For every thought experiment about how bad things could get for the Irish, there is an equal and opposite reaction; we gather today to consider what a best-case scenario for the 2019 Notre Dame Football Fighting Irish might look like. Our previous post generated positive reactions across ND Twitter, ranging from “nightmarish” and “undoing extensive therapy” to “traumatic” and “a sea of nauseation” (did you forget our very first piece was literally a chronicle of emotionally scarring ND losses? This is our wheelhouse, folks).
A sketch of a realistic optimal outcome is considerably easier than the inverse, if only because we experienced one, or at least a version of one, just last year. As we saw in 2018, a season going about as well as it can doesn’t mean coasting to a win every week, or even winning a title. But the bar is established: this Notre Dame should and does have playoff potential, even when it has to travel to Athens and Ann Arbor and Palo Alto. A few key personnel losses don’t change that, but they do make the hill to climb a bit steeper. Let’s talk specifics.
Comings and Goings
With the losses of Te’von Coney, Drue Tranquill, Julian Love, and Jerry Tillery depart invaluable leadership and legitimate pro talent, along with (in 2018 alone) 301 tackles and 16 sacks. We lose exactly 2,000 yards from scrimmage via Dexter Williams and Miles Boykin, not to mention their 21 combined touchdowns. Okay. Scary stuff. The thing is, though, that ND returns nearly everyone else, and succession plans are relatively easy to forecast at almost all position groups.
Troy Pride did a first-rate job as Julian’s sidekick of sorts, and will now have the chance to flourish as the team’s best cornerback. Unlike Love, whose measurables were long a concern with NFL scouts, Pride has blazing speed and is already generating draft buzz. While the void created by Tillery means the Irish won’t have the luxury of a bona fide, every down QB pressure threat up the middle, the return of Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem on the edges should invigorate the defense as did Coney and Tranquill’s senior seasons last year.
The coaching staff has already challenged Chase Claypool to reach 1,000 yards receiving — if Claypool is fully engaged and set on dominating in his final year in the blue and gold, losing Boykin won’t be a problem. It especially shouldn’t be a problem when we account for the return of Chris Finke — a quietly stellar season from him feels like the closest to a sure thing as we’ll get. Jafar Armstrong filled in admirably during Dexter’s suspension, and is now primed for a breakout year as both a running and receiving threat. The only area I can’t apply a particularly rosy tint to is linebacker, where questions are going to linger for at least a few weeks into the season.
The primary reason why Notre Dame’s upside is a perfect regular season is the return of the guy that transformed 2018 into exactly that — Ian Book. Even with a slight dip in accuracy towards the end of the season (bruised ribs are partially to blame), he was remarkably consistent in eight regular season starts, hitting on 70% of his passes in those games. Extrapolated to a full regular season, Book would throw for almost 3,700 yards, along with 27 touchdowns and 9 interceptions, with over 400 rushing yards to boot. For what it’s worth, those passing numbers aren’t too far off from Jimmy Clausen’s sterling 2009 campaign. Additional reasons for optimism include a full offseason of rest, starter reps, and additional work on his deep ball. If the Irish offense can hit on even one or two more passes of 20+ yards per game, watch out.
Book should be well-protected by his offensive line, which loses Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars but brings back a multitude of hefty boys with meaningful playing experience (they also weren’t all that shabby without Bars in the second half of the season). There’s reason to believe that the too-familiar constant tinkering with the lineup won’t need to happen this fall — there’s a lot of returning starts in this group, and Quinn, now armed with a full year as OL coach under his belt, should be able to facilitate a high level of play.
High End Defensive Talent
While there are a handful of starter positions that remain to be definitively claimed across the defense, there’s no question that premier talent is present at several positions. Okwara and Kareem are as good a tandem at defensive end as the Irish have had in a good while — they combined for 12.5 sacks last year, but either could plausibly clear double digits on an individual basis this season. And we have former five star Daelin Hayes, who could easily be an every down player himself, among their backups. Speaking of tandems, the defense’s most welcome surprise from a year ago was the dual emergence of Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott, both potential captains, who grabbed six total interceptions. And as previously mentioned, Troy Pride could very well be one of the better cornerbacks in the country.
