Following their 52-0 victory yesterday over the South Florida Bulls, Notre Dame concludes the second week of the season with a 2-0 record. While the teams the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have faced are hardly among the upper echelon of the sport, an identity is beginning to form for the 2020 team. I believe one thing has become abundantly clear, the Irish are going to need to ride their potent ground game if they hope to make a run at the College Football Playoff. While almost every playoff participant in recent memory has had a difference-maker at the quarterback position, the Irish are going to need to be comfortable with being an outlier, similar to a 2015 Alabama.
At this stage in Ian Book’s career, he is what he is, an above-average quarterback prone to frustrating bouts of inconsistency. He will never win you the “big game” alone. However, if he has a lethal running attack to lean on and can make on-time throws based on the play design, Book can help direct a championship-style offense.
Due to a myriad of reasons, the Irish downfield passing attack is currently non-existent. For starter’s injuries to Ben Skowronek (hamstring) and Kevin Austin (broken foot) had robbed the offense of two potential downfield playmakers. Although extremely talented, Braden Lenzy has yet to contribute to an offense that has been desperate for playmakers at the position for the past several years. Lenzy is seemingly always nicked up and never has been able to find a role within the offense for more than a couple game stretch. Jordan Johnson, Notre Dame’s first 5-star recruit at wide receiver since Michael Floyd, has hardly touched the field in the opening 2 weeks. During the lead up to the South Florida game, Brian Kelly acknowledged that although Johnson is a physically gifted player, he is still focusing on his “traits.” An example of this came yesterday when Johnson drew a personal foul penalty right after he got onto the field following an altercation with a Bulls defender. The penalty earned Johnson an earful from Kelly and a spot on the bench. Other players at the position who have yet to distinguish themselves from the group include Javon McKinley, Joe Wilkins Jr., and Avery Davis. All 3 players have a role within the offense but should not be counted on to carry the passing attack.
The stars of the Irish passing offense right now are the tight ends. Tommy Rees has shown a strong preference in his 3 games as offensive coordinator for multiple tight end sets. Brock Wright, Tommy Tremble, Michael Mayer, and George Takacs all present matchup nightmares for opposing defenses due to their ability to block and run routes. While these players can certainly alleviate some of the passing woes, all are better suited for short to intermediate routes.
As one can see, the Notre Dame offense does have several viable receiving threats. However, there are far too many question marks to count on this portion of the offense to carry the team on a magical run. On the other hand, the rushing attack has the necessary tools in place to lead the Irish to a special season. I have already mentioned the capable blocking of the tight ends on the roster. The much maligned offensive line is proving to be a unit that is capable to be relied on. After struggling in 3rd/4th and short (less than 2 yards) a season ago, the Irish converted 4/5 opportunities against Duke in Week 1. Yesterday, I unofficially had the team converting 4/4 opportunities. While it is a small sample size, the results have been encouraging after 2 weeks of football. As has been well-documented, the line is brimming with veteran players who have seen it all in their careers. The coaching staff needs to take advantage of this unique blend of talent and experience.
While it is great to have a talented group of linemen and tight ends, the main reason the team needs to forge its identity on the ground is due to the surprisingly deep group of running backs. After a nondescript freshman season, Kyren Williams surprised many by claiming the starting role coming out of camp. Williams turned heads with 205 all-purpose yards in the season opener. Although he didn’t have quite the same production in week 2, Williams again displayed his unique lower body power and elite quickness against the Bulls. Williams should continue to be the lead back moving forwad. In addition to Williams, freshman running back Chris Tyree is proving he deserves a substantial role in the offense as well. Currently, Tyree is averaging 6.1 yards per carry and possesses the type of athleticism and speed at the position that the Irish have been lacking for years. Despite his small stature, Tyree has already shown an ability to run between the tackles, though he is better suited for more outside zone and misdirection runs. The 3rd string running back, Jafar Armstrong, was slated to be the focal point of the offense last season until an injury in the season opener hobbled him for the remainder of the year. C’Bo Flemister threw his name into the ring as well after his 127 yard performance yesterday. Flemister ran with physicality and displayed a quick burst around the edge on several runs. Flemister certainly needs to string together several more productive games to earn the trust of the coaching staff. However, it is not hard to envision 3-5 touches per game for him moving forward.
With such a diverse group of backs, it will may take the coaching staff another couple of games to truly figure out how to divvy up the touches for the remainder of the season. However, with this many options, the strength of the team lies within the backfield. A commitment to the run game will only help Ian Book. The staff can help him play to his strengths by employing play-action passes and working the short to intermediate areas of the field. If Rees stick to this formula, the offense could end the season as one of the best in the country. Although it may be non-traditional by today’s standards, the Irish’s potent ground attack has the tools to propel the team to a magical season.