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Virginia Tech football: Notre Dame Q&A with One Foot Down

Pat Rick of One Foot Down gave us some excellent information on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

After a week off, the Virginia Tech Hokies (3-1) are back in action. The Hokies will host the No. 14 Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Saturday night in Blacksburg. This is the fourth all-time meeting between the two schools — all since 2016.

The Fighting Irish lead the series, 2-1, and two out of three meetings were decided by three points or less. The only blowout occurred in 2018 — the only previous game in Blacksburg. It was also a prime-time Saturday night game.

To get a better feel for who Notre Dame is in 2021, I spoke with Pat Rick, the managing editor of One Foot Down, our SB Nation site covering all things Notre Dame. I encourage each of you to head on over there for some great content, not only about this game but the Fighting Irish in general.

Pat gave some very insightful answers into the Fighting Irish that you will not get anywhere else. He goes in-depth on the QBs, offensive line, Chris Tyree, and a host of other topics. We really appreciate Pat giving us his time.

You can check out the interview he did with us here. One thing you will learn about this Notre Dame team is it sounds a lot like the things we are feeling at the present moment.

Give Pat a follow on Twitter.

Here’s our complete interview with One Foot Down.

1. Tell us about Notre Dame’s quarterback situation? It doesn’t seem like Jack Coan is too popular with Fighting Irish fans.

To put it generously, it’s a bit of a hot mess — which, overall in Brian Kelly’s 12 seasons, isn’t such a new thing.

Essentially, the Irish brought in Jack Coan as a grad transfer from Wisconsin in order to be the veteran bridge between Ian Book and the young guns on the roster — specifically, blue-chip true freshman Tyler Buchner. Coan started alright in terms of passing production (828 yards, 63% completion, 8 TD, 2 INT through the first three games), but it also became clear that the Notre Dame offensive line had taken a massive step backwards when it lost four 2020 starters to the NFL, and that coupled with Coan’s statue-like mobility led to some rough numbers in terms of sacks allowed (14 through those first three games). Coan’s inability to evade any sort of pressure was a major limiting factor for the offense (as has been the lack of any semblance of a running game).

So, to inject a change-of-pace running threat at the position, the coaching staff began to bring in freshman Tyler Buchner for occasional series, and at least early on it paid off: Buchner ran 10 times for 92 yards in games 2 and 3 against Toledo and Purdue. Unfortunately, a hamstring injury that popped up against Purdue left him unable to play against Wisconsin, and by the time the Cincy game came around last week, the Bearcats had enough film/knowledge to know that Buchner’s presence almost certainly meant a run was coming, and they held him to 4 carries for 8 yards. Buchner also showed he clearly wasn’t quite ready to run the whole playbook or be trusted to sling it around yet, as he attempted two passes on the day, and in doing so threw one very bad 2nd quarter interception in his own red zone that led to a Cincinnati touchdown.

With Buchner unavailable against Wisconsin in game 4, Coan was slated to play that whole game until he got hurt in the 2nd half, requiring sophomore Drew Pyne to step in and take over. After he was strip-sacked by a blindside pass rusher in one of his first series, Pyne went on to go 6-for-8 for 81 yards and a TD against a very solid Badgers defense, helping spark a wild 4th quarter outburst from the Irish, showing some nice mobility and lots of confidence/swagger in the process — which was cool to see in a College Gameday match-up at Soldier Field, even if Wisconsin has now clearly shown us that they are not a super great team this year (mostly because of their horrible offense). That kind of confidence/leadership from your backup QB — who was essentially QB3 in terms of playing time — was pretty fun and surprising to see. He clearly was ready for the moment:

So, it was with lots of disappointment that Irish fans watched Notre Dame start Coan and play Buchner in the first half vs. Cincinnati last weekend. Like Buchner, Coan wasn’t able to produce against the Bearcats defense, with his one good drive of the day being the opening series that ended with an abysmal red zone pick that a veteran like Coan never should have thrown. By halftime, the Irish were down 17-0 at home, so FINALLY Brian Kelly’s and Tommy Rees’s hands were forced in inserting Pyne back into the fray.

Pyne wasn’t sparkling in his return to action — neither were several of his receivers who had big drops on key throws — however, his 9-for-22, 143-yard performance included a 32-yard 4th quarter touchdown pass, no interceptions, and positive rushing yards (which is saying a lot compared to Coan, whose sacks taken have made his rushing average a fun -2.3 yards per carry on the season). He was the only QB to move the ball, step up into the pocket well, and really make a lot of nice throws. Unfortunately, having not played in the first half, he didn’t have enough chances to complete the comeback.

