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What We Learned: Notre Dame is Long’s offense, freshmen impact and more

Devin Studstill, Brandon Wimbush, Durham Smythe, Greer Martini, Nolan Henry

Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush (7) celebrates with teammates Devin Studstill (14) Durham Smythe (80) Greer Martini, and Nolan Henry (17) Notre Dame’s win over Temple 49-16 after an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)


NOTRE DAME, Ind. — We learned Notre Dame Stadium now holds 77,622 people. We learned Irish coach Brian Kelly still prefers to receive the opening kickoff. We learned Saturdays in September are best spent in the sun watching football.

Wait, we already knew that one.

What else did we learn?

This is Chip Long’s offense. Notre Dame had three rushers gain more than 100 yards and four take at least half a dozen carries, with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush included in both categories. Long relying on the running game could be read as playing to one’s strengths, but it is also in-line with his career elsewhere to date.

Of those rushers, sophomore Tony Jones was the initial backup to junior Josh Adams. Jones took his six rushes for only 19 yards, but he was never taken down in the backfield and did score on a seven-yard touchdown. In his first collegiate action, that qualifies as acceptable.

Junior Dexter Williams excelled when he began to see runs behind Adams. Finishing with 124 yards on only six carries — even if removing his long of 66 yards, Williams averaged 11.6 yards per carry — Williams insured he will have plenty of chances moving forward.

Equally as telling that this is Long’s show, the Irish had the ball for only 26:11 in a game they entirely dominated. Long simply saw no reason to attack Temple slowly when doing so quickly would create more opportunities to continue, well, attacking. All indications are he called the plays throughout, including Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s comments after the 49-16 victory Saturday.

“My conversation with [Long] is pretty constant during the drive,” Kelly said. “I don’t want it to be over-chatter. He’s got to get in the flow and he’s got to be calling the game.

“I’m just keeping him on track relative to fourth down calls, whether we’re in this particular area of the field. He’s got a fourth down in his pocket, so call accordingly on second and third down.”

Notre Dame has more tight ends than realized. Okay, not literally. A reading of the roster and the ability to count up one hand’s worth of fingers tells anyone the Irish have five tight ends. Yet, the four most-discussed contributed little-to-nothing Saturday.

Graduate student senior Durham Smythe entered the concussion protocol Saturday, and it is conceivable that keeps him out for a week. (That is not to say it will. Updates should come in due time.) Much-hyped junior Alizé Mack managed only two catches for 17 yards. Freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet were offensive non-factors.

Nonetheless, a tight end still impacted Notre Dame’s offense definitively. Senior Nic Weishar pulled in three passes for 20 yards and a touchdown catch in very tight quarters.

“He’s had the best year that anybody can have in terms of his physical commitment to the position itself,” Kelly said. “He does not have the DNA of Alizé and [Weishar] will tell you that, he looks like a dad compared to those four stallions.

“But he can catch the football. It doesn’t matter where you throw it. We had a fourth down scrimmage where we just called fourth down plays and he made four tremendous plays on fourth down. He created that on his own, and he’s just had so much confidence in the way he’s been playing and it’s carried over.”

Wieshar’s emergence, at least for a day, may seem unnecessary. How many tight ends could Long possibly want to use? Well, in a system largely-contingent on using two tight ends, a third becomes a top-line substitute, possibly needed simply to keep the starters’ legs fresh, plus a usual contribution. Thus, the fourth tight end is but one injury away from being a needed cog to the offense.

In this scenario, a reliable Weishar creates a more viable path to preserving a year of eligibility for either Wright or Kmet.

Whether that is the case or not, Wimbush is ready to throw to whomever lines up on the end of the line or detached by a few feet.

“I feel pretty confident throwing all these guys the football. All the tight ends have done great,” he said. “Obviously Weishar came up with a couple big plays when we needed them. He’s made some tremendous catches, and sometimes I have to throw him a better ball, but all those guys will lay their bodies out and go catch the ball.”

For all this offensive certainty, right tackle will remain a question. Entering the season opener, sophomore right tackle Tommy Kraemer’s status as the starter was already questionable. He had not grabbed ahold of the position like one might expect someone to when it has been waiting for them for a year. In recent weeks, freshman Robert Hainsey had emerged as a possible option.

Indeed, the two split snaps throughout Saturday. Per Kelly, that was planned and not a symptom of any lackluster play. When he checked with offensive line coach Harry Hiestand late in the game, the split was nearly exactly equal.

