Chat Transcript: Talking Coan, COVID, coverage and creativity of the Notre Dame offense

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, right, greets Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson after Florida State won 31-27 in an NCAA college football game in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014.

Eric Hansen: Welcome to Notre Dame Football Live Chat, Florida State week. Please remember to include your NAME and HOMETOWN with your question. Forty-yard dash time is optional. Please limit the amount of math I'd be required to do.

Eric Hansen: Off we go.

Cliff from Battle Creek, Mich.: Hi Eric. It is great to be back into football season! In terms of quality and efficiency of play, where do you feel Jack Coan is coming in compared to ND's last few starters? I know that they're all different in the way they get there, but what's your sense of him in this offense? Thanks, and love your work!

Eric Hansen: Hi Cliff and thanks for the compliment. Jack Coan is a difficult comparison when considering other Kelly Era quarterbacks ... or even the Weis/Willingham/Davie guys. If we're taking planned QB runs out of that equation, Ian Book is probably the best match. Coan's taller than Book, seems more willing to stretch the field. Doesn't have the arm strength of say a DeShone Kizer or even Everett Golson. There's some Tommy Rees qualities, but still not a good comparison.  Probably the guy he's most similar to is the 2022 ND recruit Steve Angeli.

Granted, that doesn't tell you much. So I'll add I expect him to be in the top 25 nationally in pass efficiency, which he also was in 2019 at Wisconsin. Composed and consistent.

Travis from Newport: Hey Eric, more of a journalism question, I guess. I've noticed how honest and blunt Brian Kelly can be talking about players sometimes. He often discusses progressions and sometimes regressions. Does his bluntness ever present difficulties for you as a journalist when writing about certain players? I would imagine it can be difficult at times making sure you use the right wording, as he has a relationship with the players to say the things he does that others don't.

Eric Hansen: Hi Travis. I find it refreshing, actually. It builds trust between the media and the coach when you get an accurate picture. If I understand your question correctly, there's a difference in how you'd write about a pro player who might be struggling and a college kid in the same situation. The rules for me are to be fair and accurate. That's how I would want to be treated. As college players, there's no expectation on my part that these are finished products — from a football or maturity standpoint. Some of the best storylines can be teaching points or examples for young players in high school or the youth ranks — how you overcome adversity, etc., for instance I think most players who are criticized understand those dynamics.

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Lorne from Reno, Nev., downwind from the Caldor Fire (pray for Lake Tahoe): I'd like to believe that we'll have a somewhat normal season, but with the Delta variant spreading among vaccinated people, it seems likely that either the Irish or an opponent will lose a number of players for a game. Are the Irish still masking and/or social distancing to try to avoid contracting COVID? Are they doing anything to stop an outbreak from infecting a large number of players?

Eric Hansen: Hi Lorne, I'll address this in a little more depth Thursday in a notebook story I'm doing. Because the team has such a high vaccination rate and the campus does as well (over 93%), the players/coaches are not masking or social distancing in practice, for example, or when dealing with the media. The media were required to be vaccinated to do in-person interviews. So when we interview Kelly or the players, it's got a 2019 vibe to it. Vaccinated players can still get the virus, but it's far less likely than unvaccinated, and isolation/quarantine rules are different for them. Now, when ND goes on road trips, most players will still have single rooms, the team will arrive late and go home promptly, etc. So away from campus there are more precautions and protocols.

Jeff from Phoenix: Hey Eric, I'm very excited to see the talent of freshman left tackle Blake Fisher on Sunday, but I do have some anxiety about his lack of experience. With any new assignment in life or football, early success usually builds confidence. To ensure success for Fisher vs. FSU and early games, do you think Tommy Rees might add protection on the left side with the tight end or by having Kyren Williams line up to the left of Coan to pick up rushers that try to overload Fisher on pass plays? Or will Coan throw more quick/short passes? Or?  Thanks and Go Irish!

Eric Hansen: Jeff, I think those are all interesting scenarios, and maybe in certain situations and in certain games they might make sense. But you also don't want to limit your offense by compensating so much ... especially if it isn't necessary.

