Chat Transcript: Dissecting the Notre Dame running game, Lenzy's rise and Kelly rumors

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Eric Hansen: Welcome to Notre Dame Football Live Chat, Boston College Edition. Remember to include your name and hometown with your question. Off we go ....

GB from Wasilla, Alaska: Eric, So far this year Jafar Armstrong has been hurt. I can understand him not performing very well because of his injuries. My question is why Brian Kelly keeps playing him so much when he is clearly still injured and not producing?

Eric Hansen: I don't think it's as accurate to say he's hurt as it is that he's recovering. And as Armstrong continues to move toward 100 percent, Brian Kelly believes the investment will begin to pay off. I agree with him. Armstrong is the running back — when healthy — who can most positively impact the offense. It just hasn't happened yet.

Steve from St. Louis: BC has been very successful running the ball this year. How do you see ND defending the run? Five defensive linemen? Bring a safety down? Something else?

Eric Hansen: I think you play eight men in the box (the eighth man being a safety) and dare BC to beat you in the passing game. Even then, it'll still be a formidable challenge. The Irish are a bit banged up in their interior defensive line, yet need to rotate a lot of bodies there and at the end positions. BC has two big backs — AJ Dillon (250) and David Bailey (240), so they can pound at a defense and wear them down. That's why a good rotation of fresh players is important.

Cederick from Saginaw, Mich.: Looks like Camping World Bowl or Cotton Bowl. Can we get to the Citrus Bowl? We are ND. Go Irish.

Eric Hansen: The is a path to the Citrus Bowl, but it's long, windy and unlikely. If a Big Ten team (rather than an SEC team) ends up in the Orange Bowl, opposite the ACC host team, then the Citrus comes into play for the Irish. That is not how things are trending at this time.

Ed from Palm Beach, Fla.: Eric from 75 degrees and sunny Florida in front of a plate of stone crabs!!!! ... Did Ian Book pass your eye test the past three weeks or is this just another version of second-tier competion? My guess is that BC will be fired up Saturday as the little brother comes in with a chip on their shoulder. Thanks.

Eric Hansen: Forty-six degrees here with a cup of coffee from my Keurig machine. ... There has been a lot to like about how Ian Book has been trending the past couple of games, particularly since Navy featured a top 25 pass defense and a pretty good overall defense in all areas, coming in. BC is a bad defense, third from the bottom of the FBS in total defense, in fact. Stanford isn't markedly better. And ND wouldn't likely face a top 40 defense in the Camping World Bowl. So even with encouraging improvement, there's no way to determine whether that will hold up against an elite or very good defense until likely the Irish play Wisconsin Oct. 3, 2020 in Green Bay, Wis.

Don from Cincinnati: Eric, It was obvious in the Navy game that Book had more confidence in throwing to his receivers before they actually got open. I'm hoping this was the case rather than just knowing his receivers were just that much faster than Navy's defenders. Secondly, since the real difference between last year's running game and this year's is the breakaway speed of Dexter Williams, has there been any thought about putting Braden Lenzy or Lawrence Keys in the backfield a la the "Rocket?" Finally, I have watched three games from the end zone, and it seems that Tony Jones Jr. on many occasions could have gotten more yardage after hitting the initial hole and bouncing outside rather than running over oncoming tacklers. However, I'd rather see him do this than try to go outside before hitting the initial hole. Your comments?

Eric Hansen: Don, I don't mind some observations, but it's easier for me if you conclude with a specific question. What I gleaned from this is you want to know if they'd use Lenzy or Keys as a running back? Right? They have used both on jet sweeps, etc., and it's worked out well on most occasions. I don't see the Irish having either of those guys change positions. I think the offseason questions BK and the coaching staff need to ask are: Does a healthy afar Armstrong give ND top-end speed? Does Avery Davis deserve a larger role? How much will the Irish be able to count on swift freshman Chris Tyree next season? As for this season, given the defenses ND faces, I think they have enough in the running game to get to the end of the season without it coming back to bite them. But next year is a different story if the Irish aspire to be a playoff team.

Harry from Connellsville, Pa.: There is no indication that Brian Kelly will be leaving in the near future, but I hear much speculation about Urban Meyer and P.J. Fleck. Am I correct in thinking that neither of them would ever be considered by Notre Dame? Thank you, and have and have great evening.

