Two to make 13

Toma needs more time: but not at Jones' expense

Notre Dame needs two wins in its final three regular season games to be rewarded with a fourth and final contest over the Holiday season. Contained within is a healthy dose of unsolicited advice toward that goal.

With three games, four weeks and about 10 (contact) practices remaining in the 2010 regular season, Brian Kelly's chief goal for his first Irish football team is clear. In fact, it's been stated and reiterated:

"It's an important goal. We need those 15 practices," Kelly said. "They're very important to the development of our program and moving forward.

"Getting to a bowl game allows you more time with your players. I need more time with our guys. Our coaches need more time with our players. It's very important to us. It's important to the development of our program."

At 4-5, Kelly's crew now needs two wins to go bowling and thus receive the NCAA limit of 15 additional practices. Of course, Notre Dame can't squeeze in 15 practices between its (theoretical) Bowl Invitation and the (likely) lower tier bowl to which they'd report. As noted when former coach Charlie Weis took his 2008 Irish to the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, finals, travel time, the Holidays, and the actual date of the event – one that will be closer to Christmas than to New Year's – all contributes to the reduction of the allotted practice sessions.

Regardless, Kelly's point remains: the Irish need two wins over their final three games to extend their season. To further develop young players such as Tommy Rees, his fellow freshman QBs, the still-learning Cierre Wood. And that's just scratching the surface of returning players greatly in need of improvement.

Likewise, a second bowl invitation in four years would reward the upperclassmen that have underachieved but still bleed Blue and Gold. The majority will desperately want to play and put on the uniform one more time. (For those that might not: enjoy Winter Break. Don't walk through the practice gates.)

Is there a viable path to that end goal, and can Kelly balance the need for two wins with an influx of younger players on the cusp of playing time?

It's been proven – repeatedly – that multiple veteran regulars can't play winning football at this level. Are their understudies ready for a Utah, Army, and USC finish?

The head coach didn't ask me (probably a good thing, since the one instance he could have used my strategic advice has come and gone), but I figured I'd offer a few forward thinking revelations nonetheless.

Perimeter points of interest

Michael Floyd, Tyler Eifert, and Tai-ler Jones are given; with Jones the key to the remainder of the text in this section.

The tail end of the Navy contest (barely relevant) and Saturday's loss to Tulsa afforded the Irish staff an extended look at sophomore receiver Robby Toma. Toma caught a career-high four passes for a career-high 67 yards. The total included a career-best 26-yard reception. More important, each of his four grabs resulted in Irish first downs: on three of which he had to run through or past a tackle to move the sticks. His other two grabs on the day also included surprising yardage after the catch.

Toma's rep threshold is likely below that of a true starter in Kelly's spread offense. But he should see significant time in the slot, a move that would kick the freshman Jones back outside to his original X receiver role when necessary.

Chief among the reasons? It's irrelevant if Jones is better than Toma in the slot. Jones has proven he can play both positions and Toma showed well when given the opportunity inside. Allow the quick, sure-handed sophomore as many snaps as possible in the slot; reward Jones with as many as possible on the field. He can start in the slot, move out to the X, and rest as needed.

Jones showed well as a blocker (for Toma) on multiple occasions in Saturday's loss. He'll catch the football (one drop on the season) and brings a physical, chippie approach after each catch (I don't think the freshman knows there's such thing as sideline or safe haven on the grass…let's hope that trait remains through 2013).

Both are undersized, neither reminds anyone of Golden Tate, neither is the ideally developed veteran target fans and NFL scouts consistently crave and praise. But the tandem is easily the best option the staff has entering mid-November and, to quote Kelly, the only receivers outside of Floyd that I can endorse for "winning football."

Extend Eifert: The sophomore received significant playing time Saturday and Eifert responded, catching five balls for 61 yards (dropping one slant, more on that later). He's already a better, more consistent blocker than senior Mike Ragone (interesting that Mike Ragone the junior was a far more aggressive blocker than the 2010 version) and offers QB Tommy Rees an athletic, large target down the seams and over the middle.

