Chat Transcript: Dissecting Notre Dame's WR rotation and its QB development trends
Eric Hansen: Welcome to Notre Dame Football Live Chat, Pitt Week Edition. Please include your NAME and HOMETOWN with your question. The question queue is filling up fast, so let's get right to it.
Pete from Portage, Mich.: Hola, Eric. Hope all is well with you and your media cohorts! I have noticed a lack of playing time for Isaiah Foskey over the last two games. I assume he was one of the many who got sick. Is he having lingering effects of being sick or is not playing up to standards to get many reps? He looked so good against OK teams early on. To that same token, is C'Bo Flemister not healthy or just will have limited reps because of Kyren Williams and emergence of Chris Tyree? Must be tough mentally on these guys who put time/work into the program and in the third year, and playing time is limited.
Eric Hansen: Hola, Pete. Thanks for the good wishes. I actually wrote about Isaiah Foskey (and Jack Kiser) early in the week. Kelly's quote in the story was: “They’re both guys that have missed chunks of playing (and practice) time. But they have to get on the field for us.”
So Foskeys slow return was at least initially relate to COVID. Here's the link if you want to read the whole story: https://www.ndinsider.com/football/analysis-foskey-kiser-top-the-list-of-notre-dame-spare-parts-poised-to-ascend/article_2767f3fe-40c5-585f-b939-2ad41d61c998.html
As far as C'Bo, he's the third option behind two young players who are earning everything they're getting. He'll get his chances when the opportunity presents itself, but the priority is getting Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree on the field.
Brian Sontchi from Batavia, Ill.: Hello Eric. Hope all is well with you and yours. In your recent Sunday article you mentioned three Irish teams from past 50 years who ranked in top 4 in scoring defense. If you can stretch that a bit to past 55 years to include the 1966 national title team, where did they rank in scoring defense? I ask because if memory serves me correctly that Irish squad held six of its 10 opponents to 0 points. Please let us know. Thank you.
Eric Hansen: The 1966 Irish were No. 2 in scoring defense at 3.8 ppg allowed.
Eric Hansen: There is no shortage of Ian Book/passing game/wide receiver/QB development questions today. Not all of them are seeking the same answer. I'll try to get to as many of them as I can that won't look at the same aspects of those questions.
Jeremy from Goshen: Hi Eric. Thank you for all your work! You are the best in the business! I am writing over concern with the passing game. Versus Duke and Louisville, it seemed that the wide receivers were struggling to get separation. What are the measurables for who gets on this field? It seems that Kevin Austin, Xavier Watts, and Jordan Johnson would be an upgrade athletically over Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek. Other Division I teams are playing their talented true freshmen. Why can't ND? Is the coaching staff making it more complicated than it should be? Please help me understand the ideology behind this. The coaches need to help Ian Book out by getting the best athletes on the field.
Eric Hansen: There is both an injury element and COVID-19 element that have affected which wide receivers have gotten on the field to this point. And with 11 options and no bye week until Nov. 21, you really can't have an open audition. Athleticism counts, but so does chemistry with the quarterback. We've had two really good guests on Pod of Gold this week and recently in Bobby Brown and Corey Robinson who did a great job of breaking that down.
Ultimately, Notre Dame's offense works best when there's a speed receiver on the outside who can stretch the field and open up the offense for other receivers and even the running game. Think Will Fuller and Kevin Stepherson. The current version of that is Braden Lenzy. So he needs to play, but he also needs to be healthy. He played two snaps last week.
Kevin Austin Jr. is the best all-around receiver. He missed more than two months with a broken bone in his left foot. They're easing him back in. He played three snaps vs. Florida State on Oct. 10, and 22 — I believe — last week. He needs to play more than that.
So then who can you pair with those two who gives you the best chance to win? Javon McKinley? Ben Skowronek? Joe Wilkins? Avery Davis? Lawrence Keys III? Jordan Johnson? That's what offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander and Brian Kelly need to get to the bottom of and soon, now that everyone but perhaps Keys is back.
I think the answer would have been different if there had been a normal spring and a normal training camp. Xavier Watts in that scenario may have been in the conversation. If Wilkins can play in the slot, the answer might just be him.
