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Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s defensive strength still awaiting drop-back passers

Nick McCloud Pittsburgh

Oct 24, 2020; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish cornerback Nick McCloud (4) celebrates after interesting a pass against the Pittsburgh Panthers during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. Notre Dame won 45-3. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame has started three different pairs of cornerbacks in the last three weeks, yet those opponents have averaged only 169 passing yards per game, part of how the Irish have the No. 3 team pass efficiency defense rating in the country, among teams to have played more than one game. Health on the defensive perimeter may bring more stability to Notre Dame’s defense, but it has hardly needed it, given that defense ranks No. 2 in the country in scoring at 9.8 points per game (again, among teams to have played more than one game).

Part of that success derives from the inadequacies of the first five Irish opponents. Only Louisville ranks in the country’s top half in passing efficiency, at No. 22 (more than one game, you get it). But looking at those foes compared to what is yet to come, head coach Brian Kelly expects his defense to find even more success.

“There’s playmakers all over the field,” he said after Notre Dame throttled Pittsburgh, 45-3, on Saturday. “It’s very difficult to run the football against them.

“If you’re a drop-back team, and this is the first drop-back quarterback that we’ve seen other than the opener against Duke, they make life difficult for you. You are under duress with that [defensive line] coming at you.”

Defining a drop-back passer in 2020 is an exercise in the arbitrary, but if looking at Irish quarterback Ian Book as near the middle of the drop-back/dual-threat spectrum, it can be established the Irish (5-0, 4-0 ACC) await four distinct drop-back passers, one poor passer and one modest dual-threat.

That dual-threat comes this weekend, Georgia Tech freshman Jeff Sims, more marked by his 10 interceptions in six games than his 45.8 rushing yards per game, but if Kelly is allowing his locker room to look ahead, it’s acceptable for this space, as well.

Kelly’s thought of relishing the idea of facing more drop-back passers holds merit. Notre Dame’s pass rush has gotten to the quarterback only 12 times in five games, but Florida State’s scrambling Jordan Travis and Louisville’s Malik Cunningham stymied the pressure in those terms. Trevor Lawrence, Phil Jurkovec and Sam Howell all would rather stay in the pocket.

When the Irish start facing that stretch — have you heard Notre Dame plays Clemson on Nov. 7? — they will hope to have junior TaRiq Bracy back from illness and alongside graduate transfer Nick McCloud (at top, No. 4), with freshman Clarence Lewis on hand as a third cornerback. The leading trio has yet to appear in the same game this season, one of a few testaments to the coronavirus outbreak’s impact on the defense.

A week after the Irish committed only three penalties for 18 yards and thus warranted praise in this space for their season-long discipline, out the window that discipline went. Notre Dame committed seven penalties at Pittsburgh for 63 yards, gift-wrapping three first downs for the Panthers. It hardly mattered, but the lapse should still be noted.

Senior defensive tackle Kurt Hinish made only one tackle, not a great measurement when Pittsburgh runs only 53 plays, but he could not have been much more excited about his return to his hometown. There was just one drawback ...

Hinish still enjoyed the chance in the postgame to share a moment with David Greene, Damar Hamlin and Cal Adomitis, all former teammates at Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, pandemic protocol concerns apparently aside.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Pittsburgh

Oct 24, 2020; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Alumni of Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive lineman Kurt Hinish (41) and Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman David Green (2) and defensive back Damar Hamlin (3) and long snapper Cal Adomitis (94) pose for a photo after their game at Heinz Field. Notre Dame won 45-3. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

When it came to light junior running back Jahmir Smith had left the Irish roster, this space assumed the decision tied to his standing on the depth chart.

It was wrong. Smith left the team to tend to his own mental health.

“Talking about mental health issues is a difficult subject matter for many,” Smith said in a statement via Twitter last week. “For those struggling with mental health, asking for help can seem discouraging, but it is the first step towards improving. I have decided to take this first step, and after speaking with my family and coach Kelly, I have decided that it is best for me to take some time away from football to work on improving my mental health.”

Kelly praised Smith’s strength in making this decision.

“He’s a strong young man,” Kelly said Thursday. “I love Jahmir for his courage more than anything else. I think [discussing mental health in the past] connotated weakness, and that’s so far from the truth, especially as it relates to Jahmir.

“It’s always been a concern when you’re playing a competitive game, one where there’s so many pressures to live up to expectations, whether they be your own or others. Heap on that, at a national institution — bring on the academics and mental health is certainly something that I’ve always had on my plate in my 30 years. It doesn’t carry the same negative connotation that it has over the years.”

Credit to Smith for making his own well-being his priority, and credit to Kelly for supporting that.

A week ago, this column spun an unbelievable tale of a newlywed couple someday telling their children about their wedding reception held at Notre Dame’s 12-7 victory against Louisville during a pandemic. Turns out, the only part of that story beyond belief is the bit about Colleen Reddy and Tom Hickey paying that much attention to the Irish victory.


While Colleen could hear the warm-up music at Notre Dame Stadium as she walked into the Basilica for her 3:00 ET ceremony, the two did not turn their attention to the game until they had finished with photos and the other typical wedding fare.

But suggesting Kyren Williams’ 24-yard rush to thoroughly seal the game will live on as a memory, that hypothetical proved accurate.

“I had no idea what the score was until the final drive when Notre Dame iced it,” said Hickey, a 2014 alum. “I thought Louisville — it would be an easy game for us. By the time we came back down to earth and met up with the rest of the party, Notre Dame was doing the final drive to ice the game.”

Of course, just having a wedding reception in the Stadium on a game day was unexpected, not just because their original plans were to get married on Oct. 31 in Chapel Hill, N.C., where they live. When the current Irish schedule was released in August, Hickey understandably wondered if their audibled plans would be scuttled only two months after making them.

“That was nerve-wracking,” he said. “To Notre Dame’s credit, they were incredible throughout the whole process. They honored their commitment to us and more, and were as flexible as they could be considering there was a football game going on at the same time.”

Holding a wedding reception in the Stadium during a pandemic may seem to run counter to the University’s limiting attendance to only students, faculty and staff, but keeping that reception to 15 guests — including the deacon who presided, conveniently also the groom’s uncle — mitigated many of those concerns.

No. 3 Notre Dame exposes Pittsburgh’s deep flaws in 45-3 routThings We Learned: ND risks turning attention ahead to Clemson to find peak before Nov. 7

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