Padanilam: Notre Dame in similar position as 2016, but that’s okay
Benjamin Padanilam | Tuesday, August 22, 2017
The atmosphere of Sunday’s New and Gold scrimmage reflected precisely that — the excitement of new buildings, stadium renovations and a video board that could make Notre Dame Stadium that gold standard of college fields as far as intertwining tradition and innovation.
But the team that took the field for the scrimmage did not really seem all that different from last year’s 4-8 squad.
Granted, it’s hard to come away with real takeaways when analyzing the quality of play in an intrasquad scrimmage that features red jerseys, a running clock and an intentionally unexciting special teams display.
But the preview of 2017’s rendition of Notre Dame football just 13 days ahead of the Temple matchup looked eerily similar to the 2016 version: plenty of talent and potential, but also clear holes in need of being plugged.
Sure, there are plenty of new faces leading the way for this Irish squad: offensive coordinator Chip Long and defensive coordinator Mike Elko headline a bevy of new faces on the coaching staff. Junior Brandon Wimbush takes over for now-NFL signal caller DeShone Kizer at quarterback.
And sure, there were certainly some changes that were clear in Sunday’s scrimmage as well: The emphasis on tempo that Long was hired to bring to the table was apparent from the get-go, and the number of screen passes and plays designed to get playmakers the ball in space was significantly higher than what was seen at any point last season.
But in spite of all those changes, much was the same Sunday. The offense shined at times while stalling at others, and the defense was youthful but unimpressive.
Wimbush was extremely efficient and effective, throwing for 168 yards at a 14-for-18 clip. Junior wideout Equanimeous St. Brown displayed the talent that drew rave reviews in fall camp, while sophomore receiver Chase Claypool answered the challenge — at least for one day — that head coach Brian Kelly laid out for him to show more consistency.
And as good as the play at receiver was, the play of the secondary was just as uninspiring. Irish wideouts had plenty of cushion on just about every branch of the route tree, and that conservative approach still did not help the defensive backs keep their man in front of them, often leading to big plays down field.
Both St. Brown and Claypool found themselves wide open for big plays down field, while freshman safety Isaiah Robertson got beaten on a wheel route on consecutive plays — the second of which led to a touchdown before the half. Throughout most of the scrimmage, sophomore quarterback Ian Book looked as good as Wimbush, raising further concerns for what many believe to be a very deep secondary group.
The playcalling certainly exposed the Irish secondary, as the scrimmage consisted of passing, passing and more passing. While there are several reasons why the Irish might have decided not to run — maintaining the health of its stable of running backs, wanting to see give Wimbush as many reps in the stadium as possible — it was nonetheless surprising to see a decidedly lack of run plays called by an offense that many expect to be run-heavy. This was particularly true in situations where passing was especially dangerous, such as the screen pass called for the offense’s own 3-yard line that was nearly intercepted in the end zone by the defense.
So what does this mean for the Irish just two weeks ahead of its Sept. 2 opener? Does it mean the same disappointing result could be in store for this upcoming season?
If the expectations are 10-2 or playoff contender for this Irish squad, then yes, disappointment could be on the horizon given last year’s problems may not have been solved.
But if the expectation, as Kelly put it following the scrimmage, is to truly improve one day at a time, then disappointment is not necessarily the most likely outcome.
Despite going 4-8 last season, Notre Dame was a competitive team in all but one of its contests. It was a 1-7 mark in one-score games that doomed the Irish — an inability to close games out or capitalize on opportunities down the stretch that sent the team spiraling to the stark opposite of its preseason hype.
So while the Irish might not have solved all of last season’s problems this offseason, the fact is that they realistically didn’t need to in order to flip their record and turn in a winning season. They simply need to chip away at those problems and make strides towards becoming the team that closes out games, particularly on the defensive side of the football. The talent was there last year, but now it has added the experience that wasn’t.
So what did Sunday’s New and Gold scrimmage really teach people about the 2017 squad?
Well, nothing really new from 2016.
But it did do one thing: remind everyone that small, weekly improvements could very well make a drastic difference come the end of the season for a very talented Irish team.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.