Spring football allowed depth to form on Notre Dame's offense
Maybe Chip Long would have been a math teacher if his coaching career never took hold.
On Thursday, Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator laid out clear syllabi for each of Notre Dame’s top two quarterbacks.
“One’s on advanced calculus, the other one’s still getting past algebra right now,” Long said.
Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game offered proof to those lessons. Clearly senior Ian Book is calculating derivatives while sophomore Phil Jurkovec is still trying to solve for x.
Book breezed through a 16-of-21 passing day with 220 yards and one touchdown and added a seven-yard touchdown run. Jurkovec needed an eraser after being sacked 12 times and completing 15 of his 26 passes for 135 yards.
“Phil’s still going to be a good player,” Long said Thursday. “It’s just going to take time, just like all of them.”
There’s no doubt that Book has control of Notre Dame’s starting quarterback spot. He shouldn’t be looking over his shoulder either. There’s no plan to have a special package for Jurkovec like the Irish did for Book last year when Brandon Wimbush opened the season as the starter. It’s Book’s offense.
“Ian’s pretty good out there. He’s really good in short yardage. I don’t know,” Long said when asked about a Jurkovec package. “Usually if you want to substitute a guy in there, it’s usually to throw or a bigger guy to run. So probably not. But Phil has to be ready to play at a given notice.”
Developing depth has been a strong focus for Notre Dame’s offense in the offseason. At almost every position the Irish have experienced personnel who have played meaningful roles. But quality backups can turn into contributors and bring more options to the offense.
While Jurkovec’s playing time may only come in blowouts and emergency situations, other players on the offense made a case for themselves this spring.
On the offensive line, the Irish have the luxury of returning four starters. With sophomore Jarrett Patterson making what appears to be a smooth transition to starting center, the lineup already appears to be settled. But Long isn’t ready to rule out the opportunity to rotate anywhere on the line.
“It all goes back to how they’re going to be practicing,” Long said. “I hope so. I like doing that. It builds good, quality depth and helps transitions if you’re going to lose guys for the next season. That’s completely up to them and how they want to go about it. It’s their job to make me play them and not make me play them.”
Junior Josh Lugg would be the leading candidate for rotation work. He could be the next option at all five offensive line positions after he added center to his résumé late this spring. But Long said he’s pleased with the development of the entire offensive line.
Identifying capable backups can lead to competition for playing time on the line.
“If you don’t want to practice, the next guy’s in. There are no off days. That’s the best thing about it,” Long said. “Really in all our groups on offense, if you don’t want to practice, you don’t feel like it, you can be knocked off the depth chart that day. The guys know that.
“Our room, it’s all about consistency and effort in practice daily and you’re execution and production. If you’re not doing that, next guy up. We’re at Notre Dame. This isn’t happiness camp we’re running. We want to win games and win championships.”
The winning recipe at running back may be a committee. But in order to see the field at the position, young running backs have to be physical and embrace pass-blocking responsibilities.
Long has liked what he’s seen so far.
“There’s not one real weak link. There’s obviously guys who lack experience picking up the blitzes with the young guys, but they’re not afraid to strike,” Long said. “Tony Jones and Jafar (Armstrong) brought great leadership all throughout spring, great steadiness to that group. It’s allowed those young guys to flourish, which has been good to see. It’s still a work in progress.”
The progress was evident in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game when Jahmir Smith, C’Bo Flemister and Kyren Williams combined for 91 yards and three touchdowns.
A strong spring from Tommy Tremble has put him in a position to play a role at tight end in his sophomore season. Long, who also works as the tight ends position coach, has a pair of junior options at tight end ahead of Tremble in Cole Kmet and Brock Wright. Kmet is a cut above as the No. 1 tight end, but Wright and Tremble bring different skill sets
Wright’s physicality makes him an easy option as a blocking tight end. He lost some weight in the offseason — now at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds — to improve as a pass catcher. Tremble brings more of a receiving threat to the group.
“If there’s a guy on offense that has just progressed where you now think he can really help us next year, it would probably be him,” Long said of Tremble. “He has great athleticism, great speed, really physical player. He just has to learn football.”
Perhaps no position benefitted from spring practice more than the wide receivers. Two of the receivers Book leaned on the most last season — Chase Claypool and Chris Finke — are back to lead the group, but the rest of the unit was filled with question marks.
Long would like to be able to rely on more than just three receivers like he did for much of last season with Claypool, Finke and Miles Boykin.
“Those last three guys were pretty dead by the time we got to USC. That’s just the kind of way it was,” Long said. “Having that youth right there, guys are able to stay a whole lot fresher, more reps, really at all skill positions. That’s going to be a good thing to see.
“How they keep producing, guys who are making plays, we’ll find ways to get them the ball all different kinds of ways. We have that in our offense. I just have to see them do it live in a game. Their roles will grow from there.”
No receiver other than Claypool had a big day on Saturday, but Michael Young, Kevin Austin Jr., Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys III and Joe Wilkins Jr. combined for 10 receptions for 87 yards.
“They’ve caught the ball well. That was a lot of my question marks with them: how are they going to be able to handle press, getting knocked around?” Long said. “They’ve done a great job bringing that physicality and it’s showing up in their ability to make competitive catches one-on-one.”
In his third season at Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator, Long has the weight of rising expectations on himself as well. His name surfaced in the coaching carousel following the 2018 season and likely will again if his offense continues to produce. The Irish have averaged 32.8 points per game since he was hired.
Earlier this spring, Long said he wants the 2019 offense to be a combination of the explosiveness from 2017 and the efficiency from 2018. But the vision for the offense is always evolving, especially when identifying which players can make the difference.
He still has a few months to solve those equations.
“It kind of goes throughout the season,” Long said. “Who’s making plays? Who steps up? Who surprises us? It’s continually evolving through the season, throughout the spring, trying to locate who our playmakers are and all the different ways we can get them the rock.
“I always want to have great speed everywhere. We want to be huge up front. We want to be great at quarterback and tailback. We’re always going to be pushing for that. I don’t know a timetable for that. You can just see a lot of our young guys coming on, which has been great to see.”
“Our room, it's all about consistency and effort in practice daily and you're execution and production. If you're not doing that, next guy up. We're at Notre Dame. This isn't happiness camp we're running. We want to win games and win championships.”
Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long