by Mike Coffey
The Fighting Irish take the field Saturday looking to improve on a 3-1 season and a 9-1 record against the Oklahoma Sooners. What can we expect from Brian Kelly and his squad? I asked five … er, three similar questions to Frank Vitovich from UHND, and you can read his responses below. I opened up a can of wisdom on IrishElvis over at Her Loyal Sons in response to his queries, so check out my answers at that link. If you check out the other participants at Strong & True, Subway Domer, and NBC, you might even find out what the hell a Sooner is.
Lots has been made about the things that haven’t been working for us so far this season. What are three things you believe ARE working for us?
Pass protection. Saying Tommy Rees is one of the least mobile quarterbacks Notre Dame has had in a long, long time yet through four games, Rees has been sacked just twice. Last year through four games, the much more fleet of foot Everett Golson was taken down eight times behind the line of scrimmage. This year the line has given Rees more than enough time to get rid of the ball. Rees hasn’t always used that time to the best of his ability, but that is another story. If the line continues to give Rees as much time to pass the rest of the season, there is hope that this offense can start to turn things around and taken advantage of more of the opportunities presented to it.
Ball security. This goes hand in hand with the pass protection, but Notre Dame has done a pretty good job of protecting the football this year. Four games into the season the Irish have turned the ball over just three times. A slight improvement over 2012 when the Irish turned it over four times at this point in the season, but a stark contrast to the 13 times the Irish turned over four games into the 2011 – the last time Tommy Rees was the starting quarterback for the Irish.
Kick/Punt return. Notre Dame’s punt return game was a train wreck the last few years, but this year it’s showing signs of life. TJ Jones is averaging close to 9 yards a punt return and even though he has made some questionable calls such as his ill advised attempt at fielding a shanked punt against Michigan State that nearly resulted in a turnover, he has breathed life into the punt return game. George Atkinson meanwhile has looked more like the return man we saw in 2011 than 2012 so far this year.
We’ve seen lots of surprises both good and bad on the team so far this season. Name one player on offense and defense whose performance has been unexpectedly good, and one player on offense and defense who needs to step up their game.
On offense, I have been really encouraged with the progress of Chris Brown at wide receiver after he caught just two passes and was used more as a decoy than anything else in 2012. Some thought Brown would be a year away from being a regular contributor given Rees’s arm strength, but Brown has started to become a consistent weapon in the Irish offense. His stats are still somewhat modest, but if he continues at his current pace, he will catch over 20 passes this year and pick up over 400 yards – that would be a huge improvement over his two catch rookie campaign.
Conversely, the play of George Atkinson has been disappointing so far. I had questions over whether he could be a true work horse running back heading into the season, but did not expect to see him struggle to catch the football as much as he has.
Defensively, I have been pleasantly surprised with the play of Ishaq Williams. His numbers don’t jump off the stat sheet yet but the one time 5-star recruit is finally becoming a force for the Irish and has been one of the most consistent pass rushers on the field for Notre Dame so far this year. He still needs to work on getting to the quarterback more, but he has been greatly improved this year.
The easiest choice on defense would be Stephon Tuitt but since he is coming off an injury and lost a lot of time in the weight room, I’ll go with KeiiVarae Russell as the defender the Irish needs to step up his game the most. Russell has been burnt in coverage more this year, but more alarming has been his poor tackling. Last year Russell was one of the more sound tacklers on the field for Notre Dame but this year’s he’s been hugging air way more than he should.
This OU series has been a one-off, but certainly a popular one with both fanbases. What are some other programs you’d like to see appear on the schedules the next 10 years and why?
I think Notre Dame has done a great job adding some marquee matchups already such as Texas, but a couple programs I would like to see appear include:
- UCLA – Selfishly I think UCLA makes for a great road trip. If the Bruins continue improving on the field, I’d love a return trip out there.
- Ohio State – I still remember the losses in ’95 and ’96 and with Urban Meyer on the sidelines in Columbus, I wouldn’t mind seeing the Irish take on the Buckeyes with a chance for some redemption for those mid 90’s games and for a shot at a Meyer coached team.
- Alabama – It might be a pipe dream, but I would like to see the Irish get a chance for some revenge here too. Notre Dame still has a long ways to go to get to Alabama’s level, but like all Notre Dame fans I would love to see the Irish get some payback here.
- Ole Miss – There’s a lot of tradition in the SEC but a lot of the SEC venues are a bit hostile to make a great road trip for the fans. Ole Miss would be an interesting opponent for the Irish and make for a pretty unique road trip for the fans.