Let me preface this by saying Blake Fisher will have "welcome to college moments." I also think he will learn from them and not make the same mistakes over and over.

Having said that, he beat out a lot of really talented players, all of whom had more experience, to EARN his starting status. He's not a default option.

I watched him quite a bit during the practice windows the media was allowed in during training camp. I was impressed, really impressed. So it's too early to predict how his career will end up, but he's as good a true freshman offensive tackle as I can remember seeing in my career.

KJ from near the Channel Isles, Calif.: Hi Eric. Checking back with you as suggested a few weeks ago. After what you've seen so far, do you still believe the Irish shouldn't have much of a problem with FSU? Jack Coan is what we thought he was? Also, I'm not in the Pacific, but close. Very close actually to Devin Aupiu country. Sorry he left the Irish, but not too surprised. His return to UCLA sounds like some home sickness involved. Love your work. And thanks!

Eric Hansen: KJ thanks for the kind words and for the geography lesson. On our podcast Tuesday, I made my score prediction of ND 27, FSU 13. I think the game will be close through the first half. I'm not sure I know that Coan is what we thought he was, but Brian Kelly — who's seen more of him — sure does. So does Kyle Hamilton, who last night compared Jack to Mac Jones. I remember seeing Coan a couple of times playing for Wisconsin and thinking he played better than I had expected in those games. I think I have a sense of how he'll play Sunday night. Just not sure what his ceiling looks like.

Marie from Atlanta: Hi Eric. It's game Week!!!!!  In which areas do you most expect ND to dominate FSU, and what are your concerns about ND in this game?  On a scale of 1 to 10, what is your confidence level in the O-line with regard to both pass blocking and run blocking. Do you think opening up the offense, which we are hoping to see, will help the run blocking/running game as teams won't be able to just load the box like they did a lot last year? Thanks for the great insights. If you are headed to Tallahassee, have a great time.

Eric Hansen: Hi Marie. Florida State's wild card is adding those 13 transfers to a team that already had a lot coming back. I'm not sure there's a positional mismatch anywhere on the field, but I also have a hard to identifying an area where Florida State has an advantage. On your 1 to 10 scale, I'll go with a 7 confidence in both pass blocking and run blocking. I do think ND has the personnel to stretch the field and open up the offense. I'm not sure we'll see lots of that in a road opener. I think Notre Dame's defensive line will be the best position group for either team on the field.

Ed from Sayville, N.Y.: Hi Eric. Glad the season is about to start. It sure is special to have the local kid calling the signals! My question is do you think Shayne Simon could come through as Asmar Bilal did a couple of seasons back? It sure would be welcome news.

Eric Hansen: With Marist Liufau out for the season with a broken/dislocated right ankle, Shayne Simon has another chance to expand his role. Previously, his was inside linebacker No. 5 in a five-man rotation. The talent is there, but it's been there. Maybe a little success will light a fire? We'll see.

Ced Walker from Saginaw, Mich.: Run the ball, make plays in the passing game. Dominate both lines. Stop the run. Create turnovers. ND 27, FSU 17. Go Irish.

Eric Hansen: Ced, that's not even a rhetorical question. It reads like a directive to me. Since you included your name and hometown and it's not a manifesto, I'll take it.

Ray from Chicago: Besides Isaiah Foskey and maybe Rylie Mills, who else do you see as potential pass rushers? I think the defensive line will be strong against the run, but I am concerned we will not have all the same rush ends as we have seen the past few years, and ND will be facing some very good quarterbacks this year.

Eric Hansen: Hi Ray, the scheme is different, and Marcus Freeman's uses a lot more pre-snap movement, more stunts, more blitzes. And so you're likely to see pressures spread out over the entire front seven. In terms of pure pass-rushers, there are more unknowns than usual. But don't count out Jordan Botelho or a slimmed-down Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa at his new position. I doubt we see him much Sunday, but I like freshman Kahanu Kia as a niche edge player. ND's also going to get some push up the middle from Jayson Ademilola, Kurt Hinish, Jacob Lacey, Howard Cross III, etc.  ... And you're right about ND facing a lot of very good QBs this year.

