Notre Dame Sunday Football Notebook: Top 3 Themes
The Sunday afternoon teleconferences with Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly typically last 10 to 15 minutes.
This weekend it reached the 25-minute mark, including a bevy of journalists from Georgia in anticipation of this Saturday night’s Game of the Week between the No. 3-ranked Bulldogs and No. 7 Fighting Irish in Athens, Ga.
“It’s like being on Broadway,” said Kelly of the intensity that has been ratcheted up at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex that houses the football offices. “You’re on stage every game you play here … they know they’re in that spotlight and they choose to come to Notre Dame because they want that. They relish that opportunity.
“They don’t see it as a pressure; they see it as a privilege.”
Here were our top 3 takeaways from the Sunday session.
1. Health Update
Starting tight end Cole Kmet, who broke his collarbone Aug. 8, did not play against New Mexico but there is optimism he will make his 2019 debut this weekend.
“We’ll get more information on Cole [on Monday], but we’re very encouraged that we’re going to see the things that we need to see for him to be cleared to play,” Kelly said.
Running back Jahmir Smith, who scored two touchdowns in the Sept. 2 opener at Louisville, suffered a sprained toe during a scrimmage in the bye week and was shelved versus the Lobos this weekend.
“Jahmir was walking around today,” Kelly said. “We’ll get him running on Monday, so we’re hopeful there.”
Starting X receiver Michael Young, who also broke his collarbone during the preseason (Aug. 17) is at least another week away from seeing action.
“He will be involved in all of our activities this week, but we won’t clear him until the following week,” Kelly said.
2. Javon McKinley’s Domino Effect
Beyond the electrifying 65-yard catch and run for one touchdown, and the leaping 20-yard jump ball for another score, the sudden emergence of the 6-2, 220-pound McKinley — ranked the nation’s No. 59 player by Rivals in the 2016 recruiting class — has had a positive domino effect on the overall offense.
His size and strength takes some onus off boundary man Chase Claypool, and also allows Chris Finke to return to the slot, where his skill set is more conducive. Meanwhile, his physicality is expected to benefit the ground attack because he grades out extremely well in the weight room.
“He's a really good blocker,” Kelly said. “He made a couple of really good blocks. He's physical, one of the stronger guys that we have. …He brings all of those intangibles: big physical presence out there that can come down and block a safety. He's earned his opportunity to get significant playing time.
"So he helps in the running game, he helps in the one-on-one matchups, and he'll be a significant part of what we do moving forward.”
Furthermore, McKinley's development puts less of an onus on sophomore speedsters Lawrence Keys III and Braden Lenzy to not be force fed into too elaborate roles.
Against New Mexico, Keys accounted for 72 all-purpose yards in the first quarter, while Lenzy in the final 21 minutes excelled in all three scripted plays the coaches gave him: catching the deep post (52 yards), making a good gain off a reverse (14 yards) and displaying yards-after-catch attributes on a screen — which he turned into a 22-yard touchdown.
“He’s going to be a guy that now can really get involved in our offense,” said Kelly of Lenzy. “He’s got great confidence in his ability to do that.”
3. Take It On The Run
On paper, the biggest mismatch for the Notre Dame-Georgia game is the 3-0 Bulldogs rank 8th among 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in rushing offense with 286.7 yards per game and 7.6 yards per carry — while the Irish are No. 120 in rushing defense with 230.5 per game and allowing 4.96 yards per carry.
Kelly was succinct at summarizing that the two areas where Notre Dame must specifically upgrade is not permitting the big plays on offense and becoming more efficient at converting third downs — ranked No. 121 with a .273 percentage (6 of 22).
“Each and every play against Georgia, if you’re not on it — all 11 players playing together, playing great run defense — a guy like [D’Andre] Swift is going to take it to the end zone,” Kelly said. “I think we’ll have their attention this week.”
As a freshman in 2017, Swift had a 40-yard scamper at Notre Dame to set up a touchdown in the Bulldogs’ 20-19 win.
Offensively, Kelly believes Notre Dame has better diversity, especially at tight end and receiver, to be more productive against Georgia than it was in 2017, when it totaled only 55 yards rushing on 37 attempts. He noted this year’s Georgia defensive line is bigger.
The 59- and 54-yard touchdown runs by Avery Davis and Finke against New Mexico were counted officially as pass plays because they were forward laterals, but all that matters to Kelly is they served their purpose to counter what the Lobos were doing.
“We needed to get the ball outside,” Kelly said. “It was pretty easy once the ball got out into the perimeter. Those turned into big plays. They were extension of our running game with misdirection.
"… We were looking for opportunities to get ball outside, and that’s what we needed to do the way the defense was structured.”