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Adams: An internal dialogue over Notre Dame’s season opening win against Duke

| Monday, September 14, 2020

Watching Notre Dame’s season opener against Duke, I could really feel myself channeling the spirit of my predecessor as sports editor, Connor Mulvena. Mr. Mulvena was relentless in his criticism of Ian Book, and while I am a persistent optimist when it comes to my teams, I have to say I was getting really frustrated. I suppose it comes with the territory.

Because of this, I’m experiencing some cognitive dissonance. I feel like I have an angel on my left shoulder and a devil on my right. Or, rather, I have a Notre Dame apologist on my left shoulder and a sports editor on my right. So, I’m going to give each of them an opportunity to present oral arguments on how to interpret the Irish season opener, and hopefully the rational observer within me will evaluate appropriately.

Mr. Sports Editor, you have the floor…

 

Sports Editor: Thank you, good sir. If it pleases the court, I would like to begin by paraphrasing Aaron Burr from the Tony Award-winning musical “Hamilton”: “I have some questions, a couple of suggestions,” on how to dominate instead of scraping by on the backs of your defense and special teams.

WTF was that Ian Book? I don’t know what I was expecting, maybe for you to not overthrow your big, athletic tight end Tommy Tremble for an interception or to grossly underthrow stud of a freshman Michael Mayer? Or to overthrow Lawrence Keys III twice, once for an interception that was called back by the grace of God for an offsides penalty.

Notre Dame Apologist: To be fair, for all we know Book saw that neutral zone infraction and knew he had a free play.

SE: Doesn’t change the fact it was an awful throw.

NDA: Alright, granted. See, we can be rational and civil here.

SE: Nope, I don’t know how to be.

Back to my point about Mayer, and to paraphrase Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers franchise, could you please, for the love of God, throw us a freaking bone here by throwing him the ball a few more times?

NDA: Quoting Aaron Burr and Dr. Evil. Great strategy, guy.

SE: Mayer made a play every damn time he touched the ball, you idiot.

NDA: Look, to address your first point, Ian Book said it himself postgame: “Missing spring practice and then being delayed a few times… those are the important reps that you wish you had. Every day counts, especially with quarterback-receiver timing, too. Chemistry’s everything; it’s trust, and obviously when you miss those days you lose them.”

And to address your second point, you’ve said before that you want Book to spread the wealth with all the new receiving weapons he has instead of singling in on a target like he did with Cole Kmet or Chase Claypool. Granted, Mayer made the most of the plays where they were able to connect, but Book was trying to spread out the attack.

SE: Thank you so much for bringing me to my next point, and this is addressed to Brian Kelly. (clears throat) What is your deal!?

Apparently you have a condition, one that prevents you from allowing a freshman to just let loose unless C.J. Prosise gets hurt or you have a 4-8 season and fire your defensive coordinator, but for cripes sake give the young guns some runs! It took until the final minute of the second quarter for a Notre Dame wide receiver to catch a pass, and it was Joe Wilkins.

I get that Bennett Skowronek was hurt in the second quarter, but he didn’t even get a real target early on. Also, not to beleaguer the point, but with Braden Lenzy (mysteriously) out with what you have now identified as a hamstring injury and most of the healthy receivers stinking it up, Xavier Watts and Jordan Johnson should’ve gotten a chance to show their stuff. The latter’s a five-star wide receiver and you couldn’t let him get a run against Duke when Clemson played all but one of their true freshmen the same day against Wake Forest?

Sit with that reality for the next four years since you just got an extension through 2024. Oh, and during those next four years, I hope you turn Tommy Rees into one hell of an offensive coordinator. More specifically, an offensive coordinator who is willing to actually open up the offense and take some shots like LSU did last season.

NDA: Well, again, Notre Dame’s offense didn’t kill Duke like Clemson did the Demon Deacs, and I think that was because Duke’s defense was obviously pretty decent and they were trying to confuse this Notre Dame team. Plus, do you really expect Rees to change the offense so drastically with the abbreviated offseason?

