Things To Learn: Without its leading receiver, could Notre Dame's offense actually become more explosive?

Of course Dabo Swinney focuses on Notre Dame’s receivers. The Clemson head coach began his career as a receivers coach, most pertinently coaching current Irish receivers coach Chansi Stuckey. It is the position group Swinney knows best now coached by someone he helped turn from a backup quarterback into an NFL receiver.

And it is the position group most unknown for No. 15 Notre Dame (7-2) this weekend, facing the Tigers at 12 ET on ABC on Saturday, the Irish favored by a field goal.

Losing junior tight end Mitchell Evans for the season sets back Notre Dame’s offense, obviously. He has led the Irish in catches and receiving yards this season, playing his best when it mattered most. Evans snagged 17 passes for 280 yards in Notre Dame’s three toughest games this season, from Ohio State through Louisville. The rest of the Irish pass-catchers pulled in 37 passes for 371 yards.

Losing Evans will change the offense, for better or for worse.

Swinney worries it may focus more on the run, his defense better against the pass than the run, ranking No. 49 in the country in expected points added per rush against, more middling than would usually be expected from a Clemson defense. Explosive runs, in particular, cost the Tigers.

“It starts with being able to stop the run,” Swinney said this week. “Being able to be gap-sound because what they do formationally with their bunch sets, their motions, they create gaps. So we have to be very disciplined. Our linebackers and secondary have to be able to tackle well. They’re going to challenge you.”

Leaning on junior running back Audric Estimé, blossoming sophomore running back Jadarian Price and freshman speedster Jeremiyah Love could, in its own way, put the pressure on Clemson’s struggling offense. Gradually gaining field position and forcing Tigers quarterback Cade Klubnik to repeatedly make the right decision should eventually yield a Clemson mistake; Klubnik turns over the ball more than once per game, now facing a defense that has forced 10 turnovers in its last two games.

But losing Evans could — let’s italicize and bold that plausible verb tense — could create a more explosive Notre Dame passing offense. Necessity is the mother of invention, and losing the 2023 safety blanket may result in more downfield shots.

In particular, the Irish will now struggle to lean on multiple tight end sets, as they have often done. The next tight end in would be sophomore Eli Raridon, not quite yet full-go as he recovers from last year’s ACL tear. Raridon will play, but he has not established himself as an every-down asset this season, something unlikely to occur now in November.

An extra receiver will fill that spot, more often than not, and as any Notre Dame fan knows, there are only so many options.

It has been difficult for the Irish to play both senior Chris Tyree and freshman Jaden Greathouse, both naturally fitting in the slot, the receiver pulled for a second tight end. They are, to this point, Notre Dame’s most consistent and explosive receivers (at least, when Greathouse is healthy). Losing Evans should create opportunities for them, Swinney’s worry even if he did not explicitly say so.

“That’s the most improved part of their team,” he said. “They’ve gotten better and better throughout the year. … [Moving from running back] has been a good move for [Tyree]. He’s an explosive guy.”

The Irish did not take this approach — and to be clear, this is only a theory, it has not yet been seen, but it is the logical theory moving forward without Evans — because it lowers their floor. Playing Evans and sophomore tight end Holden Staes created a balanced offense, each adept in both the run and pass games. With so few receivers on hand — six available healthy receivers right now, including both freshman former walk-on Jordan Faison and junior Jayden Thomas with his maybe-still-balky hamstring — relying on three every snap would create a higher fatigue rate.

Notre Dame can no longer lean on those tight ends.

And with just three games left across four weeks, and this looking like the only one that should be outright competitive, that worry of exhaustion should be less of a mitigating factor.

Furthermore, the increasingly havoc-causing Irish defense creates further incentive for quick shots on offense. Clemson’s offense ranks No. 80 in havoc allowed — pass breakups, interceptions, forced fumbles and tackles for loss — part of Klubnik’s sloppy play and a poor sign for the offensive line’s years of gradual decline.

Notre Dame ranks only No. 22 in the country in causing havoc, but that number has escalated the last few weeks, and that was in part because it had forced opponents into a hole.

If the Irish have an early lead, they will know Klubnik needs to pass, and that is when players like defensive end Javontae Jean-Baptiste and fifth-year linebacker Marist Liufau can pin their ears back to get into the backfield.

Conservative early play, leaning on Estimé, Price and Love, may be the safe route for Notre Dame, but putting points on the board out of the gates will be the reward-heavy pathway.

“Our defense is playing at an extremely high level, which gives our offense and our team a lot of confidence to be aggressive and take those shots knowing that you’re not going to hit every one,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said Thursday, “but if you happen to struggle on a series offensively, your defense usually will be able to get you the ball back.”

Dabo Swinney is focused on Notre Dame’s receivers, in part because Irish receivers coach Chansi Stuckey was a Clemson graduate assistant just four years ago. By early Saturday afternoon, Swinney may be focused on them because they have put his offense where it cannot be, operating from behind.

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