Still, at this point, it’s pretty clear to any reasonable observer that Drew Pyne should be the choice going forward. He’s the best combination of what Coan and Buchner are able to bring separately and has been most impressive in his limited time under center.

2. Brian Kelly was coy about the starting quarterback for Saturday. Who do you think plays? And are any of Notre Dame’s QBs a dual-threat?

Heading into this game against Virginia Tech, I think Irish fans are expecting/demanding that Drew Pyne is the starter on Saturday night, as well as for the rest of the season.

However, like you said, Brian Kelly has not announced a starter, only saying in his press conference early this week that he’d already decided who it would be and would be informing them later that day. The depth chart the Irish put out at the beginning of each week had Coan at the top, but that was posted before Kelly’s presser and it’s unclear if that was just the default carrying over, or if Kelly was continuing to go with the immobile vet over the play-making sophomore. If I had to bet, I would bet on him starting Pyne, but Kelly is a very loyal guy to veteran players and could end up going with Coan still — especially if Coan continues to out-perform in practice, which is apparently what has happened to-date.

As for being a dual-threat, Buchner is the closest to that term that the Irish have, but his passing and making reads still need work, considering he’s a true freshman. Thus, in terms of being a current threat to both run and pass, Pyne just barely meets that criteria, but I wouldn’t really say he’s an excellent runner — just good enough to pick up a key first down or extend a play if needed, but certainly not an Ian Book kind of playmaker with his feet.

3. Chris Tyree is a name familiar to Virginia Tech fans. How is he doing? Is he a big part of the offense?

Chris Tyree ROCKS. You guys might or might not have seen, but he used that incredible speed of his to house a CLUTCH 4th quarter kick return TD against Wisconsin that completely turned the tide of that game and sparked a 31-0 run by the Irish to close things out.

He’s doing well in his second season in a gold helmet, considering he was already a strong contributor during the 2020 playoff run (496 yards, 6.8 ypc, 4 TD as a true freshman). Unfortunately, a couple things are limiting him this season:

1. Kyren “Bellyman” Williams is everything you could ever want in a starting running back, and thus he simply takes a lot of touches and playing time that would otherwise go to Tyree (although sometimes they both play at the same time, which I’d like to see more of)

2. This one is much more limiting — the ND offensive line this year STINKS, especially in run-blocking, and so considering Bellyman only has 289 rushing yards on 3.8 yards per carry, Tyree getting RB2 carries means he’s simply not getting a lot of opportunities to gash opponents on the ground for big gains (98 yards, 3.1 ypc, 1 TD through 5 games).

However, where Tyree (and Bellyman) HAVE managed to do some damage is in the passing game. Tyree’s got 13 catches for 117 yards this year, including a 55-yard touchdown:

So, he’s still finding a way to contribute with his speed, hands, etc., but has just been unfortunate in terms of who’s blocking for him and in terms of having to share reps with another very good back. I fully expect him to be the unquestioned starter in 2022, and assuming the offensive line is improved next year (they can’t really be worse), I think he’ll be a solid, dark-horse All-American candidate considering how many different ways he can beat ya.

4. Who are the skill players Virginia Tech should be concerned about?

Bellyman and Tyree are definitely two names to know — on the ground they might not get much done, but on occasional carries or anytime they’re passed the ball in space, they both can break loose for huge gains (and they handle punt return and kick return, respectively, so they have the ability to make some plays on special teams as well).

Sophomore Michael Mayer is easily one of, if not the, best in the country at the tight end position. With 32 catches for 360 yards and 3 TDs so far, he’s 3rd in the country among tight ends in yards, 2nd in receptions, and tied for 6th in TD receptions. He’s appeared a bit hobbled in the last game or two, but assuming he’s full-go this weekend, expect whoever’s at QB for the Irish to rely on him heavily, especially on 3rd downs. He’s a monster of a man, and has been given the very uncreative nickname of “Baby Gronk” for a very good reason.

At wide receiver, the Irish have a trio of guys (Kevin Austin, Avery Davis, Braden Lenzy) who are all capable of absolutely GOING OFF, but it seems like only ~1-2 of them show up each week. Against Purdue, Avery Davis had 5 catches for 120 yards and a 62-yard TD while Lenzy dropped a sure-fire TD and Austin went catchless with multiple drops. Against Wisconsin, Austin put up 6 receptions for 76 yards and 2 TDs while Davis was quietly solid (4 rec, 55 yards) and Lenzy contributed very little. Then, last week, Lenzy had 4 receptions for 62 yards and a big 4th quarter touchdown while Davis and Austin combined for 4 catches and 56 yards and Austin had multiple big drops that a #1 receiver (what he is) should not be dropping. One of those three will likely make some plays on Saturday night, but it’s not clear who it will be or if the entire crew will ever all come up with big plays in the same game.

