Although Notre Dame ranks No. 7 nationally in rushing yardage with a 279.1 average per game, the Fighting Irish passing attack — where junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush ranks 87th among 114 signal-callers who qualify — was the primary topic of discussion after Notre Dame’s Saturday afternoon practice.
There were two primary reasons why.
One, during a one-on-one session in Tuesday’s practice, sophomore wideout Chase Claypool, whose 29 receptions (402 yards, two scores) were second on the team to Equanimeous St. Brown’s 31, landed awkwardly on his shoulder while competing for the football and is scheduled for surgery early next week on his right A/C joint that will sideline him for the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl versus LSU. It was the same shoulder Claypool had injured earlier in the year.
“We considered harnessing it and playing him in the game, but with it being just one game and then getting him fixed right away instead of waiting, and getting him full go for spring ball, we opted for the latter,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said.
“…This happens in the middle of the season he misses five, six, seven games. On the positive side, he misses one game and can come back for the spring.”
With Claypool sidelined, Kelly said St. Brown will be moved around on offense, while junior Miles Boykin (nine catches, 151 yards, one TD) will play mainly the short side of the field where St. Brown aligns.
Sophomore speedster Kevin Stepherson (19 catches, 18.9 yards per reception, a team high five TD catches) and graduate student Cam Smith (eight catches, 60 yards, one TD), now back in good health, will also be heavily in the rotation.
Regardless who the targets are, Wimbush will need to perform at a much higher level because the Tigers are 23rd in the country versus the run (126.4 yards per game) and even stronger versus the pass, ranking No. 9 in pass efficiency defense and 17th in sacks (35).
When the Irish faltered to a 1-2 finish, Wimbush connected on only 30 of his 67 passes (44.8 percent) and tossed four interceptions. More significant, instead of his footwork, mechanics, field vision, progressions, etc., improving as the season continued, they remained stagnant or regressed.
“He has struggled in the last couple of games throwing the football, but he has not struggled mentally at all,” Kelly said. “…If you’re a great hitter, if you’re a really good golfer and you’re duck-hooking it off every tee, it starts to affect you. If you’re swinging and missing and you’re used to hitting the ball all the time, it affects you, right?
“But his issues are mechanical issues, they’re not mental issues. He doesn’t have this weakness that is not allowing him to be the player that he can be. We need to fix the things in the off-season mechanically that will allow him to throw the ball more consistently. His traits in terms of all the things a quarterback needs in his makeup, he has those. That’s pretty exciting, but we’ve got to clean up some mechanics.”
Should a junior still be having such issues in his third season with the program? Maybe not, but Wimbush was redshirted in 2016 and appeared in only two games for mop-up duty as a 2015 freshman
“This is his first year of playing, it’s the first year he’s really been under the spotlight,” Kelly said. “Sometimes when you step into the batting box it’s a little different than being in the batting cage. Things change a little bit. You have to move a little quicker, decisions need to be quicker, and so sometimes those mechanics don’t hold up under those bright lights.
“Although he is a junior, he was on scout team last year. There is no analysis on scout team.”
Kelly also believes his starting quarterback might be overcompensating while going through some paralysis by analysis.
“He’s so strong-willed to try to fight through this,” he said. “… He’s trying to fight through this and he knows he has some mechanical flaws he’s got to get fixed. And we’ll get them fixed because he has all the other makeup that is necessary.”
• With final exams completed, today was the first day the top units went after it with tackling and contact work. Kelly noted this is “our most impressive practice schedule that we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
“They were sore today,” Kelly said. “We lifted them really hard yesterday. …The first four practices I was just making sure we were keeping the rust off, moving the guys around, staying in football-related activities. The threes got a ton of work. We tackled today with our ones, and scrimmaged the threes today.”
• A standout for the threes has been freshman quarterback Avery Davis, who redshirted this season.
“He’s efficient with the football, very strong runner, he’s an athlete that can impact each and every time he has the football in his hands,” Kelly summarized.
• Navy sophomore transfer Alohi Gilman “would have started” this season, Kelly confirmed, because of his combination of cover skills and tackling acumen. Gilman was the Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year after getting denied a waiver by the NCAA to play this season following his transfer from Navy.
“We know what we’re going to get from him from what we’ve seen,” Kelly said.
• The running backs look fresher than at the end of the season, but the team collectively is still in recovery mode following the disappointing November.
“They’re still tired,” replied Kelly when asked if the residue of the November funk is still present. “I think I’d have a better answer for you next week. We’re still not out of that yet. They still had to grind through the balance of the academics and exams while practicing football and staying in football-related activities.
“We definitely are moving better, faster — looked closer to the group that was playing a lot faster earlier in the season, and my expectations are that’s going to be the case once they kind of get a bit of a breather.”
The team will not practice Sunday while taking part in a community activity of Christmas shopping with local children.
Kelly was coy with his response about the administrative decision to shift last year’s Nov. 17 home game versus Syracuse to New York’s Yankee Stadium.
“I coach the team,” Kelly replied. “I play wherever they tell me to play.”
Kelly said he was consulted about the decision in which options were provided only with the Orange.
“[Syracuse] was the only one with flexibility to move around,” he said. “The others pretty much were locked in … Here are the kind of scenarios for you — which one don’t you want?”
The option Kelly said he least wanted was to play a spread team such as Syracuse indoors. Another was to not play at night (kickoff will be at 2:30 p.m. ET), and the third was to be as close to South Bend, Ind., as possible.
Early Signing Day A Plus
Mark down Kelly as an FBS coach who supports the early signing period, which will take place for the first time in football from Wednesday through Friday (Dec. 20-22).
With 20 verbal commits that has Notre Dame ranked No. 5 by Rivals.com, Kelly is anticipating the Irish to reap the full rewards.
“I’m very confident that the 20th will be a really good day,” he said. “…It will show that all the work we did leading up to the 20th, those guys that made commitments to Notre Dame are going to follow through that in December.
“It’s going to leave us with the opportunity to start looking toward just a few players that need to be signed in February and moving ahead on the calendar to ‘19 and ‘20.”
The work load is heavier for coaching staffs at the end of the regular season, but well worth it, per Kelly.
“It’s a short window of about three weeks,” Kelly said. “It’s taxing but doable — and the net benefit of getting them locked down on Dec. 20.”