Who, and What, to Watch?

A handful of personnel points and pressing items on tap for Notre Dame’s matchup against the UMass Minutemen.

1 – The Offensive Backfield: All hands on deck? Raise your hand if last spring you thought DeShone Kizer, Brandon Wimbush, C.J. Prosise, Josh Adams, Dexter Williams, (then) walk-on Josh Anderson, and wide receiver Justin Brent would comprise Notre Dame’s backfield at the tail end of September?

One transfer, one suspension, and two injuries later, that’s the state of the Irish offensive backfield, and each of the seven might earn time Saturday against an overmatched group of Minutemen from Massachusetts. Key to that end is that Prosise isn’t overly taxed, because without him, Notre Dame’s pursuit of the second annual College Football Playoffs will come to an abrupt end.

If all goes according to plan (i.e., a healthy margin between the teams is formed by halftime) Prosise’s last carry should occur in the first half. It’s time to see if Josh Adams can cement his spot as a No. 2 running back as it appeared he had in the opener against Texas.

2 – Defensive Backfield: Improvement Imminent? To date in successive weeks, the Irish defense has faced a rudderless offense, a capable offense, and a potent, dominant rushing attack. Just once in that trio of September tests did a pass-catch combination – Virginia’s Matt Johns to Canaan Severin – present a challenge to Notre Dame’s secondary.

The Irish won the day, but the matchup went to the hosts – by knockout.  

Consider the collaboration of UMass quarterback Blake Frohnapfel and wide receiver Tajae Sharpe a pop quiz before a pair of potent passing attacks (Clemson and USC) offer mid-term exams to the Irish in October.

“We’ll get tested,” said Kelly of Saturday’s matchup. “I’m not ready to say we’ve corrected everything. We’re going to have to go out and play, and we’ll see.”

Sans an interception through three games this season, the Irish secondary surrendered a pair of passing touchdowns to Virginia while making a star out of Severin (11 catches, 10 first downs, 153 yards).

“I have confidence that they’re going to play much better than they did against Virginia,” said Kelly. “But they’ve got to go out and do it now.”

3 – Kizer’s Tunnel Vision: Redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer has attempted 42 passes in competitive game action over the last five-plus quarters of football – 26 of them were intended for either Will Fuller or Chris Brown.

The total isn’t unique (Fuller is the nation’s best and Kizer clearly trusts Brown), but it’s not ideal going forward, as Notre Dame’s passing attack hums when its slot receivers (Torii Hunter and Amir Carlisle) and tight ends are utilized to stress defenses down the seams.

Saturday offers Kizer the opportunity to spread the wealth and establish a rhythm with the likes of Hunter, Carlisle, and freshman Aliz’e Jones, because at some point, either in Death Valley or against like-talents from USC, Brown will struggle to shake free on a consistent basis.

4 – Dropping a Dime: The loss of safety/dime linebacker Drue Tranquill to season-ending knee surgery is a blow to the Irish roster, but its greatest impact is to the preferred dime sub package, not coordinator Brian VanGorder’s base defense. Tranquill has starred near the line of scrimmage since the outset of his Irish career last September, and Notre Dame doesn’t have an athlete with similar athleticism (size plus speed) available.

Look for a pair of disparate competitors to fill Tranquill’s dime role pending game situations over the next two weeks: fifth-year senior safety Matthias Farley, another proven playmaker when operating near scrimmage, and true freshman Nick Coleman, an aggressive albeit undersized cornerback that nonetheless packs a punch upon contact.

In this case, two might not be better than one, but it’ll take a pair to replace what Tranquill brought to the table.

5 – Moments of Respite: It’s never good when a starting defensive lineman participates in 74 of a contest’s 72 snaps (not a misprint). Such is life for junior Isaac Rochell, the versatile DE/DT/NT that never received a rest against Georgia Tech – not even on two snaps that didn’t count but involved contact nonetheless.

Through three games, Notre Dame’s defense has decided it can’t function in competitive situations without Rochell and senior Sheldon Day leading the charge up front. But as was the case late against Texas, both should receive a little quality time on the Irish bench as backups such as Jonathan Bonner, Pete Mokwuah, and rotation members Jerry Tillery and Daniel Cage do the heavy lifting as the second stanza winds down.

There’s no reason Bonner and Day can’t join the mix with the outcome in doubt, with Boner spelling both Rochell on the end and even Day inside (Bonner can remain outside) while the versatile Tillery or Rochell shifts inside to Day’s three-technique role. Randolph can team with Andrew Trumbetti to allow starter Romeo Okwara respite as well.

Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore should employ at least nine and potentially 10 defensive linemen Saturday – it would be to the benefit of the group and Notre Dame in November if it isn’t only a function of mop-up duty.

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