Notebook: Despite missing starters, No. 1 Clemson still has plenty of talent to challenge Notre Dame
The list of players that Clemson has played without at times this season could be crippling for many programs.
But the No. 1 Tigers (7-0, 6-0 ACC) are the top-ranked team in the country in part because their incredible depth has allowed them to navigate the season despite the absences.
Last Saturday against Boston College, Clemson played without several starters including quarterback Trevor Lawrence (COVID-19), wide receiver Justyn Ross (spine), defensive tackle Tyler Davis (ankle), defensive end Justin Foster (undisclosed), linebacker Jamie Skalski (groin) and linebacker Mike Jones (hamstring).
Most, if not all, of those players won’t play against No. 4 Notre Dame (6-0, 5-0 ACC) on Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium (7:30 p.m. EST on NBC) either. Yet the Clemson depth chart still has plenty of talent regardless of who will be available on Saturday.
That’s the product of elite recruiting by a program that’s played in the College Football Playoff in each of the past five seasons and won the national championship twice during that time.
“We have their depth chart here, and I’ll take their fourth sam linebacker,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “Let’s see, I’ll take their fifth defensive tackle. I’ll take their fourth defensive end. They’re in pretty good shape.
“I do not wish COVID on them at all and I do not wish them any injuries. But they’re going to put out a really good product with the other players that they have. We’re going to be prepared for the No. 1 team in the country, and the guys they roll out, they’re going to be pretty good.”
Perhaps most importantly, the Tigers will still feature running back Travis Etienne. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound senior became Saturday the ACC’s all-time leading rusher with 4,644 career rushing yards. He also set the FBS record for most career games with a touchdown at 42 games and counting.
“He’s the best running back in the country, first of all,” Kelly said of Etienne. “I’ll go on record in saying that. Elite speed, tough inside-out runner, incredible out of the backfield. He’s the complete package.
“When you’re looking up complete running back in the dictionary, his picture and name should be there because that’s who he is. I don’t know that there’s a back that we’ve gone against — and we’ve gone against some great backs — that is as complete of a player as he is.”
Only three players in the country with 100-plus carries are averaging more yards per carry than Etienne’s 5.88 this season: Iowa State’s Breece Hall (6.72), Louisville’s Javian Hawkins (6.18) and SMU’s Ulysses Bentley IV (6.04).
In Notre Dame’s 12-7 victory over Louisville last month, the Irish limited Hawkins to 3.4 yards per carry (15 carries for 51 yards).
Notre Dame kept Etienne in check for much of its 30-3 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal in 2018, but his 62-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter helped bury the Irish. Etienne finished the game with 109 rushing yards and one touchdown on 14 carries.
If the Irish can limit Etienne on Saturday, it will put more pressure on freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei. The former five-star recruit showed he could handle game pressure by leading the Tigers to a 34-28 victory over Boston College after trailing by 18 points in the second quarter.
The Eagles defense played well in the first half, but it hasn’t been as consistently stingy as Notre Dame’s this season. The blueprint for the Irish against Uiagalelei, who finished 30-of-41 passing for 342 yards and two touchdowns with a 30-yard touchdown run in his starting debut, won’t be much different than the blueprint against any talented quarterback.
“Whether you’re a freshman or whether you’re a senior, a lot of the axioms are still the same,” Kelly said. “You don’t want a quarterback to feel comfortable. For us defensively, get him out of a comfort zone. Don’t let him in rhythm. Don’t give him the easy throws that are comfortable for him and make him do some things that he doesn’t want to do.”
Notre Dame probably has a trick play or two in its arsenal that it hasn’t used yet, but Kelly said he doesn’t believe in holding back aspects of his offense before a big game.
“Anybody that says they are holding plays or schemes for a team later in the year, I just don’t buy that,” Kelly said.
The Irish have sprinkled some trick plays into games already this season with running back Kyren Williams throwing a pass against Pittsburgh and holder Jay Bramblett attempting a fake field goal against Louisville. Neither play was executed to perfection, but the Williams pass did draw a defensive pass interference on coverage of tight end Tommy Tremble.
Outside of trick plays, Kelly doesn’t expect much mystery in the schemes either team will deploy on offense, defense and special teams.
“You’re really not holding anything back from that perspective saying, ‘Hey, we have Clemson in six weeks. We’re not going to do this or we’re not going to do that.’
“We’re not coming out in split back and running the veer. They’re certainly not going to come back and change what they do, even if Trevor Lawrence was the quarterback. They’re going to be who they are.”
Armstrong to WR
One small change Notre Dame has made in its offense is returning senior Jafar Armstrong to the wide receiver position. Armstrong has been playing running back since a breakout season in 2018, but his usage at the position has been almost exclusively limited to lopsided victories this year.
Through six games, Armstrong registered 17 carries for eight yards and one touchdown. Armstrong was recruited by the Irish as a receiver out of Shawnee Mission (Kan.) Bishop Miege. On this week’s depth chart, the 6-1, 220-pound Armstrong was listed as the No. 2 boundary receiver behind Javon McKnley.
The emergence of Kyren Williams, Chris Tyree and C’Bo Flemister at running back has given the Irish the confidence to move Armstrong elsewhere.
“We think that Jafar can be much more of an impact player for us at the wide receiver position,” Kelly said. “He will continue to work there. Eventually when he gets a little bit more time there, he’s going to impact us and help us win football games.”
• Though Notre Dame will have Election Day off Tuesday due to an NCAA rule, most of the Irish football players have already voted. Kelly said roughly 90 players on the team voted early using mail-in options as absentee voters.
“We’ve been extremely active in it,” Kelly said. “So they won’t be racing out to the polls (Tuesday), but you may see some guys that volunteer. I know we’re giving out vote stickers (Tuesday) around campus and some things of that nature, those things that are allowable by NCAA rules and regulations.”
A Tuesday without a practice forced a schedule crunch that put Notre Dame in a less-than-ideal situation with its COVID-19 protocols, Kelly said. The team typically takes COVID-19 tests on Sunday when the team has the day off with results coming back on Monday. The Irish didn’t take Sunday off from workouts and team meetings.
“The NCAA certainly is trying to deal with a number of things that are going on in real-time,” Kelly said. “If they had all this information in a vacuum, maybe they would have reacted differently. I don’t know. There are some realities to this that make it difficult. We’ll work through it.
• Notre Dame ranks in the top 10 in virtually every significant defensive statistic, but Irish defenders are nowhere near the top of many of the individual defensive statistics rankings.
The Irish don’t have any players that qualify for the national solo tackles and tackles for loss rankings, because no defenders meet the minimums of five solo tackles per game and 1.25 tackles for loss per game.
Safety Kyle Hamilton has a team-high 4.8 solo tackles per game and rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah averages one tackle for a loss per game.
Three sacks each for defensive end Isaiah Foskey and Adetokunbo Ogudenji only rank them just inside the top 100 in sacks per game. No Irish defender has more than one interception.
“Our defense does a really good job of eliminating big plays, keeping the points down and being fundamentally sound and when you do that, those are the most important statistics when you really look at it,” Kelly said.
“This is a team unit. It’s the brotherhood of 11 guys playing together and that makes it a dangerous defense.”
• Defensive end Daelin Hayes was named the ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week for his performance against Georgia Tech. He tallied five tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles in the Irish victory.
The grad senior was also named the Pro Football Focus Defensive MVP of the Week.
No. 4 NOTRE DAME (6-0) vs. No. 1 CLEMSON (7-0)
Kickoff: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EST
Where: Notre Dame Stadium
Radio: WSBT (AM 960, FM 96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)
Line: Clemson by 5 1/2