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Things To Learn: Can Notre Dame retain its focus against a “letdown” opponent

Notre Dame v Michigan State

EAST LANSING, MI - SEPTEMBER 23: Brian Lewerke #14 of the Michigan State Spartans runs for a long gain during the first quarter as Jalen Elliott #21 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish gives chase during the game at Spartan Stadium on September 23, 2017 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

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It is a concern too-often cited by fans. Very rarely does one Division I team actually look past another. The coaches have spent decades studying film, finding strengths on any opponent. Even the players — even the freshmen — have played football long enough to know there is plenty of talent on each team to have a seemingly-surprisingly good day.

If nothing else, current freshmen were eight-years-old when Appalachian State won at No. 5 Michigan. They remember that legend as the fact it is. If they don’t, the 10-year anniversary was certainly discussed enough at this season’s beginning to remind them.

The opening week of this season, in fact, provided an even more historical example of the talent to spare across Division I college football — it extends to the Football Championship Series, too. A 45-point underdog, Howard University stuck it to not only the Vegas bookmakers but also to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, upsetting the Rebels 43-40.

Notre Dame is not overlooking Miami, no matter if it is the Ohio version rather than the Florida foe waiting in November.

The question is not will the Irish be ready for the RedHawks. The question is, will Notre Dame stay focused on the RedHawks? Focus has yet to be an issue early in the season. For example:

— Through four games, the Irish have committed 23 penalties for an average of 48.2 yards per game. Aside from a borderline personal foul on sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara against Georgia, none of those penalties jump to mind as screaming a lapse in judgement. Even that mistake by Okwara was steeped in football instinct and was within the pace of play, though he still should not have given the referee the opportunity to make the call.

— Notre Dame has turned the ball over five times. Admittedly, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has lucked out of a few more interceptions, but those, along with the two he has thrown, speak more to a developing passing game than any version of sloppiness.

— The Irish defense has given up a total of five plays of 30 yards or more, four of them coming in the 20-19 loss to Georgia. If granting the premise the Bulldogs might be pretty good at the football thing, then letting Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke spring a quarterback sneak for 52 yards may be the only real moment of Mike Elko’s charges letting one get by them, literally and figuratively.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has now spent months repeating the catchphrases he considers the traits Notre Dame should emulate at all times. “Attention to detail” may not get the same headlines as “grit” or “trust the process,”, but it is among them all the same.

Showing that attention to detail is most telling when favored by 20-plus points facing a Group of Five opponent who has already suffered two losses to fellow Group of Five teams. If the Irish do that, they will be making it clear this fall has no motions to simply go through. Rather, each action will be deliberate and with purpose.

If Notre Dame commits repeated false starts, carries the ball a bit more loosely or blows an additional coverage or two, that will not mean it assumed a victory over Miami was a sure thing. It will, however, mean the mental consistency needed to be a top-tier team has not yet arrived.

Speaking of giving up big plays, can the Irish secondary, specifically its safeties, hold its own against a genuine passing attack?

No disrespect to Georgia freshman Jake Fromm, Notre Dame has yet to face a dangerous arm this season. Fromm has one, and it will show itself more with time, but in his first career start, he was not asked to do much.

Miami coach Chuck Martin will ask his senior quarterback, Gus Ragland, to do a lot against the Irish. For that matter, Ragland has the targets available to put the Irish defensive backs in compromised positions. Take a look at a 24-yard RedHawks touchdown against Cincinnati.

If the secondary does not work as a unit, does not stick to each and every assignment, does not exceed preseason expectations, then Ragland will be able to exploit it for a score or two. At the least, Miami could add to that listing of plays allowed of 30 yards or more. Martin’s playbook creates a number of options for such an impact.

This does not mean Ragland’s deep shots could be enough to beat the Irish. Rather, if he finds success, it bodes poorly for future encounters with the likes of USC’s Sam Darnold, North Carolina State’s Ryan Finley and the other Miami’s Malik Rosier.

What about the Notre Dame passing attack? Will Chase Claypool be a consistent No. 2 option?

