Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s offense filled with questions for the Citrus Bowl
Bowl games are similar to preseason practice finales. Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game can offer insights into the playmakers likely to define a season to come or unveil aspects of a new scheme previously unknown. If the Irish are fully engaged in the Citrus Bowl on Monday vs. No. 17 LSU (1 p.m. ET; ABC), then much can be learned from the occasion. The 2018 depth chart can gain some order at a position or two. Pending personnel losses will be seen in an evaluator manner, rather than merely with a reactionary response. Overall composure may be measured.
If, however, the afternoon in Orlando is treated like the mere exhibition it largely is, then it becomes an exercise in entertainment otherwise lacking effect.
Without Kevin Stepherson, who can Notre Dame turn to as a deep-threat playmaker?
The sophomore receiver will not be in Florida this weekend, and it is exceedingly unlikely he is in South Bend in the fall. Thus, this lesson can shed light toward the Irish future at receiver.
Exclude from these results any production from fifth-year receiver Cam Smith, finally healthy from a hamstring issue. He will not be in the mix in 2018.
Instead, any noticeable impact from current freshman Michael Young would warrant attention.
“He’s had his best practices,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Wednesday following the first Irish practice in the Florida heat. “He’s shown a confidence level, consistency level, that maybe escaped him at times during the year, which is pretty typical of some of the younger players.
“You can kind of see him settling into a more comfortable position right now, too. We’re going to have to count on him to make some plays for us.”
An emergence from Young would establish him as only the pole position holder. Signed commit and consensus four-star receiver Braden Lenzy (Tigard High School; Portland, Ore.) has the speed to immediately force his way into this conversation during the summer.
Whoever emerges from that mix, it will obviously be in a complementary role to junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. Even when Stepherson was hitting on all cylinders, the opposing defenses’ primary focus remained on St. Brown — he has shown a higher probability of taking over a game thus far in their respective careers. Against LSU, Kelly expects St. Brown to see time at multiple receiver positions, partly due to sophomore Chase Claypool also being sidelined thanks to shoulder surgery.
“For us, more than anything else, it’s going to be keeping the ball out on the perimeter, winning some of those matchups and then when we get a chance we’ll move some of those guys around,” Kelly said. “[St. Brown] is going to move all over the place. He’s going to be a guy that we’re going to have to lean on heavily.”
Relying on St. Brown on Monday with any success would be a positive notion for a 2018 sans Stepherson, presuming St. Brown returns for his senior season.
Without Alizé Mack, who can Notre Dame turn to as an aerial threat at tight end, if anyone?
There is little-to-no indication the junior tight end will not be with the Irish when they take the field against Michigan to open the 2018 season, but it is a possibility worthy of acknowledgement. If Mack is elsewhere then, offensive coordinator Chip Long will need to deploy someone else as the detached tight end intended to force matchup difficulties for the defense.
Current senior Nic Weishar presents as a better fit for the role attached to the line, presently manned by fifth-year senior Durham Smythe. From there, Smythe has showcased both his sure hands and his strength as a blocker this season. Even their physical profiles are similar. Notre Dame lists Smythe as 6-foot-5.5 and 257 pounds with Weishar at 6-foot-4.75 and 243 pounds.
If that is where Weishar eventually excels, then the detached focus turns to the freshman duo of Brock Wright and Cole Kmet. The former has seen action this season as a blocker but will miss the bowl game due to his own shoulder injury, while Kmet has two catches for 14 yards. Kelly indicated the latter could be in the mix this week.
“The tight ends are going to be important for us,” Kelly said. “Durham Smythe, Cole Kmet, Nic Weishar, all three tight ends will be involved.”
What could a healthy Josh Adams have done all season?
This should be the junior running back’s last game with the Irish, and it certainly will be his last behind an offensive line this superior to its typical competition. The month off has allowed Adams to finally return to 100 percent health. Whether it was just his ankles or other issues in addition, it cannot be denied Adams lost much of his explosiveness by season’s end.
“He looks really good,” Kelly said. “He’s got his speed back, he looks healthy. He’s running very effectively. I expect him to play really well in this game. I think the time off for him really helped him.”
Adams will need that speed, that health and that efficiency to manage a good day against the Tigers. They rank No. 21 in overall rushing defense and No. 39 in yards per carry at 3.80. For context, Michigan State allowed 3.38 yards per carry this season (No. 13) and Georgia gave up 3.47 yards per attempt (No. 20).
If Adams runs through LSU, it will elicit wonderings of “What could have been” if only his ankles had not been landed on so many times in October. It will also bode well for the next back to run behind what will still be a strong offensive line in 2018, most likely sophomore Tony Jones.
With that in mind, monitoring the distribution of opportunities between Jones and junior Dexter Williams will also shed light on what could come down the road for the two when healthy.
When removing ready-made excuses, how do the Irish fare against a top-20 team?
Kelly cited the crowd’s impact for the disastrous start at Miami in November. Anyone in attendance understood his point. The second half stumble two weeks later at Stanford was a sign of mental and physical fatigue at the end of a stretch of six weeks featuring four ranked opponents, an underrated Wake Forest and the always-wearisome Navy. Logically, at least, the argument made sense.
Camping World Stadium will hardly be abuzz come Monday, and Notre Dame will have had more than five weeks off since its most-recent game, not to mention time away from schoolwork.
“Like anything else, we needed some time,” Kelly said. “Our football team needed to get their step back, some energy back to them. Obviously this is a long break, but I thought we prepared well.”
With those outside factors removed, LSU will offer an excellent gauge of how the Irish genuinely stack up against a top-20 opponent. That is, if Notre Dame focuses on the bowl game. Amid trips to Universal Studios, a spending spree at Best Buy and assuredly plenty of seafood, the game itself may not be at the top of the list of priorities all week. Such is the difficult nature of bowl games in the first place.
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