BLUE-GOLD GAME OFFENSE
It was clear which way the Irish offense is headed under Chip Long in Saturday’s annual Blue-Gold Game, starting with the rushing attack that featured more quick-hitting stuff than the long, drawn-out delay-type runs that allow the offensive line to do its work, but also gives the defensive front inroads to the running back.
There is a concerted effort to distribute the football to the eligible receivers in the offense – wideouts, tight ends and running backs. Running back and tight end catches are going to skyrocket under Long, who not coincidentally is the tight ends coach.
There were 41 passes caught. Tight ends – including Alizé Mack, who is a combination wideout-tight end – caught 10 passes for 103 yards. Mack had five catches for 46 yards, Nic Weishar had two for 25, Durham Smythe had two for 15 and Tyler Luatua had one for 17
Wideouts had 25 receptions for a whopping 425 yards: Miles Boykin (5-102), C.J. Sanders (5-52), Chase Claypool (4-63), Equanimeous St. Brown (3-69), Kevin Stepherson (3-75), Chris Finke (3-55), and Javon McKinley (2-17).
The remaining six went to the running backs, including four by Dexter Williams, who, combined with his 96 rushing yards, accounted for 132 yards total offense. Tony Jones caught one pass, but we know he’ll be a favored running back target in Long’s offense.
Josh Adams caught 21 passes in 2016, so the Irish have three ball carriers that can play the role of pass-catcher, and then tap back into their running back instincts. Because running backs frequently align in the slot, they become even more of a pass-catching threat.
Long likes to utilize the “move-tight end” as Charlie Weis called it. Tight ends will motion behind the offensive line, serve as a lead blocker, run a space-clearing route for the running back, or become the primary target pealing out of the backfield himself.
Tight ends, with two of them on the field much of the time, are check-down options once the quarterback has gone through a progression on the other side of the field with the wideouts. Weishar and Smythe are ideal big bodies to plant themselves, shield the linebackers with their bodies, and make short-gain catches.
Using the tight end on the move in the backfield also allows for wheel routes, which are difficult to defend with all the other action taking place between the tight ends and running backs.
There’s a whole bunch of underneath passing yardage to be gained by utilizing the tight ends in this fashion. This is a good chains-moving weapon that keeps drives alive.
We saw quick-hitting slants, which generally are pitch-and-catch, high-percentage type throws. Boykin, Finke and even red-clad McKinley were particularly effective. We also saw why Stepherson is a key ingredient to the future of Notre Dame’s passing game. He has the speed to get behind cornerbacks and safeties, which we saw in 2016.
It was encouraging to see the No. 1 offense overcome two sacks in the opening drive to complete a seven-play, 70-yard drive. The offense converted the touchdown drive despite 2nd-and-16 and 2nd-and-15 scenarios.
Just as we saw on Memphis film with Long as the coordinator and then throughout this spring, the Notre Dame offense has more weapons a) because they have a bunch of skilled athletes and b) Long knows how to tap into those assets in a variety of ways.
Doug Flutie said at the top of the broadcast: “I want to see (Wimbush’s) pocket presence and how he handles his eye discipline and his progressions. He’s a great athlete with a big-time arm. He’s going to do the quarterback-movement stuff great. I want to see how he functions in the pocket.
“Brian Kelly believes in him. He thinks he’s a level-headed kid and when the bright lights are in the fall, he’ll be able to handle it.”
The lights weren’t nearly as bright as they’re going to be, but Wimbush looked poised and in control, completing 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards. He was “sacked” seven times because of the quick whistle to protect the red-clad quarterbacks, but his elusiveness will allow him to get out of those jams a vast majority of the time.
One aspect of the Blue-Gold Game that is deceptive as it relates to quarterbacks in the pocket is that we don’t know if Wimbush will hang in there and make throws with a rush in his face, or if he’ll peal off and try to run the ball in those situations. Because he was in a red jersey and didn’t have to fear contact, he could afford to hang in there in a Blue-Gold Game.
