Notre Dame Notes: Irish QB healthy and quietly productive

Kelly talks on a number of topics leading up to big game

Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush drops back to pass during the first half of a game against Temple last month in South Bend. (By The Associated Press)

For the first time since 2009, Notre Dame and USC will meet as ranked teams nationally when they meet Saturday (7:30 p.m., NBC) in South Bend.

The 13th-ranked Fighting Irish (5-1) have been dominant throughout most of their season, while the 10th-ranked Trojans (6-1) have been inconsistent with their play at times.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly spoke with the media Tuesday regarding the big game and he didn’t shy from hyping it up.

“It’s an exciting week,” Kelly said. “Certainly our players are aware of the game, the rivalry.”

Here are some notable topics that Kelly discussed Tuesday.

Wimbush back in play

Following his recent foot sprain that kept him out of the Irish win at North Carolina, Notre Dame starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush is not only healthy for Saturday’s game, but Kelly said he is playing at a higher level than many are giving him credit for.

“There are no questions about his health, so I think we can put that to rest in terms of how he is,” Kelly said. “He’s 100 percent. I think he continues to grow and develop as a quarterback in just his, really, his fifth start.”

Wimbush has been spotty with his accuracy this season (he’s completing just 52 percent of his throws), but he’s accounted for 14 touchdowns (six passing, eight rushing) and only a couple of interceptions.

Kelly specifically noted how effective Wimbush has been in leading the Irish offense in some areas that don’t often get noted, such as conversions.

“We went back and self-scouted,” Kelly said, “and he’s been really productive in a number of areas: moving the chains, fourth down conversions, third downs, and big plays.”

In the five games that Wimbush has started, Notre Dame has converted 31 third downs and 70 percent of its fourth downs.

“He’s done a lot of really good things to get us to where we are today,” Kelly said.

Bend, but don’t break

Much has been made of the improved Irish offense within the red zone, but statistically, there aren’t many teams nationally that are better in that area from a defensive standpoint.

The Irish are fourth in the nation in red zone defense, which is a staggering improvement from a season ago.

In 2016, Notre Dame allowed its opponents to score touchdowns 62 percent of the time when reaching the red zone. That number has been slashed to 35 percent so far this season.

“A lot of that is matching your ability to play coverage when coverage is needed,” Kelly explained, “and don’t short yourself in the box in the run game.”

A year ago, Notre Dame had difficulty getting players to rotate in and out of the game, so they often were at a disadvantage from a personnel standpoint in terms of match-ups. However, first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko has resolved that issue and the Irish are having the right players defending in the best situations this season.

“It’s really important to do a great job of matching personnel,” Kelly said. “We’ve done that. Our ability to get personnel in and out of the game to match personnel groupings has really helped us in that area and not get shored in – for example, being in nickel when an extra tight end is in the game or two backs are in the game.”

Bright lights, big game

This rivalry game is anticipated every season, but with both teams among the nation’s best, it does indeed add some luster to the match-up. Kelly isn’t shying from that aspect of this week at all.

“That’s why they come to Notre Dame,” Kelly said of his players. “They want to play in these kinds of games. It’s important that our players are aware of the game and the circumstances because that’s why they come here.”

The Trojans have won two of the last three games in this series, but the two storied programs have split the last six games.

USC easily defeated Notre Dame 45-27 a year ago in Los Angeles.

“It’s critical to continue to play to the standard of Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “That’s what we have to play to.

“At the end of the day, we’re all going to be judged by wins and losses and I understand that and I have said that from day one. But there’s a standard of play that we have to live up to. Our players understand that.”

Tranquill is special

Elko has made a number of ingenious moves since taking over the Notre Dame defense, but the moving of redshirt junior Drue Tranquill to “rover” linebacker from safety ranks up there with all of the decisions.

The Carroll High School graduate has been incredibly productive at his new position, which doesn’t surprise his coach at all.

“His spirit is unbreakable,” Kelly said. “He just has such an incredible mind-set and a positive mind-set.”

Kelly went on to explain that Tranquill set a personal mark in weight training this week in the speed squat. What made that so remarkable is the fact that he has injured his knee on two occasions, but is now stronger than ever.

“Everything that he does is with a purpose,” Kelly said. “It always has a positive spin to everything he does.

“That’s the kind of kid he is and that is why he’s a captain.”

Beware of the Trojan thrower

NFL scouts have been following USC quarterback Sam Darnold since he made his debut as a starter last season. As impressed as the NFL is with him (he is projected by many to be the top selection overall in the 2018 NFL Draft), Kelly is right there with them in his assessment.

“I don’t know where to start,” Kelly said in evaluating Darnold. “Let’s see, accuracy, quick release, competitiveness… he can make plays after things break down. He just has a knack of making plays when it looks like you’ve got everything covered.

“He just has a great arm and great arm strength.”

Darnold completed 19 of 29 passes in the Trojan rout a year ago to go with his two touchdown passes.

“What separates him from the other quarterbacks,” Kelly said, “is just his ability to find that open window in tight spaces with a quick, quick release. I mean, that ball comes out of his hand as well as anybody that I’ve seen.”

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