As of today, there are 46 days until the Irish kick off under the Kentucky night sky on September 2. In terms of Notre Dame offseasons, that’s an eternity, but the light at the end of the tunnel is slowly emerging. Fall camp is still to come, but we won’t be deterred from publishing a season preview in mid-July, because we’re antsy and because we can. There are plenty of reasons for optimism, along with lingering questions about the program’s ceiling after its first playoff appearance.
This preview takes the form of predictions about questions big and small that will determine how happy we all are come January. We will certainly brag when they turn out to be right, but please don’t mock us when others go horribly wrong. Or do mock us, whatever, you’re not God, or my father, or my boss, so who cares. This is a deep dive, so get cozy and stay a while.
Who will be the offensive MVP?
- Andrew: Kicking things off with a bit of a softball (and a mixed metaphor) — there is obviously no player more singularly important to the Irish offense than Ian Book. He’s a near-ideal fit for Chip Long’s system and will continue to thrive and expand his role as a team leader. He should have one of the best seasons by a Notre Dame quarterback this side of the millennium.
- Alex: He really has to be the answer — he’s the QB and this offense should spread the ball around quite a bit. Jafar Armstrong’s also worth a dark-horse shout — he’s the kind of versatile chess piece Chip Long can take advantage of. He’ll get the ball in a bunch of different ways and hopefully contribute big plays in the running and passing games. It’s hard to feel 100% confident in him being MVP-level, though, considering his injury history and lack of gamebreaking speed.
Will Ian Book match last year’s school record completion percentage of 68.2%?
- Andrew: No, but it’s fine (see below).
- Alex: I’m on the same page — no, and it might even be a good thing if it coincides with an increase in his average depth of target.
Can the offense materially improve passing game explosiveness?
- Andrew: Yes! Concerns about Book’s arm strength have been greatly, or at least moderately, exaggerated. No quarterback can be expected to operate flawlessly in their first year as a starter, and Ian’s most noticeable weakness happened to be the long ball. Speedy young receivers and a whole offseason as the unquestioned starter, during which he can work out the timing of these routes, should lead to more deep shots both taken and landed, even if this dings his accuracy rate a bit.
- Alex: Straight up, it has to for this team to be a playoff contender. Like Andrew said, another year in the system is going to be big for Book. He doesn’t have the world’s biggest arm, but he’s totally capable of pushing the ball down the field when he throws in rhythm with anticipation — now he needs to be consistent.
Will the Irish be able to effectively run the ball without an established home run threat?
- Andrew: Nine games of Dexter Williams weren’t enough to prevent a slump in the run game in 2018 (both YPG and YPA dipped by almost a third year-over-year), and now Dexter is gone too. If Jafar Armstrong can’t stay healthy, the answer to this question is certainly no, and the Irish have their work cut out even if he does. The offensive line should be more cohesive as a unit, but the passing game will need to open up the field and draw defenders out of the box for the rush to make a sizable difference.
- Alex: There is hope, though — Jahmir Smith flashed in the Blue/Gold game, and Tony Jones is reportedly locked-in in camp. If the line plays to its potential, Lance Taylor and co. can find a way to get quality performance out of this group, especially with a healthy Armstrong. All that said, I’d feel a lot better if Aaron Banks was healthy right now.
Will Cole Kmet live up to the hype that’s been building around the program and in ND media circles?
- Andrew: This mostly depends on how we define Kmet living up to expectations. If it’s besting Alize Mack’s 36 catches for 360 yards and 3 scores, Kmet’s third season in blue and gold will be a success. Realistically, the Irish need more than that, and the junior should be able to provide. My guess is that he breaks out for just under 50 catches and 600 yards, with a few touchdowns to boot.
- Alex: If Kmet’s healthy, everything we hear out of camp is that he has the potential to be the best Irish TE since Tyler Eifert. He’s a matchup nightmare, and Chip Long’s offense is built to take advantage of the kind of mismatches he can create. The numbers Andrew targets here put him a hair behind the production Eifert put up in his senior season (a slight regression from his absurd 2011 campaign — 63 receptions/803 yards/5 TDs, are you kidding me?) and ahead of anything we saw from Kyle Rudolph. It’s a lot to live up to, but we’re jumping on the hype train.
Which WR will have the most catches — Kevin Austin, Lawrence Keys, Braden Lenzy, or Joe Wilkins?
