First, the good news. Notre Dame has had some surprise contributions so far this year that paired with strong play from the veterans can make for an excellent team! The bad news is the veterans are the ones who need to be raising their level of play.
Overall, that isn’t the worst situation. We know players like Ian Book, Julian Okwara, and Khalid Kareem can play at a high level. We’ve seen it, against top competition. But, players like Jeremiah Owusu Koramoah, Javon McKinley, Lawrence Keys, and Tommy Tremble were wild cards. All four of those players have flashed for Notre Dame in the first two games after having essentially no role last season. So let’s call it glass half full!
Of the three offensive players–McKinley, Avery Davis, Braden Lenzy— who “broke out” last weekend, I think McKinley has the most staying power. We’ve seen Davis play before, without much of an impact, and while the jet sweep touchdown was exciting and fun, breaking into the running back rotation seems far fetched. By the time he gets up to speed with the others, Jafar Armstrong will be back, and that’s that.
Lenzy showed the speed we all wanted to see, and the hands we didn’t know he had, but a niche role seems to be his destiny this season.
McKinley though, has the size at 6-2, 220, the experience being in the offense, pedigree coming from the top division in California, and apparently the game to make a lasting impact in the lineup. It might even be surprising if he didn’t start against the Bulldogs in Athens this weekend if for no other reason it allows Chris Finke to move back inside to the slot. McKinley brings a big presence and a familiar type of player at the X position. Remember, Book excelled last season with Miles Boykin on one side, and Chase Claypool on the other, two big receivers who he could go back shoulder with and use their size against the defense. And I think Book could go for a little comfort right now.
There was a monster game out there for Tremble against New Mexico if Book had thrown him the ball. On the opening drive, on third and 17 he runs a seam route against a cover two defense and is in perfect position to be lead into the end zone by his quarterback. Ian Book is looking right at him but instead opts to try and run, failing to pick up the first down.
I think it's really illustrated from the end zone. Backside safety is in poor position, play side safety has his back turned, linebacker underneath is flat footed, clean pocket. Why is this ball not being thrown on third and long? pic.twitter.com/bCEZzHImvk
— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) September 16, 2019
On another play in the third quarter, Tremble is covered man to man by the safety, who he gets clear from and runs wide open up the seam, but Book is looking the other way.
Man, there was a big game out there for Tremble last weekend pic.twitter.com/e9Mukh0z3M
— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) September 17, 2019
This isn’t to rag on Book, just to illustrate Notre Dame has something in the redshirt freshman tight end. Tremble desperately needs to work on his blocking, as do all the tight ends, but he appears to be the receiver we thought Alize Mack was going to be, and a guy who will be heavily involved in the passing game going forward, even with the return of Cole Kmet.
The freshman punter is replacing a captain, kind of a big deal, and the transition has so far been almost seamless. There was a little bit of a shanky shank against Louisville that ended up ok, but he has overall been effective in the first two games. In 10 punts he is averaging a net of 40 yards a punt, which Clark Lea will absolutely take, especially given he kicks it a mile in the air. He also executed a pooch punt early in the game against New Mexico perfectly, landing it at about the seven and giving the coverage team the opportunity to down it at the one.
The kicking game was one of the more significant concerns heading into this season and between Johnathan Doerer who made his only field goal attempt (barely) and the freshman Bramblett, the coaches have to be breathing a little easier about the newcomers.
The Running Game
This, to me, is less of an offensive line thing as it is a backfield thing. For the record, I’m not ready to give up on any of this; not the line, or the players. It’s too soon for that, and with Georgia coming up there isn’t going to be anything definitive to the negative. The best offensive line and running game in recent memory had nothing for the Bulldogs on the ground, so I’m less than hopeful for Tony Jones and Co. That said, it doesn’t appear there is a healthy back on the roster who can be a dynamic presence like Dexter Williams was last season, and this particular offensive line might need that to be successful. Perfectly blocked plays are going to be eight-yard runs instead of 50-yard gains, and any mistake by the line will turn into a failed play. I don’t see this group of backs making something out of nothing.
Notre Dame lost three starters on offense in the preseason/on the season’s first offensive series. It appears the loss of Armstrong was the most costly.