Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2017 Record: 10-3
2017 Review: Head coach Brian Kelly has always been willing to play to his strength. In 2012, when Everett Golson was a freshman, Kelly leaned on the ground game. Two years later, Golson was a better passer and ND threw the ball all over the park. Last season was similar to 2012. Then-sophomore Brandon Wimbush was raw as a passer and so the Irish had a ground and pound offense that ranked 7th nationally in rushing yards per game. On the flip side, ND ranked 103rd in passing offense. Kelly has stated he’d like to see more balance this year.
Scheme: Kelly has been a proponent of the HUHN spread offense since his days coaching at Grand Valley State, a Division II school. As stated above, Kelly is willing to play to his QB. At times, such as much of his tenure at Cincinnati, he’ll skew pass heavy while at other times he’ll lean on the ground attack. What won’t change, though, is his teams typically line up on three wide receivers, one back sets. Chip Long, a protégé of Mike Norvell, the current head coach at Memphis, began as the OC last year and upped the tempo. ND finished 17th in adjusted pace last year so look for ND to utilize the hurry-up to their advantage.
Quarterbacks: Junior Brandon Wimbush was deadly with his legs, but he was a work in progress as a passer, often showing poor mechanics and footwork. Kelly said recently that Wimbush (1870 yds, 50%, 16 TDs, 6 INTs, 803 yds rushing, 14 TDs) worked on his weaknesses and is ready to take the next step to be a complete QB, but we’ll have to wait and see if that is true. If Wimbush can improve his accuracy and consistency, he could become one of the most dangerous QBs in college. If he keeps struggling, ND’s offense will continue to sputter against teams that can stack the box and dare Wimbush to throw.
If Wimbush struggles, he may also hit the bench. Sophomore Ian Book appeared in 10 games last year and replaced Wimbush in the bowl game. Book (456 yds, 61%, 4 TDs, 4 INTs, 207 yds rushing) was more turnover prone than Wimbush, but he also proved to be a more natural passer. Things became even more muddied this summer when blue chip freshman Phil Jurkovec arrived on campus. Considered one of the best dual threat QBs in his class, Jurkovec has already impressed coaches and teammates. Kelly has shown he is not opposed to playing young QBs, but, for now, the job appears more likely to go to Wimbush or Book.
Running Backs: Josh Adams graduated and took over 1,400 rushing yards with him. Adams was a workhorse and while ND does not lack for individual talent at this spot, there are some questions about the experience and overall depth of the unit.
The situation at RB has become more problematic with the status of senior Dexter Williams up in the air. Williams (360 yds, 9.2 avg, 4 TDs) was a home run hitter off the bench last year (although he had trouble staying healthy), but he is facing disciplinary action from Kelly and the head coach has yet to say how much time Williams will be out. Many around the program think Williams will be out for at least the first three or four games given Kelly’s history. That would leave sophomore Tony Jones as the only experienced runner on the roster for that stretch. Jones (232 yds, 5.3 avg, 3 TDs) offers good size and strength to carry a load. He and Williams may have to because true freshman Jahmir Smith is the only other RB on the roster, although there have been rumblings that redshirt freshman Jafar Armstrong may play both WR and RB.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: The situation at WR is not quite as dire as RB, but there are some holes here too after three of the top five receivers moved on. ND has numbers and talent, but they’ll be relying on a lot of new faces.
There are two players to build around in juniors Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin, both big, physical targets. Claypool (29 receptions, 402 yds, 2 TDs) finished second in receptions and receiving yards and is a solid, if unspectacular option. Boykin (12 recs, 253 yds, 2 TDs) has the higher celling and is a big play threat, but is also more inconsistent. If he can put it together, he has NFL potential.
After that? Junior Chris Finke (6 recs, 102 yds) is a former walk-on that can be a solid backup in the slot, but isn’t starting material. Sophomore Michael Young is likely the guy to start in the slot after seeing some playing time last year. Sophomore Javon McKinley was a blue chip recruit, but he has yet to see the field. The aforementioned Jafar Armstrong will likely see time here as well as at RB. True freshmen Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy, and Lawrence Keys III were all highly regarded recruits who will be given their chance to help here.
