We’re one week down and things seem…. okay. More than anything, I’m relieved that we actually made it to and through week 1 without any COVID-related disasters. And the product on the field — well, it was fine. The rational side of my brain tells me to be glad we got a fairly comfortable W coming out of an unprecedented offseason with less time to prepare and integrate a new OC, grad transfer contributors and underclassmen. But the injuries suck any way you slice it (Kyle, take my ankle, I’m barely using it these days), and it’d be hard to argue that the Irish offense passed the eye test.
From jump, the offense that took the field against dude simply looked different than the high-potential group of playmakers we salivated over early in the offseason. Kevin Austin is out and will be for the foreseeable future, Ben Skowronek came up hobbled in the second quarter after a fairly forgettable day, and Braden Lenzy spent the entire game on the sideline, in uniform. Guys on the beat reported a hamstring injury that kept him from participating this week, but it’s still strage how late after the game the news broke. We might need to get used to this kind of mysterious absence this season — with practices generally closed to the public, there’s no reason for the coaching staff to be forthcoming about who’s banged up and make game planning easier for opponents. There’s also even more reason to be cautious with minor injuries this year — when a COVID outbreak could decimate a position group for a couple of weeks without warning, you’d better take every precaution you can to give guys proper time to rehab. Don’t rush players back in a situation like Lenzy’s back too early, cross your fingers the backups can get it done (even if it’s ugly), and keep the bigger picture in mind. With that in mind, I won’t think twice if we don’t see Kyle Hamilton against USF or Wake.
All that aside, I can’t stop thinking about how average Ian Book looked. It’s the same set of ugly issues we saw early last season — he still doesn’t look totally comfortable in the pocket, backpedalling and dancing his way through the backfield seemingly every time there’s pressure (outside of an excellent throw from a broken pocket to find Avery Davis for a TD), and he doesn’t look like a threat to throw once he’s on the move. And the ball placement on his pick that ricocheted off Tommy Tremble’s hands was just plain bad — when Book loses his ability to get the ball to his playmakers in positions where they can pick up yards in the open field, he’s just not the kind of quarterback that can beat a team like Clemson. The Book we saw today is probably good enough to pick up 8, 9, hell maybe even 10 wins with the soft ACC schedule we’re facing this year, but it’s fair to want and expect better. The good news is there’s plenty of time to work through the kinks in his game, and he’s done it before. Fingers crossed he’s shushing all of us as he high-steps into the end zone again soon.
For this team to reach its potential, we also need more from the offensive line. Duke’s defense isn’t completely devoid of talent — Chris Rumph will be playing on Sundays soon, even if he was banged up for a lot of the game — but this wasn’t the dominating performance most fans hoped to see. Again, I’m trying to keep myself from jumping to conclusions too early (it’s just week one, it’s just week one), but if the five returning starters across the offensive front can’t look like the dominating group they should be, this offense might just be okay.
And there are certainly reasons to hold out hope — especially when some of Saturday’s biggest offensive contributions came from some of the youngest guys seeing playing time. Kyren Williams got the game ball in his first start, showing off the versatility that had recruiting circles hyped about his commitment. Any sane one of us would have taken 112 rushing yards, 93 through the air and a couple of TDs from a starting running back in this season opener, no matter who it came from. All the better that it came from a redshirt freshman who clearly set the tone for the RB room in camp. His backup, true freshman Chris Tyree, didn’t set the world ablaze, but flashed the game-breaking speed that made him such a prized get for this offense the few times he got a gap to attack on kick returns or carries. And Michael Mayer already looks like he could be a revelation — he didn’t post a huge statline, but he came up with some big catches for first downs and just looked the part. He was smooth and athletic, moving in the open field like a guy his size just shouldn’t be able to. It already feels like a foregone conclusion he’ll be headed to the league after three seasons in South Bend, so we’ll just have to enjoy them.
Oh yeah, the defense did play too — we’re awfully lucky to have Nick McCloud on this team, and Andrew’s pre-season pick of Isaiah Foskey as 2020’s breakout backup is already looking prescient. He’s got the kind of explosive get-off that sets elite edge rushers apart, and I can’t wait to watch his development. And did I mention we need to get Kyle Hamilton healthy? Seeing DJ Brown fill in next to Shaun Crawford wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of Houston Griffith and Isaiah Pryor (nice tackle on special teams, though). It doesn’t feel great, but we might need to come to terms with the fact that elite recruiting pedigree doesn’t always translate into an impact player on the field. But I’ll continue to sound like a broken record and remind myself that it’s just week one, and there’s plenty of time for them to come good.
On the whole, we have to take the win and keep it moving. I feel like we’ll be quoting Rakes all season, because Winning is Harder than ever this year. We’ll probably watch a lot of games like this in 2020. Yes, a Kyle Hamilton injury is probably the worst-case scenario in any game, but it seems like it won’t be anything too serious. So let’s just be happy Notre Dame football is back, and hope against hope that next week’s matchup with USF is nothing like the last time they came to South Bend.