Tom from Raleigh N.C.: Thanks for all your great work, Eric! ND's path to the playoff is winning (not impressing) every other game and then splitting (at least) with Clemson (Nov. 7 and ACC Championship). Does that change coach Kelly's approach to "just win baby" versus piling up points to appear dominant to committee?
Eric Hansen: Tom, thank you. This is going to be such a tough task for the committee, because of COVID stops and starts, because the Power 5 leagues don't play each other in big intersectional games, because of the different number of games played. Having said all of that, you want to be a team that's playing your best ball in November and December. So if ND, say, splits with Clemson, beats UNC on the road and pummels the others in November/December (BC, Wake and Syracuse), the 12-7 win over Louisville isn't going to be a sticking point. So improvement will be valued much more than style points or lack thereof in September and October.
Stan from Ballston Lake, N.Y.: Hi Eric. Been enjoying this for about three years now. Really appreciate your insight and also the great questions you get from the readers on a weekly basis. Pitt’s run defense seems legit. But so does our O-line and stable of backs. Do you think Tommy Rees will rotate the backs in to keep them fresh?. Or simply ride the hot runner? One more, i think we should be able to pass on this team and really need to get that going before Clemson. Do you think we will see a few more crossing routes this week? It seems we like to throw vertically down the sidelines and a lot of 50-50 balls. I’d love to see Book hit a guy in stride. I know he can! Just gotta believe it himself and let it rip!
Eric Hansen: Stan, thank you. It's the nation's No. 7 rushing offense vs. the No. 1 rushing defense ... and also a team that can get after the quarterback (No. 2 in sacks) without having to blitz. I think Brian Kelly certainly has the confidence in going deeper than the top two running backs, but he does like to ride a hot hand. When Kyren Williams got 25 carries against Louisville, it marked just the third time since the 2012 national title game run that an Irish back got 25 or more carries in a game. ... ND is going to have to pass the ball and pass it well to keep Pitt off balance. I'm not sure you'll see more crossing patterns. Their safeties are really good. I'm curious to see how ND's tight ends will match up in this one.
Jeff from Phoenix: Hey Eric. The defense did play well last week, but in my opinion, the pass rush was sub-optimal. This puts too much pressure on the secondary with someone like Trevor Lawrence showing up soon. Any ideas for improvement? You wrote about Foskey and that he is a (co)-leader in sacks and leader in hurries despite very few snaps. So why hasn't he been on the field more? Separately, can we assume from the Louisville game that Kevin Austin's audition for punt returner did not pan out? Thanks for your patience with us chatters!
Eric Hansen: Jeff, I must have done a poor job of writing that article, because Brian Kelly came out and said Foskey needs to play more and that COVID concerns had been holding both him and Jack Kiser back. ... I may get a chance to ask about Austin tomorrow, but my sense is the priority is to get him up to speed in the passing game foremost, then perhaps hone his punt return skills.
Ryan from Mars, Pa.: Good afternoon, Eric. When we will we know who the players are that aren’t playing this week against Pittsburgh?
Eric Hansen: There is only one in isolation and one in quarantine this week. The unavailable players are announced 90 minutes before kickoff each game.
Robert from Evansville, Ind.: Eric, have you seen anything on Pitt's starting quarterback's injury status? Thank you!
Eric Hansen: Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi won't say. Brian Kelly expects Kenny Pickett, the starter, to play after missing the Miami game Saturday with an ankle injury. The people who cover Pitt seem to think backup Joey Yellen will get the start. There's a big gap in what those two bring to the table.
Jim from Albuquerque: Hello Eric from the land of enchantment! Sure enjoy these Q&A’s, and thanks for giving Irish fans this forum. More of an observation than question. Ian Book continues to struggle with missing open receivers and/or overthrowing passes. Brian Kelly says he’s a winner. He’s a winner against mediocre competition but he hasn’t won big games. If he continues his current performance, I dread the Clemson game, as they’ll clog the box to force him to pass. Am I off-base here? Thanks and be safe!!!