Eric Hansen: Given the reasons that Urban Meyer is no longer coaching Ohio State, I can't see a Notre Dame connection happening. As far as Fleck? Maybe down the road if his star keeps rising. He has yet to win me over personally.

Jeff from Phoenix: Hi Eric, my question is regarding Paul Moala. Given his improved play recently and especially his impact vs Navy, I saw that Brian Kelly said something to the effect of "he is very talented and we need to get him on the field more." Can you give us some insight as to what that looks like? Is he a safety (that depth chart looks full) or linebacker or rover and does that matter regarding playing time? Thanks!

Eric Hansen: Darin Pritchett and I talked about this on Weekday SportsBeat a bit this week. Among the 13 players who fill the linebacker and rover spots, only Asmar Bilal has expiring eligibility. Deep reserve Jonathan Jones wouldn't be a fifth-year candidate, so you've got 11 guys coming back and 10 of them currently have freshman or sophomore eligibility.

There's a chance that Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah could move to the buck linebacker spot next year, clearing a path for Moala/Jack Kiser at rover. But there are going to be a lot of ascending players in the spring, including Moala.

Marist Liufau, Osita Ekwonu, a recovering Jack Lamb, a recovering Shayne Simon are all among players who will make a run at the starting buck position. This is a long way of saying there's lots of talent and lots of competition, and Moala will get his chance to push for more playing time.

Dan from Belen, N.M.: Chris, there’s lots of sites to acquire information on the Irish. However, yours tops the list! Thanks for so generously sharing your journalistic gifts. About this time of year struggling programs begin evaluating which up-and-coming assistants they can poach to turn things around. Clark Lea must be on a lot of radar screens! In addition to financial enticements, what other items does Kelly have at his disposal to persuade Lea to forgo a possible head coaching position and remain at a Notre Dame as the defensive coordinator?

Eric Hansen: Dan, thank you for the kind words. Humbly, I would like to point out my name is Eric. ... If Clark Lea gets a great opportunity to be a head coach, then he SHOULD leave, but not all head coaching opportunities are promising. I think Clark is smart enough to figure out which ones are. I do not expect him to leave after this season, but if he continues to rise as a coordinator, he'll have opportunities to be a head coach in 2021 and beyond.

ND Harvey from South Philly: E, hope all is well. Any chance Alohi Gilman returns next year? As always, great job. Go Irish.

Eric Hansen: Harvey, there's a chance, but I don't think if would be a very good chance. I wrote about this last week if you want more depth on the answer:

Bill from Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Did Chase Claypool's performance surprise you? Book proved he can throw the long ball. Hope he comes back. Any guess on your part? Is Claypool a top 30-40 pick? Too many questions, but YOU have the answers! Going to miss the GREAT chats, Eric. God Bless and GO IRISH!!

Eric Hansen: Bill, it did not surprise me. I felt all along this was the Chase Claypool we'd see this year. And against Navy, I didn't they'd have anyone athletically who could match up with him. I think right now he's a second/third-round pick in a very deep wide receiver class. Thanks for your questions. ... Oh, and the Book question, I would be surprised if he didn't come back. Not enough NFL buzz and no reason to transfer. Spring could change the latter, but I wouldn't anticipate that at all.

Tim from Pleasant Prairie, Wis.: Hi Eric. Just curious if you believe that, due to Kelly's new practice routine, Ian Book is suddenly cured of whatever trepidation he had about standing in the pocket, checking down his receivers, and letting the ball fly deep to an open or fairly open man. Do you believe we can expect more of this type of performance in the future, not just against BC and Stanford this year, but against a ranked opponent in a bowl game, and then continued into next season?

Eric Hansen: Tim, I don't think cured is the term I would use. I think he is taking steps in the right direction. I would expect the positive trend to continue the next two weeks. Look, there's a natural evolution all QBs have to pass through like dealing with pressure (blitzes), dealing with rush three/drop eight, etc. Some move through those phases faster than others. Some get stuck. Brandon Wimbush was one of those guys who got stuck, for instance. DeShone Kizer went through those stages fairly quickly. If Book continues to grow and progress and form positive habits, it will help the next time he sees an elite defense. But until he faces one, there's no guarantee his success against lesser defenses will translate to that higher level. So we'll all find out together.