On the Rise
Over the past two years, the coaching staff has invested too much into rebuilding this program, and has accumulated too much talent, for the majority of currently outstanding question marks not to get resolved in a satisfying manner. Even if Houston Griffith falters in coverage from time to time, he’s an elite athlete that should turn into a reliably physical defensive back. If they can squeeze even half of a healthy season from Shaun Crawford, the team will be better for it. It’s unusual for any five star to fly under the radar at ND, but Kyle Hamilton may be doing just that due to not enrolling early. Looking at the season from afar, it’s not hard to envision that trio continuously developing and doing their part for a very good secondary.
The buzz around pass catchers is likely to only get louder as we approach the season. The likeliest breakout contender is almost certainly Cole Kmet, who, if he can perform up to his abilities, should have no problem replacing Alize Mack and Nic Weishar. Kevin Austin might have the most raw ability out of anyone catching passes from Ian Book — 2019’s best case certainly involves him conquering “trait” concerns and factoring into the offense. One or both of Lawrence Keys and Braden Lenzy could help alleviate unease about a lack of big plays by doing anything resembling a Will Fuller impression.
To do this honestly, we have to account for the less promising position groups, which in my mind are clearly linebacker and special teams. What’s the best we can hope for at LB? Probably a committee of sorts, keeping the unit fresh with little drop off from starter to backup. Asmar Bilal makes a jump not quite as dramatic as Coney or Tranquill, but a jump nonetheless, and is the leader in the middle of the defense, aided by the gifted but unproven Shayne Simon. Jack Lamb and Jordan Genmark Heath grow on the fly and hold strong at Buck, while Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and converted safety Paul Moala flash enough athleticism and playmaking ability to keep the Rover position healthy. Crazier things have happened, and it’s hard not to have faith in Clark Lea.
Special teams are a bit more bleak — 2019 will probably the year in which ND fans appreciate having reliable, experienced specialists more than we ever did in the past. Jonathan Doerer has to figure it out sooner rather than later or we can anticipate Harrison Leonard getting a shot. Jay Bramblett won’t be Tyler Newsome, but if he can simply limit mistakes and get the ball downfield in time, the defense should be able to make do. Coach Kelly was generally pretty solid last year in fourth down decision making, and he will probably be as aggressive as ever as the staff figures out how to manage its new special teams units. With Ian Book’s short passing game proficiency, that is a decidedly good thing! More touchdowns and fewer fields goals, please and thank you.
Narratives and Conclusion
As you’re aware, this is the most stable and sunny the program has been in a long while. It has a shot at its fourth 10-win season in five years, but just getting to double digit wins is by no mean the primary interest. An early win at Georgia is a tall task, yet very much within reach, and would supercharge both expectations and confidence. We pointed out last time around that ND hasn’t won at Palo Alto in 12 years, but…ND hasn’t won in Palo Alto in 12 years! Whether you believe in this concept or not, the Irish are due for a win there, especially with Stanford’s momentum stalling a bit.
Michigan is overrated (seriously, “Notre Dame is overrated” being a nationally accepted annual talking point is a failure of communications management. If only we were lucky enough to suffer resounding defeats to the three best teams on our schedule and drunkenly stumble into preseason top fives). Southern Cal has to travel to South Bend, and will probably still be all sorts of a mess. And other than that, the schedule is, to put it charitably, manageable. Not that dropping a weird one would be a shock, but if this team plays up to potential, that won’t be a problem.
We already have the baseline. An undefeated regular season is a genuinely practical and realizable goal. After that, well, barring an injury to Lawrence or Tua, we’re probably SOL, but so is literally everyone else. This team can and will win a whole bunch of football games.