- Andrew: There’s only one football to go around, and it’ll mostly go in the direction of Chase Claypool, Chris Finke, Kmet, and probably Michael Young. That leaves these youngsters to fight for leftovers. While Austin has the most natural talent, Brian Kelly has signaled that he won’t see the field much early in the season, so my semi-educated guess is Lawrence Keys, who will do a bit of everything for Chip Long.
- Alex: Keys is certainly the safe bet. The folks on the beat suggested he was borderline unguardable in camp and it feels like he’ll be hard to keep off the field. Seemingly the only thing stopping him from being a top contributor is Chris Finke’s prowess at the same position. But with Lenzy constantly banged up and Austin sidelined to start the year, you have to put your money on the shifty Louisiana slot receiver. (Side note: he’s not a receiver, but don’t sleep on Tommy Tremble. He’s a totally different athlete than the rest of the TE group, a speed option that can do some damage as an H-back. I think he can outpace both Austin and Lenzy.)
Will the offense average more than last year’s 6.0 yards per play?
- Andrew: A better question might be if they can eclipse 2015’s mark of 7.0 YPP. A full season with Book under center will vault the offense easily over 6 and just short of 7. Do you guys get the sense that I’m bullish on our quarterback play?
- Alex: And again, if it doesn’t we’re going to be squarely out of the playoff picture. But I think we get there — I can’t wait to see this offense on the field.
Will the offense lose more or fewer than last year’s 17 turnovers?
- Andrew: More, if only because the luck with fumbles is due to break the other way after only coughing up four last year. Combine that with a passing game that takes more chances and we’ll end up just short of 20 turnovers.
- Alex: Agreed, and it’s not the end of the world if it comes with more explosive plays that do come off.
Will Chase Claypool break 1,000 yards receiving?
- Andrew: No, but not due to a failing on his part. Even without Miles Boykin, Ian Book will have abundant targets, and don’t forget that Chris Finke had only one fewer reception than Chase last season. Both of them will catch over 60 balls, even if #83 is the alpha of the receiving core.
- Alex: It feels like there are too many mouths to feed, but I’m going to play devil’s advocate and say he gets there (does that still count when I’m the optimistic one?). The word is that Claypool has been attacking this offseason like he wants to dominate and play his way to an early draft pick, the same path that took Miles Boykin’s game to another level. Talent has never been the issue with Claypool, it’s been all about commitment and consistency. If he’s locked in, he’s going to flash in a big way and put up 1,000 yards with around 80 catches.
Which RB will get the most carries — Jahmir Smith, C’Bo Flemister, or Kyren Williams?
- Andrew: Picking out of a hat on this one. Jahmir saw the most action in 2018 and in the spring game, so he’s the safe choice. Kyren will likely come next, contributing regularly in goal line packages, while C’Bo might be a year away from consistent snaps.
- Alex: Stop stealing my answers! Smith seems to have the upper hand, but we’re basically going entirely off the Blue and Gold game — we know how much that matters. It really could be any of these guys.
How many points per game will the offense average?
- Andrew: Under BK, the Irish have averaged 30.7 PPG, a number that’s aggressively…okay. The good news is that the five highest marks have come in the five previous seasons, with 2015’s 34.8 the gold standard. Most playoff teams shoot for around 40 per game. Will the Irish hit 40? I’m skeptical that they’ll reach those heights, but do think the offense will score over 35 a game for the first time under Kelly. With the defense most likely taking a small step back, they’ll need to.
- Alex: Sounding like a broken record here, but to make another run at the playoffs they have to break 40. I don’t think they push much higher than that, but the personnel is certainly there. I think we’ll reap the benefits of consistency in scheme and coaching for this group and get there.
Which non-2018 starter will make the most significant impact?
- Andrew: The best case scenario is probably Kevin Austin, but the most realistic one feels like Cole Kmet. He’s talented enough to rate among the best tight ends in the country, and will get ample opportunity to show it.
- Alex: I guess we can’t count Armstrong since he started games with Dexter out, and I can’t keep copying Andrew, so I’ll go with Keys. If Long can get him on the field he’s going to contribute.
Will Phil Jurkovec show enough in spot action to alleviate concerns about QB depth and a potential new starter next year?