SE: That’s the thing, it’s not a drastic change like LSU needed. Book showed he could take some deep shots at the end of last season, and he showed he could be efficient in the short-to-intermediate in 2018. Why not just put those two together?

Hayden Adams | The Observer

Irish graduate student cornerback Nick McCloud vies for a 50/50 ball during Notre Dame’s win in the season opener Saturday at home.

NDA: Can we at least agree that the defense and the special teams played outstanding all things considered?

SE: Oh, dude, that Jeremiah Owusu sack and that Bramblett fake punt… absolutely filthy.

NDA: I know, right!

SE: Amen, man… Hey! You’re not distracting me. I gotta talk about the run game.

I’ll give them a pass because of Kyren Williams (and to a lesser extent Chris Tyree), and at least the one thing Javon McKinley is reliable with is blocking, but that push from the O-line ain’t gonna cut it against Florida State and Clemson.

NDA: Florida State just lost to Georgia Tech.

SE: Actually, that’s very fair. Well so much for the ACC presenting the Irish a challenge outside of the Tigers.

 

Alright gents, that’s enough. You both raise some really good points. Obviously, there is some consensus that the defense and special teams performed admirably and the run game adequately so given the level of competition it appears Notre Dame will face this season.

I, in fulfilling the roles of judge, jury and executioner, recognize that it is a semi-valid excuse that the offense has not had the appropriate time to meld together from a passing game standpoint. I also recognize that they were suffering from injuries to presumed top targets Kevin Austin, Bennett Skowronek and Braden Lenzy.

That said, there is no excuse for the lack of accuracy which Mr. Book displayed on the throws to Tommy Tremble, Michael Mayer and Lawrence Keys III which Mr. Sports Editor mentioned (and two to Kyren Williams which he failed to mention).

The expectations for Ian Book coming into this season as essentially a third-year starter, from my perspective, did not pertain greatly to his physical attributes. He is who he is, and what he is is a quarterback with underrated mobility and arm strength, but one who will not wow in either department.

Mr. Book was expected to make gains from a mental perspective and the offense was expected to become more efficient under new coordinator Tommy Rees. Those changes should have been similar to those made by LSU last season as Mr. Sports Editor also mentioned, though Mr. Apologist is correct in pointing out that the Tigers are a dramatic example — more of an exception than a rule.

Ian Book came out and despite his postgame press conference comments that he felt “comfortable” in pass protection, he looked far too excited. That would be understandable given the uncertainty of this season and the catharsis achieved by finally taking the field, except for the fact that Mr. Book is indeed a third-year starter at Notre Dame and still seems to be susceptible to his emotions getting the better of him. That is a troubling reality.

In summation, it is the ruling of this judge-jury-executioner that Ian Book manages to compose himself and find the chemistry he so desperately needs between himself and his pass catchers in as swift and judicious a manner as possible. Games against South Florida and Wake Forest in the coming weeks should provide ample opportunity for such development.

However, if this change is not made rapidly, it is absolutely imperative that the offensive line reach Joe Moore Award caliber levels of play from a running game perspective. While Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree present agility and speed, neither possesses the requisite physicality to bulldoze defenses of his own accord, nor do any other running backs on the roster — with the possible exception of linebacker/situational running back Osita Ekwonu.

But even if the Irish become proficient in controlling the trenches, as Mr. Sports Editor alluded to, it will not be a sufficient factor on its own to surpass Clemson as the kings of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

In conclusion, Ian Book’s showing was worrisome even when taking into account the circumstances regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on this season. It is up to him to make any and all prudent adjustments to become the caliber of signal caller who can compete for the Heisman, and in doing so to relieve pressure on his defense, special teams and running game.

If he does not do so, then Notre Dame fans may (and should) be saying, to quote Thomas Jefferson from the musical “Hamilton,” “this kid is out.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is a senior double majoring in Physics and Film, Television & Theatre with a minor in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy. He is a proud son of the state of Kentucky and member of Zahm House. Feel free to provide him procrastination material in the form of lively discussion about college football and basketball or the genius of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Contact Hayden