ORLANDO, Fla. — Notre Dame’s football team will be without some key options in an already-inconsistent passing offense.
When talking about the situation after Wednesday’s practice, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush uses the “next man up” cliché.
That “next man up” might be a southeast Louisiana native.
Three players are suspended and another is injured, shortening the list of No. 14 Notre Dame’s pass-catching options for Monday’s Citrus Bowl meeting with the 16th-ranked Tigers.
The 103rd-ranked passing offense in the country — averaging just 175 yards per game — now is in search of a new compliment to junior Equanimeous St. Brown.
“Guys step up,” said Wimbush, who has completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes and thrown for 1,818 yards this season. “We have a mentality. I know everyone says it but it rings true here.”
St. Brown leads Notre Dame (9-3) with 31 receptions for 468 yards. Wideout Chase Claypool is right behind him, with 29 receptions for 402 yards, but he won’t play against LSU (9-3) due to an injured shoulder. Sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson, the third-leading receiver, has 19 receptions for 359 yards but coach Brian Kelly said he’s suspended for the Citrus Bowl.
According to an ESPN.com report, Stepherson faces charges of misdemeanor marijuana possession. He and running back C.J. Holmes also were arrested for shoplifting in Indiana. Alizé Mack, a junior tight end with 19 receptions, also is suspended for the Citrus Bowl. Kelly called it an "internal matter," according to multiple reports.
Kelly expects LSU to use a lot of man-to-man coverage and Notre Dame’s wide receivers and tight ends need to win one-on-one matchups.
One name to watch for: freshman wideout Michael Young, a Destrehan High graduate and the Notre Dame player who grew up closest to Baton Rouge.
However, he hasn't seen much playing time this season. Young has just two receptions for 10 yards, yet Kelly thinks he could shine against LSU.
“I think he’s had his best practices (lately),” Kelly said. “... I think we’ll have to count on him to make some plays for us.”
Others Kelly hopes to have step into bigger roles include senior tight end Durham Smythe, with 13 receptions for 243 yards; and junior wide receiver Miles Boykin, who had just nine receptions for 151 yards.
“You don’t approach (the game) any differently,” Smythe said of possibly having a larger role for the offense. “You never know when someone will be needed in any specific game.”
The only other Notre Dame player playing his home state’s team Monday is Jerry Tillery, the junior defensive end from Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport. He leads the Irish in sacks (four), is second on the team in tackles for a loss (8.5) and has 52 tackles this year, a career best.
Tillery acknowledged he grew up an LSU fan and spent multiple fall Saturdays at Tiger Stadium.
“It’s a great atmosphere and great fans,” he said, “but I’m rooting for Notre Dame in this one.”
Time to regroup
The 38-20 loss to Stanford on Nov. 25 was the second loss in three games, a disappointing turn after Notre Dame was 8-1 and in the mix for the four-team playoff.
The Citrus Bowl will be 37 days since the Stanford game. Is that enough time to recover from a rough November? Kelly believes the Irish needed the time — and so does Wimbush, who completed just 11 of 28 passes and threw two interceptions against Stanford.
“After a loss, you did some things bad that you wish you could get right back on the field and go execute more efficiently,” Wimbush said. “But to go through … 12 weeks of straight ball and mental reps and academics, guys needed a break. … I think we’re all rejuvenated.”