Eric Hansen: I said before the season started, if Notre Dame was going to be a serious playoff contender, one of the elements that had to show up was Ian Book being in the top 10 nationally in passing efficiency. The Irish as a team are 46th out of the 77 teams that have played at least one game. Of the five key metrics (rush offense, rush defense, total defense, pass eff., turnover margin), that's the area where Notre Dame is furthest away from a championship contender. Clemson is 8th in team pass efficiency. Alabama is 1st. Georgia also is challenged in this area, at 52nd. That doesn't mean Book can't improve and improve significantly, but this game against Pitt will be a good indicator of whether and how much improvement is possible.
Scott from Muskegon, Mich.: Why do you think all of the QBs in the Kelly Era seem to regress?
Eric Hansen: I get this question multiple times a year, and it's certainly a reasonable one to ask. Kelly has done very well with first-year starters, not so well with second-year starters and has something yet to prove with a third-year starter. It's hard to answer this question in a chat forum. I've written about it in some depth in the past. The short answer is that there's not a common thread that links these quarterbacks and their progress or lack thereof, because Kelly has tried to change the QB development model and I think there have been significant changes. Sometimes it's had more to do with the personnel around the QB than the QB himself. In Book's case, there was turnover at wide receiver and the offseason was far from normal, but he has one of the best offensive lines in the country in front of him, and that should count for something. I think this game vs. Pitt is really going to be interesting to see how he responds.
Tom from Royville, Ind. Eric, love your work. I just don’t see improvement in Ian Book’s game. When pressure is on, he tucks and runs. If the first read's not there, it’s over. Great feet, great leader and a winner. I guess I should look at the positives. Go Irish.
Eric Hansen: There are positives. I mean, he's the second-leading rusher in Notre Dame history at the QB position between only Tony Rice. He's an outstanding leader on and off the field, and that shouldn't be discounted. But I know Ian wants to be better in the passing game, and it's reasonable for him to hold himself to a higher standard. We're going to find out very soon if he's reached his ceiling or if there's another level to his game.
Cale Fontenot from Louisiana: Hi Eric, thanks for always covering all our questions and doing these chats! My question might’ve been answered before, but I’m not totally sure. I think the most glaring thing holding back the Irish from being elite is quarterback play. I get where Brian Kelly is coming from when he says Book is a winner, but does he really believe Ian is the best option? I feel as if Brendon Clark or even Drew Pyne have much higher ceilings than Ian. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to utilize your best talents to make this team operate at its highest possible level. (Clemson coach) Dabo (Swinney) pulled a proven QB for a true freshman and that has worked out terrifically for Clemson. I just don’t understand why Kelly is so damn stubborn. Thanks!
Eric Hansen: Cale, perhaps Brendon Clark and/or Drew Pyne will be better college QBs than Book in time, but you know there's no way they are at this point. If Phil Jurkovec were still on the roster, then there might be a good argument there. He's not on the ND roster, however. Now, you and I both know Trevor Lawrence isn't like any freshman most of us have ever seen or will ever see, so I don't think that's fair. There is a high-ceiling QB coming for the irish, but Tyler Buchner won't be on the roster until 2021.
James Coleman from Parts Unknown: Will the way Notre Dame is playing and the ranking help 2022 recruiting?
Eric Hansen: It certainly can't hurt. I think one thing that helps is that offensive players can now see what a Tommy Rees offense looks like. They don't have to imagine it.
RK from Sartell Minn.: When will we see our five-star wide receiver play this year?
Eric Hansen: Jordan Johnson has played 14 snaps this season. When will he play again? Maybe later in the year. I think there are too many options right now that the coaching staff trusts more than they trust Johnson.
Tom from Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eric, what is the status of No. 95? Nothing against No. 57, but there appears to be a noticeable drop in performance between the two. Also do you have any information as to the constant rotation of the defensive front seven. Is it a ‘keep them fresh’ or situation specifically? If situation-specific could it pigeonhole the defense and create unforeseen mismatches?
Eric Hansen: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (95) is just getting back from being in isolation with COVID-19. He played seven snaps Saturday without having practiced much. I think you'll see a significant increase this week. As for (57) Jayson Ademilola, he's really talented but needs to improve on being in the right place and on his technique. He's still an ascending player, but MTA is the top option when he's healthy.