- Andrew: I regret to inform you that I have officially become a Jurkovec skeptic. Sure, DeShone Kizer overcame worrying practice reports and a shoddy spring game performance, but when’s the last time you heard about a highly touted college quarterback tinkering heavily with an unorthodox throwing motion and coming out the other side unscathed? I’m genuinely unsure, although I’m sure there have been select cases. By all accounts, he’s not ready to handle a starting load, and if Book leaves for the NFL after this season, count me among the concerned. Happy to be proven wrong!
- Alex: I’m firmly on the other side of the fence here. I honestly think we should throw that spring game performance out the window — it’s hard to think of a worse scenario for Jurkovec to perform, at least at this stage of his career. What makes him special is his ability to improvise when plays break down, which is hard to do when plays get whistled dead every time a defender is within a few yards of you. In the horrible world where Book goes down, you’re going to see a different Jurkovec. He’ll take shots and make plays on the run, all in a scheme that suits him better than what we saw in the spring.
Who will be the defensive MVP?
- Andrew: I’ll go with the surefire captain and stud safety Alohi Gilman. He’ll probably hit the century mark in tackles, grab a few interceptions, and be the unquestioned leader of the defense.
- Alex: In any other year, it’d be Gilman with a bullet. But in Julian Okwara, we have a truly top-tier pass rusher that will dominate games. More on him later, but he’ll MVP his way to an early first round draft pick next year.
Which LB will play the most snaps at each position? (Just the fact that I felt the need to include more or less the entire depth chart as options is telling — keep in mind that these positions are fluid and players will probably make moves once fall camp comes around.)
- Mike (Asmar Bilal, Shayne Simon, Bo Bauer, Drew White, Jon Jones)
- Andrew: There’s been a lot of talk about Bilal’s limitations compared to his predecessors, but he’s still the most seasoned player in the linebacking corps, and it’s not like he played poorly last year — far from it. It remains to be seen if moving him from Rover to Mike will really stick, but Simon is in the wings if it doesn’t.
- Alex: It’s probably Bilal to start based off experience alone, but I’m not particularly excited about it. He’s never shown a real feel for reading the game, and that’s probably the number one thing a Mike needs. I’m still holding out hope for Simon to take a step forward and seize the job because of his athletic upside, but we’d be remiss to sleep on Drew White. If he was healthy, he’d probably already be the starter — NO MORE SKIING ALLOWED, DREW.
- Buck (Jordan Genmark-Heath, Jack Lamb, JD Bertrand, Osi Ekwonu)
- Andrew: Can Lamb stay healthy? Even if he does make a full recovery, a spring injury doesn’t help his standing on the depth chart, though the staff does seem to really like him. JGH was originally a safety, but he seems to have made the transition relatively smoothly, and he’s my gut pick at this spot.
- Alex: Whether or not he’s the guy week one, it’ll be Lamb eventually. He has the athletic profile to be special at this spot.
- Rover (Paul Moala, Jeremiah Owusu Koramoah, Jack Kiser, Marist Liufau)
- Andrew: JOK’s pure athleticism will serve him well at Rover, and it seems to be his job to lose. Moala was a pleasant spring surprise and should be a serviceable backup.
- Alex: Owusu-Koramoah is, in my eyes, the most exciting guy across all three of these spots. With his athleticism and closing speed and Moala on hand to spell him, there should be a significant uptick in production from Bilal’s 2018. The rover is supposed to be making plays, and JOK certainly can do that.
- Mike (Asmar Bilal, Shayne Simon, Bo Bauer, Drew White, Jon Jones)
Who will be hardest to replace — Julian Love, Jerry Tillery, Drue Tranquil, or Te’von Coney?
- Andrew: Sad question alert 😥 My guess is that we’re all gonna know the answer to this question after Georgia guts us early via the running game. Tillery’s stoutness up the middle and prowess in the pass rush will be nearly impossible to fully replace at that position.
- Alex: Can I pick two? It’s Tranquil and Coney — there’s a reason everyone’s been talking about the linebackers all offseason. Tillery’s probably the most impactful of the four, but there are a few guys ready to fill his spot, including MTA, who’s already produced on the field. It’s hard to say the same about any of the linebackers on the roster now, Bilal aside.
Will the defense give up fewer than last year’s 4.7 yards per play?
- Andrew: See above. All teams lose talent, but any defense that could say goodbye to those four and come back improved belongs in the NFL. Doubtful at best.
- Alex: I doubt it as well. We’ll need to offset this dropoff with some big plays from the pass rushers and safeties. There’s a stat called Havoc Rate that captures the necessary step perfectly — it’s the percentage of plays in which a defense records a tackle for loss (sacks included), fumble, or interception. We’re going to need more Havoc to avoid a meaningful dropoff.