If Notre Dame's second tight end isn't going to block, shouldn't its third: part H-back, part fullback, part tight end Bobby Burger join the fray as an additional physical hat when the offense employs two tight ends? Burger's not much of a receiving threat, but are defenses truly living in fear of the former and his 9-catch/3-drop 2009-10 performance?

If you have conclusive video and bottom-line (more losses than wins) evidence that the first approach has been ineffective, why not try another?

No separation…literally: Floyd, Jones and Toma need a reliable fourth. One that could spell all three (or at least two) positions. Luckily for Kelly, wide receivers coach Tony Alford, and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar, there's a senior receiver on the roster that fits that description. He also happens to be better at one particular skill set - blocking - than any perimeter player on the Irish roster.

Why Duval Kamara wouldn't be the fourth receiver at this point is beyond me. Can he separate and run downfield? No. Will he electrify after the catch? No. Will he gain three-plus yards due to sheer power after the catch? Yes, repeatedly. Does he destroy his assigned cornerback in the run game? Yes. Can he take out safeties and outside ‘backers on crack back blocking assignments? Yes. Will he catch the short routes? …most of the time.

Kamara didn't play on Saturday (he could be hurt, we didn't have media access). Ask yourself the set of questions above about current rotation regular John Goodman.

The Irish are annoyingly soft as an overall football team. Michael Floyd and T.J. Jones are decidedly not (Jones relative to his size/age). Neither is Kamara, in fact, he's the program's most physical wide receiver since Maurice Stovall (though in Kamara's case, only without the ball). Goodman has two seasons of development ahead of him. He dropped two first downs and a punt last week. His blocking is light years below that of Floyd, Kamara and even the freshman Jones.

Kamara likely has three football games left to play in his life (four if the Irish can win two). Assuming he's healthy, who would you use in a backup role over the next three weeks?

I believe we have great depth at running back

Not my words, mind you, but the head coach's. In fact, he led off his Media Day list of purported strengths with thoughts on the offensive line and running back units.

"Strengths I would say coming out would be the depth of this football team. I believe that we have on the offensive line 10 that can play championship football. I believe that we have great depth at the running back position, that they all have unique styles, but great depth at that position."

The leader of that RB unit is out. The future, Cierre Wood, has shown intermittent flashes and, when given ample playing time, performed well though not spectacularly. Wood will and should continue to start and receive the bulk of the work. He's improved over the last three weeks in pass protection and has a knack for something his predecessor lacked: Wood routinely finds the end zone.

Senior ‘back Robert Hughes has played sparingly, seeing most of his time in blowouts (Stanford, Western Michigan) prior to earning second unit reps Saturday vs. Tulsa. He has no apparent niche (not a goal line back, not a third-down back) though he did earn three Wildcat (Leprechaun…do I have to keep typing that?) carries vs. the Golden Hurricane.

Which brings us to the enigma that is Jonas Gray. Injured vs. Stanford, Gray was cleared for action prior to the Western Michigan contest. He's yet to hit the field, somewhat understandable as he worked his way back from groin and knee injuries. The junior technically could preserve a year of eligibility (and thus play through 2012) if he doesn't again see the field in 2010.

If that's an option, I'm fine with keeping a possible 5th-year RB contributor available for the future. The Irish are 4-5 – Gray's not saving a season. But can he play? One month after being cleared for action, he's likely as healthy as is the starter Wood who's earned 46 touches over the last three weeks.

Gray can catch, run fast in a straight line, and run through arm tackles. He showed cut-back skills in limited action as a pass receiver last season. Can he help the Irish? If healthy, and considering the relative ineffectiveness of the ground attack at present, shouldn't the staff find out, especially with Allen gone for good?

Up Next: More forward thinking with a focus on the Notre Dame offensive line and it's quarterback situation heading into the final month.

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