Notebook: Collaboration defines Notre Dame's approach post-Chip Long and beyond

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly was as determined not to reveal his offensive play caller for next Saturday’s Camping World Bowl as he was to have a little fun with it.

“I think we’re going to keep it as a national secret and let you guys try to guess and talk about it,” the Notre Dame head football coach said Saturday afternoon following bowl practice No. 6, and the most physically demanding to date by Kelly’s accounts.

He later jokingly suggested letting a fan poll determine who’d sit in for recently deposed offensive coordinator Chip Long when AP No. 14 Notre Dame (10-2) takes on Iowa State (7-5) at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.

The real intrigue for the Irish football program long term isn’t so much about whether ND will be talented/motivated enough to cover the modest 3 ½-point spread in the first-ever meeting between the two teams in football.

Rather, it continues to be the process leading up to the bowl game in which Kelly continues to offer clues about how some of the reasons behind the decision to part ways with Long earlier this month may have manifested on the field during the season, and why it would have been too toxic to wait until after the bowl to go in a different direction.

In answering a question Saturday about what markers for success and progress Kelly was looking for from quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees and running backs coach Lance Taylor, the two offensive coaches with elevated responsibility until at least a new offensive coordinator is named, Kelly eventually and voluntarily veered his answer toward addressing Notre Dame’s perplexingly inconsistent running game.

First, he acknowledged it as such, something Kelly has been reluctant to do up until now.

And on the surface, a rushing attack that is ranked 46th nationally and that improved a half a yard per carry over last season to 4.9 could be spun as at least adequate.

But the same personnel that rolled up 308 yards in a 30-27 win over USC on Oct. 12 is the same group that couldn’t hit 50 yards on the ground in either the agonizing near miss at taking down Georgia in Athens (23-17) on Sept. 21 or the complete humiliation in a 45-14 smackdown from Michigan on Oct. 26.

The lightning rod for criticism for the running game’s shortfall has been second-year offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, whose offensive line on the flip side is tied for first among the 65 Power 5 teams nationally in allowing the least sack yardage in 2019 (76 yards).

Without defending Quinn directly on Saturday, Kelly suggested the collaboration among Quinn, Taylor and Rees were producing noticeable improvements in the running game. And he continued to use the word collaboration as if it was something lacking before December.

When pressed if the reported improvement was coming from the offensive line, the running backs or something schematic, Kelly circled back to collaboration.

“More than anything else, (it’s) clearly everybody feeling comfortable with everybody being on the same page,” Kelly said. “Clearly having the kind of — I’ve probably said this 10 times, but what is collaboration?

“Collaboration is sitting down, talking it out, being on the same page with (the) direction toward that. I gave the staff some direction in terms of what we should look like, and they’ve done a really good job of moving forward.

“Again for the untrained eye, I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of difference. But for those that really study our offense, I think you’ll see some improvement that will help us from the start of the game to the end of the game. And that’s what we’re looking for.”

Kelly is leading and present in those offensive meetings, not to test how internal candidates for the permanent OC job, Rees and Taylor, handle certain situations, but to continue to set the tone and direction of what the offense needs to look like after the bowl game, whether Kelly stays in house or goes outside for Long’s successor.

Iowa State, 34th in rush defense nationally out of 130 FBS teams and 43rd in total defense, lands at No. 6 in the spectrum on both accounts of the 13 teams ND faced in 2019. And being in the top third in both is certainly good enough to get some idea about whether the Long-less offense made the strides this month that Kelly is perceiving.

“It’s not going to be the Wing-T out there,” Kelly said, “but I think you’ll clearly see some of the things we want to accomplish in terms of the consistency of the running game — and in the passing game too.

“This is an offense that was pretty darn good, too. So we’re not talking about reinventing the wheel here. These are much more about the staff collaborating on how we want to achieve our offense coming together as one.”

Pro potential

The optimistic spin on Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book’s rating as a pro prospect in Pro Football Focus’ annual pre-bowl QB rankings is that things can change a lot in a year.

PFF rated the 80 starting quarterbacks who are leading their teams in bowl system, whether they were draft-eligible or not.

Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow of LSU moved from No. 42 to 2 from 2018’s rankings to now. And Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan climbed from 74 to 10.

Book came in at No. 35, 27 spots lower than Iowa State sophomore Brock Purdy, who the Irish face in next Saturday’s Camping World Bowl.

“Book has a limited arm and serious pocket-presence issues,” the PFF article said. “We charged him with 11 sacks and 38 pressures on his own this year after charging him with 18 sacks in 2018. Combine that with a limited arm, and you have a long shot in the pros.”

But last year Book was No. 11 in the ratings and Purdy was No. 22.

Book has not announced that he will return to Notre Dame for the 2020 season, but that is expected to be his ultimate decision.

Personnel matters

Sophomore Micah Jones popped up in Notre Dame’s two-deeps, distributed to the media on Saturday, as a backup to leading receiver Chase Claypool.

Jones, 6-foot-5 and 219, has played in four career games for the Irish, never in a high-leverage situation and has zero career catches.

Senior Javon McKinley (11 catches, 268 yards, 4 TDs) had been previously listed as Claypool’s backup, but didn’t play in ND’s final three regular-season games because of a mid-foot sprain in his left foot.

“He’s got to get back into shape,” Kelly said. “He’s been out a month, month and a half. He’s back, dressed. We’ll try to get him ready, but he’s got about six weeks of inactivity, so we’re going to try to get him as ready as we can.”

• Kelly said that even though seldom-used senior linebacker Jonathan Jones is in the transfer portal, he expects Jones to be willing and available to play in the bowl game staged 15 minutes from his parents’ home in Ocoee, Fla. Jones saw action on special teams in all 12 of ND’s regular-season games this season.

• The Irish, who had to work around final exams this past week, plan to practice Sunday and then have a walkthrough Monday morning before flying to Orlando on Monday afternoon.

ND head coach Brian Kelly likes the collaboration he has seen lately from his offensive coaches, including running backs coach Lance Taylor (pictured).