Chuck from Brigantine, N.J.: Eric, great to see our guy, Braden, FINALLY involved. Great win over Navy, nice "D" energy. And Ian was the old Ian, despite the absence of an O-Line push in the run game. I have two questions for the Midwest's BEST Sports Journalist: 1) Ovie Oghoufo ... so impressive, where has he been and will we see more of him? 2) I love your optimism about 2020 and want to buy in, but it's difficult for me at present as long as Chip Long is calling the plays. I am satisfied with BK, Ian and Clark Lea — all very capable — but do YOU feel that we can scale the mountain carrying Chip Long? Thank you Eric and have a great Thanksgiving!

Eric Hansen: Chuck, Ovie has been impressing in practice for a while. He was defensive scout team player of the year as a freshman. ND has a lot of guys like him in their defensive end stockpile. That's part of my reason for optimism in 2020. My reasons for tapping the breaks in 2020 would be cornerbacks and the running game. The latter must be much more consistent and dynamic. I think the cornerback position would benefit from a dip into the grad transfer market. As far as Chip Long, I don't see him as the albatross that you see him as. We'll have to agree to disagree on that point.

Jack from Oak Park, Ill.: Eric, looking ahead to Notre Dame's 2020 defense (and national championship run), can ND find its new starting cornerback lineup with the current roster or do we have any viable options in the transfer portal? Thanks.

Eric Hansen: Jack, we're not going to see the full range of options as far as transfers until the season is over ... and maybe not until after spring. Unless Shaun Crawford decided to apply for a sixth year (and it was granted), sophomore TaRiq Bracy is the only CB coming back with ANY significant experience. Of the three freshmen, I'd say KJ Wallace and Cam Hart would be most likely to secure significant roles. None of the three recruits projects as a plug-and-play guy, but there can be surprises. So in other words, there are numbers but a lot of ifs.

Brian Sontchi from Batavia, Ill.: Hi Eric. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the no show in Ann Arbor after a most successful first half of the season. What have you been able to discover surrounding the preparation during those two weeks before the Ann Arbor game? What conclusions have you reached? Was the coaching staff out of town too long recruiting? Players not spending enough time watching film of Michigan’s near miss in State College? Too much time off from other football-related activities? In other words, “what happened” during that two-week period to result in such an ugly performance against the Wolverines? Please let us know. Thank you.

Eric Hansen: Brian it's a great question and one that will take some digging once the regular season ends — and probably beyond that. And it deserves to be answered. I don't think it's easy for fans to just simply move on. The oddest part about it was it was the perfect storm for Kelly. He had been 11-1 at ND in post bye weeks. He knew how to get the most out of those. On top of that, midterms for the players came during the bye week, and fall break (no classes) was during the week of Michigan prep. So yes, I will get to the bottom of it. I just don't have those answers right now.

Jim Tal from Valley Center, Calif.: Eric, keep on truckin' with all the great articles, insights and perspectives that are so invaluable to all us Irish honks. To be candid, I think the Irish might see a significant drop off come next season with the receiving corps, excluding Cole Kmet. I fear losing the terrific Chase Claypool and the coming-alive Chris Finke will leave massive holes in the passing game that ND won't be able to replace. Though there have been flashes from other pass receivers, I have seen nothing on a consistent basis that leads me to believe that the passing game won't suffer significantly as it relates to production in 2020. Please give me a scenario whereby some guys step up and help to mitigate against the impending void that will be left with the departure of Claypool and Finke. Thanks and keep up the splendid work!

Eric Hansen: Jim, thanks for the kind words. I'll start with my belief that the tight end corps and the running backs should be both improved and deeper in terms of the passing game. I think freshman RB Chris Tyree and freshman TE Michael Mayer are a part of that equation. I think two of the incoming freshman WRs will push for spots in the rotation — Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts. I'm bullish on Braden Lenzy, and I think Joe Wilkins, Lawrence Keys, Jay Brunelle and Kendall Abdur-Rahman all have some promise. The key guy to me is Kevin Austin, who's suspended this season. Troy Pride told me last spring that beyond Claypool/Finke, Austin was the toughest to cover. Claypool raved about Austin earlier this week. This past year was a big one for WRs coach Del Alexander in terms of stepping up his game in recruiting. He did. Next year is the prove-it year for him in terms of player development.