Ken from Pensacola, Fla.: Eric, is this the year that we play for a National Championship? Or do we have to wait another three or four more years?  Thanks mucho and Go Irish!!!!!!!!!!

Eric Hansen: Those are my only two choices, Ken? This year or three/four years? I think the 2022 team is going to be loaded, but so is the schedule (Ohio State AND Clemson). And the way recruiting is going, the 2023 and '24 teams may be special. I don't think you can look at this 2021 ND team and think "national contender" without emptying the liquor cabinet. But I do think it's a team that has the potential to grow into more than how it's starting the season.

Ryan from Mars, Pa.: Eric, is Lugg back? I got the Irish winning, 35-31. Can you give me a score prediction for you?

Eric Hansen: Josh Lugg is set to start at right tackle. I will repeat my score prediction: ND 27-13.

Len from the Jersey Shore: Hello Eric and thank you for hosting! It's game week. I am so excited. The first game of any season always has intrigue. Is Cain Madden ready for the step up in competition? Will Kevin Austin specifically and the entire receiver core perform above expectations? Will the cornerbacks improve? My ?s are; Red Zone — I still see three tight ends inside the 15. All three tight ends create matchup issues. I believe Jack Coan will use these mismatches with accurate short passes. ND will also run from this three-tight end formation. From the 15 to the 40, ND will attack the end zone with wide receivers and tight end seam routes, should the outside receivers be doubled. They will add a mix of screens to the talented backs. What do you see? Second question, how will Marcus Freeman make adjustments from the sideline? Last guy I remember on the sideline was Brian VanGorder. The sideline is a great place to read the players and interact with them. It is a horrible place to see the action unfold. Who is the defensive coordinator's eyes in the sky?

Eric Hansen: OK Len, I'm going to challenge YOU on your math proficiency. I see a minimum of five questions before you write "second question." And that second question is a two-parter. So let me start with the "second question." Brian VanGorder wore pants on game day. That doesn't mean any current or future coordinator who wears pants on game day will be fired four games into his third season. Or that a DC with a 'stache will doom him to be the next coaching flop. There are plenty of DCs past and present who coach well from the sideline. Freeman's eyes up top will be cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and safeties coach Chris O'Leary. One more point, Freeman was on the sidelines while at UC, and last year the Bearcats were top 15 nationally in rush D, pass-efficiency D, scoring D and total defense.

OK now to your "first question" ....

Question I, Part I: Yes and he'll get better as the season goes on. Patterson and Madden next to each other is a really nice combo. Part II: Yes, I believe the WR corps will exceed most people's expectations. Part III: Yes, I think the corners will improve, both in the lead group and in the depth. Parts IV and V: Notre Dame needs to be better in the passing game in the red zone. I see a variety of formations and personnel groups being used to accomplish this.

Mike from Rochester, N.Y.: Hello, Eric. I hope you and your family are all well. I’ve loved the fall practice articles you, Tyler, and Tom have written, but I’m ready for football games and I’m sure you are, too. I’ve seen that ND is a 7.5-point favorite. Does that sound about right to you? I thought ND would be a 10-point favorite, given all the struggles FSU has had over the past few years. By the way, Jamir Jones made the Steelers' 53-man roster ... really happy for him.

Eric Hansen: Mike, the line seems small to me too, but that's irrelevant to the outcome of the game if you're not betting. Thanks for reading and for liking. That's very cool with Jamir Jones. All five defensive ends from that 2016 Irish recruiting class (and Jones was listed as a linebacker at the time) are on NFL rosters this fall.

Ryan from Caro Mich.: Good afternoon, Eric! Who do you see as FSU's greatest threat on offense other than QBs Jordan Travis/McKenzie Milton?

Eric Hansen: I like running back Lawrance (yes, he spells it that way) Toafili. He averaged 9.6 yards a carry last season and catches the ball well. I'm kind of intrigued by one of their non-starters at wide receiver — 6-4 freshman Malik McClain.