We saw several instances in the first 14 practices of Wimbush feeling the rush, and then darting upfield with power. He should be a nice combination of pass-run when he drops back to pass.
Some of his more impressive plays…A sideline touch pass to St. Brown over cornerback Nick Watkins and under safety Jalen Elliott for 32 yards…A bullet back-shoulder throw to Boykin on safety Nick Coleman for 32 yards…A six-yard scramble that was blown dead, but he would have gotten much more live as Wimbush goes from quarterback to wide receiver in the open-field. (Wide receiver, not running back, because his cuts are wider and in a more exaggerated fashion than that of a running back.)…
With the pass rush in his face, Wimbush hung in there to complete a 14-yard pass to Claypool…In the fourth quarter, chased by linebacker Jonathan Jones while rolling to his right, Wimbush found Claypool in front of the pylon and just over the out-stretched reach of cornerback Julian Love.
One of Wimbush’s two interceptions definitely wasn’t his fault. The first one bounced off the chest of Mack (with Coleman in good coverage) and ricocheted into Elliott’s hands.
Flutie claimed that Boykin should have crossed the face of Elliott on the second interception. Wimbush’s throw certainly looked as if he were anticipating that route from Boykin, who instead took a path into the end zone.
A ton to like and very little to criticize Wimbush in a very solid performance.
When Ian Book was recruited and signed by Notre Dame, I called him a Northwestern-type quarterback who could run the offense and move the chains with his ability to throw the ball on the run, scramble for yardage, and make all the easy throws.
Coupled with what we saw the rest of the spring, Book looked the part.
Book completed 17-of-22 passes for 277 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
“He’s exactly what we were hoping for,” Kelly said.
For the most part, Book was accurate. Throwing on the run makes it more difficult to be accurate, and he threw behind Weishar on a roll to his right under pressure from Andrew Trumbetti. Still, there was a window for Weishar to make the catch. It was almost intercepted by Isaiah Robertson when the pass – thrown a bit behind Weishar – bounced into the air. Book also threw behind Stepherson on a slant.
But he made an outstanding throw on the run to his right as Sanders settled in and caught the pass for an 11-yard gain. Book also showed good poise when he scanned the field to his right, didn’t like what he saw, and came back to Weishar for an eight-yard gain. Book knew he had his safety valve to his left and executed it perfectly.
The lone touchdown pass of the scrimmage began with a Book pump fake, which caused cornerback Troy Pride Jr. to bite and run himself out of the play. When Sanders turned it upfield, safety D.J. Morgan couldn’t slide over in time to prevent the 37-yard score.
In the pocket, Book’s lack of height will be an impediment when the pass rushers get a push on the offensive line, but that’s why his mobility and ability to throw on the run -- he’s really good going to his right; we don’t know about going to his left, which is a more difficult throw -- is a key ingredient to his success.
• Love the pistol formation. Just another aspect of Long’s offense that has to be addressed by opposing defenses. Pistol handoffs give the running back more of a straight-on attack of the line of scrimmage.
• Josh Adams’ 25-yard run was a thing of beauty. It started with a phenomenal jump-cut at the line to evade Elliott. Adams then ran through Nick Coleman’s grasp before eluding Daelin Hayes, Nyles Morgan and Nick Watkins to complete the touchdown run. Wow.
• On Dexter Williams’ 38-yard touchdown run, he kicked it outside to take advantage of a down block on Jay Hayes – who had beaten Mike McGlinchey -- took advantage of a shallow tackling angle by linebacker Jamir Jones, and then ran away from safety Ashton White.
• When Jay Hayes beat McGlinchey for a second time, Tony Jones was in perfect position to pick up Hayes.
• Williams left the field after running through a couple of tackles on an 18-yard swing pass. Williams had to leave the field temporarily due to a minor injury. This seems to happen frequently to Williams. He’ll need to stay healthy to hold off the charge of Tony Jones Jr.