5. Notre Dame is known for outstanding offensive line play. How is that unit in 2021? And tell us about Quinn Carroll. It doesn’t seem like he plays a lot. His brother played at Virginia Tech and the Hokies were a finalist in his recruitment.

This is easily the worst offensive line that ND has had in a while.

The lowest yards per carry average of the Brian Kelly era was 4.0, in his first season (2010). The subsequent years saw averages of 4.8, 4.9, 4.5, 4.3, 5.6, 4.5 (during a 4-8 season), 6.3, 4.4, 4.9, and 5.0. This season, the Irish are averaging 2.4 yards per rush — their worst since the 3-9 season in 2007, when they averaged 2.1 under 3rd-year head coach Chuck Weis.

Additionally, the Irish have allowed 22 sacks already through just 5 games, meaning they’re on pace for ~57, assuming they play in a bowl game. The Irish have not had more than 30 sacks in a season in Brian Kelly’s entire tenure, and again haven’t seen a total that bad since that 2007 3-9 season, when the Irish allowed 59 total sacks.

It’s been a cursed season for the o-line essentially from the jump. 5-star true freshman Blake Fisher won the starting LT job in camp and then tore his meniscus in the season opener against Florida State, and the position has gone through multiple other guys due to injury and performance, with no good answer ever revealing itself. At the guard positions, Zeke Correll is a center playing as left guard (with not great results), and RG Cain Madden clearly got his inflated All-American honors from playing Conference USA competition at Marshall, as the grad transfer has gotten pushed around all season. RT Josh Lugg has not looked good either, and even C Jarrett Patterson, considered a pre-season All-American, has been unable to stand out. Offensive Line Coach Jeff Quinn has cycled some other guys in like Andrew Kristofic, but no combination has really worked out for the Irish to-date. Quinn might be on the hot seat down the stretch, based on what’s happened to the line this season.

Quinn Carroll is a tough one to discuss because Irish fans did indeed have super high hopes for the blue-chip OT prospect when he signed with the Irish. Unfortunately, injuries early in his time in South Bend set back his development, and at this point it seems like he’s been passed up by numerous people on the depth chart, considering he’s not able to crack the rotation on one of the worst offensive lines in the country. Hopefully, since he’s only a junior (sophomore in eligibility), he can continue developing and perhaps plug a hole at one of the guard spots in the next couple years — it’s certainly not time to give up on the kid yet. But as of now, he’s just not good enough to see significant time, and unlike in years past, it’s not because the guys ahead of him are absolutely crushing it.

6. How is Marcus Freeman doing as the defensive coordinator? I think he’s a head coach sooner rather than later.

He had a pretty rocky start to the year, considering the Florida State and Toledo offenses put up big games against his defense and had more big plays in those two games than Clark Lea’s defense had given up in 3 full seasons at the helm. However, since those first two games, Freeman’s made some adjustments and the defense has been pretty strong since, only showing some real signs of breakdown late against Cincinnati — partially because Cincy is a good team, but also partially because the offense’s shortcomings in that game meant the defense was out there way too much and was gassed by the end of the game.

What they do best is use lots of great athletes to aggressively make plays and force turnovers — the Irish are #21 in the country in sacks per game, tied for #4 in interceptions per game, tied for #8 in turnovers gained, and #23 in turnover margin. They also can be pretty good about getting the opponent off the field on 3rd down — there was a stretch during the Purdue and Wisconsin games where the Irish only allowed 2 first downs on 25 third-down conversion attempts.

And I agree with you on Freeman’s future — he has everything you’d ever want in an up-and-coming head coach: his players LOVE him, he’s one of the best recruiters in the country, he’s young and smart and brings a ton of energy, etc. He just needs some sustained success and marked improvement in the Irish’s defensive performance over the next year or two under his direction, and I think by 2023 or 2024 he’ll be a head coach at a G5 or low P5 program.

7. And what type of scheme does Freeman run?

Let me preface this by saying I’m not a super qualified X’s and O’s guy — I stopped playing football after freshman year of high school — so I’ll do my best to describe his scheme, but won’t be able to get too technical. Essentially, Freeman runs a defensive system very different than his predecessor Clark Lea, whose defense was fairly vanilla and focused on preventing big plays — a “bend, don’t break” kind of defense that was pretty darn successful and kept the Irish in most games. Freeman’s, on the other hand, is much more aggressive, focused on rotating in a lot of guys, letting athletes make plays, and definitely attacking the offense rather than sitting back and reacting like Lea’s. It’s been said many times that Freeman’s scheme is known for being super simple for the players to pick up and learn, which is always good to hear, especially after past DCs’ schemes (*cough* Brian VanGorder *cough*) were described as wildly complex and kept young talent from seeing the field. And as noted above, it wasn’t super successful at first, but Freeman’s adapted his strategy a bit and found his footing as a defensive coordinator through these first 5 games.

