Analysis: Word salad or not, it's time for Notre Dame football to track down its identity

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — When Brian Kelly offers up a word salad during a press conference, it’s not necessarily that he doesn’t know the answer to the question being posed.

Sometimes he’s not ready to share the answer with the world.

Monday, it might have been a little bit of both when the Notre Dame head football coach was pressed about what the buck (weakside) linebacker ideally would look like with four virus-free, injury-free bodies from which to collate.

And that won’t necessarily happen by Saturday, when No. 4 Notre Dame (3-0, 2-0 ACC) hosts Louisville (1-3, 0-3). Kickoff at Notre Dame Stadium is 2:30 EDT, and NBC has the telecast.

Three different players have started at the position in ND’s first three games, one — sophomore Jack Kiser — playing so well in a starter’s role he received the game ball. All three — junior Shayne Simon, sophomore Marist Liufau and Kiser — have missed at least one game each because of COVID-19.

The fourth option, junior Jack Lamb, continues to play catch-up (and special teams) while still recovering from a hip injury that ended his 2019 season and nearly his career.

"Well, I think we have to have a mindset that allows us to play a lot of players,” Kelly began, via Zoom. “They have to have some flexibility at the position in which they play, so we can get the best players on the field.

“I wouldn't be shocked to see guys playing one or two different of those linebacker positions, because we have to get them on the field. They're all really good players. They can impact our defense.

“We can't just be locked in to saying this guy plays ‘mike’ or he plays ‘buck,’ and that's it. We have to be able to get these guys on the field, because they can help us win.”

Filibustering is understandable, given the mid-September COVID-19 team outbreak from which the Irish are finally close to disentangling.

At its peak, 39 Irish players were unavailable, either because of a positive COVID test leading to mandatory isolation or close contact requiring quarantine. The Sept. 26 game at Wake Forest was reshuffled to Dec. 12 and practice was halted for everyone on the roster for nine days. On Monday night, the testing numbers had made a stunning reversal: Zero new cases in 284 tests conducted last week, two lingering players in isolation and zero in quarantine through contract tracing.

Yet even as the case numbers dwindled and contingency plans were put in place, clarity about long-term growth potential didn’t necessarily follow at a similar pace.

Buck linebacker isn’t the only position in which the present and future are fuzzy. And not all the ambiguity is related to the coronavirus.

Take the boundary wide receiver position, held down by Chase Claypool last season. Kelly had hoped to give junior Kevin Austin Jr. 15 to 20 snaps at the position Saturday night in his season debut, deferred initially by a broken bone in his left foot sustained and operated on more than two months ago.

Austin, potentially the most dynamic player on the 2020 Irish offensive roster, ended up playing three snaps against the Seminoles, with one ball thrown/overthrown to him and zero catches.

The reason was a pleasant surprise from another receiver, grad senior Javon McKinley. His career-high 107 yards on five catches to go along with his typical physicality blocking in the run game was interpreted by Kelly as a sustainable breakthrough and not an outlier performance.

“It’s an interesting kind of confluence, if you will, if that’s the right word,” Kelly said. “We’re trying to bring Kevin back at the same time we’re trying to elevate Javon within our offensive structure.”

“So in one sense, we want to get Kevin back in the mix. But we don’t want to take away from the success of Javon, because we’re trying to feed him, if you will, and feed him in the sense of building his confidence. So it’s kind of a tricky situation for us right now.”

But a good kind of tricky situation.

“Kevin is now at that mark where we feel like we can just put him now and not have to worry about his numbers or how much he’s playing. So you’re going to see him in the game at the same time as McKinley.

“They had been kind of working at the same position. Now it’s going to be a very competitive situation during the week of practice and these guys are going to be competing for playing time.”

That means Austin could show up at the other receiver spots in the formation. And if everything goes right, he’ll become Notre Dame’s new No. 1 option on punt returns, replacing junior Lawrence Keys III.

Keys has two punt returns on the season for minus-3 yards, and muffed one Saturday night at the ND 19-yard line that set up Florida State’s first touchdown of the game.

As Kelly and his coaching staff recalibrate roles and expectations with a fuller roster, what the Irish should look like statistically remains static.

The five metrics that teams that compete for and win national titles excel in are rushing offense, pass efficiency, rushing defense, total defense and turnover margin.

Of the 22 national titlists in the BCS/Playoff Era, 18 of them were in the top 25 nationally (or top 20 percent) in at least four of those categories. The other four champs checked at least three boxes.

Accounting for the fact that only 76 of the 130 FBS teams have started their seasons (and another 51 will do so by Nov. 7), the bar for now is top 15.

Right now, Notre Dame clears only one of the five statistical standards — No. 5 in rushing offense, though the Irish are close in total defense (16th).


Of the eight teams in the top 10 of this week’s AP poll who have started their seasons (No. 6 Ohio State and No. 9 Penn State begin on Oct. 24), only No. 1 Clemson and No. 3 Georgia can claim to be on target on more than two of the five metrics.

The Tigers are ninth in passing efficiency, 10th on rush defense and 11th in total defense.

No. 2 Alabama checks one box (pass efficiency) and is 65th in total defense. No. 10 Florida is No. 5 in passing efficiency and no higher than 50th in anything else, with a total defense ranking of 72nd.

Where Notre Dame is most divergent from the championship metrics is passing efficiency. But ND’s No. 37 ranking has as much to do about developing Austin, McKinley and the rest of the wide receiver position as it does with QB Ian Book continuing to get more comfortable in the pocket and more proficient and willing in the deep passing game.

In the other two key categories the Irish are 28th in turnover margin and 21st in rush defense. As Louisville comes to town with the nation’s No. 9 rusher in Javian Hawkins and a dual-threat quarterback in Malik Cunningham, it’s important that Kelly at least answer the buck linebacker question on the field this week.

The problem is he won’t know for sure until later in the week if Kiser — one of the two players presumed to be in isolation — will be available for Louisville. And even then, Kiser would have missed at least a week-plus of practice and the FSU game because of COVID-19.

Defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, ND’s best interior defensive lineman, is in a similar situation for the same reasons, per Kelly.

But at least the personnel challenges and the numbers are more manageable this week. And for that Kelly had no problems with being direct.

“For us here at Notre Dame getting into a normal work week is enjoyable,” he said. “Coming back with certainly a routine, it provides a bit of, I guess from a coach’s standpoint, that sense of normalcy.”

Kelly Smile