There have been plenty of positives to come out of Notre Dame’s first two games, on both sides of the ball. We’ve learned that the Fighting Irish have an outstanding group of pass catchers, the offensive line seems to be as good as advertised and the running backs have been better than expected.
But not all is well with the Irish offense, which sputtered against Duke and dominated an out-classed and undermanned South Florida squad. Notre Dame isn’t and shouldn’t be evaluated for what they do against teams like Duke and South Florida; the Irish are and should be evaluated against what they do against Clemson and the other top teams on the schedule.
For Notre Dame to have the same level of success against Clemson and other top opponents like Pittsburgh, North Carolina and perhaps Louisville (if they can get their defense figured out), the Irish pass game must become more efficient, explosive and effective.
For that the happen, the Notre Dame wide receivers must become a more effective part of the offense. That requires the wideouts to step up their game, the coaches to figure out the rotation more effectively and it requires quarterback Ian Book to raise his game.
Through two games, the Notre Dame offense ranks 34th out of 52 teams in passing yards per game. Its 130.59 quarterback rating ranks 32nd out of 52 teams, which is even more troubling. Notre Dame ranks just 25h in yards per attempt, a number that is padded by the 75-yard catch and run on a screen from running back Kyren Williams in the opener.
Through two games, the Notre Dame receivers have combined for just 11 yards, 115 receiving yards and just one touchdown. Two of those completions were jet sweeps behind the line and another was a screen pass. Three of Joe Wilkins Jr.’s catches came on the final drive of the first half against a Duke defense that was playing off coverage to prevent a downfield throw.
Through two games in 2019 the wideouts hauled in 22 catches for 513 yards and six touchdowns. Even if you remove Chase Claypool’s production the wideouts had 13 catches for 323 yards and five touchdowns.
Production from the tight ends has helped. The tight ends have 13 catches for 147 yards this season, but produced just five catches for 83 yards last season through two games. Overall, however, that’s a huge drop in production in the pass game.
Through two games the Irish offense is averaging just 12.9 yards per completion and 7.9 yards per attempt. Through two games last season, one against an ACC opponent and another against a Group of 5 opponent (just like the 2020 start), the Irish offense averaged 12.5 yards per attempt and 20.2 yards per completion.
The numbers, the play of the receivers and the play of the quarterback must get better. And simply saying, "Wait until Kevin Austin comes back" is not a rational response to the poor pass game. Austin has five career catches, missed all of last season and is coming off a broken foot. He's incredibly talented, but he has even more to prove than the rest of the wideouts.
Four things must happen to get the pass game on track.
WIDE RECEIVERS MUST PLAY BETTER
Fifth-year senior Javon McKinley has one catch for seven yards through two games, and his level of play is not what it was a season ago. McKinley needs to come off the ball with a greater sense of urgency, and play with more force.
Getting junior Braden Lenzy healthy over the next two weeks is a huge part of greater success from the wide receiver corp. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees did a good job early against South Florida forcing the ball to Lenzy, and hopefully the Oregon native starts becoming a more central figure as he gets healthier.
Senior Avery Davis and junior Joe Wilkins Jr. have been solid when targeted, but they are rarely. targeted. I was surprised at how infrequently Wilkins was targeted against USF after he played so well against Duke in limited snaps.
Missing out on Lawrence Keys III against USF hurt the offense, but Notre Dame rarely looked at him against Duke, and that needs to change. Keys brings vertical speed and after the catch skills to the offense.
CHANGE YOUR WAYS
Part of improved success at wide receiver will have to come to the Notre Dame staff changing their ways. Head coach Brian Kelly has been stubborn when it comes to playing freshmen, and that needs to change. Look, every coach in the country can use excuse after excuse to not play freshmen early in their careers. They aren’t going to grasp the offense at the same level of veterans, they aren’t going to have a mastery of the route tree this early, and they aren’t going to fully grasp the expectations of the position. That’s true of the vast majority of first year players.
But here is what is also true, Xavier Watts and Jordan Johnson are two of the most physically gifted players on the Irish offense, and they need to play. That means getting them on the field early and giving them a chance to execute the things they do know how to do. That’s what the best teams do, and when your pass game is as stagnant as Noter Dame’s you can’t justify keeping them on the bench while the veterans are struggling to make plays.
Look at what Chris Tyree and Michael Mayer have done at their respective positions. Both got better in their second game, which is something that opportunity does for young players.
Notre Dame also needs to look at tinkering its personnel groupings. For example, instead of having McKinley on the field with the tight ends throw in Lenzy, Keys or Watts. Put a more vertically oriented player that is more of a deep ball threat as opposed to a better blocker. That will make teams respect the vertical game much more, which then makes it harder to load the box.
BRING THE RPOs BACK
I have no idea why Notre Dame removed RPOs (Run Pass Option) from the offense, but two weeks off should give them a chance to rectify this make and insert them back into the offense.
Not having them allows defenses to key more on and be more aggressive against the run game. Simply put, Duke and USF weren’t good enough to hurt Notre Dame because of this, but future opponents will be.
BOOK MUST PLAY BETTER
Ian Book has 25 starts under his belt and he’s a two-time captain. He’s also talented. All of those things mean he needs to not only play better, but he needs to make the players around him better. That means doing things to build up the confidence of his wideouts, on the field and off the field.
It seems obvious that Book lacks confidence in his wideouts, and if I can see it you know they can see it. Book needs to give them chances, and if the players don’t make plays that’s on them, but not giving them chances is also helping to stall the offense.