His base defense he ran at Cincinnati, and what he has also utilized at various times this season, is a 3-3-5 scheme that he calls the “Dollar Package.” It obviously adds an extra DB and removes a lineman, with the objective of matching up better with opposing offenses in space — this was definitely designed for lots of pass-heavy offenses in the AAC. However, he saw super mixed results using that 3-3-5 look in the first couple games this year, as both Florida State and Toledo were able to gash the ND defense for some big plays both on the ground and through the air, and so Freeman has certainly run more of a typical 4-man front a lot of the time, but just with unique tweaks like defensive ends being asked to stand up (and occasionally drop into coverage), linebackers being very active and moved all around, corners asked to win one-on-one without a ton of safety help, and guys like Kyle Hamilton moved all over the place to take advantage of their playmaking skill sets.

So, overall, it’s a fairly aggressive system that allows ND’s athletes to make pre-snap reads and adjustments — so it’s very adaptable and simple — but also opens itself up to occasionally giving up big plays, especially through the air if the cornerbacks get beat (making the pass rush very important).

8. Who are Notre Dame’s stars on defense?

This conversation has to start with safety Kyle Hamilton, who came into the year as a preseason All-American candidate and projected 1st round NFL Draft pick, and who through 5 games has not only cemented his All-American status (assuming he stays healthy) but also played so well that he’s a top 3-5 pick on most draft boards at this point. Hamilton is 2nd on the team in tackles (28, 2 TFL), 1st in interceptions (3), and tied for 2nd in passes broken up (3). He’s literally everything you could want in an NFL safety, and I’m having a hard time envisioning a post-ND career for him that isn’t wildly successful. He’s as sure-fire as they come at that position.

On the defensive line, the names to know are DE Isaiah Foskey and DT Jayson Ademilola. Foskey is a pass rush specialist, no doubt (5 sacks, 3 QB hurries YTD), but also sits 4th on the team in tackles (21). He’s a 6’5”, 260-lb freak athlete who at least once or twice on Saturday night will beat a Hokie OT and cause some major issues for Braxton Burmeister. Ademilola, meanwhile, is one of those super-good defensive tackles who might not always show up in the box score (although he IS 3rd on the team in tackles, impressively enough), but whose strength and disruption in the middle is key to the Irish defense’s success. He’s managed 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 2 passes broken up, 3 QB hurries, and a forced fumble from his DT spot, and is just a strong, talented guy whom the VT interior o-line will have to work hard to slow down.

Besides Hamilton and the leaders of the defensive front, other names to know include LB J.D. Bertrand and CB Cam Hart. Bertrand isn’t the fastest linebacker in the world, but when the Irish’s best linebacker, Marist Liufau, went down for the year in the pre-season, Bertrand stepped in and used his aggression, athleticism, and sure-tackling ability to lead the team in tackles through 5 games (48 total, 4.5 TFL) while also picking up 1.5 sacks and 3 QB hurries. You’ll likely hear his name a lot on Saturday, and he’s oftentimes, along with Hamilton, the only reason opposing teams don’t go for much bigger gains and/or score long touchdowns against this boom-or-bust Marcus Freeman defense.

Hart, meanwhile, has looked most impressive at the corner position for the Irish, which is fun to see considering he’s a converted WR in his first real playing time this season. The junior is a long, aggressive defensive back with some solid ball-hawking abilities and the aggression and physicality to man up pretty well on most receivers. He’s got 20 tackles (2 TFL), 4 passes broken up, and 2 interceptions so far this year.

9. What’s your prediction?

Honestly, I’m giving this prediction with very little confidence, considering the Irish’s major problems and limitations, and considering the Lane Stadium environment at night against a ranked opponent. Virginia Tech is better against the pass than against the run, which also doesn’t exactly bode well for the Irish offense, considering their complete inability to consistently move the ball on the ground.

With that said, I think ND has enough skill-position talent to make more big plays than Virginia Tech on the evening (especially if Drew Pyne gets the nod at QB, as he will do a good job distributing the ball), and has a defense good enough to limit — but not shut down completely — Braxton Burmeister and the Hokies offense.

I think Notre Dame bounces back from a rough Cincinnati game and wins a super close one in Blacksburg by a final score of something like 24-21. But my God, I’m not willing to bet anything on that prediction.