Will NDNation turn on Clark Lea?
- Andrew: After Louisville’s only garbage time touchdown. Bet.
- Alex: He’s part of the Kelly and Savvy Jack gang. Don’t they hate him already?
How many sacks will Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem combine for?
- Andrew: The recent high in season sacks by an Irish duo is 19.5, courtesy of Louis Nix and Prince Shembo back in 2012. Okwara and Tillery came close with 16 last year. You can bet that Okwara and Kareem, both in their college contract years, are motivated to not only hit quarterbacks early and often, but to actually finish those takedowns. A total of 18 between the two, which would have been almost unheard of just a couple years ago, feels realistic. (Note that Julian has set a personal goal of 18.5 ON HIS OWN, which is absolutely buckwild and delightful.)
- Alex: Okwara’s 18.5 is a crazy goal to put out in public — it would have topped Jaylon Ferguson’s 17.5 for the 2018 national best — but it isn’t totally out of the question. I think the two of them get over 20 and form one of the nation’s best duos.
Which non-2018 starter will make the most significant impact?
- Andrew: This is maybe the most wide open question of the bunch. If Shaun Crawford stays healthy, it’s him, right? How about Shayne Simon (or any linebacker not named Bilal)? I think it may be Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, who would have seen the field a lot in 2018 if not for a broken foot on opening day. Someone’s gotta step in for Tillery, and it’s either MTA or Jayson Ademilola.
- Alex: I’m going with JOK. He’s one of the most certain pieces in a very uncertain puzzle, but I think we’re going to see flashes of what Clark Lea really wants his rover to do this year, and Owusu-Koramoah is going to deliver.
Who will step up in the secondary (besides Alohi Gilman, Jalen Elliott, and Troy Pride)?
- Andrew: Houston Griffith showed a lot to like last season as a freshman, and is a prototypical physical boundary corner. He may end up stepping in there (although BK seems to be leaning towards Pride at that spot), at nickel, or safety, but he’s too gifted to leave off the field for long. Developing him into a reliable starter is one of the most important tasks currently facing Todd Lyght.
- Alex: My head might tell me no, but my heart says KYLE HAMILTON. The dude is too good to not see the field. Maybe he plays some nickel corner, maybe Jalen Elliot slides down to the slot so Hamilton can see the field at safety more, or maybe we actually see a rotation and spare Elliot and Gilman from running themselves into the ground. I think he’s going to be the real deal, and show it early.
Will ND make double digit field goals (10 is the BK-era low)?
- Andrew: We will make eleven field goals, and it will suck.
- Alex: I don’t want to talk about it.
Will Jonathan Doerer or Harrison Leonard end the season as primary kicker?
- Andrew: I haven’t yet witnessed Leonard kick the ball out of bounds or miss an extra point, so the freshman has my vote.
- Alex: There’s legitimately no way for us to say until we see Leonard kick. But yeah, I’m going with him.
Will the Irish get a return touchdown for the first time since 2016?
- Andrew: Chris Finke will continue to do a very good job returning punts (and keeping the ball safe while doing so), but a return score will elude the Irish. I wouldn’t mind seeing Braden Lenzy back returning kicks, but what do I know. As fun as big returns are, my personal risk aversion here is high — just don’t fumble the ball and let the offense cook.
- Alex: I NEED this to happen. There are too many fast, shifty dudes on this roster for us to not break at least one. In my fantasy it happens on a kickoff return to start the second half in Athens, flipping the momentum in our favor and setting up an epic win. I’m getting hot and bothered.
How will the Irish fare against Georgia/Michigan/Stanford?
- Andrew: It’s currently hard to envision a win at Georgia (I will change my mind one hundred times between now and September). But despite ND’s recent struggles in the Big House and Palo Alto, the Irish will clean up on those road visits. History might not be on our side, but who cares. A respectable 2-1.
- Alex: These games are going to be close, and more than one will likely be decided by one score, and in the fourth quarter. As monumentally difficult as these matchups are, it’s still going to hurt to drop any of them. It hurts, but I’m going 1-2.
What non-marquee game is most worrying?
- Andrew: The trendy game to worry about is also the right one to worry about. Playing a borderline top-30 Bronco Mendenhall team with little name recognition the week after traveling to Athens is wretched. Virginia will not be a cakewalk, just as it wasn’t the last time they faced a very good Notre Dame team.
