Notebook: Notre Dame looking for consistency from backup QB Brendon Clark

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Reliability starts with consistency.

In Notre Dame football’s search for a backup quarterback this season, head coach Brian Kelly needs to find both in his top option behind third-year starter Ian Book.

Sophomore Brendon Clark was given the opportunity to prove he can be a capable backup in the first five practices of Notre Dame’s preseason camp. The results were a bit up and down.

“Brendon’s got incredible talent,” head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “He has a strong arm. He has strength, escapability, and it’s just the consistency in performance.

“He’ll show himself really well. And then in practice two or three, he was not up to where he was earlier, but the last two practices, four and five, we’ve seen the guy that we felt that we recruited in terms of consistency in performance.”

The fifth practice, which happened Sunday, included scrimmage action and was fully padded. Clark showed some of the good and the bad in clips released by Notre Dame’s in-house Fighting Irish Media.

In seven-on-seven action, the 6-foot-2, 212-pound Clark threw a dart down the middle of the field for a touchdown to wide receiver Lawrence Keys III. Clark also threw an interception during the scrimmage.

He didn’t lead wide receiver Micah Jones enough toward the sideline on an out route, which allowed cornerback Cam Hart to break up the pass. Defensive end Ovie Oghoufo corralled the deflection for an interception.

The throw wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t thrown well enough to avoid a turnover. That’s the kind of lesson that offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees can use in Clark’s development.

Clark only played in three games last season as the third-string quarterback behind Book and Phil Jurkovec, who transferred to Boston College this offseason. Clark completed his only pass for a 22-yard touchdown against New Mexico, but it was a high throw on a screen pass in which Lenzy accounted for all the yardage after the catch.

Rees has his hands full this season with trying to elevate Book’s game to maximize his potential and prepare Clark and freshman Drew Pyne as backups.

After four years of coaching Rees as Notre Dame’s quarterback and three years of coaching with him, Kelly is confident that Rees can handle the quarterback room. Book’s leadership helps too.

“We have a great culture in there,” Kelly said. “Obviously, having Tom in there with those guys makes it for a very good situation, because he played here. He played under me. It creates a great continuity with a group there.

“Then you have a veteran quarterback coming back with Ian Book, who’s a great leader. You couldn’t ask for all the intangibles to be a better situation for us going into this season with all the distractions that are out there as well with our current situation with the virus.”

The 6-0, 194-pound Pyne, who enrolled in January, didn’t get to take advantage of a full spring practice schedule as coronavirus pandemic precautions wiped out all but one Irish practice in March. But the Under Armour All-American has already shown his knack for the game.

“He is so smart as a football player and at the position in which he plays — the quarterback position,” Kelly said. “Just has a great concept of the position and he just has a command about him.”

COVID-19 concerns

Following a spike in COVID-19 cases on campus, Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John Jenkins, announced Tuesday that in-person, undergraduate classes are suspended starting Wednesday for at least the next two weeks.

While classes are held online, off-campus students have been asked to not visit campus. Only residents will be allowed in residence halls, public spaces on campus will be closed and student gatherings of more than 10 are prohibited, Jenkins said.

The restrictions won’t prevent the football team from continuing to practice, according to a university release, because it is still participating in surveillance testing.

All university students were required to test negative before joining campus this semester, but on-campus testing has confirmed 147 cases since Aug. 3 with 89 new positive test results reported Tuesday, nine of which it backdated. The university administered 927 tests since Aug. 3. On-campus class started Aug. 10.

The football program accounted for at least two of the positive test results last week. The program’s surveillance testing of 117 players and 43 staff members on Aug. 10 resulted in two football players testing positive and seven others placed in quarantine due to contact tracing.

Kelly said the team was tested again this Monday for the first time since starting practice last Wednesday. Results of the football program’s testing were not announced as of early Tuesday evening.

“They know they have to continue to wear masks and practice the social distancing and stay away from large gatherings,” Kelly said Monday of his team’s responsibility with students back on campus. “They just can’t do that this year. It’s not part of what their routine can be.

“If they want to play football this year, they have to maintain that discipline. And they get that. Hopefully, they continue to show the discipline they have up until this point.”

Four players have tested positive since the team returned to campus in mid-June. Preventing a COVID-19 spread on the football team could become more challenging as cases rise on campus.

“Are you kidding me?” walk-on offensive lineman Max Siegel tweeted Tuesday after the university’s COVID-19 dashboard was updated. “80 cases on Monday? This is ridiculous.”

Safety in numbers

The presence of burgeoning star Kyle Hamilton should making the departures of starting safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott less debilitating for Notre Dame’s secondary.

But the sophomore Hamilton will need sidekicks. The Irish would like to develop a similar three-man rotation at safety like it used last season with Hamilton rotating with the experienced starters. Junior Houston Griffith and grad transfer Isaiah Pryor are the leading candidates to join Hamilton.

“We have Kyle Hamilton, who’s one of the best guys in the country playing that position,” Kelly said. “It’s a position where we feel really good that we have some guys there that have the ability to impact the game as they have in the past. “

Highlights from practice have shown Griffith and Pryor on the field at the same time, indicating that they aren’t limited to rotating at the same safety position.

Sixth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford also remains a safety option. The safety depth chart also includes junior DJ Brown and sophomore Litchfield Ajavon.

“I don’t know how many I’ve mentioned there, but that’s at least five, maybe six that can play the safety position and do the things and have the versatility that we need back there,” Kelly said. “Coverage skills, the ability to come down and impact the box, pressure, blitz, do some things like that, because we like to play with three safeties at times.”

Sophomore quarterback Brendon Clark, left, is trying to make the leap from third-string quarterback last season to reliable backup behind starter Ian Book.
Grad transfer Isaiah Pryor, who joined Notre Dame in January, gives the Irish an another potential option for a three-man safety rotation.

“We have a great culture in there. Obviously, having Tom (Rees) in there with those guys makes it for a very good situation, because he played here. He played under me. It creates a great continuity with a group there.''

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly on his quarterback group