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USF Football: Notre Dame Q&A with SB Nation’s One Foot Down

One Foot Down’s Patrick Sullivan answers our most pressing Notre Dame questions.

NCAA Football: Camping World Bowl-Notre Dame vs Iowa State Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We’re a little over 24 hours away from the South Florida Bulls heading up to South Bend to face Notre Dame, so we enlisted some help from Patrick Sullivan of SB Nation’s One Foot Down to help us learn a bit more about this version of the Fighting Irish. We answered questions for OFD this week as well.

TDS: How’s it feel being in a conference for the 2020? Do you want to be in a conference full-time in the future?

One Foot Down: It’s weird as hell, but also very fitting for this weird season with everything going on. Why wouldn’t this year, of all years, be the one when stubbornly-independent Notre Dame temporarily joins a conference?

Because of that weird-but-appropriate feeling, I also think it would be absolutely ELECTRIC for ND — after being told for decades by the major conferences that they need to join one — to become a one-year member of the ACC, somehow win the ACC outright, and then depart after the season with the ACC Championship trophy in tow. Obviously I’m not under any sort of delusion that the Irish can beat Clemson in order to pull that off, but it would be so incredibly funny if the heel of college football went and did something like that, just as a prank.

In terms of joining a conference full-time in the future, my answer is the same as most other Notre Dame fans: absolutely not.

And it has nothing to do with money — first of all, ND would make more money from sharing in a conference TV deal than they would via their NBC contract, and second of all, as someone who doesn’t work for the Notre Dame Athletic Department, I do not care in the least how much money the program is raking in (it’s a ridiculous amount regardless of their conference status).

Instead, for me it’s all about the power and sway and freedom that being independent provides the Irish. Notre Dame is a major voice and decision maker in the college football landscape all on its own, and joining a conference would only weaken their influence. We’ve already seen in 2017 (considered a shoo-in for the CFP prior to their November collapses against Miami and Stanford) and in 2018 (earned the 3-seed after a 12-0 season) that they will be granted a seat at the Playoff table if they have a strong enough season, so joining a conference really doesn’t add much of a benefit.

Furthermore, a bunch of people pointed this out already, but going from their original 2020 schedule to a full ACC slate this year actually made it much easier on ND in terms of strength of schedule, taking away games like Wisconsin at Lambeau and the annual USC and Stanford match-ups, not to mention fun one-time things like Arkansas coming to play the Irish in South Bend.

Independence allows Notre Dame to schedule whomever they want, all over the country, ensuring a strong strength of schedule nearly every season, appearances in several key recruiting grounds across the country every year, and the freedom to do awesome-but-terrifying things like scheduling home-and-home matchups with the likes of Georgia, Ohio State, Alabama, and so on. That probably wouldn’t be possible — or at least not nearly as often — if they were forced to play a full conference schedule.

Playing the 5 ACC games per year that Notre Dame currently does is enough for me — I hope they never join a conference, period.

TDS: How does USF compete with ND? How do they win?

One Foot Down: If I’m USF, my game plan on defense is absolutely to stack the box and jam Irish receivers at the line, making Ian Book and his arsenal of unproven wide outs try to beat you over the top. Book has never been very accurate — or even willing — in throwing vertically, and the offense’s strengths really lie in the offensive line, running game, and short passing game (especially screens).

If the Bulls are able to corral Kyren Williams and the rest of that crew in the small-ball game, they could really make Ian Book and this offense uncomfortable, potentially forcing some big turnovers either via interceptions when he tries to throw downfield, or in getting some pressure on Book when he drops back to do so. He’s shown that, when pressured, he will quickly desert the pocket, and then if there’s nowhere for him to run or no easy dump-off, he tends to make some poor decisions with the ball.

On the other side, I think the Bulls will need to take some shots of their own against a very solid Irish defense. If there’s one group that’s weaker than the others, it would be the ND secondary, especially considering potential All-American safety Kyle Hamilton sprained his ankle against Duke and may not even play Saturday (he’s been in a walking boot since last weekend and is considered “day-to-day” as of Wednesday night). The Irish cornerback depth chart isn’t the deepest or most proven group either, so testing them early and often could work out well for Jordan McCloud.

At the very least, taking those kinds of shots vertically will stretch ND defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s defense out a bit and keep them from keying too much on the run, which should help guys like Kelley Joiner and Johnny Ford do some damage on the ground.

Considering the talent discrepancy between these two teams, doing all of the above may not be enough, but if the Bulls want to have a shot at the upset, they’ll need to do all that — especially winning the turnover battle and forcing Book to beat them deep.

TDS: Outside of Ian Book, Kyren Williams, who should USF fans worry about from the WR/TE unit?

