The bad: From a layman’s perspective, Notre Dame’s offensive front was not at peak performance.
The good: Formerly a rumor, Notre Dame’s pass rush, especially off the edge, showed signs of life for the first time since the second half of the 2016 Fiesta Bowl.
New defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s unit registered a whopping 11 “sacks” – though there were closer to quarterback hurries as defenders tagged the game’s two triggermen, each of whom donned a protective red jersey signifying no contact.
Seven sacks against starter Brandon Wimbush; four on backup Ian Book.
Sophomore drop end Daelin Hayes was responsible for three of the sacks while strong side defensive end Jay Hayes notched a pair. Redshirt-freshman Ade Ogundeji, senior Andrew Trumbetti, and senior Pete Mokwuah added one apiece along the defensive front.
“It’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” said head coach Brian Kelly of Hayes’ game-high seven tackles, four of which occurred behind scrimmage.
Though Kelly was nonplussed with any perceived offensive line shortcomings, he noticed a renewed energy and sense of swagger from a defense that struggled more often than it shined last fall.
“That was a more confident group,” said Kelly Elko’s unit. “They played with an expectation to make plays. They were not a group where they were expecting bad things to happen to them and that's a big confidence step for our guys.”
Kelly added that the offensive line had a solid spring if not a great day.
“I mean, a lot of the stuff (sacks), we're not really preparing to pick up and block particular fronts and schemes. So when we get into game planning, we'll pick up everything.
“There are some things that we've got to do better, no question, and pick up some looks. We missed one with a back. We should have slid the protection another time. But those don't concern me as much as just good technique on our offensive line on a play-to-play basis.”
The defense registered seven additional tackles for loss in addition to the near-dozen sack secured.
NOT VERTICALLY CHALLENGED
Faulty pass protection notwithstanding, new offensive coordinator Chip Long’s crew produced touchdown strikes of 38, 37, and 25 yards on the afternoon, two of which occurred on handoffs.
Moreover, the quarterback tandem of Wimbush and Book connected with its targets for pass plays of 58, 38, 36, 32, 31, 29, 28, 27, 21, and 20 yards. Two more carries of 41 and 26 yards augmented the aforementioned scores above, as did a handful of yardage gains numbering in the high teens.
“Guys locked in when they get into the building, really focused on a game-like atmosphere, because its now no longer practice,” said Kelly of the myriad playmakers on display. “They have got to do what they do as athletes; so their athleticism has to take over in a coordinated pattern with their teaching.”
Junior Miles Boykin led all receivers with 102 yards, tying Alizé Mack with a game-high five grabs. Boykin’s classmate Dexter Williams led all rushers with 96 yards on just nine carries including a 41-yarder plus a 38-yard score in the first quarter.
Three of the 10 pass plays in excess of 20 yards were courtesy backup quarterback Ian Book.
“It wasn’t a surprise to me. I thought he would go out and play really well and he did,” said Kelly of his redshirt-freshman quarterback. “(It’s) what we’ve seen all springs. Consistency. Throws strikes. Rarely misses an open receiver. Can see the field really well.”
Book finished 17-for-22 with a touchdown and no interceptions, throwing for 277 yards. Wimbush produced 303 yards on a 22-for-32 performance, tossing two picks – including one in the red zone – in the process.
“We had opportunities to put the ball in the end zone and we came up short a couple times,” said Wimbush. “We’re growing, we’re in the process, and it’s a delayed gratification that comes with it.”
Kelly was asked to reiterate the obvious: (there is no quarterback controversy in South Bend). But that doesn’t mean Book’s overall effort doesn’t rank among spring’s top storylines.
“The story beneath the story for me was ‘Who the heck is going to be our No. 2 quarterback?’ Because if you guys have followed us, we’ve used that No. 2 quite a bit,” Kelly said.
“So having that No. 2, and seeing him perform the way he has this spring has been one of the big stories. And Ian has done this all spring.”
COACH ON THE FIELD
You’ve heard the old adage, “You can’t teach speed?”
Today Brian Kelly illustrated you can coach it. Or coax it.
Kelly spent the afternoon stationed on the field of play, approximately 15 yards off the ball (behind the offense). His alignment allowed for teaching moments for what was in reality the squad’s fifteenth and final practice of spring ball.
“Being on the field for me gave me the opportunity to address anything that happened at the moment right there, right now,” he said. “So I'll give you an example. In our tempo, we were flipping the ball out to the side judge instead of the umpire, which is a savings of maybe two to three seconds.
“Little things like that, where I can be on top of them and make those corrections immediately, so when a player gets up, he's not flipping it out to a side judge, so then he's got to take the ball back inside. You know, give it to the umpire, give it to the center judge. Just little things like that. Just trying to help them with nuances from play-to-play.”
Kelly reiterated that eradicating bad habits was among his chief charges of the off-season. It remains a work in progress.
“We're not there yet. I mean, I think we have some guys that are further along than others, but this is collectively as a group that we have to work on every single day,” said Kelly. “It will be something that's talked about from today through the summer, all season, and it won't go away. And we won't -- I don't think it's not really a destination as much as it's a journey every single day.
“So I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and too, to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” he continued. “And so that's the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time and they want it to happen right away.”