It’s never too early to anxiously debate whether Notre Dame will be better or worse than the previous year (after a season-ending loss like that, maybe it’s not early enough). A lot comes down to NFL draft early enrollee decisions, and as expected, it’s been a mixed bag so far — D-line should remain great, while a couple skill positions have taken significant hits. The Irish return enough talent that they shouldn’t need a ton of freshmen to fill in the gaps, but there will of course be some surprises. Let’s run through each positional group and see how the Irish are trending.
On its face, the quarterback position may seem decidedly worse off with the loss of Brandon Wimbush to a well-deserved grad transfer. And it is certainly true that losing a leader and athlete of that caliber is a detriment to the team. On the other hand, Ian Book will get healthy and regroup with Chip Long after a tough end to the season, and will take full starter reps once spring ball rolls around. A full offseason as The Guy certainly won’t hurt his development.
We also can’t ignore Phil Jurkovec waiting in the wings. Greg Flammang over at UHND made the point that the Irish coaching staff should allow for a true quarterback competition come next season, and he’s right. At the very least, getting pushed by a talent like Jurk will force Book to elevate his game. And in the off chance that Book actually gets unseated, it will be for good reason, and the offense as a whole should benefit. College football today is about bold decisions and (surprise) playing your best guys, and in this instance, it should benefit both starter and backup. That being said, definitely expect Book back as the unquestioned starter next season.
Running Back: Falling
Man, are we gonna miss Dexter Williams. The Irish simply won’t have anyone with Dex’s gamebreaking abilities in the backfield next year, and it’s a loss that easily offsets any recruiting influx, at least for now. Jafar Armstrong will get a chance to prove he can shoulder a starter’s workload, provided he can keep his legs healthy and fresh. Making that job a little easier will be Tony Jones Jr, who should get a bulk of the carries as well. As fellow NDOB-er Alex so eloquently put it, “Tony is Tony, but he’s just Tony,” which, yeah. He’s a dependable RB2, a grinder who’s not particularly explosive, although he has proven to be adept at catching footballs with his crotch in crucial situations.
Four-star early enrollee Kyren Williams will push for snaps, and an emergence from talented youngster C’Bo Flemister wouldn’t hurt either (obviously we all want the guy named C’Bo to be an all-time ND great). The Irish have the bodies, but whether they can cumulatively replace Dex remains to be seen.
Wide Receiver: Falling
Losing Miles Boykin to the NFL draft stings — it’s not every year you lose your team leader in catches, yards, YPC, and receiving touchdowns (although EQSB was within 2 YPC of doing just that in 2016). Boykin really came into his own once Book took over at QB, and I already miss those back shoulder fades the two used to make unsuspecting, suddenly tiny-looking defensive backs appear foolish. Look for Chase Claypool to be the unquestioned alpha of the receiving corps — his numbers weren’t all that far behind Boykin’s in 2018. Another year of Chris Finke in this offense will also be a delight.
That leaves nine other scholarship wideouts available to take snaps in 2019, and your guess on who will step up is honestly as good as mine. There’s nowhere for Kevin Austin to go but up, and his emergence would do wonders for the ceiling of this group. Michael Young should continue to improve, although he’s yet to establish himself as an every down player. Nothing would make me happier than Lawrence Keys and/or Braden Lenzy developing into anything resembling Will Fuller. ND hasn’t had a true ESPLOSIVA threat since he left and I really want these speedsters to take the leap.
Tight End: Rising
Tight End U back? Please? We lose Alize Mack and Nic Weishar, but Cole Kmet will get a lot more reps and is positioned for a breakout year as the full-time starter. Don’t sleep on Brock Wright, who’s been mainly used as a blocking tight end/H-back but was also a highly touted recruit. No freshman to speak of, but fear not, the Irish have commitments from the numbers one and two nationally-ranked tight ends in the 2020 class. This grade is largely speculative and tied to big leaps from Kmet and Wright, but I feel okay with it.