One Foot Down: The name I think USF fans should learn ahead of time is that of Braden Lenzy, a junior wide receiver (#0) who didn’t play last weekend due to injury, but is set to start on Saturday. Lenzy has track-star speed (he’s from Oregon and at one point was committed to play football and run track in Eugene) and the Irish love to involve him in both the passing and the running game. Look out for some jet sweeps to him, and if ND goes deep once or twice, it’ll probably be in targeting him.

At tight end, Notre Dame has a couple big, athletic tight ends that could do some damage — particularly junior Tommy Tremble, the primary tight end target in the passing game. Aside from having a great, alliterative name, he’s a 6’4”, 248-lb guy who runs routes almost like a wide receiver and who ND loves to split out and send all over the field in key situations.

Also at the position is true freshman Michael Mayer, a former 5-star recruit who stands 6’5”, 250 lbs and is already being referred to as “Baby Gronk.” He might not see a TON of targets since he’s still learning (3 rec, 38 yds last week), but the dude is NFL-ready when it comes to his size, athleticism, and hands, and when he’s in the game, he’s a matchup nightmare.

Other receivers to potentially watch out for include the small and slippery Avery Davis (17-yd TD last week), Week 1’s most pleasant surprise Joe Wilkins (4 rec, 44 yds), and speedy slot man Lawrence Keys III.

Quick note: besides Kyren Williams, there are a couple other backs to know the names of. RB Chris Tyree is a true freshman, and like Mayer, a former 5-star recruit. He was considered one of the fastest prospects in his recruiting class, and showed flashes of that home run speed last Saturday on a 25-yard run and on a couple nice kickoff returns. I expect offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to continue to try to get him more involved as the season progresses.

Finally, senior RB Jafar Armstrong is a former WR and thus a strong threat in the passing game with decent speed and moves in the open field. He can be dangerous in the screen game, and also as a 3rd down dump-off option for Book.

TDS: Were you at the 2011 game? Did you stay the entire time?

One Foot Down: Unfortunately, I was indeed at the 2011 game. It was my junior year at ND, and honestly we were all pretty optimistic about the 2011 season, considering the roller coaster ride that was the 2010 season, which ended on a pretty high note (the emergence of true freshman Tommy Rees, 4 straight wins, beating USC for the first time in 9 years, Sun Bowl victory over Miami) after a catastrophic low (the death of student videographer Declan Sullivan) and some rough football performances early on (4-5 start to the season capped by a loss at home to Tulsa).

So, the 2011 opener was certainly a game we all expected the Irish to breeze through, giving both potential starting QBs — Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees — some playing time prior to Week 2’s nighttime matchup in the Big House with Michigan. Unfortunately, Skip Holtz and his squad came to play while Notre Dame kept making critical mistake after critical mistake (i.e. goal line fumbles that the other team returns for a TD — that was not the only time that happened that season). Additionally, to add to the misery for Irish fans, the weather was horrible, and of course as we all know, the game got significantly delayed.

I regret to report that my friends and I all stayed for the entirety of the game. During that long delay, we certainly contemplated just going back to the dorms to drink and whenever the game resumed, we would watch from there, but being the loyal idiots we were/are, we stuck around. That time was largely just spent milling about in the concourse, passing the time however we could.

So, once the game finally resumed and we got to watch Tommy Rees finally replace Dayne Crist and then discover that wouldn’t be enough to turn the tide, we had great seats to see our beloved Irish start a potentially promising season 0-1 with contests against Michigan and Michigan State on deck.

TDS: Does Brian Kelly get that special shade of purple anymore?

One Foot Down: After the 2016 season when Notre Dame went 4-8, the big story with Brian Kelly was how he was not only shaking up his coaching staff, but also the culture of his program and how he handles himself as coach. He started doing yoga, created a much better locker room atmosphere with accountable leaders amongst the players, etc.

Since then, it’s definitely been a different Kelly, at least outward-facing. Sure, he’s had a few regressions back to his purple-faced persona, including snapping at an Indianapolis Star reporter after the loss to Georgia in 2017, or the occasional outburst of yelling at a player for a boneheaded mistake during a game, but overall he’s definitely calmer and handles himself a bit more professionally.

I’d say his screaming has decreased down to the level of a normal football coach, and unfortunately for y’all, he hasn’t gotten truly purple in the face from screaming at players in public since the old days. However, if things start to go south on Saturday, I’m sure the cameras will help give us a slight glimpse into the old BK — he’s still in there somewhere.

TDS: USF players this week said they’ve never heard of Rudy, was he offsides?

One Foot Down: First and foremost, I want to say that I initially went to the movie scene to try to answer this question, but the only view of Rudy pre-snap that they give us is a whole lot of Georgia Tech lineman butt:

Based on the above, I would argue that you cannot prove he was offsides, and that’s that. But then I did some digging on the ACTUAL video of Rudy’s sack, which is really where it starts to get a bit dicey. I’m not convinced he is definitely offsides due to the rough angle we have, but this article makes the case for it and it’s definitely nothing to sneeze at.