As far as the defensive rotation, Clark Lea and Mike Elston have always liked to rotate the D-line to keep fresh bodies coming in waves at opposing offenses. It's worked very well coming into this year. The linebacker rotation is new this year for the most part, yet part of developing depth at linebacker was preemptive when it came to COVID-19. If the people rotating in weren't talented enough to provide quality depth, Lea would do less of it.
Will from New York: Is Isaiah Pryor ever going to play?
Eric Hansen: Beyond special teams, his playing time will be tied to how well he adapts to playing the rover position after coming to ND as a safety. Even then, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is going to be on the field a lot.
Stan from Rockford Ill.: Thanks for these chats. Well done. We look forward to them. A five-part question. Answer whichever ones you want. Will this week be the week we finally see more of Kevin Austin or either of WRs Johnson or Wilkins? Will defensive coordinator Clark Lea pressure a QB recovering from his ankle injury? Will the tight ends be more a part of the passing game? Will COVID protocols re travel and end-of-week prep be a determining factor in ND's first road game? Will the offensive scheme be ready for inevitable blitzes and them packing the box? Best wishes and health to you and your family.
Eric Hansen: Stan, thanks for being part of the chat. 1. Austin more and more. Wilkins is going to get a shot. 2. It doesn't look like No. 1 QB Kenny Pickett is going to play, so no. 3. I think the tight ends will be a bigger part of the game plan ... but also in the running game and in providing some help versus. Pitt's really strong pass rush. 4. No to the COVID protocols if I understood that question correctly. 5. I think ND is anticipating a strong pass rush and a loaded box, yes.
Jordan from South Bend: Hey Eric, thanks for releasing the Michigan debacle article a couple weeks ago. That was a great piece, but it made me wonder why after 30 years of coaching Brian Kelly finally believes it takes top 5 recruiting classes to reach the mountain top. Obviously, he's seen the success 'Bama, Georgia, OSU have had because of the Jimmy's and Joe's that they get. Does he feel he can get some leeway from admissions on borderline prospects or was he arrogant enough to think he would beat the elite programs with three- and four-stars?
Eric Hansen: Jordan, you're welcome and glad you enjoyed it. To your recruiting question, it's not just about getting a given five-start prospect through admissions. It's about identifying those who can survive in the classroom at Notre Dame once they clear admissions and have the drive to want to take that on during their college football careers. In the 2011 class, five-star Stephon Tuitt turned out to be a good fit. Five-star Aaron Lynch did not. So the retention ability has to figure into that recruiting formula. And yes there are areas where ND can improve its recruiting. BK is committed to that.
Cederick Walker from Saginaw, Mich.: If Notre Dame finishes 12-0 or 11-1, do you think they make the College Football Playoff and play in the Rose Bowl?
Eric Hansen: The College Football Playoff semifinal sites are the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl this season. So if ND goes 12-0, that means they beat Clemson twice. That would be an easy playoff selection. So 50-50, they'd be sent to the Rose Bowl. ... At 11-1, it means they split with Clemson or swept the Tigers and lost to someone else. I think an 11-1 ND team might have a chance, given the Pac-12 is only playing seven games and none of those teams are expected to be top 5 teams. And unless Oklahoma State runs the table, the Big 12 could be in trouble, too.
James from Dallas, Texas: Eric, there are a lot of questions about Ian Book’s development and whether he can win the big game, but how much of the early season passing game issues may be related to our receivers' inability to create separation or get open? Watching the game Saturday, there was a lot of commentary about how good Louisville’s coverage was, but that again may speak to the receivers' poor performance.
Eric Hansen: James, I caught part of the Georgia Tech-Louisville game the week before, and the freshman QB for Tech (Jeff Sims) was beating the Cardinals deep. So it's difficult to square that against what Notre Dame did in the passing game. BK emphasized problems in the red zone, but I think the issues went beyond that. Javon McKinley didn't have a good day, but neither did Book.