• Right tackle Tommy Kraemer stood out when he was beaten off the edge. Those questions will remain because Kraemer is not a great change-of-direction tackle. After watching the video, however, Kraemer performed better than he appeared to the naked eye. I still think he’s a guard, and that’s a concern because a couple of years ago, Steve Elmer was forced into a right tackle spot and had to be moved inside after the season began.
The issue: Notre Dame doesn’t have a true right tackle. Well, that’s probably McGlinchey, but he has to play on the left side. (Quenton Nelson could play it to and play it well. But his professional career is at guard.) Liam Eichenberg didn’t show the footwork we expected him to show and was whipped one time by Adetokunbo Ogundeji. Alex Bars could be bumped back to tackle with Kraemer at guard, but Bars’ better position is guard.
It’s a dilemma that will spill into the fall.
First, a correction. In our post-game Instant Analysis, I said the offensive line was surrendering sacks against mainly basic fronts. That wasn’t true. In fact, we saw some of the disruption that Mike Elko’s scheme can cause -- off the edge with Daelin Hayes and up the middle with Greer Martini, as well as the weapon that is Drue Tranquill.
Tranquill disguises well and then has an explosiveness that will give him an excellent chance to lead the team in tackles for loss this season, a la James Onwualu, who paced the Irish in stops for lost yardage in ’16 from his outside linebacker position.
A review of a large portion of the sacks:
• On a play-action fake by Wimbush to Adams, Wimbush is left fully exposed. It appeared that Kraemer needed to kick outside instead of double-teaming with Bars inside.
• On a Wimbush deep overthrow that was ruled a sack, Jay Hayes beat McGlinchey badly.
• Martini was unaccounted for on an up-the-middle blitz. This was a great read/blitz by Martini.
• Book was sacked on a quick whistle.
• Poor read by Wimbush, who play-action faked right into Daelin Hayes.
• Coverage sack of Wimbush early in the second quarter.
• Asmar Bilal untouched on Book off edge.
• A delayed blitz by inside linebacker Te’von Coney as Book stepped up into the pocket and right into Coney.
• Daelin Hayes whipped Kraemer for Wimbush sack.
• Book was pressured by Brandon Tiassum, who beat right guard Jimmy Byrne (filling in for injured Aaron Banks). Trumbetti was credited with sack.
• Jay Hayes sack of Wimbush late third quarter. Eichenberg, playing left tackle, couldn’t handle Hayes and Jonathan Jones had the angle on Tristen Hoge.
• It isn’t often you see a linebacker physically get the best of Quenton Nelson. But with Nelson on the run to his right and Nyles Morgan in pursuit, Morgan blasted Nelson off his feet. Morgan then tackled of Adams for a three-yard loss.
• Tranquill has the quickness to come off the edge and make backside tackles down the line of scrimmage on running backs. That will be a weapon. It was also interesting to see Tranquill in a Will linebacker position with Martini coming off the edge. Tranquill zipped up the middle to dump Jones for a six-yard loss.
• Solid coverage by Watkins, forcing Boykin to interrupt his route as the ball was thrown over the top.
• Trumbetti whipped Eichenberg off the edge.
• Martini gummed up a screen pass and had a late-first half pass break-up.
• Really like Isaiah Robertson’s physicality and range. He played aggressively. Now it’s getting him to understand the big picture.
• Tiassum showed up a lot, which finally validates what Brian Kelly talked about in the spring. He stymied Dexter Williams for no gain. Tiassum consistently penetrated, fought hard and quickly off the snap, and forced the No. 2 offensive line to account for him. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a football player there. Tiassum finished with four tackles, one for loss.
• Also impressed with the long-term potential of red-shirt freshman end Adetokunbo Ogundeji. He whipped Kraemer on the last play of the first half, and exploded past Kraemer to make a stop of Adams in the third quarter. He also just missed a lunging tackle attempt on Tony Jones Jr., but was disruptive enough to allow his teammates to make a stop. In time – he needs to continue to get much stronger – there may be a pass rusher there.
