren,” Long said. “Like a lot of those early freshmen, he’s extremely focused. The game’s not too big for him. He’s learning and all that, but he doesn’t make the same mistake twice, which is great.

“But a tough gritty kid with great ball skills, good speed. He’s got a savvy to him, gets the game. Probably because he was a good defensive player (eight interceptions, two fumble recoveries in 2018), he understands the big picture. He can communicate really well for a guy who should be worried about homeroom right now.”

Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long has seen plenty of encouraging developments during the first three Irish practices of the spring.
Notre Dame junior Michael Young is one of the speed receivers who are surging during spring football.