Thursday, October 12, 2017 1:50 am
Irish get passing grade at season's midway point
CHRIS GOFF | The Journal Gazette
SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame has reached the midpoint of the season at 5-1, which is "pleasing," according to coach Brian Kelly.
The 16th-ranked Irish have beaten Temple, Boston College, No. 21 Michigan State, Miami (Ohio) and North Carolina, and all of those victories came by at least 20 points. Notre Dame's only loss is a one-point setback to undefeated Georgia four weeks ago.
On paper, the Irish's schedule gets tougher after this week’s bye, with consecutive home games against No. 13 Southern California, No. 20 North Carolina State and Wake Forest followed by a trip to No. 11 Miami, a home date with No. 25 Navy and then a visit to No. 23 Stanford in the regular-season finale.
With that in mind, let's assign grades for Notre Dame at the halfway mark. The report card:
Brandon Wimbush said it himself: He believes he needs to take his game to another level, and he won't get an argument from fans. The first-year starter ranks 104th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in passer rating, 111th in completion percentage and 109th in yards per attempt. For now, Wimbush is more of a running quarterback, and he's destroying defenses with his legs. Not counting sacks, Wimbush has 60 rushes for 448 yards and eight touchdowns.
Running back: A-plus
With 776 yards, Josh Adams is sixth in the nation in rushing. He combines breakaway speed with physical, between-the-tackles running and the patience to let holes develop. Adams is doing it with bigfoot-sized steps. The man has only 86 rushes (only 26 more than Wimbush) but is averaging 9.0 yards per attempt. Dexter Williams, Tony Jones Jr. and Deon McIntosh share the workload. The quartet of Adams, Williams, Jones and McIntosh has combined for 1,322 yards on the ground.
Wide receiver: C
Few thought Alizé Mack, a tight end, would be leading Notre Dame in catches (17) at the midpoint. Equanimeous St. Brown, the team's No. 1 wideout, still draws attention from opponents, but his production is way down compared to last year. He's on pace for 30 receptions and 422 yards, a major decline from last season's numbers: 58 and 961. Obviously, the quarterback play has contributed to the receivers' struggles, but the Irish are still looking for a bona fide No. 2 receiver behind St. Brown.
Tight end: B-minus
The Irish have used three players at tight end (Mack, Durham Smythe and Nic Weishar) and already gotten 26 catches from the position, which eclipses last year's total of 12 receptions. Mack still is developing as a point-of-attack blocker, and Notre Dame no longer has a true blocking tight end, but Smythe has blocking skills that factor into the run game.
Offensive line: A
Notre Dame is 51st in sacks allowed per pass play and second in yards per rush, so we're talking about a fine performance by the offensive line. It has Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and Quenton Nelson at left guard. Each is expected to be a high NFL draft pick. Each was a preseason All-American. Yet center Sam Mustipher has been almost as good. He produces clean snaps, sets the calls up front and is in an exceptional rhythm as a run blocker. Alex Bars is solid at right guard, and freshmen Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey have formed an effective rotation at right tackle.
Defensive line: B-plus
This unit, led by Jerry Tillery in snaps played, has far exceeded expectations. Not counting sacks, the Irish are allowing 4.4 yards per carry, the same as last season, but their sack total (13) is already only one shy of last year's. The defensive linemen have combined for 8.5 sacks, one interception, two forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries.
Drue Tranquill (34 tackles, one sack, 3.5 additional tackles for loss, one interception, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries) might be the defensive MVP. He's starting at a new position called “rover,” which is part outside linebacker, part safety, but it has more responsibilities in the run game since it replaces a linebacker. The two actual linebackers, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, have each done a nice job in their role, and top backup Te'von Coney is the team's second-leading tackler.
There's room for improvement on this unit. The Irish have surrendered 20 pass plays of at least 20 yards, and they allow 231 yards per game through the air, which ranks No. 78 in the nation. The cornerback trio of Julian Love, Nick Watkins and Shaun Crawford should be fine in the long run. The jury remains out on safeties Nick Coleman and Jalen Elliott.
Special teams: C
A lot better than last season, but there's still a ways to go. Notre Dame ranks 108th in punt return average, 73rd in opponent punt return average and 107th in opponent kickoff return average. Justin Yoon has knocked down 7 of 10 field goals. Tyler Newsome quietly has been a huge weapon with a 45.7-yard average on 31 punts. Ten of those punts were downed inside the opponent's 20-yard line, and Newsome already has 14 punts of more than 50 yards.
Kelly is well on his way to cleaning up the mess he helped create in 2016. After a 4-8 debacle, Notre Dame made sweeping changes to Kelly's staff. New coordinators Mike Elko (defense) and Chip Long (offense) look like good hires. Kelly made subtle adjustments to help the team's culture change for the better. The Irish haven't been a highly penalized team and are more fundamentally sound. Someone on the coaching staff has to be doing something right.