AROUND THE GRIDIRON
• Validated by Notre Dame, Alizé Jones is now officially Alizé Mack. We will refer to him as such moving forward.
• By today’s standard across the country, Notre Dame’s new scoreboard is relatively modest in size. That’s good enough. It doesn’t have to be a monstrosity that overwhelms the south end of Notre Dame’s Stadium. The atmosphere inside Notre Dame Stadium is about to change dramatically.
• If you saw a No. 66 at defensive end and wondered whom it was, that was a number that rotated among players. I saw Jay Hayes wearing it the most.
• Liked early-entry freshman left guard Aaron Banks all spring. Good sign that he came back and played in the second half after leaving the field with a left knee injury in the first half.
• Kelly to NBC announcers Paul Burmeister and Doug Flutie: “We failed last year because I failed.”
You can’t ask for anything more than that.
Continued Kelly: “When you have a losing season, you have to look at yourself first. I’ve always felt like there’ s not really a bad football team, there’s bad leadership and I don’t think I provided the kind of leadership.”
Great comments. Now let’s move on.
• There are no guarantees with the health of Justin Yoon. There are no guarantees Jonathan Doerer will be ready as a true freshman. Sam Kohler, who joined the program last fall as a junior, will be a senior with two years of eligibility this fall.
Think about this. He walked into Notre Dame Stadium Saturday, connected on all five of his extra points and nailed field goals with a 12 mph wind at his back from 42 and 46 yards. The 42-yarder was perfect: good height/trajectory and quick but patient to the ball. The 46-yarder was a line drive, but it was true.
Granted, there wasn’t a live rush. But his kicks were very good, relaxed, and he got a good takeoff on his kicks. There’s a calmness to him. We saw this at an indoor practice this spring when he drilled every kick but one from, if I remember it correctly, from 40-plus yards.
• I don’t understand Tyler Newsome. Here’s a guy with 109 career punts, and yet while an inexperienced Kohler has no trouble dealing with a Blue-Gold Game, Newsome couldn’t consistently find his groove on six punts.
Don’t be deceived by his 49.3-yard average on three punts for the Blue team. A couple of those were fortuitous bounces. He averaged 43.3 yards per his six punts – three for each team.
To be fair, Newsome has been instructed by Brian Polian to think more in terms of height than length. Net return is more important than distance of the punt. There’s a happy medium there, and based upon Saturday’s performance, Newsome hasn’t found it.
I’m sure he’s taught to catch snaps without altering his footwork. But you also don’t want to have to reach across your body to make the catch, and then swing your momentum back into the punt. Sometimes it looks as if Newsome is catching the snap on a sheet of ice. Would it not be better to use his natural athleticism by moving his feet and then proceeding with the punt? Will have to talk to special teams coach Brian Polian about the proper technique.
Walk-on Jeff Riney had two punts averaging 42.5 with a long of 48. That 48-yarder was all in the air, not with a bounce. Riney looked more relaxed and was more consistent than Newsome. Again, to be fair, Riney’s punts were with the slight breeze and only one or two of Newsome’s were with the wind.
• Jac Collinsworth interviewed DeShone Kizer and discussed Kizer’s recent “controversial statements” regarding his future as it compares to Tom Brady and Cam Newton.
“When you decide to play a game like this, you’re going to model yourself after the greatest,” Kizer said. “It was a comment that I made and I’m going to stand by it. Those are the people I want to get to. I am confident that I can become one of the best in the league and I would love to have the preparation and to exhibit the intellect of a guy like Tom Brady.
“For me, why play this game if you don’t want to go out there and be the greatest. That’s my mindset behind this whole process and how it always will be moving forward.”
I’ll buy that, but that’s what he should have said in the first place, that he emulates Brady and Newton, not that he’s the second coming.
As for the claim that he can be one of the greatest of all-time, that’s as misguided as Malik Zaire saying upon the decision to transfer from Notre Dame: “I feel like I’m the best quarterback in the country.”
Aim high; have some self-awareness, and when it comes to public statements of this kind, show some humility. It wears better.