Whoever the QB is can rely on senior TE Alize Mack, a tough matchup as a receiver. Mack (19 recs, 166 yds, TD) was not technically a starter last year, but he still finished third in receptions. He has work to do as a blocker. Senior Nic Weishar (9 recs, 2 TDs) has proven to be a red zone threat and is a better blocker than Mack. Sophomores Cole Kmet and Brock Wright were both high 4* recruits who might see more time this year.
Offensive Line: ND has fielded good to great offensive lines under Kelly, but this year might be a test. The left side of the line has to be rebuilt and while college football teams always face attrition, the two guys who left, Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey, were consensus All-Americans and 1st round NFL Draft picks. That isn’t easy to replace.
The good news is the Irish do return three starters in senior LG Alex Bars, senior C Sam Mustipher, and sophomore RG Tommy Kraemer. Bars is kicking over from right tackle to take over for the departed Nelson. With 37 career starts, he is probably about as good of a replacement as you could hope for. Mustipher has 25 career starts and is solid while Kraemer started all 13 games of his freshman campaign and was impressive. The new starters, at both tackle spots, are likely to sophomores Robert Hainsey at RT and Liam Eichenberg at LT, respectively. Both are former high 4* recruits who have potential, yet lack experience. Kelly has recruited well here so there are talented options and finding a good starting five should not be hard.
2017 Review: Kelly had trouble with this side of the ball after losing DC Bob Diaco after the 2013 season, yet he looked to have found an answer when former Wake Forest DC Mike Elko came on last year. Elko improved the defense from pretty bad to middle of the pack. They were much more efficient under Elko and did not give up a lot of big plays or a lot of points, playing somewhat a bend but don’t break style.
Scheme: With Elko having moved on to Texas A&M, Kelly promoted LBs coach Clark Lea, who worked with Elko at Wake Forest. Because of that promotion, expect to see the same style from ND this year. The Irish will play a pretty standard 4-3 that will attempt to limit big plays. Elko was never blitz happy, but he was willing to ratchet up the pressure on first and second down to force third and longs. Expect Lea to do the same. ND might be a bit more aggressive than Elko/Lea were at Wake because they have better athletes, but they tend to prefer to keep everything in front of them and force the opposing offense to grind drives out.
Defensive Line: The defensive front was young last year and the Irish will reap the dividends this year, with six of the top eight players from last year’s unit returning. Most of the backups are young, but they are talented.
ND likely has less proven depth at DT, but both starters return in seniors Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner. Tillery (56 tackles, 9 for loss, 4.5 sacks) is a disruptive force who really blossomed last year. Bonner (30 tackles, 3.5 for loss, 2 sacks) is actually smaller than Tillery, but tends to eat up blockers more. The two starters should be very good. The question here is depth. Sophomores Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (12 tackles, 1.5 for loss) and Kurt Hinish (12 games, 8 tackles) both got their feet wet last year and have promise. Junior Micah Dew-Treadway offers more size than anyone else, but has rarely played thus far. True freshman Jayson Ademilola was a blue chip recruit who could push for time, but likely isn’t needed unless injuries occur.
At defensive end, the Irish have three good options in juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, and Julian Okwara. Hayes (30 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 3 sacks) and Kareem (21 tackles, 5.5 for loss, 3 sacks) are both edge setters with some pass rushing ability. Okwara (17 tackles, 4.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks) is more of a pass rushing specialist at this point, but is improving his overall game. There’s no real proven depth beyond that trio, although the coaches like the potential of sophomore Ade Ogundeji.
Linebackers: One OLB spot needs to be filled, but ND returns a very solid duo of returning starters in senior MLB Tevon Coney and senior WLB Drue Tranquill. Coney (116 tackles, 13 for loss, 3 sacks) is the quintessential middle linebacker—big, strong, active, instinctual. Tranquill (85 tackles, 10.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks, INT, 3 pass breakups) is a nice combo of size and quickness with playmaking ability. They’re a great duo.
