Adams: Three takeaways for ND from this weekend’s CFB slate
Hayden Adams | Monday, September 28, 2020
I’ve said it a million and one times, but I am from Lexington, Ky., and as such I have a rooting interest in University of Kentucky athletics. The Southeastern Conference kicked off their football season this past Saturday with a full slate of games that included Florida-Ole Miss, LSU-Mississippi State, Georgia-Arkansas and Auburn-Kentucky.
That last matchup was the only contest between two ranked teams, and it seemed to be an intriguing one where the teams would be pitting strengths against weaknesses on both sides of the ball. Fast forward through three UK turnovers, two embarrassingly sick touchdowns by Tigers junior receiver Seth Williams and one of the worst non-overturns on a replay review for a touchdown that I have ever seen, and the Wildcats were limping out of the Plains with a 29-13 loss.
I’m gonna be honest. It still hurts. I freely acknowledge my expectations were overblown, but what did I have to lose?
It was such a long summer not knowing what was going to happen with college sports. So, I let my imagination run wild, talked a lot of trash to other Observer sports writers and thought Kentucky would win. I was let down. C’est la vie.
However, while it was a very disappointing showing, both the Kentucky game and this weekend of college football in general have enlightened me. It’s provided me with some insight that I think is beneficial for myself and other college football fans — but especially Notre Dame fans — to consider. So let’s get to it.
1. It is a real luxury — and a necessity going forward — to have a DUDE catching passes
As I alluded to, stud wide receiver Seth Williams was doing stud wide receiver things as he hung six receptions, 112 yards and two scores on the Wildcats. It was kind of reminiscent of the way Chase Claypool embarrassed secondaries for the Irish last season (and, to a lesser extent, the way Miles Boykin and Equanimeous St. Brown did in years prior).
Through two games this season, it has become pretty evident to most Notre Dame fans that the Irish are feeling the loss of Claypool in the passing game. The receivers have combined for 11 catches, 110 yards and one touchdown so far this year. The tight ends have 13 catches for 151 through the air and the running backs have eight receptions for 150. That’s a problem… sort of.
On the bright side, they’ve shown that they have a decent amount of flexibility in the pass game, and they’re doing it without any contributions from injured graduate student Ben Skowronek and junior Kevin Austin Jr. at the receiver spot. Plus, Tommy Tremble has been a jack of all trades, and I’ve even heard him called the tight end version of Chase Claypool.
He’s not far off from being (and might already be) a DUDE on this Irish roster. That’s not a bad thing for Tight End U to have in the arsenal, so ND fans should count themselves fortunate (because Kentucky certainly doesn’t have a guy like that anymore). However, Tremble could still use some help, which leads to the next insight…
2. Recruiting is pretty ___ important (fill in the blank)
Watching Kentucky’s secondary get torched by Williams opened my eyes to the way in which you get dudes like that: recruiting. “Geez, Hayden, who’d a thunk that recruiting’s the way to get ballers,” you may be sarcastically asking me. Well, call me an optimist and apologist for player development coaches.
I especially have some sympathy for Notre Dame given the balance they have to strike between kids who are great players, but are also well-adjusted young men.
That said, you gotta go down and get some guys that can play. The problem though, even though I know I shouldn’t, is falling victim to the graduate transfer hype train. It’s that Joe Burrow syndrome. I get blinded by the possibilities of a player without thinking about why he’s transferring.
Kentucky has an LSU transfer at cornerback: the very braggadocious (check his twitter @bossmanfat1) Kelvin Joseph, who was beat on one of Williams’ touchdowns. LSU may be Defensive Back U, but there’s clearly a reason Joseph is now at Kentucky; that’s a reality check for me — and I hope for many others as well.