- Alex: The other Virginia team on the schedule is nothing to scoff at either. Virginia Tech has some serious talent, and a few big plays could make things real scary real fast.
What mishap will cause Brian Kelly to unknowingly curse on live television?
- Andrew: There’s literally no way NBC cameras don’t catch BK death-glaring Jonathan Doerer into the ground at some point this season. No way.
- Alex: We’ll also probably get a few from botched punts, and we’ll all be doing screaming along at home.
Which freshman will make the biggest impact?
- Andrew: Kyle Hamilton’s first interception — and it will come this year — is going to be a dazzling moment, announcing the next great Irish defensive talent to the world. At this point I’m barely even trying to manage my expectations.
- Alex: You already know how excited I am about Hamilton, but I think Jacob Lacey might have a bigger role. There’s obviously a need at nose tackle, he’s an early enrollee, and it seems like the staff likes what he brings.
Can the Irish avoid the November scaries for the second consecutive year?
- Andrew: One popular discussion surrounding the 2018 team was whether or not they could avoid tiring at the end of the season like in 2015, 2017, and whatever year came in between those two. The Irish responded by gutting out wins against Northwestern and Southern Cal and plastering Florida State and Syracuse, answering that question with a “pretty much, yeah.” This year, Virginia Tech, Duke, Navy, Boston College, and Stanford (five November games!) await. In theory, only Stanford is a toss up, with the Irish sitting at a 65% S&P+ win probability. We should be okay through this final stretch, and much of the credit will be due to Matt Balis’ much-improved strength and conditioning program.
- Alex: This team’s attitude is different. They’re on a mission and will close the season out right.
What unit will be the biggest weakness?
- Andrew: Do special teams count? Can I just pick the guys who kick the ball until proven otherwise? It’s going to be an adventure. If we have to choose from either side of the ball, though, it’s definitely the linebackers. The best returning starter is a bit of a question mark at a new position, paired with heapings of potential that’s backed by no real results in the college game to date.
- Alex: Linebackers are scary, but you can’t pick anything other than the kicking game. It’s a big enough problem where we’ll probably see the offense change the way it handles fourth down situations to avoid kicking (which could honestly be a blessing in disguise, but that’s a whole other conversation).
What unit will be the biggest strength?
- Andrew: The strongest unit is both the smallest and most important unit (are we still doing phrasing?)…quarterback. There’s cases against every other group, even if they still figure to be a plus — a couple unresolved cornerback spots, inexperience at defensive tackle and wide receiver, the offensive line’s inability to dominate the run, etc. Ian was among the most consistent players on the team last year, and figures to make a mini-leap in 2019. For once, the quarterback spot at Notre Dame is a source of stability (yes I am aware of all the bad juju I’m inviting here, but my faith in Ian outweighs it).
- Alex: The quarterbacks will make the biggest impact (because duh), but the strongest group to me is unquestionably the pass rushers. It’s more than just Okwara and Kareem (and we’d be in a good spot with just them) — this group is ridiculously stacked. In most seasons, Ade Ogundeji and Daelin Hayes would be a palatable pair of starting ends, but they’re our second group. Add in a developing Ovie Oghuofo, a high-motor guy in Justin Ademilola, and talented newcomers like Isaiah Foskey and this group looks deadly. Hell, they’re looking at redshirting SENIOR Jamir Jones (who can freakin play) so they can bring him in for four games and have him full-time next year. How many other teams in the nation have a comparable mix of top-end talent and depth? The answer might be zero.
How many wins will ND finish the season with? /// Is this the year they make the leap and hang with Alabama and Clemson?
- Andrew: I’ll answer part two first: no. A week three win would potentially prove me wrong, but the Irish need a couple top ten recruiting classes to significantly tip that scale. Doesn’t mean this season can’t be a success like the last one! In my mind, Notre Dame is a better football team than eleven of the twelve teams on its schedule. The season will end with eleven wins, one way or another, somehow infuriating 95% of the college football world and ND internet along the way.
- Alex: I’m more pessimistic, but only a bit. We go 10-2 with losses to Georgia and Michigan, two teams that make playoff runs (I think at least one of them makes it), and wind up in a non-Playoff New Year’s Six bowl. To some, that might be a disappointment, but if you’re going to get mad about another double-digit win season with a tough schedule like this, you can head to Rock’s House.