Plus, I would wager that a great number of defensive linemen are offsides on A LOT of snaps, and it just doesn’t get called that often unless it’s blatant or the refs’ attention is drawn to it. So, there’s a chance Rudy, like most DL, was just trying to get a slight advantage and was ever so slightly offsides.

My real argument here, though, is that Rudy being offsides should not only be expected, but forgiven. Rudy was “5-foot-nothin’, a-hundred-and-nothin’ “ and he was going up against Georgia Tech scholarship offensive linemen. If that tiny little idiot needed a few extra inches of being offsides to allow him to compete in garbage time in order to get a sack that only mattered to him (and was inconsequential to the game overall), then so be it — let the little man have his moment.

Of course, this argument loses a lot of water when you find out the real Rudy is apparently an asshole, but I personally prefer to imagine that Sean Astin really is Rudy, and Sean Astin is absolutely delightful, folks. Let this go. Let Sean Astin have his sack that made his dad so proud. Do it for Mikey Walsh and Bob Newby (RIP in Peace).

TDS:If he doesn’t get hurt before committing, does Jason Street start over Jimmy Clausen?

One Foot Down: First of all, I want to make it clear that it’s unlikely that Notre Dame would ever have had both guys on the roster. Street was a senior in the fall of 2006 according to the Friday Night Lights timeline, which would make him a top QB prospect in the class of 2007 alongside Ryan Mallet, Tyrod Taylor, Aaron Corp, Cam Newton, Stephen Garcia, and, yes, Jimmy Clausen.

Side note: looking at the top 2007 prospects is a wild ride down memory lane. Some names in there I haven’t heard in YEARS after they were All-Americans in college.

Anyway, considering Clausen and Street would have both been 5-star recruits in the same class, it seems highly unlikely they both would have chosen to go to Notre Dame. However, for the purposes of this question and the super convoluted and detailed and rambling answer I’m about to give, let’s pretend that for some reason they both decided they wanted to attend ND despite a fellow 5-star signal caller committed to do the same, and so they both arrive as freshmen for the 2007 season as a part of the greatest single QB recruiting haul...ever? Or at least in the modern era?

That 2007 season was the 3-9 one for Charlie Weis and co., and so there was definitely QB playing time to be had, considering Brady Quinn had just departed and Clausen ended up playing a good amount that year, along with a few upperclassmen. So, with true frosh minutes to be had at QB, I think Clausen still would have won them over Street. Clausen just seemed like he was more college-ready and polished coming in than Street would have been, and thus I think Street would have ended up playing very little and spending the season learning the playbook and bonding with his teammates.

Ultimately that’s not a big problem, as Clausen’s 2007 experience was largely getting obliterated behind a horrible offensive line, and so heading into 2008 I think it would have been an open competition for the position once again. This time around, with a year of learning Weis’ offense under his belt and considering his leadership and intangibles were miles ahead of Clausen’s because he would have been much more likable and coachable, I think Jason Street beats him out and earns the starting nod at the very least by the end of the 2008 season.

Clausen would be way too talented and confident in his abilities to sit behind Street, so he would probably transfer after that season. I can’t speak to the transfer QB market at the time or which schools would have been great landing places, but we all know Clausen thought long and hard about attending USC, and so for the fun of the situation it will create, let’s say he transfers there to play with his high school teammate Marc Tyler and has to sit out the 2009 season.

Yes, I know that USC had Matt Barkley committed in the 2009 class as a 5-star guy. So let’s say he won the job as a true frosh in 2009 and then despite Clausen returning to eligibility in 2010, Barkley won out for the starting job that year. He still ended up getting hurt during that season, meaning Clausen would have taken over in November as the starting QB instead of Mitch Mustain, meaning Clausen starts for the Trojans against the Irish in late November, with the Irish hoping to finally break their dry spell against the Trojans that stretched back to 2001.

Unfortunately, Jason Street had the junior season Clausen was supposed to have in 2009 (3,722 yds, 28 TD, 4 INT) and left for the NFL, meaning it was freshman Tommy Rees trying to lead the Irish to a win in the Coliseum against a team that has Clausen at QB instead of Mitch Freaking Mustain. In that scenario, I think Clausen teams up with guys like Robert Woods and Ronald Johnson to absolutely pick apart the Irish, and despite Robert Hughes being Robert Hughes in the running game, USC extends their winning streak over ND to 9. That streak wouldn’t be broken until 2012 when the undefeated, #1 Irish win in LA to earn a BCS National Championship spot.

So yeah, that’s what would happen if Jason Street never got hurt, went to ND, and unseated Jimmy Clausen as starter. You’re welcome for that inane and useless hypothetical.