Denny from Liberty Hill, Texas: Hi Eric! I remember the Irish set with four tight ends on the field last year. While I like to see that versatility, it seems we have the talent to go with five wideouts this year on occasion. Do you think they will employ that to mix things up or provide a plan to catch a special opponent off guard? Maybe with Tyler Buchner in to still pose a running threat!

Eric Hansen: Hi Denny. They actually ran a formation a few times with five tight ends in 2020. ... To your question, I think you'll see ND go "empty backfield" at times. I'd say more likely one of the five wides would be tight end Michael Mayer split out. On other occasions two of the wideouts could be Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree. That gives you more flexibility to check into a different play than if you put five true wideouts on the field together. ... Still not sure what they're going to do with Buchner. Kind of doubt that if we're going to see a niche package for him this season, that we'd see if in a road game to open the season.

Joey G. from Philadelphia, Pa: Hi Eric. Well, FSU week is here! I’m looking forward to watching Houston Griffith and seeing for myself his tackling improvement. Year after year we hear how great he is at practice and then see someone who can’t tackle at game time. Are you sold on Griffith and his tackling progress? I think this will be be our weakest spot in the secondary!

Eric Hansen: Joey. I'm sold Houston Griffith will be an improved player this season. To what extent, we're about to find out. Keep in mind, there's a scheme change and s new coordinator and safeties coach. Those all could be positive changes for Houston.

Michael McFadden from South Williamsport, Pa.: Howdy Eric. Best three hours of the football week here, and thanks. I hate hate hate (that's THREE hates, right?) "single RB formations" that Charlie Weis and now Brian Kelly love. I assume this opens up the modern passing game, correct? However, and of course, single-back formations inherently you know who is getting the ball on short-yardage plays, plus no blockers for the single running back, limited playbook calls, etc. My question is: Will 2021 be the year of the multiple-set backfields with our many good running backs? Thank you, sir. I now enjoy Wednesdays like a Friday or a long weekend ... well, like Labor Day!!! GO Irish ... beat FSU.

Eric Hansen: Thanks so much, Michael. I enjoy these chats a lot, too. ... I am tempted to comment on the preface to your question to the point that I can't pass on that. The one-back/no-back sets allow you to spread out the defense and force them to play in space. That has advantages for the running game, too. And there often is blocking on short-yardage plays beyond the O-Line. ND, for instance, will offset a tight end or put him in motion to block. So he functions like a fullback in that sense, yet gives you a lot more versatility. Also Charlie actually was more of a two-back, pro-style guy with fullbacks like Rashon Powers-Neal, Asaph Schwapp and Ashley McConnell. To your question, yes I think ND will use two backs together more. But sometimes one will be lined up in the slot. Sometimes both will be lined up as "wide receivers." And sometimes you will get your wish and they'll both line up in the backfield!

Alan from Whiteland, Ind.: Eric, I really like the progression of offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. I feel he understands his personnel and call plays that fit the strengths of Notre Dame's current talent. With the emphasis on wide receiver development, how much more aggressive in play calling do you anticipate coach Rees becoming? Eric, do you feel at the end of this season another college program will interview coach Rees for their head coaching position? Thank you for answering my multiple questions this week.

Eric Hansen: Alan, when you say aggressive, do you mean taking more chances? Getting vertical in the passing game? Running more trick plays? The best way I can answer you generically is that the offense will have more options in terms of personnel groups, formations and creative plays. I expect Rees to be more creative in all those phases. That doesn't necessarily translate into more efficient offense, but I think ND's offense will be dynamic if the offensive line play is strong enough to support that. ... As far as Rees and a head coaching job offer, I see that as further down the line than the end of this season.

Bruce from Centralia, Ill.: Eric, watching Nebraska over the weekend reminded me of where ND was before Brian Kelly — three straight underachieving head coaches and rapidly declining relevance nationally. Asking you to speculate a little bit here, but if ND had “missed” on that hire — picked someone besides Kelly that didn’t work out — would that have been the end of ND football as one of the premier college football brands? Or is the Rockne/Leahy/Parseghian legacy so strong that we could have missed and missed and missed on head coaching hires and always had one more chance? Thanks, as always.