Offensive Line: Rising
It may seem bold to denote this as a position on the rise after losing Alex Bars and Sam Mustipher, two senior leaders who were integral in keeping the line functioning throughout all last season’s positional tinkering. But the Irish have been living without Bars for half a season already, and veteran Trevor Ruhland sliding to take Mustipher’s spot at center should ease that transition. Tackles Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey, plus guards Tommy Kraemer and Aaron Banks, should be much more comfortable in Jeff Quinn’s scheme after a year of rotation. A more cohesive line would do wonders to offset the hit the running game will take without Dexter Williams.
Defensive Line: Rising
Jerry Tillery is off to the professional ranks, and with him a near-irreplaceable interior pass rush. Jonathan Bonner is gone too. The good news is that both Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem chose to return for their senior years, a prerequisite for the Irish to even sniff the 2019 playoff. Both these guys really broke out in 2018, and if they can keep improving along the lines of what we saw with Tillery/Tranquill/Coney, they’ll be absolute terrors for another year.
Daelin Hayes will continue to see a lot of action, along with Ade Ogundeji, Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, and the Ademilola brothers — all valuable parts of the defense. Depth here is not a problem despite a couple big losses, and some talented freshmen (NaNa Osafo-Mensah and Jacob Lacey come to mind) should push for time.
Is linebacker all of a sudden the most concerning unit for the Irish? Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill combined to form arguably the steadiest positional duo on the team, and there are no obvious stand-ins. Asmar Bilal is the lone returning starter after a solid but unspectacular season — the Irish might need him to double his output of 50 tackles.
Yet again, this group doesn’t lack bodies, only obvious solutions. Sophomores Shayne Simon and Bo Bauer have real opportunities to step up and become mainstays of this team early in their career. Doing so, however, will require jumping vets Jordan Genmark Heath and Jonathan Jones, both rotation players who have enough experience on and off the field to at least have an early leg up.
A fond farewell to Julian Love, forever a 2019 Notre Dame captain in our hearts. Yeah, all the Irish have to do is replace the program’s best cornerback ever, it’s fine. I want to believe that Shaun Crawford, poor Shaun Crawford, will stay healthy in his fifth year and live up to his potential. A year from Crawford at full strength would go a long way in making this unit a strength, but who knows what the odds of that happening are.
Troy Pride Jr will return as ND’s best and most experienced corner, set to build on a good junior campaign. TaRiq Bracy should get a lot of snaps, as Donte Vaughn didn’t exactly make the best of the (extremely, ridiculously) tough situation he was thrust into in the Cotton Bowl. Reinforcements are coming in the form of freshmen Isaiah Rutherford and KJ Wallace, who could both make some noise.
Ah, yes, that bastion of talent and consistency that is the Notre Dame safety position. No, for real, this is good, no losses to speak of, and the guys that return are fun! Jalen Elliott is fresh off an expectations-exceeding campaign, and Alohi Gilman was everything we hoped and dreamed of. Depth below those two is also a plus — Houston Griffith learned on the job as a freshman, and Derrik Allen should be ready to see the field as well. Kyle Hamilton is waiting in the wings as perhaps the 2019 class’ most highly touted recruit. The back end of the defense is secure.
Special Teams: Falling
This one’s obvious. Justin Yoon (ND’s all-time leading scorer) and Tyler Newsome (cool and good enough to be a captain as a punter), our beloved legs, are forced to depart. Jonathan Doerer was a mess as a kickoff specialist in 2018. Incoming freshman Jay Bramblett should handle punting duties, and Harrison Leonard will at least push Doerer at kicker. It’s been lovely to not really think about these positions for a few years, but nothing gold can stay, and we’re facing a hard specialist reboot.
I didn’t set out to make this an even 5-5 rising-falling, but here we are. A playoffs-or-bust attitude isn’t (ever) the right approach, but the roster sets up nicely for a chance at double digit wins for the third year in a row (which would be the first time since 1991-3). Can’t get here soon enough.