For Notre Dame, seeing “former Ohio State safety” next to Isaiah Pryor’s name probably had a lot of people intrigued, but the fact he is now a third-string safety/rover at ND speaks volumes. The same holds for Northwestern transfer Skowronek and even NC State transfer cornerback Nick McCloud. Best case scenario, guys like that should shore up depth at a program of Notre Dame’s stature, not be relied upon to turn a team into a title-contender.
With regard to Skowronek and the receivers specifically, it’s evident that graduate student quarterback Ian Book has trouble connecting with his pass catchers, and even more than he would if any were in the same vicinity of athleticism and range as Claypool.
The way to solve that issue would have been to stock the roster with game-changing receivers over the last few years, which is why the Irish HAVE to land at least two of Jayden Thomas, Dont’e Thornton and Deion Colzie this recruiting class, and ideally all three. But for the time being the Irish are getting by, and they’ve managed to find something they didn’t have when leaning on Mapletron last season: a legitimate ground attack.
And to bookend this (pun intended) with some Ian Book discussion…
3. Guys are who they are, and there’s no way around it
Unless his name is Trevor Lawrence or (I anticipate) Justin Fields, no quarterback is going to look very impressive against half-decent defensive competition to start this season (yes, K.J. Costello broke the SEC passing record, but it was against a historically depleted team and he still threw two picks). Some may perform adequately or even admirably, but keep in mind how rusty some defenses are (and some nonexistent; *cough* Louisville *cough*).
Fields and Lawrence are clearly the only generational talents in college football this year, so you might want to cut the rest of the QBs throughout college football some slack.
Oklahoma redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler completed 14 of 17 passes for 290 yards and four scores in his season opener. This Saturday, he went 30 of 41 for 387 and another four scores but added three interceptions in a loss. The opponents were Missouri State and Kansas State, respectively. (Side note: Kansas State lost to Arkansas State two weeks prior, so make of that what you will).
The same principle is true for experienced guys who had high expectations this season. Sam Howell of North Carolina and Louisville’s Micale (or Malik? I can’t keep track) Cunningham have thrown interceptions in every game this year. Howell had two against Syracuse and Cunningham has five through three games, with three picks coming in his most recent game against Pitt. By the way, God bless Cunningham after he was taken off on a stretcher against Pitt.
The point is, while Ian Book has been infuriating as hell given the expectations of a fifth-year senior and third-year starter under center, at least some of those expectations were unrealistic. I don’t mean to disparage him, but Book is clearly not an elite quarterback, and that should have been made apparent to us last season. He’s been described as a “manager” in each of the first two games this year and that moniker is apt.
Joe Burrow was an exception, because you can tell that who he was in 2019 is who he has been for a long time. He’s always had that edge, but it took a change of environment, getting healthy and the LSU staff opening up a historically anemic offense to put what he could do on full display. Having playmakers around him helps, but his poise and precision were evident.
Book, on the other hand, is who he is: a guy with underrated athleticism who clearly can’t single-handedly win games of consequence for the Irish. That’s an unreasonable expectation with which to shoulder a 6-foot-nothing former 3-star recruit who was previously committed to Washington State.
It’s the same way it was unreasonable to expect a big leap this year from a junior college quarterback who had been carried by his defense, special teams and running game for 13 contests in 2018 then tore his patellar tendon after two games last season (talking about Terry Wilson, Kentucky’s quarterback; it always comes back to Kentucky).
So with all of that said, I hope that we as collective appreciators of college football can recognize that, despite how abnormal this season is, these are some truths that are pretty much eternal in this game. Although, when we do take 2020 for the chaotic year that it is, I would hope that the Notre Dame loyal in particular would temper their usual craziness.
But who am I kidding? It wouldn’t be college football without outrageous expectations and massive overreactions to every minute detail. It wouldn’t be college football if Kentucky didn’t perpetually disappoint with the most frustrating and heart aching moments. So please try and take everything I just said for what it’s worth, and know that I appreciate all of you all the same for the way you make college football what it is.
Yes, even you, Kirk Herbstreit and Paul Finebaum.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.