Notre Dame v Michigan State

EAST LANSING, MI - SEPTEMBER 23: Chase Claypool #83 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates a win over Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium on September 23, 2017 in East Lansing, Michigan. Notre Dame defeated Michigan State 38-18. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

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The sophomore receiver caught four passes for 56 yards against Michigan State. The way he has been praised since then, including by this space, one might think Claypool caught 14 passes for 256 yards. It was a solid performance, but there is more room to grow.

“We think he’s capable of being a very nice piece to putting our wide receiver corps together,” Kelly said Tuesday. “He’s big, he’s athletic, he can catch the football. We can get some nice matchups with him.

“But he’s a young player that, quite frankly, the game is still evolving for him.”

If Claypool continues to keep piece with that evolution, he will remain the primary complement to junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. If Claypool is an “up one week, down the next” type of commodity, Wimbush may be better served finding another second read.

Could that, in time, be Kevin Stepherson?
Originally, that question was going to read, “Where will Kevin Stepherson line up?” Kelly preemptively answered that Thursday, pointing toward the boundary position. There, the sophomore receiver should be able to use his speed to blow the top off a secondary and distract a safety from other assignments in doing so.

That does not mean Stepherson will immediately challenge Claypool for the targets on the boundary.

“He has to work his way up the depth chart, too,” Kelly said. “We’re not going to accelerate that. He has to earn that. That’s going to take time.”

Army v Notre Dame

SAN ANTONIO,TX - NOVEMBER 12: Kevin Stepherson #29 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish can’t quite get to a pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game at the Alamodome on November 12, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

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Much like Claypool, holes in Stepherson’s game may restrain his impact from the outset. Whereas Claypool is still learning the game, Stepherson is learning to pay attention to the game.

“He’s got to work on his concentration skills and his focus,” Kelly said. “He’ll drop a ball here or there just because he’s not locked in the way we need him to be.”

If Stepherson can be locked in enough to make any form of an impact in his first week back in action, it should be only a matter of time before he gets those chances consistently. For now, those opportunities will likely come primarily once the Irish have a sizeable lead.

Might other members of the second unit get a chance to impress?
Stepherson should not be the only substitute to have multiple opportunities. If and when Notre Dame goes up by three possessions in the second half, Kelly and his coaching staff should start to view the remaining time as a trial-and-error session.

Sophomore quarterback Ian Book attempted three passes against Boston College, all falling incomplete. It would be beneficial for all involved to get Book a few completions of confidence before he has to step in for Wimbush in any competitive situation.

The same could be said for freshman safety Jordan Genmark-Heath on the opposite side of the ball. Kelly does not expect Genmark-Heath to be only a special teams maven this season.

“He’s attached to coach Elko at the hip at practice, so he’s learning the safety position,” Kelly said. “… We have to continue to train Jordan to be prepared to play this year, so that training will continue, but as that training is going on, we want to keep playing because we think he’s got some nice skill sets.”

In other words, Genmark-Heath might be needed at safety should so much as one injury occur. In order to keep him physically dialed in, some hits on special teams hold merit. In order to keep him mentally ready, some fourth-quarter snaps may be necessary.

When it comes to freshman kicker Jonathan Doerer, some fourth-quarter kickoffs could help boost his confidence. Recruited specifically to take over kickoff duties, a below average performance at Boston College relegated Doerer back to the bench.

“We’d like for him to continue working toward kicking off, but I think that’s a process right now that we’re evaluating each week,” Kelly said. “… We’ll see if there’s an opportunity that we could get him into the game. We would.”

Those opportunities are the building blocks for future success needed for sustained progress. In order to get them, the Irish cannot mess around against the RedHawks. Notre Dame is not, by any means, looking past a collection of players coached by the familiar Chuck Martin. That does not mean Notre Dame will pay the needed attention to detail.

Oh, and does your cable package get NBC Sports Network?
Consider this your daily reminder this weekend’s game is on NBCSN at 5 p.m. ET.

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