Eric Hansen: Bruce, that's a hypothetical I have trouble feeling confident about my response to. I remember talking to former ND All-American Aaron Taylor when Kelly was hired, and him embracing the choice. But he wondered at the time, if Kelly couldn't get it done, could anybody? More than a decade later, the thought now is if Kelly doesn't win a national title, he's put the program in a place that the next guy will have a fighting chance to. So let's say if ND had hired Randy Edsall in December of 2009 and it didn't go well. The climb would have been more difficult — not impossible — for his successor than it was for Kelly. And it wasn't easy for Kelly. He had to change perception and reality. Fascinating question that I wish I had more time to ponder. Maybe I'll work it into a column later in the season.

Erik from Granger, Ind.: I thought Clark Lea was masterful at halftime adjustments, and if I recall correctly, ND outscored its opponents in the third quarter by a ridiculous margin the past three years. Does Marcus Freeman have a similar track record?

Eric Hansen: Yes. ND in the last three seasons in the third quarter outscored its opponents cumulatively, 288-146, including 82-58 last year. UC's numbers were 307-132 in the same three-year stretch under Freeman, including 90-25 last season.

Alex from Jackson, Mo.: Greetings, Eric! My question is more about you. How many years will this mark you covering Notre Dame? I assume you have more excitement for this year with it being back to somewhat normalcy? Will you be traveling to the game? I hope being able to cover the team this year gives you a renewed joy for your job, not that you ever took it for granted. Your kindness for all your readers shows in your words typed. Being able to show that without words being spoken is what makes a great columnist in my opinion. Although I don’t know anyone else on here, I speak for all of us. Thank you so much for allowing us a little insight and being kind in the process. You are the best. No BS.

Eric Hansen: Alex, I don't have an agent, so I am assuming my mom put you up to this? A sincere thank you, really. Last year was fascinating to cover, because you felt like you were chronicling history. At least I did. The way people in sports overcame circumstances was in such a contrast to the icky political divisiveness that seems to persist in other facets of the pandemic. And yet, I do really, really, really enjoy some of the normalcy this preseason has brought — being able to interview players and Kelly in person makes for better reporting and story-telling. Circling back to one of your questions, I've been covering college sports since 1983, been at the SB Trib since '88, had Notre Dame as my primary coverage responsibility since 1997 and have been the beat reporter and/or beat columnist since 2005. We're limited per COVID protocols to two reporters per game on the road and at home (and Virginia Tech just one) in 2021. That's still more than we were allowed last year, so we're moving in the right direction.

Whoever is the odd person out on a particular week will cover the games remotely. We'll still have access to Brian Kelly and the players via Zoom.

Len from the Jersey Shore: You caught my math error! Here is some more simple math: Mike Mickens 34, Tommy Rees 29, Chris O'Leary 29. That is a young box upstairs. How well they develop and make adjustments will be anther key to this team's success. By the way Freeman is 35. I wish the best to all of them.

Eric Hansen: Tyler James is 32 and handles himself like a pro in the pressbox, so age is not a concern to me.

Tom '69 from Kennesaw, Ga.: Hi Eric. Well, thanks to your increased number of chats and great articles, it looks like we have made it through another offseason!! Go Irish!!!!!!! My question is a little out in left field. Coach Lou Holtz used to run a wishbone-type alignment inside the 10-yard line a lot. I am dreaming of Tyler Buchner at QB, C'Bo Flemister or Audric Estime in the upback position and Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree as the backs. Now, please tell me why this would work and why it would not work in 2021? I would love to see Brian Kelly and Tommy Rees save this for one of those five midseason Top 25 opponents. Or, as Gomer Pyle used to say, "Surprise, surprise, surprise!!"  Go Irish beat FSU!!!

Eric Hansen: Tom. thank you. I wish I had a little more time to dive into this. As a youth football coach many moons ago, I ran triple-option all the time. At that age (of the players), I had skill players who could handle the ball and make great decisions, and defenses didn't know what to do with us. In today's college football — not coach Holtz's Era — it's hard to argue for it, because it limits your plays, you don't practice it enough to be good at it, and the risk seems higher than the reward. Why it may work is that other teams don't see it and may not have a great response to it. If I were using it, I would not use a third back. I'd use tight end Michael Mayer or tight end Cane Berong as the upback.