Joe Williams from Green Bay, Wis.: Eric Great job as always. I’m just wondering if you think any high-profile program like a Florida State or USC would take a serious run at Brian Kelly and do you think he would have any interest? And if not, how long do you think he’ll stay at Notre Dame. I personally think he’s a great coach and we’re lucky to have him.

Eric Hansen: Joe, thanks. I think Brian Kelly's agent would love for the world to think he's interested and vice versa. I don't think either will happen. Brian has said recently that he'd like to stay at ND and coach a couple of years beyond his current contract (expiring after 2021). And AD Jack Swarbrick has told me that he plans to extend BK's contract.

Jim from Toledo: Eric, a couple Chip Long questions: It seems he goes with what's not working, i.e. run up the middle when it's not there. RPOS, where's the tight end down the seem or quick slant? Am I missing something?

Eric Hansen: Jim. I'm not sure what you're asking me. Not every play results in a first down or a touchdown. And sometimes plays that don't work set up plays later in the game that do. So if you're asking me why Chip Long doesn't run the plays you want, I don't have an answer for you.

Nigel from San Diego: How is the future looking for the Irish, especially in the QB position. I am a huge Book fan and thought he played very well this season outside of the Michigan game.

Eric Hansen: Nigel, a big part of ND's QB future is in your own backyard, but first ... Book has a year of college eligibility after this season. Phil Jurkovec has three years left after 2019. Brendon Clark, is redshirting and will have four. Drew Pyne joins the roster in 2020. Then comes San Diego product (The Bishops School) Tyler Buchner, who is having one of the best high school seasons of any quarterback anywhere.

George from El Segundo, Calif.: Hi Eric: just a comment today, no questions. Have you noticed the tremendous following the chat has in California? A strong ND underground in the land of Troy! Best wishes for Thanksgiving to you and yours.

Eric Hansen: Lots of Californians, yes, A whopping 96 percent of our traffic on comes from outside our traditional circulation area. Happy Thanksgiving.

Steve from Findlay, Ohio: Any word on Bob Stoops? Paul Finebaum said he is basically the coach-in-waiting.

Eric Hansen: You really need to re-evaluate where you're getting your sports news.

Jeff B from Oklahoma City: Eric, I think one of the reasons for the improvement in the offense the last couple of weeks has been getting Book more involved as a threat in the designed running game. Seems to open everything else up. My question is why wasn't this approach taken more earlier in the season? He was not really used at all in this capacity at Georgia, where the run game struggled and they could have used his legs more, nor at Michigan. Which gets me to a comment someone else made earlier and you disagreed with about Chip Long. Why did he not see this then and give it a shot? Mike Sanford was a much better play-caller to me, although he did have the best overall offensive talent Kelly has had, in 2015. I still do not get all the love for him.

Eric Hansen: Jeff, I agree with your point about designed QB runs, and I made that point several times on our SportsBeat radio show before it came to pass. Why didn't ND do that earlier? A couple of theories ... Chip Long fell too much in love with the RPO concept and didn't feel it was necessary, and perhaps earlier in the season there wasn't the confidence that Phil Jurkovec was as ready to take the reins of the offense in case of injury to Book as he is now. As far as Mike Sanford, he never called plays at ND. It was Mike Denbrock during that time ... and statistically he is the best of the Kelly Era relative to the strength of opposing defenses. I like Chip. I don't think we've seen the best of him yet.

Vince from Nashville: Eric, I was listening to you, Darin and Sean on Gameday SportsBeat Saturday. You guys got into a discussion about being able to predict the outcome of the game by the look on coach Kelly's face on the pregame walk. You guys said against Virginia Tech he looked stressed and it was a close game. Last week before Navy he looked happy with a big smile on his face and ND blew out the Midshipmen. Are you being serious in reading him helps predict the outcome of the game or just fooling around? If this is a thing, then Vinny from Las Vegas might start calling you. Go Irish!

Eric Hansen: Vince, I was fooling around. However, when we used to have the Thursday press conferences with BK, I got a pretty good read as to Kelly's confidence level going into that particular game. Now, that in itself doesn't help you predict wins and losses, but I felt I had much better insight into both him as a coach, his pregame mood, how practice had been going that week, the health of the team, etc., etc., etc. I miss those Thursday press conferences.

RC from Albany, N.Y.: Hi Eric. Would you ever consider writing a more in-depth story of the Michigan game? I am still somewhat shocked that the game unfolded the way it did. I understand that there were multiple "causes," but I doubt that they all had the same influence on the team’s performance and the game’s outcome. I would think this topic would be better covered in the offseason, when the coaches, players, staff would be more willing to reflect (on of off the record) on what happened at Michigan — after the 2019 season is complete. What are your thoughts? Thanks.

Eric Hansen: I think it's a great idea, and part of the reason why I think so is that it's relevant — to how people perceive the program, to this season, to 2020 and beyond. So yeah, sign me up for that.

Jim from Cumberland, Md.: Hi Eric. Great Job. Is there any time a QB can call a series of plays on his own without the coach interfering?

Eric Hansen: Ian Book can change a play at the line of scrimmage. He also sometimes has an option based on what he sees, an either/or, if you will. That was the case on his TD run to win the Virginia Tech game. A different defensive look would have dictated the other option. Now keep in mind, if he changes a good play into a bad one, there will be coaches "interfering" with him on the sidelines later.

Ken from Pensacola, Fla.: Eric, living in FSU land can be challenging, especially with the recent firing of their head coach. But, now the RUMORS are that Brian Kelly is a potential candidate for FSU's head coaching job. Is there any truth to those rumors and, in your opinion, if BK was offered the job, would he take it? Thanks. As Always GREAT CHATS. GO IRISH!!!!!!

Eric Hansen: Thanks, Ugh. No. No. No.

Tom from Kennesaw, Ga.: Hi Eric, have a Happy Thanksgiving! I agree with your previous statement about us not knowing more about Book until the Wisconsin game next year. I would add Kelly in there, too. My question is do you think Ian Book and Brian Kelly are like the golfer who plays well and with a lot of confidence on Thursday and Friday, but doesn't have the same confidence on Saturday and Sunday and can't make the 3-foot putt when he needs to? I am afraid that is what we are seeing. Thanks and have a great Thanksgiving. Go Irish!!

Eric Hansen: Tom, Happy Thanksgiving to you. There may be something to your theory, particularly with Book. That doesn't mean he won't eventually get past it. With BK, he's won big games and won some of those on the road. But there have been too many clunkers like Michigan and Miami (Fla,) for the others to stand out. Eventually, if he is going to win a national title, he'll have to win big games that season at home, on the road and two more in the playoff. So that's another reason why getting to the bottom of what went wrong at Michigan matters.

John from St Pete, Fla.: Eric, thanks for the great job you do covering ND football, I have accepted the fact ND will never see another Rocket Ismail, but Lenzy sure does look like a poor man's version, and not just because of the No. 25. Your thoughts, and what has been holding him back?

Eric Hansen: I like him a lot. What has held him back has been injuries and showing up really undersized for the college football grind initially. To Braden's credit, he's worked hard to put himself in a position to be trusted. I think now is the time to invest in him to see what you have in him and what he can become.

Robb from Colorado: Eric, Lenzy missed the Duke game due to fatigue. How can that really be for a young player like him? I get freshmen hit a wall, but couldn't ND still travel him and get him a few plays, ie. 5-10? Doesn't add up to me.

Eric Hansen: I'm not sure it makes sense to Lenzy. I know I'm still confused.

Skip from Houston: I may be doing something wrong, since I have posed a question the last two weeks without a response, but let me pose it again.

Eric Hansen: Skip, the question you pose is a manifesto, and you simply want me to refute it. I'm not doing that. That's not what this chat is all about. It's too broad for a question that could be answered in a reasonable amount of time. There are elements of the question that have been covered in depth in my articles and in other chats. Maybe one of the message boards would be a better forum for what you're looking for. Good luck to you.

Doug from Sunny Florida: Eric, Drew White and Jonathan Doerer are two players that I didn't foresee prior to the first game as having as good of a season as each has had. Both have been quietly consistent and can be relied upon by the team to do their jobs. Even harder, both have done a very good job of moving out of the shadows of their predecessors. Do you agree and who would you add to this list? Tommy Tremble could be a third.

Eric Hansen: Those guys have been big pleasant surprises. I'd add Asmar Bilal and Jamir Jones to that list.

Paul from Lititz, Pa.: Eric, where has the season gone? Just a few games left including a bowl game. What are your thoughts on why the running game has struggled so much, including against lesser competition? Does the blame lay more with the line, more with a lack of explosive play from running backs or more of an equal share. Will any of the RBs establish themselves over the next few games? I love Book’s play these last two games, but I am still puzzled by Phil Jurkovec’s lack of time with a more open playbook. Thanks.

Eric Hansen: I think the running game puzzle has more to do with the running backs (health included), but the line plays a part, and so does Book's up-and-down play in the passing game and ND being slow to add Book into the running game. ND does not play a team ranked higher than 94th in total defense the next two games. So if a running back emerges in that time, it doesn't necessarily mean great things for 2020. The answers long term will start to emerge next spring and even more so next summer when Chris Tyree arrives on campus.

Hank from Las Vegas: Hi Eric it's raining here in the desert, so I figured I'd ask a question of you. I listen to Brian Kelly speak, and I can't figure out the reasons for the things he says and even more so the things he does. This past week he said Ian Book was just in a little slump, speaking of his lack of passing production. He said he knew Book was a deep-ball threat, and that national championships and that the big six bowl games are not the way to measure success. In the second half of the Navy game, he has an excellent opportunity to give Phil Jurkovec some good reps. And what does Kelly do? He lets Jurkovec pass twice. So after all that rambling, here's the question: I personally think that Kelly is trying to distance himself from the stink of the Michigan game. And not allowing Jurkovec to air the ball out was just another way of protecting himself from more heat, should Jurkovec have done well. Does he say and do these things to take the heat off his team or is it more about protecting his own behind?

Eric Hansen: Hank, feel free to ask questions when it's not raining as well. In no way do I think Jurkovec throwing two passes against Navy was a mechanism for Kelly to protect his own behind, but I used your question, because I think some fans are confused sometimes as to what exactly he is trying to accomplish with some of that rhetoric. My thought is he's trying to take the heat off his team, but maybe there are better ways to go about doing that.

Gil from San Juan: What is your current assessment regarding the possibility of Ian returning. In the event he does not return are you confident any of the other QBs would be competitive?

Eric Hansen: I answered the first part earlier. As far as the second part, I think Jurkovec is going to be like Kizer in that he'll grow exponentially when he becomes the guy — if he becomes the guy. I like what I've seen in Brendon Clark. Of the QBs in ND's present and future beyond Book, the one who intrigues me the most is a junior in high school, Tyler Buchner.

Joe from Georgia: Would it be better if ND receives a bid to a more prestigious bowl and loses, or goes to a lesser bowl and wins?

Eric Hansen: I'd always want to play the best competition. How do you get better doing the opposite?

Alex from Jackson, Mo.: Eric, thanks so much for taking your time out for this Q&A. Very much appreciated, as always. Can’t say thanks enough. Maybe sometime you could do a live chat and grill out. Could call it a BBQ&A!! To my question: Where do you see Claypool being drafted? He looks like he could be really good at the next level. What are your thoughts on him in the NFL?

Eric Hansen: Alex, I'd love to do the BBQ&A if I could do so without burning the food. ... Great idea. I've had people tell me even if Claypool wasn't an accomplished receiver — and he is — that he could have a long career in the NFL as an elite special teams player. The only thing hurting him and keeping him in the day 2 range is an exceptionally deep wide receiver draft class.

Dan Lee from Madison, Wis.: Looking ahead to the 2020 season and the Irish HOME game at Lambeau, how many tickets will the visiting Wisconsin Badgers be allocated, and conversely how many will ND fans have available for our distribution? We're thinking this should be a very hot ticket. Will the reverse be true at Soldier Field in 2021 for the return game when the Badgers are the hosts? Thank you and keep up the great work on these chats.

Eric Hansen: 50-50 ticket allotment for both games.

Eric Hansen: OK, I've got to cut it off here. Wish I had more time. Some great questions still in the hopper. Thanks for all of them. We're going to do this next week but on BLACK FRIDAY at noon EST.

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