Dwight from Arkansas: I don't think many will argue that Ian Book is an incredible competitor. As Brian Kelly has pointed out, he is 23-3 as a starter. In fairness, I also don't think we can argue that he has the skill set of many of his peers. It appears he has "topped out" with his abilities — his arm strength is what it is. His accuracy is, at times, suspect. Reports are that he is reading defenses better and maybe staying more in the pocket, but decision-making can be a question. The now-departed Phil Jurkovec appears to have a much higher "skill set" in looking at his early numbers. We hear that ND does not develop quarterbacks. That may be largely unfair, but people throw it out there. Given Book's steady-though-perhaps-unspectacular play and Jurkovec's gaudy early stats at BC, do you think Jurkovec was properly brought along at ND? Is BC's ability to harvest a QB's potential simply better? It is hard not to wonder what kind of numbers Jurkovec could have put up at ND given the chance.
Eric Hansen: I think the way you phrased this was very fair. Jurkovec's numbers are actually pretty similar to Book's in terms of passing efficiency (138.0 to 133.9). For comparison, Alabama's Mac Jones is No. 1 as 220.1. But Book is playing behind an infinitely better line. Boston College is 75th out of 77 in rush offense and has given up 18 sacks in five games, so they're 72nd out of 77 in terms of protecting their quarterback. Your question really comes down to was Jurkovec's claims that he wasn't developed properly at ND legit? I think even Brian Kelly would admit that to a certain extent, which is one reason why he changed offensive coordinators. But part of it still falls on Kelly. And it is hard not to wonder had Phil been developed AND given the chance.
Joe Vrabec from New York: Hi Eric. Hope you are well. When LSU hired (Scott) Linehan , it was to help the offensive coordinator. Could that be a move Brian Kelly could try? Or would he not want to release any power to a coach like that?
Eric Hansen: Joe, I haven't seen enough of LSU yet to get a grasp of how that move is working out yet. To a lesser extent, Kelly did something similar with the hiring of tight ends coach John McNulty, although he doesn't have the title to suggest his influence. He's someone who's worked with Rees and had NFL experience and experience as a college offensive coordinator.
ND Harvey from Philly Pa.: E, hope all is well. Please tell me why we can’t find someone to return punts. Thank you. Be Safe. Go Irish.
Eric Hansen: Some of it's injury-related (Lawrence Keys III with a concussion). He did not start out strong this year, however.
Dave Ponte Vedra, Fla.. Faithful reader, first time participant. I’m a loyal Irish fan of more than 59 years. I’m extremely pleased with the progress I’ve seen over the past 10 years — better talent, better coaching. That said, it’s impossible to watch Clemson or Alabama and think we are in the same conversation as those two. We have good athletes; they have elite. I fear another Clemson blowout, since we are incapable of pushing the ball downfield. It’s not all on Ian Book. I don’t see our receivers getting much separation. No deep game will equal no running game. Convince me I’m wrong, please.
Eric Hansen: I'm going to let you down, because I can't convince you that you're wrong. ND's offense and Book need to evolve between now and November. You can't have a hole that size in your game when you play the elite teams.
Bill from Thousand Oaks, Calif.: What would you do specifically to improve ND’s red-zone performance? I thought Austin, Henderson, Mayer showed well. Seems we have lots of weapons in various sizes but miss Claypool’s hands. Maybe McKinley only a step away? Please stay well. Looking forward to your incisive comments. Go Irish!
Eric Hansen: I probably would have flexed the multiple-tight end sets down there a little more Saturday. Some of it was Book's accuracy, I probably would have run a little bit more.
John from Walled Lake, Mich.: Hi Eric, how are you doing today? I believe Notre Dame will lose to Pittsburgh. Notre Dame will not be able to run against Pittsburgh defense, thus they will be force to pass.
And with the anemic passing game, they will be unable to move the ball. Notre Dame will not be able to slow down Pittsburgh's passing. The only reason Louisville did not have many yards is because they did not have the ball a lot and on the key possession their quarterback was on the bench nursing an injury. So it is very misleading to think our defense played a good game. Eric can you please give me your thoughts on my evaluation of the game?
Eric Hansen: I disagree with your assessment of the defense. To hold Javian Hawkins to 51 yards and 3.4 per carry was outstanding, as well limiting Tutu Atwell to 32 receiving yards. Three of nine on third down? I'll take it. I don't think ND will lose to Pitt, but it'll be a tough game. Pitt doesn't have the offensive balance to win a lot of games.