Such a distribution is unlikely to last the whole season. It simply is not Hiestand’s style, nor is it Kelly’s. Until it changes, though, the rest of the offensive line will proceed as normal. Graduate student senior right tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said he hardly notices which one is in at a particular moment.

On a macro scale, McGlinchey can certainly relate to the pressures being felt by Kraemer and Hainsey. He has filled the shoes of Zack Martin and Ronnie Stanley. He knows the growing reputation of Notre Dame tackles. He has furthered it.

“They’re going to be great players here, and they had a good day today,” McGlinchey said. “It’s just those little things they need to keep improving on.

“The thing with them is everybody is pushing them to be the next big tackle, but for both of them, it’s their first time playing. They need to focus on doing their job and being who they are.”

Kelly intended to minimize some of that job heading into Saturday, but Temple’s defensive plan and the way the game unfolded led Notre Dame to rush to the right far for more frequently than anticipated.

“We expected to go left the whole time and we didn’t care if anybody knew about it,” he said matter-of-factly.

The bright side of this positional uncertainty is the development of Hainsey. For a true freshman to be ready to play 40-plus snaps the first week of his freshman season is quite a statement and one that bodes very well for his future.

“Rob Hainsey came in and was so impressive as a guy who was supposed to be a high school senior,” McGlinchey said. “He put himself by the way he played and the way he worked in a position to contribute to the offensive line as a true freshman. … Give him all the credit in the world for being able to do that. I know I wasn’t able to do that when I was his age.”

Punting isn’t the worst thing. Yes, Notre Dame would like to score a touchdown every possession. But that is unrealistic. The Irish will punt on occasion. Maybe even frequently some weeks. And that will be okay.

Junior Tyler Newsome punted twice Saturday, and each boomed. Neither was in a position to pin Temple down inside its five-yard line, so Newsome could put his whole leg into it while giving his coverage team enough time to prevent a return. His 50- and 54-yard punts yielded returns of zero and two yards, respectively.

In time, that could be a weapon all on its own.

Freshmen will be involved. Just a quick listing of freshmen who made quantifiable impacts Saturday off the top of the head late in the night: Hainsey, safety Isaiah Robertson, safety Jordan Genmark-Heath and defensive tackles Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa.

Tagovailoa-Amosa even notched a tackle for loss, one of Notre Dame’s 11. Hainsey, meanwhile, made the tackle on a Temple interception return, showing not only hustle but enough physicality to power through a few Owl defenders trying to form a convoy.

The four defensive youngsters contributed to a vital rotation on that side of the ball, especially on a thin offensive line.

“It’s really a matter of to keep these guys fresh and playing at the level that they need to, [the freshmen] are going to have to play,” Kelly said. “So we had a fixed rotation of how they were going to play early and throughout. We trust them. We’re going to stick with that.”

Campus Crossroads looks good. The video board may take some adjusting from many. In time, such will occur. Frankly, it made the game go by quicker, providing a distraction during timeouts. During replays, it provided a resource. When a pass to Smythe was ruled incomplete upon review, the stands were not outraged, having already seen the reception was questionable at best.

It is a large facility, but any expansion to a place seating 80,000-plus would be large by nature. Accepting inevitabilities is a great way to lower stress, and the size of Campus Crossroads certainly feels like an inevitability.

Overall, it served the Saturday purpose quite well.

Lastly, Friday’s key four stats held up.

In Friday afternoon’s final piece, this space discussed four statistics to watch for as they pertain to overall success more than total yardage or such might: third down conversion percentage, turnover margin, average yards per pass.

One game is the definition of a small sample size, but these will be quietly tracked all season long. For now, compare Saturday’s metrics to last season’s, and for a further look back, just pull up Friday’s bit.

Notre Dame converted 46.15 percent of its third downs Saturday (six of 13). This was clearly aided by the strong Irish run game, a luxury Notre Dame did not much enjoy last season when the Irish converted 40.48 percent. Temple converted 29.41 percent of its third downs Saturday (five of 17). Notre Dame opponents converted 38.95 percent last season.

The Irish were even on turnovers Saturday. This figure will need to shift for Notre Dame to have extended success this season. Last season, they averaged -0.33 per game.

The Irish averaged 6.13 yards per pass attempt Saturday. Chalk this up to a young Wimbush for now. Last season, Notre Dame averaged 7.86 yards per pass attempt. Temple averaged 7.00 yards per pass attempt Saturday. Last season, Notre Dame opponents averaged 7.53 yards per pass attempt.

The Irish rushed 42 times Saturday. Notre Dame averaged 34.17 rush attempts per game last season. Temple rushed 34 times Saturday. Irish opponents averaged 42.92 rush attempts per game last season.

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