I have been thinking all week how weird it was that it’s week four and I don’t know how good Notre Dame is at football. I know how good they can be. Georgia showed us that. I also know how inconsistent they can be. Louisville provided us that data point. New Mexico predictably showed us not much, so here we are, in week 4, slightly unsure as to what the upcoming game against the undefeated and 18th ranked Virginia Cavaliers will bring. Seems a little odd.
But, we’ve been here before. Very recently.
Last season Notre Dame opened with a big win over Michigan, followed by two games that were anything but impressive over Ball State and Vanderbilt. We left Michigan week feeling like we had world-beaters. We left the near-miss against Vandy wondering how any of this was sustainable. Insert Ian Book at quarterback, the offense takes off, and the undefeated regular season was underway.
Can this weekends game provide similar clarity? Let’s hope so, in a good way.
The Receiving Corps
I’m throwing the tight ends in here, because obviously. You could make the case that this unit will never be at full strength because sophomore Kevin Austin will be absent all season, but this is as close as it is going to get for the Irish in 2019. Receiver Michael Young returns to the lineup this week following a broken collarbone sustained in the preseason, a week after tight end Cole Kmet‘s return against Georgia. This gives Ian Book all the non-running back receiving options he planned to have coming into the season, with the healthy players showing themselves more than capable in the opening three games. (I’m still keeping Chris Finke in here, no Notre Dame shouldn’t bench him, you don’t bench captains for a sub-par games, I can’t believe people are talking about this.)
This will prove crucial this weekend as the team is still without running back Jafar Armstrong and while running back Jahmir Smith returns to the lineup; the running game remains very much up in the air in terms of effectiveness. The pass to run distribution will likely not be as skewed as it was last week, but let’s just say the Irish really can’t have a bad passing game this week. Fortunately, all hands are on deck.
One of the low key most notable performances of the season came from Bracy against Georgia, where he broke up a couple of passes, including one in the back of the end zone, and was very strong in coverage all night, even while giving up a couple of catches. He was one of the wild cards heading into the season in the secondary and remained a valuable player even with the resurgence of Shaun Crawford. Notre Dame will have a tough matchup with USC in a couple of weeks, and we know they’ve got a healthy receiving corps, plus Michigan will have to throw because their running game stinks, so as many quality defensive backs the better for Clark Lea‘s defense.
How about some love for Brian Polian, who usually gets the opposite of that from fans, often deservedly so. The kickers look phenomenal in replacing two mainstays in Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome, and the coverage teams look equally impressive. It’s very helpful when elite athletes like Chase Claypool are willing to run down and cover punts, but he’d been covering punts last season as well, and things weren’t as solid, so Kudos to the job Polian has done there.
It’s common to hear talk about the freshmen class and what great athletes they are and how they’ll immediately see time on special teams, and then it never happens. Well, it’s happening this season.
Kyle Hamilton and Jack Kiser have been mainstays on the kickoff coverage unit this year, and it was impossible to miss Marist Liufau and his flowing locks running down the field against Georgia. It appears special teams might just be a plus unit for Notre Dame this season.
Balance On Offense
This team REALLY needs Jafar Armstrong to come back and restore some normalcy to the offensive unit. It wasn’t that Notre Dame couldn’t run the ball against Georgia, it’s that they knew they couldn’t even try and any attempts to do so were throwing plays into the garbage. Jones doesn’t have the burst to be a lead back in a game like that, and the coaches obviously weren’t ready to trust Kyren Williams or C’Bo Flemister, giving Avery Davis whatever work they may have gotten. As stated above, the return of Jahmir Smith will help a lot, but he isn’t exactly a game-changer, and the only player who fits that bill won’t be ready for at least two more games.
This is a problem because Chip Long is a run first, play-action pass second, type of play-caller and right now defenses have no reason to give a run fake any respect (which is why a flea-flicker was such an odd choice). Hopefully, the Virginia game resembles the Louisville contest more than the last two because this part of the team is going in the wrong direction.