And I am pleased that a Gomer Pyle reference made the chat today.

Rui from Ossining, N.Y.: I'm in my mid 40s and always appreciate kickoff returns from Irish teams of the past. I thought it was an area that they would blow other teams out the water and have to their advantage. Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case within the last couple of years. Is it the player returning the kickoff, kickers kicking more into end zone, scheme, etc.? Love to hear your thoughts. By the way, one of my favorite Irish players was Randy Kinder. Thought he had all the potential in the world to be legit NFL player.

Eric Hansen: Hello Rui. The ability of so many kickers to get touchbacks now and the fair catch rule has cut down on the number of kickoff returns, if not the quality of them as well. The rules have changed to discourage kickoff returns because of potential injury risks. Special Team coordinator Brian Polian seems to be confident that Chris Tyree will be much more dynamic on kickoff returns this season, and that's something I can wrap my head around.

Rick from Sinking Spring, Pa.: I’m so happy it’s game week! My question is this; Based on what you have seen in practice, do you think Jack Coan will be willing to take those deep shots and also not be afraid to let it go in the red zone, unlike our previous QB?

Eric Hansen: I do. Not exclusively, as you know, but with some regularity.

Denny from Beaverton, Ore.: Hi Eric. I really appreciated your great answer last week about Notre Dame's special teams. I did not realize that they compared so favorably to other top-notch programs. I am curious if you are able to travel to our away games or do you watch them from the comfort of your home like the rest of us? If you do travel, do you travel and stay where the team does? Thanks for your insight.

Eric Hansen: Do we stay where the team does? Oh Denny, their budget is sufficiently larger enough that they can price us out of potentially booking the same accommodations. We don't see them anywhere but the stadium. ... Thanks for the nice compliment.

Tom from Toronto: Hi Eric. It was really good to read your chats. I had to leave but do not think that you are giving the current team enough credit. No liquor cabinet here. Good defense wins national championships. There are some very good players on both sides of the ball. My question: Do you think that Notre Dame has a national championship defense? Thank you.

Eric Hansen: Tom, obviously we disagree. When there are so many new pieces, you have to do more projecting. I think this is a team that can exceed its preseason ranking, but it's going to have to prove it to me. And you're right about defense. But now the national champs not only have great defenses, but they have prolific offenses to pair with them. If the Irish can get really good player from their corners and they can avoid more key injuries, this can be an elite unit on defense. 

Matt in Augusta, N.J.: What type of head coaching job needs to open up for Marcus Freeman to leave. Would he take a lower-level SEC job like Clark Lea did? If Nebraska came calling in the Big Ten? I think he would stay for a higher-level job opening, or hope so. I really hope he stays and we can see players he recruited play in his system. I fear losing commits if he jumps after this season. Thanks Eric

Eric Hansen: Marcus Freeman was in the running to be the head coach at Illinois this past offseason. Now that he's the defensive coordinator at ND, I think he'd like to stay a couple of years at least and see if that gives him better opportunities. Keep in mind he's got six kids and a wife to make happy too.

Tim from Pleasant Prairie, Wis.: Hi Eric. The national media narrative on the Irish for this season generally seems to be that ND has lost too many key players from last year to compete for a playoff slot this year.  As far as I know, only Kirk Herbstreit has mentioned them as a playoff team.  I think those of us who follow ND more closely are more aware of the talent level they have at positions they didn't have it available last year, such as receiver. I also think they are underestimating the depth and talent of the front seven. While this team is different than last year's team, I think in some areas it has the potential to be better, but only if Jack Coan is the guy we think he can be. Do you see the Irish in the playoffs, assuming Coan is da man and they avoid injuries at key positions?

Eric Hansen: I think they need more than those elements to make it to the playoff, but the good news is there's not an unfixable problem on this team at the moment.

Eric Hansen: OK, that's going to have to do it for today. Thanks for all the great questions. We'll be back to do it all over again next Wednesday at noon EDT.

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI