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Adams: Questions and comments after ND’s dismantling of Pitt

| Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Not a whole lot of questions this week after Notre Dame beat Pitt 45-3. But that’s OK. It just means we can go more in depth on what we got. Enjoy.


Does ND have the ability at receiver to compete with Clemson after 2 injuries?

Love that you’re already looking past Georgia Tech. Let’s hope the team doesn’t.

To answer your question, at receiver alone, no. They don’t have a guy of Chase Claypool or Miles Boykin’s caliber to strike fear into the heart of Clemson’s defense. It has to be a by-committee approach with tight ends and running backs chipping in significantly.

Ben Skowronek and Javon McKinley have two combined touchdown catches, both coming from Skowronek against Pitt. Clemson isn’t going to let a guy like Skowronek do what he did this weekend; he’s going to have to be the move-the-chains, steady hands kind of guy we saw against Louisville. They’ll also probably give McKinley more problems than he had with Louisville, and look how he handled that.

Backing those guys up is Joe Wilkins Jr. Aside from his drop against Florida State, Wilkins’ lack of production is partly a product of him not being able to create separation, but mostly Book over- and underthrowing him on endzone targets in pretty much every game. Maybe a guy like Micah Jones makes his way into the two-deep with his 6-foot-5 frame. He has no career catches, so it would require him bursting onto the scenes like Wilkins against Duke, but I wouldn’t hold my breath at this point, especially because the Irish are lacking speed (more on that in a second) and he offers more in the vain of Skowronek and McKinley.

Where this really gets interesting (for lack of a better word) is the slot receiver/second tight end spot. Avery Davis has been consistently listed as the starter at the X position this season. Lawrence Keys III is backing him up, and each of them can do some good things on jet sweeps or quick outs, but they haven’t proven to be ultra-reliable guys.

The Irish could opt for — and have already frequently implemented — two-tight end sets at the expense of the slot receiver. That’s not a bad option considering the fact that Michael Mayer is a S-T-U-D Stud, and Tommy Tremble’s blocking/pass catching versatility is solid. However, without speed guys like Austin and Lenzy on the outsides to stretch the defense, they’re limited by the lack of burners. A lineup of Tremble, Mayer and any two of Skowronek/McKinley/Wilkins is not going to develop routes quickly or incentivize Clemson to unload the box until they make plays downfield against their corners.

Lastly, this could be something, but take it with a grain of salt. Ian Book offered praise for Jordan Johnson at Tuesday night’s Notre Dame player media availability, saying the freshman receiver made some really good catches in practice. Since we’re at the point where the Irish have only one more opponent before facing the Tigers, it seems like wishful thinking that new faces without any significant playing time or actual catches (like Jones, Johnson and Xavier Watts) would get involved. It would certainly be welcome, and maybe the coaches really are working on getting Johnson up to speed. Alternatively, it might just be some gamesmanship. Maybe Book was told by the coaches or took it upon himself to try and help Johnson’s confidence after a difficult first semester for the St. Louis product.

Regardless though, aside from the tight ends, the running backs will also need to play a role in the passing game. Chris Tyree and Kyren Williams have to get involved in screen passes and wheel routes to keep the Tigers on their toes. Maybe Nov. 7 is when the coaching staff resurrects the 75-yard screen to Williams that we saw against Duke. Or maybe they get another running back involved…


Any chance Jafar Armstrong could help at WR, after the injuries to Austin and [Lenzy]?

It’s really something to see how Armstrong went from running back No. 1 to fourth string in just two years. I don’t mean to hate on the guy, but Armstrong’s appeal seemed to be that, as a converted wide receiver, he could catch passes out of the backfield or rotate to the slot. The coaching staff has since shown that, even with Keys coming off of concussion protocol, they’d rather go with Davis or a second tight end than put Armstrong in there.

The fact that he has basically no experience at either the boundary or field (where Austin and Lenzy played) also makes me think there isn’t much to be made of this, but I suppose they could theoretically kick Davis/Keys out there or go into an empty backfield with Armstrong also lining up.

We have seen the Irish try out split back sets occasionally. ND fans like to speculate that the staff have been saving the best weapons in their arsenal for Clemson, and this could hypothetically be something. A split back formation lends itself to having two guys who can pick up pass protection and catch the ball. Armstrong is probably better equipped for both of those than Tyree, even if he’s losing a LOT of speed to the freshman.

It would not surprise me to see Armstrong because he is a veteran and the coaching staff trusts his pass catching ability, but not really his ball-carrying. So I won’t rule out this proposal as plausible, but I would say it’s unlikely for him to help in any significant capacity.


Why can’t Ian Book throw over 6 yards?

Did you watch the game Saturday?

Granted, Book’s ‘development’ at quarterback over the last three seasons has been nothing short of bizarre. He’s gone from an accurate and precise pocket passer who feasted on the short-to-intermediate game (although less so the intermediate) to flat-out bad in the intermediate and very good on deep throws (when he had Chase Claypool to sling it to) to a game manager struggling to see open pass catchers but seemingly growing as a dual-threat quarterback.

I assume that what you are getting at here is Book’s general lack of accuracy downfield. I really can’t explain that, or any other aspects of his regression, as anything other than a mix of the pressure of the Notre Dame starting quarterback job, defense’s having enough film to game plan for Book, a lack of physical ability to throw downfield without some strain and the lack of receiving threats that can get open and make contested catches against any defense. But the thing is that Book has also been struggling on short throws this year, as could be seen with a couple of low throws to Avery Davis against Pitt.

It’s really difficult to pin down what exactly Book’s problem is, and he’s definitely got a few of them. But for what it’s worth, as a starter (and I know Brian Kelly is a broken record with this), Book is 25-3 and undefeated at home. He is now tied for third in career 300-yard passing games at Notre Dame (7), is second in total offensive yards (8,343) and career touchdown passes (63), behind only Brady Quinn (11,944 and 95), and may pass Quinn, Tom Clements and Ron Powlus for career wins as a starter (29) barring an unforeseen conclusion to the season.

Say what you will about him, but he is a winner, and all that really matters is whether or not Notre Dame beats Clemson with Book starting under center. Which gets us to our final comment…


Let’s wait until about 11:30 p.m. on Nov. 7 to determine the validity of that statement. Then we can reevaluate on Dec. 19.

That’s all for this week. I can only imagine what it will be like next week, so have those hot takes ready. It’s gonna be a fun one.

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 the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

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