Andrew from Chicago: Eric, any insight to why the helmets look so bad (I guess in my opinion) especially at night? We look like Blue and brass, not gold. Watching older games, from 2012-2015, the helmets look perfect. What gives?
Eric Hansen: Andrew, I've got to be honest with you, I'm paying far more attention to whether there's a ketchup stain on my shirt than what the helmets look like. It's not a bad question at all. It just doesn't register with me during a game.
Doug from Sunny Florida: Eric, Shaun Crawford is a dynamic and exciting player to watch. No matter where you put him on the field, he goes full speed and makes plays. I've enjoyed watching him since the game against MSU in 2017, when MSU was getting ready to score after being down early and Shaun caused a fumble at the goal line and recovered it in the end zone. He's a gamer! My question is: What do we need to do to convince him to come back for a seventh year?
Eric Hansen: I don't think that's realistic (and I agree he's fun to watch). I think he's going to want to get on with life.
Gene from New York: Hi Eric. Thanks, as always, for great coverage. Louisville's defense looked like blueprint for Clemson — just replace with better athletes across the board. Book, who took a step forward against Florida State, took two steps back Saturday. Other than praying for a blizzard and subzero temps, is there anything you can point to that doesn’t scream of a repeat of playoff game pounding?
Eric Hansen: I do think ND's run game is better than in 2018, but I'm not going to deny two things: Clemson is the best team in the country and the most balanced on both sides of the ball of any of the top 10 teams. AND ... the Oct. 17 version of Notre Dame can't show up on Nov. 7.
Jay from Chicago: Hi Eric, as always, thanks for all you do to keep Irish fans well-informed. The last two years the D-Line could get consistent pressure from a four-man front, and I was expecting much of the same this year based largely upon Kelly's preseason praise of the unit. Sacks, pressures and turnovers seems to be lacking, however. What are the major factors leading to the disconnect?
Eric Hansen: ND lost two really good pass rushers in Okwara and Kareem. The two best on this team now are Isaiah Foskey and Ade Ogundeji. COVID has altered the player development model at certain positions and D-line is one of them. I think this D-line can start to build momentum now with all the pieces back. The revolving door at cornerback hasn't helped in terms of forcing turnovers, but that position group has held up remarkably well.
Lawrence from San Diego: Hey Eric. What do you think the chances are that Ian Book throws for 300 and 75% on Saturday. That was roughly his average performance in his first five games. I’m not usually a hater, but the chances seem pretty low of him hitting that now in any game. Competition level aside, it seems strange for a quarterback after three years of development.
Eric Hansen: If we see those kinds of numbers on Saturday (300 and 75%), that would be a breakthrough performance. We'll see if that happens.
Jim Tal from Valley Center, Calif.: Eric, wishing you the very best as always from a rural hamlet on the Left Coast. My question concerns the virtual non-use of Jafar Armstrong. Not being plugged in as you are, it's hard to fathom what is truly going on with this perplexing player. I still believe he has legitimate skills that could benefit the Irish in some capacity, particularly when it comes to pass receiving. Couldn't he be brought in on likely pass situations, where he has shown he's capable of providing some legitimate production? And since ND is getting literally nothing from the slot position, couldn't the coaching staff at least consider moving Armstrong over to that spot, since he appears to have the requisite tools necessary to man that position? In my opinion, it is sheer waste and at least a partial indictment of the offensive coaches that Armstrong has become an absolute non-factor. In short, what the heck is going on with Armstrong and can he somehow salvage what has been a deflating senior season thus far? Stay well and safe.
Eric Hansen: Jim. thanks, and best to you. I'm not sure how Armstrong matches up as a slot receiver against a cornerback or nickel. He's really good when he has a linebacker or safety covering him, as a running back. I think it would take an injury or COVID for him to get an opportunity to prove himself all over again. He looked good on a kickoff return this month. I wouldn't give up on him, but he's not a priority right now.
Eric Hansen: That's going to have to do it today. I need to type, read and think faster, as there are a lot of questions left in the queue. Thanks for submitting them. We'll be back next week to do it all over again at noon EDT.