Football is a hard game. I played in high school and in junior college. I know what its like to lose or win a game for no good reason at all. Brian Kelly has lost games like that at Notre Dame. He lost at Florida State in 2014 because an official decided he wanted to call offensive pass interference. He lost at Michigan State in 2010 on a 44 yard fake field goal in overtime. He lost at Michigan in 2011…well, the way he lost to Michigan in 2011.
Football is a hard game.
And it is made even harder when a coach is actively handicapping his team in there preparation and in their personnel. Kelly has done it in the past and he’s doing it again this season.
There is so much to like about the changes the program made in the offseason. New defensive coordinator Mike Elko looks like a great hire, the special teams under Brian Polian is no longer cringe worthy, and gains were made in the weight room. The jury is still out on offensive coordinator Chip Long (didn’t love the Georgia plan coach). But, while some things have changed, many things have stayed the same.
Camp Battles And Roster Management
The concept of camp battles are nothing new to the game of football and they are by and large a good thing. You want guys competing for playing time. It often brings out the best in their abilities. But, it can, if mismanaged, affect the football team in a negative way.
Case in point being the quarterback competition from last season.
Lots of teams have quarterback battles and those teams turn out just fine. But, Notre Dame’s carried over into the first game, where two quarterbacks, Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer (for those who erased last season from memory), split reps in the first half with one quarterback doing great (Kizer) and the other doing nothing (Zaire). Kizer was named the permanent starter following the game, but the damage was done. He had purged reps to Zaire during the lead up to the season, and never got fully in sync with his receiving corps. It was one of many reasons Kizer floundered at times in 2016.
It appears a similar dynamic played out this season, but the other way around.
There was no question who Notre Dame’s quarterback was going to be, but there were questions at wide receiver, one of the deepest positions on the team in terms of numbers. After #1 receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, there were spots to be had. As it did last season at quarterback, this situation carried into summer camp following spring practice, and the jobs opposite of St. Brown were ultimately won by the two graduate transfers who arrived in the summer, post spring ball. If you count tight end Alize Mack in the slot, Notre Dame had 12 guys fighting for wide receiver reps throughout fall camp. Wimbush can’t take all the snaps in practice and therefore he can’t get in sync with all the wideouts.
If you wonder why Wimbush is staring down St. Brown and forcing him balls that end up intercepted (a la Temple) it’s because that’s the guy he knows best. He’s the one constant receiver in the lineup.
This is the problem when you take in graduate transfers to an already deep position. The reps are limited. And for a first year quarterback, familiarity is key. With his line, with his backs, with his receivers. And that doesn’t appear to be something Wimbush is going to get outside of St. Brown.
Getting The Most Out Of The Roster
In the offseason, NBCSports.com polled 12 Notre Dame beat writers on the top 25 players on the Irish roster in 2017. When the votes were tallied Dexter Williams (15), Chase Claypool (18), Kevin Stepherson (19), and CJ Sanders (21) all made the list. I will note Stepherson appears to be suspended, so he obviously won’t have any numbers. Here are the combined offensive touches for the three who are eligible to play, through two games: 7. None of the those guys registered a reception or carry against Georgia, with Williams or Sanders not getting into the game on offense at all.
This isn’t your standard call for the backups to play because the starters aren’t performing. We’ve seen Williams and Sanders perform in competitive games for Notre Dame, we know what they can do. Heck, we’ve even seen Claypool out there make big catches in the comeback against Michigan State last season.
Sanders has returned four kicks for touchdowns (with a 5th called back) in his career. There is no role for him in the Notre Dame offense? Is there a similar player currently playing who brings what he has brought to the field the last two seasons?
The line we hear constantly about Claypool is his inconsistent hands and he did drop a screen pass against Georgia. Did Corey Robinson not also suffer from a bit of the dropsies in 2014 and 2015? He was given chances to work through his issues, why hasn’t Claypool? He might be the best athlete on the team. Be creative, get him the ball. You’re doing Georgia a favor by sitting these guys.
And the case of Dexter Williams is the strangest of all.
The Georgia Game Begged For Dexter Williams
One thing was clear in the first few series against the Bulldogs: the offensive line was having trouble blocking these guys. It wasn’t that they were getting to them, they just couldn’t sustain it. Therefore, whatever holes were created closed awful fast. And sometimes the difference between a mediocre play and big play, or a good play and no-gain, is one step, and it’s one step Williams could have provided.
Maybe the best thing about Williams is his initial burst combined with power, and he displayed it on both of his long runs against Temple.
On the first you’ll notice an unblocked player, right in the middle of the formation. Unblocked and unhindered. Williams just blows right by him after making his initial cut. If he’s a step slower, the defender might be able to get to his legs and bring him down. But, Williams was too fast.
Something similar happens on his 66 yard jaunt. He receives the ball, makes a cut, and explodes through the line, with an unblocked linebacker just grasping at air.
Obviously, the holes were not going to be that big against Georgia. But there were instances where a hole opened and closed before Josh Adams could totally get through it.
On the second possession, Adams runs on the zone read for six yards on first down, a solid gain. But, he’s just a little bit slower through the line than Williams, and the backside linebacker is able to come off of Alex Bars and make the play before he could get into the secondary.
On the very next play, Adams appears to have a hole going to the left side, but he is again a little slow getting to it and the defensive end comes off of Nelson and makes the play for a one yard gain.
There was a role for Williams against Georgia’s fast and strong defense with the offensive line struggling to maintain their blocks. Instead he was left to the sideline because of an apparent lack of ability as a pass blocker. Meanwhile, Georgia was giving six different players carries against the Irish with one of the biggest, a 40 yarder to set up a touchdown, by a freshman who may or may not be good in the passing game.
Play the players you got.