The battle to start at the vacant OLB spot (called the ROVER in ND’s system) is largely between junior Asmar Bilal and sophomore Isaiah Robertson. Bilal (18 tackles, 1.5 for loss) has played in 25 games in his career and offers nice size. Robertson is smaller at 6-1, 207, but offers superior athleticism. The x-factor is redshirt freshman Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a former safety who has blazing speed and is tough as nails. He’s going to push for time, although he’s currently listed #3.
Sophomores Jordan Genmark-Heath and Jonathan Jones saw time behind Tranquill and Coney last year and offer some experienced depth. Redshirt freshman David Adams and true freshmen Shayne Simon and Jack Lamb were blue chip recruits who might get a shot.
Secondary: The secondary had some struggles late in the year, but overall was very good. And that was despite the fact they were quite young. Only one contributor from last year is gone and there are several talented underclassmen pushing for playing time. This has the potential to be among the best DB units in the country.
The Irish are loaded at safety, where senior Nick Coleman and juniors Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott all saw a lot of playing time. Coleman (44 tackles, 3 PBUs) started at FS last year, but he is being pushed hard by sophomore Alohi Gilman, a transfer from Navy who started 14 games for the Midshipmen. Gilman profiles as more of a difference-maker and currently leads to start. While they battle it out at FS, Elliott (43 tackles, 2 PBUs) and Studstill (18 tackles) are in their own dogfight at SS. Regardless of who starts, all four are going to see playing time and form an awesome quartet.
At corner, ND have another good quartet in juniors Julian Love, Shaun Crawford, and Troy Pride and true freshman Houston Griffith. Love (68 tackles, 3 INTs, 20 PBUs) is the star of the group and was one of the national leaders in pass breakups. Crawford (32 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 INTs, 5 PBUs) and Pride (22 tackles, INT, 2 PBUs) are locked in a battle for the other starting spot, with the loser likely to be the nickelback. Crawford is small at 5-9, 180 and may end up being the nickel guy regardless of who technically wins the starting CB job. Griffith, a one-time FSU verbal commit, was an elite recruit who enrolled early and has done nothing but impress. He isn’t going to start, but he will see the field.
Special Teams: Senior kicker Justin Yoon is one of the best in the country and has made 42 of 52 career field goal attempts. Senior punter Tyler Newsome is a multi-year starter who has a 43.8 career average, but tends to be inconsistent and is prone to outkicking his coverage. In fact, ND gave up 8.4 yards per punt return last year. The Irish were poor in both kick and punt returns and there are open auditions for those jobs.
Schedule: ND’s schedule is always overhyped as being super hard and while some years it is pretty rough, this year appears pretty manageable. The only road games on the schedule are against Wake, VA Tech, Northwestern, and USC. That’s likely to result in 3 wins. The season opener with Michigan will be hard and home dates with Stanford and FSU are challenging, but the schedule sets up nicely and most tough games are spaced apart.
Overall: Who knows? On paper, ND looks like a legit top 15 team, but they won 10 games in 2015 and followed it up with a 4-8 season in 2016. After winning 10 games in 2017, we’ll see what 2018 holds. ND has questions on offense at pretty much every spot except QB and the interior of the offensive line and that could be problematic. The QB spot could become an issue, too, if Wimbush struggles or factions develop on the team over who they think should play. The defense should be very good unless injuries mount. There is not a lot of known depth in the front seven, but the starters should be solid and the secondary looks to be among the best in the country. Even with the questions at RB, the Irish seem likely to be able to run on most defenses they face. If Wimbush has not improved as a passer or if the WR corps does not develop, then ND has a definite ceiling. However, given the talent and the manageable schedule, I’d think the floor for this team is probably 9-3. Ten wins is achievable, but may require some luck.