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Questions for the Week: Who can Notre Dame play at nickel back to slow Wake’s Greg Dortch?

Ball State v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 08: Corey Lacanaria #11 of the Ball State Cardinals makes a first down catch in front of Houston Griffith #3 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 8, 2018 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Ball State 24-16.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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There is a chance it was nothing more than a quirk in the game plan. That seems unlikely, but there may be no greater reason Notre Dame defensive back Nick Coleman did not play during the 22-17 Irish victory against Vanderbilt on Saturday.

Whatever the reason, he did not. Coleman had been Notre Dame’s primary nickel back in the first two weeks, an unexpected role until senior Shaun Crawford tore his ACL days before the season began. Without Coleman on the field against the Commodores, early-enrolled freshman Houston Griffith (pictured above against Ball State) stepped in, finishing with four tackles.

That was not entirely unexpected. From the moment that Crawford went down, Griffith’s name quickly followed Coleman’s when Irish head coach Brian Kelly discussed the need at nickel back. Coleman was also expected to continue to contribute at safety, but that was before the emergence of junior Jalen Elliott solidified the defense’s back line. Without a need for him at safety, it was easy to presume Coleman would become a full-time nickel back.

His deflection to create Elliott’s first interception against Ball State furthered that thinking.

Then he did not play this past weekend, though by no means did Griffith play without mistake.

As Vanderbilt drove looking for a last-minute lead, junior cornerback Julian Love moved inward to nickel back, bringing junior cornerback Donte Vaughn off the sideline to work the boundary. A pass interference penalty against Vaughn aside, the alignment worked. (A sideline viewing followed by multiple reviews since has this scribe still thinking Commodores quarterback Kyle Shurmur’s hurried throw was yards further upfield than the intended route, leading to Vaughn’s incidental interference. That does not mean it was the wrong call, as supported by Vaughn’s muted/non-existent celebration after the fourth-and-10 incompletion; he expected the flag.)

Who will work at nickel back this week is more important than ever. Be it Coleman, Griffith or Love, Notre Dame will need excellent coverage at the position to limit the impact made by Wake Forest junior receiver Greg Dortch. In three games this year, he has 28 catches for 336 yards and a touchdown. Extrapolate that over a 12-game season and it projects to 112 receptions for 1,344 yards and four scores. If that sounds outlandish, consider he started only six games last season and played in eight before injury cut short his debut campaign. Even without being a primary role to begin the year, he was on pace for 80 catches, 1,083 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Don’t recognize the name from the 48-37 Irish victory against the Deacons a year ago? That is because Dortch suffered an intestinal injury on his second touchdown the week before against Louisville. Note: Dortch played through that to score twice more.

Looking at just that game, it is clear how important Notre Dame’s nickel package will be this week. Of Dortch’s four scores, two screen passes and a swing pass out of the backfield all would have stressed a nickel back. Subpar play at the position will cost the Irish, to say the least.

That means Love is the most-likely solution no matter Coleman’s status, but that only works if Vaughn is capable for a full 60 minutes. If not, then Coleman or Griffith could be needed at either the nickel back spot or as the boundary cornerback for spells. One way or another, Notre Dame will need three cornerbacks in coverage.

To date, this is the best offense the Irish have faced. Even if Michigan continues to find its groove, the Wolverines were hardly a cohesive threat in week one. Wake Forest is, averaging 36 points per game with a true freshman at quarterback in Sam Hartman.

But will Hartman remain the quarterback with junior Kendall Hinton’s return from suspension?
Most likely, since Hartman has completed 55.3 percent of his passes for 834 yards and six touchdowns while leading the Deacons to a 2-1 start, with the loss hardly the offense’s fault after scoring 34 points.

During the summer, Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson suspended his presumptive starter for three games due to a violation of team rules. In preseason practice, while Hartman won a quarterback derby, Hinton worked at receiver. He is explosive with the ball, rushing for 705 yards and 10 scores in his career despite limited action behind John Wolford.

If this is the best offense Notre Dame has faced, and the Irish defense has yet to give up more than 17 points per game, which trend is expected to win out this weekend?
Apparently, bookmakers think it more likely Notre Dame’s defense gives a bit. A 57.5 combined point total over/under sets a bar more than two touchdowns higher than an Irish game has reached this season. Realizing how inconsistent Notre Dame’s offense has been, those extra points coming solely from it may be a reach. The Deacons breaking 20 should be necessary for that over/under to be tested.

Will Cole Kmet be available to add an Irish playmaker to the mix?
High ankle sprains can be tricky, so if the sophomore tight end needs another week to get fully healthy, taking such precaution would be understandable. Last weekend showed Notre Dame has other tight ends, trotting out three in the blue zone to spring fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar free for a touchdown reception. Sophomore Brock Wright ran a secondary route on the score while senior Alizé Mack picked up a pass-rusher to give junior quarterback Ian Book enough time to find Weishar.

Kmet adds another dimension to the offense as a whole, but the Irish should not be limited without him, either.

USC v Stanford

PALO ALTO, CA - SEPTEMBER 08: Head coach Clay Helton of the USC Trojans reacts to a no call by the officials during an NCAA football game against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium on September 8, 2018 in Palo Alto, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

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Until then, will USC essentially save its season Friday night? (10:30 ET; ESPN)
The Trojan absolutely need to beat Washington State. Not only is Wazzu one of the Pac 12’s lesser teams, but the Cougars ruined USC’s title hopes long before Notre Dame got a chance to in 2017, so this occasion has some revenge thoughts to it. This time it is at home and the Trojans are coming off two offensively-inept losses.

That should be three more reasons than usual to make this a must-win. Furthermore, the fallout of falling to 1-3 and 0-2 in the Pac 12 would not make for an enjoyable next two months.

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