Irish hoping offensive flexibility will produce more points
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By JOHN FINERAN
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Getting to the College Football Playoff hasn't been a problem for Notre Dame. Staying in it has for Brian Kelly's Fighting Irish, who suffered double-digit semifinal losses to eventual national champions Clemson in the 2018 season and Alabama in 2020.
Kelly knows that if Notre Dame wishes to legitimize the point that it is among the nation's elite programs, it will have to score more than the 17 points combined it produced in losses to the Tigers (30-3) and Crimson Tide (31-14).
As the Irish try to find a successor to three-year starting quarterback Ian Book, they will also replace four-fifths of an offensive line that was one of the best in the country last year. The group was the strength of an offense that scored 33.4 points a game (30th in FBS) and averaged 211.1 yards rushing (24th) and 448.5 total yards (26th).
"This spring is really about trying to establish how will this offense serve itself best with the players we have and those that will be playing a great deal for us in terms of scoring points," Kelly said. "This is about scoring."
While grad transfer Jack Coan from Wisconsin competes against Book's sophomore backup Drew Pyne and incoming freshman Tyler Buchner, Kelly and offensive line coach Jeff Quinn have been mixing and matching returning players and midyear freshman enrollees up front.
Left tackle Liam Eichenberg, left guard Aaron Banks, right guard Tommy Kraemer and right tackle Robert Hainsey - a quartet that combined for 88 starts - are expected to be selected in the NFL draft later this month. Last year's starting center Jarrett Patterson, who is sidelined this spring as he recuperates from late-season foot surgery, is expected to take his 21 career starts to left tackle to make room for junior Zeke Correll. Fifth-year lineman Josh Lugg is expected to have a spot at either guard or tackle on the right side of the line.
"We're really trying to build position flexibility right now," Kelly said, explaining why sophomore Michael Carmody is seeing time at both tackle and center and junior Andrew Kristofic, who backed up Eichenberg last fall, is working at center and guard. "We're giving everybody a look at an opportunity at different positions."
Kelly likes the competition at left tackle between 6-foot-6, 330-pound midyear enrollee Blake Fisher and 6-foot-8, 300-pound sophomore Tosh Baker. Another midyear enrollee, 6-foot-5, 315-pound Rocco Spindler, has seen time at left guard with upperclassmen Dillan Gibbons. Junior Quinn Carroll, who has shared right guard duties with Lugg and senior John Dirksen, also is getting a look at right tackle.
It helps that there is quickness and speed at running back, with the return of Kyren Williams (1,125 yards) and Chris Tyree (496). C'Bo Flemister (299) provides a more physical style. The trio totaled 22 touchdowns rushing and Williams also had 35 receptions for 313 yards.
The Irish will be solid at tight end again, with 6-foot-5, 249-pound Michael Mayer coming off a strong freshman season of 35 receptions for 388 yards and two touchdowns. Senior George Takacs and sophomore Kevin Bauman both return.
At wide receiver, Avery Davis (23 catches, 307 yards, two touchdowns) is finding a home in the slot.
"He's been the leader of the group," Kelly said of Davis, who came to Notre Dame as a quarterback and played some defensive back before settling in at receiver.
The Irish are hoping for the emergence of a couple of veteran players whose development has been slowed by injuries: speedster Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys.
The two combined for 12 catches last season.
"They've made a commitment in the weight room, and you can see the way they are translating that onto the field. They're explosive . they're breaking tackles," Kelly said.
Two others who will help are senior Kevin Austin Jr. and sophomore Jordan Johnson. Last spring in the team's only practice before the COVID-19 shutdown, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Austin wowed observers with his speed and athletic skills. But he then fractured a bone in his foot in the preseason, had it surgically repaired and then refractured it two games into his return and ended with just one reception. He is sitting out the spring.
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Johnson is beginning to show his potential after seeing very limited action last fall.
"What I'm most impressed with Jordan is what he's doing in the classroom," Kelly said. "He's turning the corner there, and the confidence is showing itself on the football field, too."
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Updated April 7, 2021